Yale University

In His Consolidated Authoritarian Regime, Putin Masquerades Democracy by Sarah Armstrong @ Yale University

While Russia masquerades characteristics of democracy, President Vladimir Putin presides over an authoritarian political system with power concentrated entirely in his regime. Lacking an independent judiciary, free and fair elections, a pluralistic legislator, and an open media environment, Russia continuously moves further from post-Soviet gleams of democratic transition. By suppressing key elements of democracy and privatizing state assets, the Kremlin imposes an autocratic system of government that sabotages liberal democratic order both within and beyond Russia’s borders.

Unlike violent political uprisings of the past, modern democratic breakdowns more often begin with insiders gaining initial power through elections. As scholars of democracy Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt discuss in their book How Democracies Die, the contemporary path to democratic decay relies on actions that fall within the rule of law, sparking steady institutional erosions. As Russia sat on the cusp of a democratic transition after the Soviet Union’s collapse, political insider Vladimir Putin successfully worked within the confines of the law to impede democratic institutionalization.

In 1991, an unsuccessful coup staged by communist hard-liners sealed the fate of the Soviet Union, propelling democratic forces to power. As the first elected president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin caught the world’s attention by moving the country closer to a democratic political system. At the time, Bill Clinton’s administration emphasized Russia’s transition to both a liberal democracy and a market economy as the United States’ single most important foreign policy priority.

In an effort to transition the state to a market-based economy, then-President Yeltsin introduced a voucher-privatization program, converting state-owned enterprises into private shareholding companies. This push for privatization enabled a handful of Russian businessmen with government ties to become billionaires by cheaply acquiring state assets. By the end of the decade, Yeltsin stepped down and named Putin acting president—ushering in a new era of authoritarianism masked by faux democracy.

After assuming the presidency in 2000, Putin began to systematically consolidate his power, stripping the widely unpopular oligarchs of their political influence and media properties. He allowed many oligarchs to retain their assets in exchange for unequivocal support and alignment with his regime, imprisoning those who fell out of favor with the Kremlin on charges such as of tax evasion. By placing loyal allies into crucial bureaucratic positions, Putin positioned himself to wield authority over large sections of the economy.

While his predecessor’s privatization effort resembled a step forward for democratic hopefuls, Putin’s control of the economy allowed for vast state-wide corruption that solidified his dominance. His consolidation of economic and political power hindered the strength of civil society, allowing Putin’s regime fewer restraints on its movement toward more authoritarian control. The corrupted entanglements of the government and business world resulted in a lack of accountability that enabled Putin’s inner circle to increasingly act with impunity.

According to the independent research organization Freedom House, Russia’s rampant corruption facilitates shifting links among organized crime groups and government bureaucrats. Russian courts prove subordinate to political authorities, and due process cannot be guaranteed to those whom threaten government bureaucrats. For example, journalistic investigations revealed that the members of Putin’s inner circle who offshored billions of dollars to acquire private homes did not receive any legal reprimands. Meanwhile, authorities jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny several times on various charges—including organizing an unauthorized gathering—after Navalny announced his intent to challenge Putin for the presidency. In a judicial system that operates at the will of Putin’s regime, the political interests of the Kremlin dominate.

When scoring the freedom status of nations’ electoral processes, Freedom House allocated 0 out of 12 possible points to Russia. The publication argued that Russia’s electoral system ensures the party of Putin—United Russia—maintains domination with little chance of success by opposition candidates. While the 1993 Russian constitution established a two-term limit, Putin served both terms before becoming Prime Minister, then subsequently won a third presidential term. Earlier this month, Putin won a fourth term with low voter turnout and no credible opposition. Due to Russia’s lack of free and fair elections, only Kremlin-approved candidates dominate regional and national races each election cycle. Like Navalny, opposition politicians frequently face contrived criminal cases designed to thwart their political participation.

