Vladimir Putin: Seeking Dictatorial Power In Russia

May 2nd, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

Vladimir Putin has been president of Russia since 2000, with a short stint as Prime Minister so that he could stay in power.  He has solidified his grasp on power since then and, in many ways, already has dictatorial power.  He now seeks to enhance that power with a distinct power grab in Russia.  On 10 March, the Duma, Russia’s parliament, voted to approve constitutional changes proposed by Putin, and added one that resets the number of terms he can serve.  Under the current constitution, he would need to stand down in 2024; under the new arrangement, he could rule until 2036, perhaps longer.  What is going on here?  Why is he determined to hang on to power?  What is his vision for Russia?  Whom is he seeking to protect?

First, a review of some history.  Russian communism (and the Soviet Union) collapsed in the early 1990s; it was replaced by a system headed by Boris Yeltsin.  Historian Brian Taylor describes this system as “a political system with elements of both democracy and authoritarianism, . . . elections were generally competitive, television was not controlled by the Kremlin, regional governors had real, independent power, . . . and nongovernmental organizations had plenty of room to organize, including in opposition to the state.”  But Yeltsin was an ineffective leader, struggled with public drunkenness and got Russia involved in the bloody, regional war in Chechnya.  Vladimir Putin was Yeltsin’s successor and he promised a more competent and effective government; he was aided by the unexpected rise in oil prices in the early 2000s, which helped in his consideration of power.  Over time, Putin gained control of the television networks of Russia through his oligarch friend Vladimir Gusinsky.  Next, Putin secured control of the civil society that had emerged under Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s and Yeltsin in the 1990s.  “The assault on pluralism and free expression included targeted killings—on whose orders is an open question—of outspoken journalists and political figures.”  Under the guise of creating a “sovereign democracy,” as one member of Putin’s government called it, “Putin imposed an increasingly authoritarian regime.  Today he controls the country’s political institutions and leads a loose alliance of clans that manage Russia’s natural resources and its outwardly private major companies.”  Putin’s support within Russia, argues historian Joshua Rubenstein, “also derives from Mr. Putin’s opposition to the West for its seeming antagonism toward Russia—e.g., the decision to expand NATO to Russia’s borders—and its aggression elsewhere: e.g., the invasion of Iraq and the projection of military force to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.  Mr. Putin’s recent moves to intervene in Ukraine, annex Crimea and meddle in the US presidential election have given him the image of triumphal power.”  But at what cost to Russia?  Continuing sanctions by the West, crippling economic corruption and a stifling political culture, do not bode well for Russia’s future.  In Rubenstein’s words, Putin “would rather mistrust his people than invest in them . . . as things are going now, he seems ready to leave it—sooner or later—as politically backward and as economically behind as it was when he assumed power.”

Putin has made no secret of his desire to restore the grandeur and power of Russia, not as a communist state, but as the restored Russia of the czarist mold: To restore the greatness of imperial, czarist Russia, linked forcefully with Russian Orthodoxy, the glue of the new Russian empire.  The authority of the Russian Orthodox Church is now to serve the political power and goals of the new “Russian Czar”—Vladimir Putin.

Second, what is the nature of this new power grab?  In addition to extending his term(s) until at least 2036, Putin’s other amendments curb the power of parliament and the courts and positon him as “not only the head of the state but head of the executive branch as well, attributing to him the co-ordination of all public authorities and affirming his dominance in the judiciary.”  Putin shrouds this power grab in the language of God and Russian tradition, in affirming heterosexual families as constitutionally protected, and in Russia’s great victory in the World War II.  He says that these constitutional changes will go into effect only with the endorsement of the Constitutional Court (which he controls) and with the approval of the Russian people.  The election to ratify his actions was scheduled for 20 April but has been postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Russia’s economy remains a third world one, totally dependent on oil, which is in a nose dive, due to the coronavirus and his price war with Saudi Arabia.  Russia’s economy is stagnant and hopelessly corrupt.  Putin has lost some of the support of the Russian public, for his approval rating has dropped from 60% to 35%.  Whenever the election is held, it will hardly be a fair one.

Finally, why has he pushed for these constitutional changes now?  He will not need to surrender power until 2024?  Why the rush?  Putin’s government is thoroughly corrupt and his cronies depend on him for their positions.  Uncertainly about him and the future makes them fearful of losing money, status and power.  How corrupt is Putin’s Russia?  Several points;

  • According to Karen Dawisha, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy, 110 individuals control 35% of Russia’s assets, one of the highest levels of wealth inequality in the world. Many of Russia’s billionaires are close personal friends of Putin.  For example, Russian analyst, David Satter, reports that Gazprom, the Russian natural gas monopoly, was put under the control of Dmitry Medvedev and Alexei Miller, close colleagues of Putin.  They skimmed $60 billion of profits “to company insiders.”  “At the same time, 6.4% of Gazprom’s shares, with an estimated value of $20 billion, disappeared from the company’s books.”
  • Putin’s leadership ravaged private industry. “Ownership became highly monopolized, stifling competition and guaranteeing huge profits for those with connections.  Putin was the ultimate arbiter of disputes, and his departure from office would set off a struggle for power throughout a pyramid of lawlessly acquired wealth.”
  • Putin has personally profited from all this corruption. Putin’s secret assets approach $40 billion.  If he were no longer the president, he could be held responsible for much of the corruption in government, including a probe into his own personal wealth.  For that reason, Putin has organized massive disinformation campaigns against his political enemies.  What he did in the US 2016 presidential election is his norm in dealing with his enemies.  He seeks to confuse world opinion and intimidate those trying to establish the truth.

Vladimir Putin is no friend of America and of democratic values.  He seeks to preserve his corrupt regime and personal wealth.  He will get what he wants from the revision of the Constitution in Russia, and he will continue to undermine democracies throughout the world, including the United States.  He epitomizes 21st century hubris.

See Joshua Rubenstein’s review of Brian Taylor’s book, The Code of Putinism in the Wall Street Journal (16 July 2018); The Economist (14 March 2020), pp. 39-40; and David Satter in the Wall Street Journal (14-15 March 2020).

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One Comment to “Vladimir Putin: Seeking Dictatorial Power In Russia”

  1. Arlie Rauch says:

    Thanks for the informative exposé.