Naked Politics Blogger
Russia appears on our Facebook news feeds, Twitter feeds, TVs and radios day-in day-out, for better (rarely) or for worse (frequently). The perpetual presence of Russia in the mass media seems to transcend all policy areas, whether its jets are entering NATO airspace, the incarceration of political activists, regional conflicts, LGBT rights or issues related to the buying, selling and access to oil and gas, we hear about it one way or another. But what is life, particularly political life, actually like in Russia under Putin’s presidency?
To understand Putin’s Russia, we need to first start briefly with the man orchestrating the Russian political system. Putin spent his
adolescent years in Leningrad, a strongly patriotic post-war city. He spent his early career in the KGB (the main security agency for the Soviet Union) as a spy in East Germany, and later worked in Russia. During his time in the KGB, Putin developed an extensive network of contacts, who would later benefit as a result of his political ascendancy. However, Putin seemed hardly worth a footnote in Russian political history when an ailing Boris Yeltsin made him president in 1999, but he has managed to reverse the democratisation of Russia, clamp down on civil society and put Russia on track to authoritarianism.
From a liberal, Western perspective the political situation in Putin’s Russia is pretty grim. Although formally it may appear to be a democracy, the reality is quite different. Russia is a kind of zombie state – it is a shell of a democracy, with regular elections and multiple political parties, but this is a façade to mask the return of authoritarianism.
Let’s take political parties and elections as a starting point. The origins of the main left wing (A Just Russia) and right wing parties (United Russia), indicate that they are not in the business of opposing the Kremlin and Putin, but were created for the purpose of supporting him. Collectively, these Kremlin ‘satellite’ parties dominate the Russian parliament, and prevent real opposition parties from voicing alternative viewpoints.
Elections have also become a tool for the Kremlin to mask the fact that Putin is in essence a dictator and to snub political opposition. Putin introduced laws which mean parties that do not poll more than 7% at an election are awarded no seats in parliament and therefore marginalised from the law making process. Other laws introduced by Putin mean that political parties need representation in all of Russia’s 87 regions or they are disqualified from the running, making life quite difficult as a political party if you receive no funding from the Kremlin.
Key checks on the Kremlin have also been eroded or distorted too. An essential element of any free and liberal society or political system is a free press. However, those independent sources of expression, the media, which flourished in the pre-Putin era have either been bought-out by the Kremlin, their owners locked-up in jail, or their journalists intimidated.
As well as shutting down centres of independent thought and expression, political violence has become a cornerstone of Putin’s regime. Since 2000 over 30 opposition journalists have been killed. High profile assassinations of key journalists, such as Anna Politkovskaya, and opposition leaders, such as Boris Nemtsov, are as much a part of Russian political life as dodgy elections and phoney political parties. Putin has gone as far as to employ draconian methods used by the Soviets, including having opposition activists sectioned as mentally ill and prescribed large doses of drugs whilst.
It is clear that political life in Russia is pretty bleak for your average liberal minded, politically active citizen who isn’t the biggest fan of the Kremlin and not afraid to say it. But life is still tough even for those who don’t get in Putin’s way. A shortage of cash in the Kremlin’s coffers was a serious handicap to the Yeltsin administration, trying to set the foundations of democracy and keep the communists from undermining the progress of reversing the damage of the one-party-state and planned economy. However unlike his predecessor, Putin’s administration is in a strong fiscal position and has in recent years had a budget surplus that would make George Osborne weak at the knees (albeit an economy tenuously propped up by an over reliance on natural resources, and dipping into recession). But Russia still has a health care system to be ashamed of, and infrastructure projects and improving public services is still as painfully slow as in the Soviet era.
This is not to say that Putin is not legitimate, his popularity is legitimacy enough, as he has proven more popular (with the electorate) than any of his Western contemporaries could possibly wish for. However, hopefully what is stated above makes it partly clear why he is so popular. There is no pluralism when it comes to selecting Russia’s leaders. There is no debate.
So you may be thinking that if you happen to be in Russia and find yourself in the unfortunate position of being at political odds with the Kremlin, then you should just keep your mouth shut. Or, better still, why not just move abroad? Well, it is important that those who believe in an alternative direction for Russia also have a say.
In a country with such vast political and economic clout, a country that has only in the past year or so brought war back to Europe, that has an important say and veto capabilities on the world stage through various international institutions, it is important to encourage an internal discourse over Russia’s actions at home and abroad, so it is not simply left to the whim of Putin.