Putin’s power

Patriotism, media domination, and eliminating the opposition: how Putin has secured a further two terms as President

Photo by Alexei Druzhinin on Time.com.

5 minute read — by Derry Salter

Putin’s power since the turn of the century has brought prosperity to Russia and stability to the economy. Yet, under Putin, Russia has seen a sharp turn away from democracy towards a more authoritarian rule. Throughout his presidency, Putin has made it clear that he wants to reassert Russia’s global power, a key factor contributing to his maintained nationwide approval rating. But how does Putin preserve popularity?

It is clear that Putin’s reign depends largely on marginalising liberals in political positions; they are often promptly replaced by allies in order to ensue Putin remains in political favour. Recently, Putin secured his power for a further sixteen years by announcing drastic changes to the Russian constitution. This radical change resulted in the Prime Minister and his government resigning as a protest against this unconstitutional move. Putin’s new bill will allow him to serve two more six-year terms as long as he is deemed fit to rule, despite his tenure as President constitutionally expected to end in 2024. Putin previously faced a similar dilemma in 2008, when the constitution required he step down after two consecutive terms. Despite having an approval rating of 80 percent, Putin stepped down and became Prime Minister in order to proceed in a democratic manner. It is clear that Putin could have followed suit to previous leaders of the former Soviet republics, who declared themselves president for a chosen period of time through re-writing the constitution, yet Putin decided to wait until this year for such a move.

Patriotism is pivotal. The patriotic attitude Putin has sparked consequently skews the ethical journalistic codes, meaning that a preponderance of political coverage is favourable towards Putin’s rule, so the full extent of opposition is hard to conclude. In his first presidential term, Putin secured a large majority of broadcast media under his control by taking charge of national television. Liberal media was allowed to operate freely until 2011, when Russia was gripped by a wave of anti-government protests. Liberal media workers were manipulated by large business owners and consequently a majority of newspaper outlets closed. Many journalists have been killed in Russia, yet not at the hand of the government. Putin’s power has created a country in which elite businesses with money can settle scores with journalists that they see as their adversaries; it is very much a case of money is power.

Putin’s rule has also put academic freedom at risk. Limiting knowledge on democratic societies only ensures Putin remains in power. In 2016, the European University in St. Petersburg lost its teaching license, with claims that the university’s liberalism and critical thinking was the cause behind this revoking. The university has only recently regained its license after uproar from European scholars.

Although Russia has no official authority over the former Soviet states, Putin maintains a certain level of influence over such countries. Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 was a sharp response to the failure to install a pro-Russian leader in the Ukraine, consequently claiming further territory and asserting greater dominance over the Ukraine through demonstrating Russia’s power to take what it wants. Furthermore, Russia has continued to maintain its hold in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, despite the two countries warring over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Although Russia is formally supportive of Armenia, reports show that it supplies arms to both sides in an effort to maintain its dominance over both countries and perhaps encourage instability. Tensions are high in most former Soviet states, such as Belarus – a significant trading partner for Russia – where citizens continue to protest against Alexander Lukashenko, their leader of 26 years, after he achieved a sixth term in office through the illusion of a fair election. Similarities there can be drawn with Putin’s most recent move, so it is unsurprising that Putin plans to loan Lukashenko $1.5 billion. This may seem an unwise and lavish use of money considering Russia’s economic state, but it is clear that Putin intends to remain in control over the former Soviet state by ensuring the full co-operation of the country’s leader as Lukashenko is now solely dependent on Russia for Putin’s political support.

Despite a typically high approval rating, support for Putin is dropping rapidly, hitting its lowest since 2013 at only 63 percent, demonstrating that the challenges to his presidency are beginning to mount up. The international sanctions that Russia face due to their military involvement in the Ukraine in 2014 play a large role in damaging the economy, with the European Union implementing sanctions blocking Putin’s key aides from travelling to the West or engaging with Western financial services. It is clear that Russia’s economy will continue to be harmed by such sanctions with Alexei Kudrin, the country’s former financial minister, predicting that unemployment numbers will triple to 8 million by the end of 2020.

COVID-19 has only increased tensions surrounding Putin’s presidency with Russia reporting over 1.5 million cases since the outbreak began. The high level of cases has led to social unrest across the country with some citizens showing their opposition to Putin’s actions in an anti-lockdown rally in southern Russia. Putin faces further scrutiny from critics who have accused him of being absent when the virus first broke out in Russia as many citizens are voicing their view that Putin has not done enough for the country throughout the pandemic. This was only worsened by Putin’s attempt at a goodwill gesture by sending medical equipment to the United States, which caused uproar across Russia with many worrying about the state of the country’s own supplies.

On 2nd September, Putin came under further scrutiny after it became apparent that his lead opposition, Alexander Navalny, fell victim to poison. Navalny first became a threat to Putin after he exposed pervasive corruption in the governing party. He later attempted to run in the 2018 presidential election, yet he was banned over a previous conviction of embezzlement, which Navalny denied and cited as a retaliation from Putin due to his fierce criticism and opposition. On 20th August, Navalny fell ill on a flight and was airlifted to Berlin for treatment where the German government conducted tests finding “unequivocal proof of a chemical nerve warfare agent of the Novichok group”. As a result, there are large levels of scepticism surrounding the poisoning with many members of the opposition party suspecting Putin’s involvement as the driving factor behind the poisoning.

Putin may have a further two six-year terms as President, only further secured by his success in obtaining control in both Russia and former Soviet states, but international sanctions and the current economic climate of the country make it clear that Putin has a challenging road ahead of him.