From Proto-State to Para-State Accountability: Russian Political Regimes Under Yeltsin, Putin, and Medvedev
In Lieu of a Conclusion: Implications of Putin's Return to the Presidency in 2012
As expected, Putin's announcement to stand as presidential candidate in the elections in March 2012 provoked frantic applause on the United Russia party convention (euronews 2011), while the bulk of civil society seemed to have registered the move with lethargy and weariness. While most commentators stressed that this move came as many had predicted and thus did not present a surprising revelation, it seems to alienate civil society ever more from the political elite (Levada center 2011).
If the impression of the current political regime in fact is that it is merely characterized by a trading of political posts and collusive behaviour among a political elite meant to represent a population but in reality is so far away from the needs of a country and its people, the consequence is disenchantment with politics. Popular demonstrations in the aftermath of the rigged Duma elections in 2011 are indicative of an emerging new expression of these circumstances in civil society, even if initially almost exclusively limited to street protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg. If political alternatives and controversial discussions are being choked off, a population tends to become disillusioned with its alleged representatives and wearily turns away from politics.
It tells us much about the de facto extent and quality of democracy when the principle of governance by and for the people becomes perverted by a people seeing no incentive in engaging in political arguments because a political regime creates the framework for a widening gap between them and the political elite without no link whatsoever between these two realms. A particular political regime has emerged under Putin (censored press, a censored television, a corrupt executive, a rubberstamping legislative and a hardly transparent and fair judicial system) that has even come to be labeled 'Putinism' (Aron 2010a: 4), which, after the short-lived Medvedev-intermezzo, does now continue unabatedly with Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. The 2012 law restricting the right to peaceful assembly and prominent much-criticized judicial proceedings such as those against the punk group ‘Pussy Riots’ are a case in point for an unabated and even growing tendency into a direction of domestic repression and for an increasing international isolation of Russia.
On a more theoretical note, Putin's recentralization was often criticized, but on the basis of 'teleological applications of the transition paradigm' (Sakwa 2008: 879-80). According to this narrative, privatization and democratization are assumed to be inherently good, Putin's vertical re-centralization however is a bad evolution, without 'civilisational pluralism' and questions of national identities being taken into account. In a cultural relativistic thinking then, 'Putinism' as the particular political regime outlined above can be said to represent “Russia's way,” his renewed bid for the 2012 presidency even entailing a certain systemic logic. Certainly, Russian civil society will remain unimpressed by such theoretical stylizations, sensing the urgency to confront such a path-dependency logic with the empirical particularities on the ground (cf. also Afanasiev 2009).
The question remains how a civil society in contemporary Russia can ever form and thrive when it is deliberately muzzled, when a people is so alienated from its alleged political representatives. The question of the social basis for Putin’s “neo-authoritarian stabilisation” (Sakwa 2008: 896) remains an open one to address a 'modernization without modernity', comparable to certain Soviet times (Robertson 2009: 537).
With Russia having joined the WTO after having overcome its disputes with Georgia (Jolly 2011), the Russian economy will inevitably have to undergo liberalizing policies related to trading and investment rights and (intellectual) property rights. While even former US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice has reflected on Russia's WTO entry meaning a constraint to Putin's curtailment of civil and political liberties (Reuters 2011), it seems too early at this point to speculate about this having a lasting altering impact on Russia's political regime.
“If Putin retakes the Kremlin in 2012 and serves two six-year terms", Leon Aron (2010a: 5) bitterly concluded in 2010, "by 2024 he will have ruled Russia for twenty years—two years longer than Brezhnev, and very likely with the same result". Provided that oil and gas revenues sustain the Russian economy (thus preventing impetus for popular uprisings because of economic dissatisfaction) and democracy and media remain 'managed' the way they are, an outlook into Russia's future political regime looks rather bleak.
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1.) While hitherto the locally elected heads of the regional executive, together with the chairman of the respective regional assembly, had been automatically sitting in the FC at the same time, Putin changed the composition of the FC in a way that henceforth, representatives of the governor and the regional legislature's chairman were meant to be sent to the Council.
2.) Luke March. (2009) here provides an in-depth analysis of the 'parastatal' opposition role of 'Just Russia'.