#07 transition
Petra Stykow

On the Eve of Putin's Third Term

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin, who had been elected Russia's first president in June 1991, pushed Russia to embrace democracy and a market economy. Although the 1993 democratic constitution was never abolished, Russia's democratic transformation essentially failed by no later than the end of the 1990s.

Western observers talk of a "facade democracy", an "imitated" or "illiberal" democracy at best, but also often of a "hybrid regime" or a regime of "competitive authoritarianism". While the core institutions of a modern democracy -- elections, a parliament, an accountable government, parties etc. -- continue to be present, their interplay creates a political dynamic that exhibits considerable "defects" when compared to the standards of liberal-representative democracies. What does this mean?

Russia's political system

Formally the Russian system of government can be viewed as semi-presidential because here -- like in France for example -- both the President and the State Duma (the Lower House of Parliament) are directly elected by the people. At the same time though, the President is so powerful that the political system appears "superpresidential". On the one hand, this is the result of the President's exceptional decision-making authority and competencies that are barely balanced by a Parliament that is institutionally extremely weak. These broad presidential powers are not only anchored in the constitution. They were also expanded in political practice by presidents Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999) and Vladimir Putin (2000-2008). As a result, the Parliament is unable to function as an effective counterweight to the executive branch. There is therefore no effective system of checks and balances like in the presidential system of the USA.

On the other hand, no "party democracy", which is typical of parliamentary and semi-presidential government systems in Western Europe, has developed in Russia. While there are a number of parties, they do not deliver linkage between citizens and politics. Parties do not play an important role in the political process, neither in formulating ideological and programmatic alternatives nor in the process of government. The cabinet consists of the President's team who implements his policies. It is not a party government that can be attributed to the composition of the parliament. This means that in Russia, in contrast to parliamentary democracies, the executive branch does not function as the "extended arm" of the party-based parliamentary majority.

In the 1990s, the Russian party system was detached and fragmented. No parliamentary majority ever emerged from elections. This situation did not fundamentally change until Putin came to power. "United Russia" was established as a hegemonic party that represented the "extended arm" of the President in the Duma. "United Russia" is an organisation that has very little in common with parties in Western democracies. It does not have its own political agenda, but rather represents the goals of the President who stands above party politics. Even after 2008, when Putin became Prime Minister (and took over party chairmanship without joining the party), "United Russia" remained fixed on him. It supported the new President Dmitry Medvedev (2008-2012) who will be replaced by Putin again in May 2012. "United Russia" was able to stabilise because it benefitted from Putin's popularity and enjoyed his patronage. This made it very attractive to ambitious politicians whom it offered lasting career prospects in exchange for loyalty to the President. During elections the party demonstrated its ability to mobilise the electorate, which was by in large based on access to the resources of the state and administrative machinery. Its candidates therefore had the necessary means for election campaigns and were able to make credible pre-election promises to their clientele (or threaten sanctions). They acted as representatives of the "party of power" which was inextricably linked to the state. Thanks to the two-thirds majority that "United Russia" has enjoyed since 2003, the Duma was transformed into a "rubber-stamp parliament" for the President's legal initiatives.

The hegemony of "United Russia" means that party competition has been increasingly strangled over the past decade. Even the strongest and most influential opposition party, the Communists, only controlled roughly 10-12 percent of the mandates between 2003 and 2011. The other seats in the Duma were divided between the rhetorically aggressive, right-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and "Just Russia", a party which, like "United Russia", was sponsored by the presidential administration. In contrast, the liberal opposition has failed to win any seats in the parliament at all since 2003.

The “managed democracy” project

Putin's first two terms in office were marked by the targeted reorganisation of the political system in order to centralise power in the hands of the President and to ensure political stability. In addition to the reorganisation of the party system, a series of reforms allowed for the effective control of the legislative branch. Thus the constitutional provisions for the division of powers were essentially suspended. Federalist reforms were carried out which curtailed the political influence of regional elites and virtually transformed the federation into a unitary state. The judicial system and large segments of the media found themselves subjected to increased efforts at political control. Top-down strategies for rebuilding politics were also extended into the civic realm. So the "Public Chamber" was founded as a body intended to aggregate and articulate the multiple interests of civil society, and the activities of NGOs were more strongly monitored. The presidential administration also involved itself as a patron of organisations loyal to the regime, such as by creating the youth organisation “Nashi”. It also sponsored a number of consultative committees to foster communication between interest groups and government authorities. Comprehensive reforms of the ministerial, administrative and judiciary machinery and legal reforms were targeted at rationalising and increasing the efficiency of the state and its bureaucracies.

The political elite pushed these reforms as an integral part of what has been called “Putin’s plan” or "managed" ("sovereign") democracy. The rationale of this project lay in the need to reconcile the demand for modern, efficient, and democratic institutions on the one hand, and the country’s specific conditions on the other. The 1990s with their economic shock therapy and political liberalisation left their mark on the collective memory for the collapse of the economy, heavy social distortions and political chaos. At times the state itself was on the verge of collapse. It barely fulfilled its domestic political functions and failed to maintain social order by effectively fighting criminality and securing Russia’s territorial integrity. Even the regular disbursement of salaries to public servants and the delivery of basic social services were limited. During the second half of the 1990s, big business, the so called “oligarchs”, seemed to have captured the state, thus eliminating the autonomy of political actors.

