The Putin Regime: Dangerous Limitations of Political Liberty in Russia

Tyranny has been closely associated with the Soviet Union, as the dictators who ruled during its existence were brutal, oppressing hundreds of thousands of citizens who even appeared to stand in their way. After the collapse of the USSR, there was hope that Russia would become a democratic nation that allowed political liberty and pluralism to thrive. However, the past twenty years illustrates otherwise. Under the regime of Vladimir Putin, the political liberty of the Russian people has been significantly limited so that no individual or group can successfully challenge the wishes of the Kremlin. Putin’s popularity and the government’s tight restrictions on eligibility to run for office has allowed him to maintain his power easily and has prevented any opponent from winning the presidency. The strength of the political party most supportive of Putin’s regime, United Russia, has prevented any other party from gaining a majority in the State Duma. The resulting alignment between the executive and legislative branches of the national government has allowed the Kremlin to extend its dominance into regional governments as well, with the party gaining control of nearly all regional legislatures and forcing the regional executives to comply with the national government. These limitations of political liberty in Russia have resulted in an alarming amount of power granted to Putin, wherein the president is capable of doing whatsoever he pleases.

Putin’s rise to power was due to an array of perfectly timed circumstances. In August of 1999, Boris Yeltsin, the current Russian president, appointed Putin as prime minister and announced that he wanted Putin to succeed him as president in the elections the following year.[1] Shortly after this, Putin’s aggressive response to a terrorist attack increased his popularity, and by December he was leading in the polls with over fifty percent support. In the same month, a pro-government party coalition that backed Putin’s presidential campaign took control of the State Duma. Yeltsin’s low approval led him to resign by the end of the year, making Putin the acting president and moving the date of the election forward. These factors, combined with a growing economy and bias from the state-controlled media, resulted in a clear win for Putin.[2] He received 54.3 percent of the vote, with Gennady Zyuganov in a distant second place with 29.5 percent. Putin increased his dominance of the political system in the subsequent election, garnering 71.9 percent of the vote in 2004. He had to step aside as president at the end of his second term, but he endorsed Dmitry Medvedev, who won with similar results at 71.2 percent. Immediately after winning, Medvedev appointed Putin as prime minister and signed a law that extended the presidential terms from four to six years, beginning with the next president. The next president was, of course, Putin, who won the 2012 election with 63.6 percent of the vote. Such wide margins was indicative of his appeal to the electorate due to his leadership abilities, estimated to have resulted in 64 percentage points from his voters in 2000, 44 in 2004, and 67 in 2007.[3]

Although Putin’s popularity due to perceived leadership qualities is enough to ensure the security of his career, his regime relies on more than just popularity to guarantee that its power can be maintained. The eligibility requirements to run for the office of president is very strict, requiring either the nomination of a political party that has at least seven percent of the seats in the Duma or two million signatures, and the election process is further interfered with by the confiscation of political advertisements and by the Kremlin’s pressure on citizens to vote in alignment with the regime.[4] Political power being used against an opponent can be seen in the 2012 election when the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, Grigory Yavlinsky, attempted to run for office. His political party did not have the threshold to make him eligible, but he was able to secure enough signatures to run. However, the government rejected his application to run, making the unsupported claim that twenty-three percent of the submitted signatures contained errors or were falsified.[5] This type of behavior on the part of the government not only protects Putin’s authority, but also inhibits the political liberty of individuals.

Under Putin, United Russia quickly grew to become the dominant political party of the legislative branch, resulting in an increasingly compliant parliament. In the first two State Dumas of the Russian Federation during the 1990s, no party held a majority of the seats. Those parties that aligned with Yeltsin were in the minority, usually outnumbered by the opposition.[6] This began to change in the 1999 election when Unity, the pro-Putin party, won 73 out of 450 seats in the Third Duma. Although they were not a majority, their size prohibited a majority coalition from being formed against them. Putin was then able to intervene in the Duma through the distribution of leadership positions so that an alliance of pro-government parties could be formed.[7] This alliance then transformed into United Russia and became the dominant party, winning 223, 315, 238, and 343 seats in the following elections, respectively. No opposing party has been able to gain enough seats to be able to block legislation.

The majority of United Russia in the Duma is simply a safeguard to allow legislation to flow easily. Putin has not become a member of the party as president, but it touts itself as aligned with “Putin’s plan.”[8] Nevertheless, the manipulation of the electoral process has allowed only three other parties to gain multiple seats in the Russian parliament, all of which are generally in agreement with the president. A Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party are completely devoted to the regime, and the Communist Party is willing to cooperate.[9] The presence of other political parties in the legislative branch appears to be a small sign of political pluralism, but it accomplishes nothing in reality. The executive’s proposals of legislation will be passed, since nearly all of the legislators in the Duma are ardent supporters of Putin. This creates an imbalance of the two branches of government, allowing the power of the executive to go unchecked.

Putin’s dominance extends over not only the legislative branch, but also over the regional governments throughout Russia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia lacked a unified adherence to its constitution. Putin implemented measures in his regime to bring back the authority of the state. Had he only sought to reestablish the rule of law, “pluralistic statism,” a system in which individual rights and political pluralism in the number of equally competitive parties, would have resulted. However, his excessive actions brought about “compacted statism,” characterized by centralization and a lack of political pluralism.[10] This compacted statism is made evident through the substantial influence of United Russia in regional governments. In 2003, a law went into effect with the purpose of eliminating regional parties, spurring the growth of nation-wide parties. United Russia was the primary benefactor of this law, since it already had small amounts of influence throughout the country.[11] The pro-Kremlin party gained the disproportionate majority in most regional governments, effectively extending Putin’s influence to the local level.

