The actions of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin may seem bewildering to those in liberal-democratic countries who believe that personal freedoms, open-mindedness and economic prosperity are the paths to success in the modern world. But the Kremlin is operating from a different playbook.
As post-Soviet Russia strayed from democracy, it was assumed that the country would eventually return and that these deviations were nothing to be concerned about. Our amusement over a shirtless, overly macho Putin and the pictures of Soviet-style construction failures at the Olympics only reinforced this sentiment. At best, Russia would move toward democracy. At worst, Russia was a punchline. This blinded many observers to the very real and very ominous developments under the leadership of this 21st-century tsar.
The Soviet Union collapsed on Christmas 1991 and a new Russian Federation emerged, shorn of 20% of its territory and half its population. Initially, the country’s leaders looked toward Europe as their guiding beacon, seeking to build a modern, democratic and capitalist state. The desire to be a “normal”country (that is, non-imperialist) was widespread, and there was even idle talk of Russia joining NATO.
Quite early on, however, long before Putin and his ilk came on the scene, this dream ended, as Russia was confronted with a series of socio-economic catastrophes, as well as the near collapse of its state institutions. A mix of Boris Yeltsin’s personal failings, a political system in chaos, the Soviet legacy of a malformed industrial base, and the society’s moral and spiritual dislocation meant that Russia’s very survival was at stake. The fact that it fought, and largely lost, a war over its own province of Chechnya was only the most obvious example of a country that was spinning out of Moscow’s control.
Into this mess stepped Vladimir Putin, who arose from local government in St Petersburg to the presidency of Russia in three-and-a-half years. He immediately undertook a state-building project, which was remarkable. The oligarchs and regional leaders were quickly tamed and forced to submit to the central government. State institutions began to function again, and taxes flowed into the treasury. The economy rebounded, and the people’s standard of living improved.
All of this came at a price, of course. While building the “power vertical”, as it came to be known, the Kremlin consolidated control over the media. It unleashed the judiciary against political opponents through show trials and made a farce out of the federalism enshrined in the constitution. Moreover, the Kremlin established a de facto “party of power” and instituted a “managed democracy”, which was certainly managed, but increasingly not democratic.
Nonetheless, optimists argued that since that Russia had a stronger state, it could now return to the path of democratisation and normalisation. Russia’s assertiveness abroad, including the invasion and de facto annexation of territories from the Republic of Georgia, was dismissed as nothing that a simple “reset” could not solve, but in retrospect this was naive. In fact, Russia has become more authoritarian and more imperialistic over time.
Free speech in Russia is more curtailed and the Kremlin dominates the Russian media to a degree not seen since the late Soviet period. The internet has been declared a CIA plot by the Russian president and, in an attempt to crack down on the only truly independent media left in the country, bloggers are now forced to register with the government. Social networking sites, too, have come under the regime’s control for fear that they will be used to mobilise the populace, as seen during the Arab uprisings of 2011. A new morality code has been promulgated, which seeks to ban certain “vulgar” words from the arts, as well as to crack down upon “homosexual propaganda” — and along with it, gay citizens themselves. Anti-extremism laws are applied selectively, with flexible definitions intended to apply only to political opponents. And now “separatist” speech is outlawed, intended to silence critics of the forcible annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
“Rather than popular rejection, Putin has reaped the rewards of increased popularity at home as a result of his building a new, stronger Russia.”
Rather than popular rejection, Putin has reaped the rewards of increased popularity at home as a result of his building a new, stronger Russia. This popularity has three foundations: institutional, spiritual and patriotic.
The political order established by the Putin regime is far removed from the anarchy in the 1990s. Certainly democrats in the big cities decry the Kremlin’s “power vertical”, but Putin maintains significant support among many Russians who see a direct connection between Putinism and their increased physical security and economic wealth. The independent Levada Center released a March 2014 poll in which 80% of respondents approved of his policies. While this was elevated as a result of the Olympics and the crisis in Ukraine, it is telling that, since becoming president, this rating has never dipped below 60%. If Russia had truly free and fair elections, the liberals would still lose dramatically.
The Kremlin’s anti-homosexual laws and the renewed push toward promoting “morality” in Russian society are nothing new and have a direct antecedent in the tsarist-era Slavophile movement, which dismissed Western ideals as corrupting to the Russian soul. Putin has embraced a revived version of this ideology, re-establishing the historic alliance between the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church. According to this logic, Russia’s decay at home and its failures abroad were in part a consequence of Western corrupting influences. For Russia to be strong, it must defend traditional morality and conservative values. Russian Deputy Premier Dmitry Rogozin found time to tweet his disgust about the so-called “bearded lady” who won the Eurovision song contest. This has spilled over into the political realm, with Western-style democracy itself seen as another corrupting influence.
Finally, Putin has restored Russians’ pride in their country. The purposeful integration of the Soviet past into Russian national identity by the Kremlin is no coincidence, as seen by the most recent Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, which looked eerily like those of the old USSR. Under the Soviets, Russia was at the height of its power, with its army in the heart of Europe, control over a buffer zone to the west, and global interests and allies. In 1991 this all collapsed. This “geopolitical catastrophe”, as Putin himself said in 2005, needed to be reversed. This is not about ideology, for few wish to recreate the communist state. Instead, the Kremlin’s foreign policy under Putin has been dedicated to restoring the image of Russia’s great power status. This forms the common thread underlying its actions in Georgia and Ukraine, its alliance with rogue states like Syria and Iran, recent provocative movements of its naval and air assets near Western countries, and the over-exuberance of the Sochi Olympics. The message that “Russia is back!” has resonated at home. Granted, this has unleashed nationalism and chauvinism, and may well plunge Ukraine into civil war, but that is seen as a small price to pay for restoring a glimmer of Russian greatness.
Putin’s recent actions at home and abroad are simply a manifestation of the state-building project which began in 2000. Time will tell, but it is likely that Putin may take his place in the pantheon of great Russian leaders, who are judged by the power of their state, rather than the wellbeing and civil liberties of their people.
*Thomas Ambrosio has published on Russian domestic and foreign policy, and has a particular interest in the stability of authoritarian regimes.