Kremlin not only quells opposition candidates, but it also restricts freedoms of assembly and association that conflict with government interests. Routine arrests, the use of force, and harsh prison sentences frequently discourage unsanctioned protests, while pro-Kremlin groups demonstrate without disturbance. When Navalny organized a demonstration in Moscow that mobilized large numbers of opposition supporters, over a thousand people were detained. In February, a Moscow court sentenced eight participants to prison terms ranging from 2.5 to 4 years for unjustified charges of violence against the police. In Russia, authorities commonly meet peaceful rallies by civil society with excessive force and incarceration.

Further suppressing a pillar of democracy, the Russian government controls all of the national television networks as well as many print and radio outlets through state-owned companies. Freedom House allocated 0 out of 4 possible points when scoring the freedom status of Russian media. While the constitution included freedom of speech, any activity that lack official government support receives heavy policing. Therefore, independent media in Russia faces constant legal, political, and even physical attacks from the government.

In 2017, Nikolay Andrushchenko and Dmitriy Popkov—two independent investigative reporters known for their criticism of the ruling party—were killed by unidentified assailants. After writing about corruption in the Russian army in 2006, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in her apartment on Putin’s birthday. Further, investigative journalist and radio host Yulia Latynina fled Russia last September after receiving several threats of arson on her home as well as an assassination attempt. Meanwhile, a Russian media group angered the Kremlin when it published articles critical of business owners close to Putin. Shortly thereafter, the news service was sold to a Putin ally, forcing many of its journalists to resign. As actions of political and physical harm against journalists operating outside of the Kremlin-approved media remain common, informed opposition to Putin’s regime continues to stagnate.

Putin not only subverts democratic rule in his own country, but also works to undermine democracy abroad. His regime conducts sophisticated campaigns to destabilize democracies and bend them towards his interest. Western intelligence agencies continue to monitor a Russian strategy to support European parties that express sympathy to Putin, including far-right anti-immigrant parties like the Nation Front of France. More recently, U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Through his effort to sabotage democracy abroad, Putin moves closer to making the world safe for autocracy.

By showing a weak commitment to democratic rules, denying the legitimacy of opponents, tolerating violence, and demonstrating willingness to curb civil liberties and the media, Vladimir Putin far surpasses the criteria to identify a dangerous authoritarian laid out by Levitsky and Ziblatt. Due to the privatization of state assets and suppression of democratic accountability, Putin consolidated his power and swiftly moved Russia from democratic transition to authoritarianism. Although falling within the rule of law, Putin strategically suppresses the independence of Russia’s judiciary, elections, and media—moving the nation further from democratic order for decades to come.

(Photo by Planton/Trunk Archive, Creative Commons Zero license.)


  1. Victoria Hill

    May 7, 2018 at 6:25 pm

    This is a really thorough examination of how Vladimir Putin has managed not only to degrade democracy in Russia, but how he seeks to undermine democracies abroad to boot. His willingness to tolerate and cause violence against his political opponents is particularly worrying; Masha Gessen’s book outlines the lengths to which he has been willing to go in order to make himself look good, or to silence his critics. In that same vein, you mention his control of the media, which seems to be constructed in such a way as to limit the amount of effort he has to expend on controlling it: he ensures that the major networks, the ones which get the largest share of viewer time, toe his line, but there is marginally more freedom for certain smaller outlets that are seen as less relevant. Of course, this has costs. In Peru, Fujimori ran a similar form of media control, and ultimately, it was one of those smaller, seemingly-insignificant outlets that began publishing material that was damaging to his presidency; in the end, people simply stopped watching those big networks, because they knew that wasn’t where the news was. I don’t think Putin is likely to let any criticism or whistle-blowing get that far; as the Politkovskaya assassination shows, he is willing to shut that down early. Additionally, with the rise of social media as a major news source, plenty of people will simply keep being shown things that already agree with their own perspective. It might simply not matter to voters and viewers whether what they see is the truth; it only matters that it’s truth-adjacent, or feels true. Add in voter apathy generated by longstanding corruption, and Putin is definitely not going anywhere any time soon.