How can the record of Putin’s first two terms in office be assessed? Against this background, his attempts to concentrate and stabilise power were efforts to reconstitute effective statehood, i.e. to provide the preconditions for governance. Actually one has to acknowledge some really impressive successes: Russia saw a renaissance in the international arena. For a decade, the country underwent high economic growth rates of between five and ten percent per year. The wider public also profited from a doubling of the living standard; a middle class developed in the large cities at least. The other side of the coin, however, was the openly authoritarian dynamic that entered politics, as the reforms and strategies outlined above indicate. Even under Medvedev, considered a liberal beacon of hope by many observers, this tendency has not abated. Thus Russia started out on the path of “authoritarian modernisation” with strong state rule, and a weak society corrupted by rising opportunities for consumption.

The 2011-2012 electoral cycle

The parliamentary elections (4 Dec. 2011) and the presidential elections (4 Mar. 2012) have shown the limits of the previous strategy of regime consolidation. Stability can turn into stagnation. Parts of the population are beginning to withdraw their tacit support of the project of managed democracy. In the parliamentary elections, "United Russia" lost almost one-fourth of its votes compared to the previous elections (2007). The comfortable supermajority that would have allowed it to change the constitution is gone. Now the party commands over 53 percent of the seats in the new State Duma while the Communists account for 20 percent. In the presidential elections, Putin received 63.6 percent of the vote; his four opponents trailed far behind. Nevertheless, support for him was lower than in 2004 (71.2 percent) and compared to Medvedev in 2008 (70.3 percent). According to official figures, only 47 percent of Muscovites supported him. In sharp contrast, he received more than 90 percent of the vote in five of the 83 federal subjects, including Chechnya with 99.76 percent. This indicates wide regional differences in his popularity.

To be sure, these election results are far from catastrophic. The actual and really serious challenge for Putin's third term is shrinking support in those segments of the population that are interested in politics and, therefore, constitute a valuable reservoir of collective action. In fact, electoral fraud has been purported by international observers for years. This time though, the problem has taken on a new dimension because there were protest demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg with tens of thousands of participants, and smaller protests in other Russian cities, in reaction to the fraud. These demonstrations object to the virtual lack of alternatives in elections and the way in which citizens were mobilised to participate: they were not approached as responsible citizens; they were not called upon to choose between political alternatives; they were forced to simply signal sweeping and unlimited approval of "Putin's System". Thus, these protests are somewhat "aesthetic" in nature. They reject a certain political style, though not necessarily certain political content as well. The middle class, who owes their existence to the economic and social advancements of the last decade, is demanding to be taken seriously as citizens whose vote counts. This is the import of the present political mobilisation.


The elections and subsequent protests highlight the crisis of a regime that political scientists call "competitive authoritarianism". At the beginning of the 21st century, this type of regime is widespread among non-democratic countries around the world. Compared to an absolutist monarchy or military junta, it is characterised by political power that cannot refer to dynastic lineage or violence in order to hold power. Quite to the contrary: the political elite needs the general approval of the population derived from elections. "Competitive authoritarian" regimes differ from democracies in that such elections can, in fact, not be won by the opposition. While an election victory seems possible in theory, in reality incumbents and the opposition compete on an uneven playing field. Thus voting for opposition parties is hardly meaningful. There are many means to effectively eliminate true completion. They run the gamut from skilfully designed legislation and the privileging of the "party of power" to electoral manipulation with media bias in favour of the incumbent, the buying of votes and the crude falsification of election results.

Nevertheless elections are still a "fault line" of such competitive-authoritarian regimes: they have to be won because the legitimacy of the ruling elite is based on them. If an election victory is not credible to the relevant actors and if these are capable of organising mass protests, incumbents are faced with a serious threat. This is the lesson from events such as the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine in 2004. Against this background the political reforms of the "managed democracy" make sense: they aimed to prevent just such a revolution. Actually, the revolutionary scenario is quite unlikely for Russia today. The main reason is that at this point in time, there are no real alternatives to Putin. There is (as yet) no leader capable of unifying the opposition for at least a while or offering an attractive political programme. This was made apparent by the recent protests. Additionally, the political dynamics in Ukraine have shown that a change in power in no way guarantees a democratic breakthrough in politics. The fact that the loser of the revolution (2004) won the next presidential election (2010) is not just one of history's ironies. Rather it shows the "Orange" revolutionaries' failure in day-to-day politics.

One has to be careful when considering the prospects of Putin's third term in office. Obviously, he is starting with a difficult legacy. This time, however, it is not Yeltsin's legacy of deformed democratisation like in 2000, but rather his own. A strategy of simply "more of the same" certainly will not work. The fact that some political and economic reforms were announced during the presidential campaign indicates that Putin is aware of this. The protests around the elections made it clear that the conditions for exercising power have changed: While earlier "the Kremlin" appeared to be the only relevant actor in Russian politics, it will now have to reckon with other actors. This will probably lead to political compromises, or even to the emergence of oppositional forces capable of acting and sooner or later to competition for political power.

Related Articles

The Long Path to a Civil Society – The Example of Russia

Twenty years of transformation have brought neither democracy nor a vital civil society to Russia.

» more

Where the Secret Service Is Still Called the KGB

This isn't the last dictatorship in Europe, it is the first one in the 21st century

» more