The Kremlin is able to maintain its influence over regional legislatures through ensuring the continuation of United Russia’s political power. Because the party was able to gain a majority, it has been able to pass laws ensuring that it can retain its majority, such as removals of an “against all” option on ballots and a minimum voter turnout. Restrictions on “negative campaigning” also present a major problem for opponents of the government to overcome: challenging an incumbent’s record can be interpreted as the spread of negative information, and consequently violate the law.[12] These regulations, combined with the natural bias of a state-operated press, make it unlikely for a majority opposition to United Russia to be formed in most regions. Indeed, the pro-Kremlin party has a majority in seventy-nine out of Russia’s eighty-three regions. The already vast amount of influence and favorable laws provide security for United Russia, and the small opposition parties are of little concern, since they pose no real threat.

National control had also been exerted over regional governments through a bill signed into law by Putin in 2004, which eliminated popular elections for regional executives. Instead of being elected by the citizens of a region, the executives were to be chosen by the president’s recommendation. This law was amended the following year and enabled the majority party of each regional legislature to recommend a candidate to be approved by the president.[13] In May of 2012, this law changed again and elections for regional executives were reinstated. However, the president and regional officials could still screen the candidates, allowing them to block any serious challengers. Consequently, United Russia has won every election except in one rare instance since they were reinstated.[14] Governors are now forced to pursue the interests of the Kremlin instead of the interests of their regions, and the citizens have no opportunity to vote for someone who will do otherwise. For example, in 2013, the popular mayor of Yaroslavl and opponent of United Russia, Yevgeny Urlashov, announced he would run for the office of governor. Only a few days later he was arrested for allegedly extorting bribes, and in 2016 he was sentenced to twelve and a half years in jail, significantly longer than the average length for similar charges. The power of the government is unequal, favoring the national government over regional ones.

There is little political liberty under Putin’s regime, but it is still described as a “hybrid regime” and not a full-fledged authoritarian regime.[15] There is still a small amount of democracy left by Putin to maintain appearances, so that the Russian people continue to see him as a capable leader rather than a cruel tyrant. Nevertheless, he has established a considerable amount of power in an executive for even a quasi-democratic nation. He is allowed to remain president until 2024, but because of his influence over parliament, legislation could easily be passed allowing him to remain in office even longer. This power also allows him to implement laws restricting other fundamental freedoms. The “Yarovaya Law” approved by Putin in July of 2016 illustrates the potential for abuse. In an attempt to purportedly reduce threats of terrorism, the law stands in direct contradiction to the freedom of religion, restricting the sharing of religious beliefs to recognized church buildings. While Putin’s maintenance of appearances has kept him from oppressing his people to the extremes of a dictator, his signing of this law shows that both he and parliament are willing to curtail the liberty in Russia. Moreover, Putin’s regime will one day come to an end, either by retirement or death, and someone will need to succeed him as president. In the probable scenario that such a successor is unable to match Putin’s level of appeal to the electorate, his or her power will begin to wane and will result in either the failure of the regime or in “the establishment of outright dictatorship.”[16]

Putin has been able to maintain the power of his regime in a democratic country through his ability to appeal to his people and the support of a strong national party, consistently receiving well over half of the vote in the presidential elections. Political opponents have been prevented from challenging Putin, through both the president’s vast popularity and the use of the Kremlin’s power. In the State Duma, United Russia has been able to gain a majority and suppress other political parties from gaining too many seats. The party has also extended its power through regional legislatures, and, as a result, forced the regional executives to become aligned with the Kremlin. Political liberty is almost non-existent under Putin’s regime, and what little is left only exists because of Putin’s careful cultivation of appearances. The power of the state goes unchecked and has tremendous potential for abuse. This is the great danger with the limitations of political liberty in Russia: the nation’s government is only one step away from transforming its managed democracy into a total dictatorship.

[1] “Yeltsin redraws political map,” BBC News, August 10, 1999, (accessed October 21, 2016).

[2] Timothy J. Colton and Henry E. Hale, “The Putin Vote: Presidential Electorates in a Hybrid Regime,” Slavic Review 68 no. 3 (Fall 2009), 477. Available at JSTOR (accessed October 14, 2016).

[3] Ibid., 501.

[4] Michael Stuermer, Putin and the Rise of Russia (New York, NY: Pegasus Books, 2009), 158.

[5] Miriam Elder, “Russian liberal leader faces exclusion from presidential election,” The Guardian, January 23, 2012, (accessed October 28, 2016).

[6] Thomas Remington, “Patronage and the Party of Power: President—Parliament Relations Under Vladimir Putin,” Europe-Asia Studies 60 no. 6 (August 2008), 969. Available at JSTOR (accessed October 14, 2016).

[7] Ibid., 971.

[8] Ibid., 968.

[9] Tatiana Stanovaya, “How Putin Elects the Duma,” Institute of Modern Russia, January 17, 2013, (accessed Oct. 28, 2016).

[10] Richard Sakwa, “Putin’s Leadership: Character and Consequences,” Europe-Asia Studies 60 no. 6 (August 2008), 885. Available at JSTOR (accessed October 14, 2016).

[11] Stephen K. Wergen and Andrew Konitzer, “Prospects for Managed Democracy in Russia,” Europe-Asia Studies 59 no. 6 (September 2007), 1030. Available at JSTOR (accessed October 11, 2016).

[12] Ibid., 1032.

[13] Ibid., 1033.

[14] “2016 Freedom in the World Report on Russia,” Freedom House, (accessed October 22, 2016).

[15] Colton and Hale, 503.

[16] Ibid.