  2. Minch

    May 19, 2018 at 11:45 am

    This is an excellently put together analysis for how Vladimir Putin undermines democracy in Russia and other post-Communist states through covert means and strategic manipulations. It is not difficult to accept that there is authoritarian resilience in Russia because the state’s transition to democracy has not been fully realized and completed. Putin’s ability to consolidate authoritarianism, by systematically maneuvering through supposedly democratic institutions such as the judiciary and the legislature, the media, civil society and the political opportunity structures for opposition and dissent and liberal market mechanisms, i.e. privatization of state assets, combines his personality and belief system, the maturing democratic institutions that may or may not fit Russia’s unique historical pathway and the absence of international democratizing pressures. The latter can be attributed to the difficulty in finding an alternative to balance Russia so that Putin will react constructively and without retaliation. Remember Crimea and the Donbass crisis in 2014?

    The confluence of factors and Putin’s adamant defiance of democratic norms is synergized by the absence of strong traditions of activism against Russia’s government on occasions that blatant transgressions against democratic principles and practices are committed. In Russia, it has become the norm that Putin should possess enormous power over institutions and the people. The oligarchies complicit to his agenda are rewarded thus becoming part of the problem themselves. I would like to think that Russia’s problematic democracy can be solved generationally but it is not helpful to be blindly optimistic. Putin, by exporting his brand of authoritarianism and guided democracy, creates Russian institutions in his own design that will mediate present and future political inputs subsuming its dynamics under path dependent development. If we follow Shugart and Carey’s argument (Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Dynamics) with regard to democracy as variable and conditional on institutional design, the more Putin ingrains authoritarianism, the more Western and citizen control become precarious and limited in safeguarding Russian democracy from Putin’s agenda.

  3. Omar Skandari

    December 3, 2018 at 8:29 pm

    This blog post of yours was very interesting and eye opening. Specifically in the introduction where you speak about how Russia is parading their Democracy even though it is not a real democracy. Also the fact that Russia only was given a 0 out of 12 possible points by freedom house was very interesting because it shows that it is finally public knowledge and is being recognized by other countries outside of the United States that Russia is not an ideal Democracy. The point that you made about how Vladimir Putin subverts democratic rule in his own country. The most interesting that is also about how his regime conducts sophisticated campaigns to destabilize the government and make it so that his party and people have more power. This is very similar to what Viktor Orban is doing with his Fidesz party in Ukraine. This was a very interesting blog post for all of these reasons thank you for this.

  4. Julian Toro

    December 6, 2018 at 3:14 pm

    There is a very crucial tactic practiced in Russia that seems to imitate, but also be very original. It is the use of capitalism. This blog delves into how Putin is using his power and how the way you react to it (if you were to be in Russia) can affect you. The type of regime practiced by Putin affects both inside and outside the country. Under the previous president, Yeltsin, capitalism was practice, many business men made enough to purchase government assets, though at the time they were cheaper to acquire. These soon became Oligarchies, after Yeltsin stepped down, Putin took advantage of them (the oligarchies). Putin distantly controls these Oligarchies. It is a very interesting game to play, this one. Putin this way made sure to have the law on his side, and this way gets to create the regime that is merely a band-aid over. By taking over the oligarchies he pretty much controlled every governmental entity, and yet he dares to call It a democracy. Putin uses a system of Checks and Balances to make sure no one is out of line, even “himself”. This is all a roleplay, a masquerade as Sarah puts it, to make sure he stays in control. He was smart about it, when you compare it to other leaders that have tried to make something like this happen, he was a genius. Leaders like Hitler used discrimination and fear to control Nazi Germany, Fidel Castro who communized Cuba, Idi Amin of Uganda who also overthrew elected officials; Putin used the political regime that was established to his favor, and while playing the game, became the designer of the game.

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