Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Problem of Strength

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 6, 2015 --  

The total erosion of checks on the Russian president's power makes government action unpredictable.

The rebel soldiers roaming the sunflower fields of eastern Ukraine are a nagging symptom of a problem that just won't go away. The problem is not Russia's military power. The problem is not Russian President Vladimir Putin. The problem is the extraordinary lack of influence that the Russian people have over their country's dictatorial leader.

In the 15 years that Vladimir Putin has been in charge of Russia, power has been increasingly centralized, and all levers of public influence steadily dismantled. The journalistic free-for-all that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union is long gone as the Kremlin has expanded its control over the media. Today, only one independent television channel remains, Dozhd, which was recently evicted from its headquarters and investigated by tax authorities.1

The state-run media that control the airwaves are effectively a propaganda tool to advance the interests of the government. Elections in Russia, much like those in Soviet times, have become charades where weak opposition parties have access to television and no hope of winning. Many don't even get a chance to run. Liberal Western-oriented parties such as Yabloko were rejected by the state Central Election Committee in 2012 due to “fraudulent” signatures.2 The remaining candidates, from the discredited Communist Party, the neo-fascist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and two Kremlin puppets served as little more than pawns to give Putin's permanent rule a veneer of democracy.

While independent news sources still exist on the internet and the print newspapers, relatively few Russians seem interested. What is the point of getting involved in politics when there is no hope of influencing anything? Those who pose a serious challenge the Kremlin end up in prison, in exile or dead. Billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent ten years in prison after daring to challenge Putin about corruption, and currently lives in exile.3 Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremilin earlier this year.4 Other government opponents living in exile, like Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Berezovsky have died under mysterious circumstances.

Unpleasant consequences for running afoul of the dictator are not unique to Russia -- they exist in dictatorial regimes around the world. But under most dictatorships, the leader has to placate powerful interest groups including business tycoons, the military, and sometimes organized groups within society. In today's Russia, the government has successfully subjugated all potential pressure groups.

It is worth remembering that this was not how it always was. During the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had no shortage of people challenging the government. Independent media with differing opinions were so widespread, that many older Russians found them uncomfortably disrespectful.

On the political front, President Boris Yeltsin had to resort to tanks to dislodge the rebellious communist-dominated parliament in 1993. In the mid-90s, he lost control of the southern province of Chechnya to separatist rebels. Governors of Russian regions openly defied the Kremlin. And in 1999, as Yeltsin's second and last constitutionally permitted presidential term came to an end, he appointed Putin as his deputy and resigned in a successful gambit to avoid the communists and nationalists from winning power in 2000 elections.

Putin's appointment by a champion of democracy has always raised questions. Why did he do it? At the time, it seemed that anarchy, not authoritarianism, was the biggest risk to Russia. Appointing a man who could keep things under control seemed to make sense. Yeltsin may have lived to regret that decision. In 2004, he openly (if gently) criticized his protege's plan to centralize control of all Russian regions, replacing local elections with appointment by the Kremlin.5

For all his heavy-handedness, Putin remains quite popular. A February opinion poll found that 85 percent of Russians support the president.6 This high rating is in no doubt buoyed by nationalistic moves such as the annexation of Crimea less than a year earlier. And the longer-term improvement of Russia's economy, albeit an improvement driven largely by petroleum wealth, has certainly raised standards of living since the Yeltsin era.

Those who don't find opportunity in today's Russia -- either for economic or political reasons -- can always leave. Emigration to western countries like the United States and Germany is running at about 200,000 per year.7 The departure of many Western-oriented Russians for the West helps eliminate yet another challenge to presidential dominance.

The total lack of checks on presidential power is troubling, and it's not just about today's Putin. What happens if Putin dies (either accidentally, due to natural causes, or is assassinated) and is replaced with an even more disagreeable leader? What happens if Putin evolves to become a different Putin that is even more threatening toward his neighbors?

In a typical dictatorship, powerful interests exist within the country to keep destructive tendencies in check. Even in the absence of free and fair elections, rich businessmen and generals don't want to see their fortunes lost and children' lives put at risk. These pressure points are weaker now in Russia than at any time since Stalin.

The consequences of these weak influences can be most acutely felt by residents of eastern Ukraine where Putin's violent proxies run amok. Residents of other neighboring countries as well as those in Russia itself are wise to be nervous. Without anyone to keep the president in line, it's anyone's guess what he'll do next.

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1. The Guardian, Triumph of the Will: Putin's War Against Russia's Last independent TV Channel, April 10, 2014

2. The Moscow News, Yavlinsky's Election Registration Officially Rejected, January 27, 2012

3. BBC News, Analysis: Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Exile, December 22, 2013

4. BBC News, Russia Opposition Politician Boris Nemtsov shot dead, February 28, 2013

5. The Moscow News, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin Speak out Against Putin's Reforms, February 16, 2004

6. CNN, Vladimir Putin's Approval Rating? Now at a Whopping 86 percent, February 26, 2015

7. Institute of Modern Russia, A New Emigration: The Best Are Leaving. Part 1, February 28, 2015