Vladimir Putin has become a national symbol of Russia. Just like Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin before him, Putin’s persona will forever be engraved in the history of the Russian Federation. After serving two consecutive terms as President and one as Prime Minister, he is once again behind the wheel — although many would argue he never left it. It is time to remember how the story began and what the era of Putinism has brought to the Russian people.
It is often said that Russian people need a strong ‘iron hand’ to rule them; first there were Tsars, later communist leaders. Whether this is true or not, Vladimir Putin has in the last 12 years tried to become such a leader. The alcoholism, weakness and sickness relating to the first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, has only made Putin’s job easier. Putin came at a time when most Russians were frustrated with the stagnation, instability, corruption and criminality that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia had lost its title of great superpower and many of its former satellites were openly blaming communism and Soviet leaders for the atrocities of the Cold War era—persecutions, killings and economic underdevelopment. Even though Vladimir Putin was Yeltsin’s protégé, his promises to restore the former glory of the nation by bringing stability, security and prosperity had certainly secured great support from the Russian people. So what has Putin achieved?
First, Putin took care of the economy. During Putin’s era as president and prime minister the incomes of ordinary Russians have increased substantially, making it possible to buy imported products and even enjoy holidays abroad. Furthermore, Russian growth has averaged 7 percent per year. This is a great achievement when compared to the 1990’s budget deficit of 9 percent. The tax law was reformed during Putin’s first years in office. Registration, licensing and standardization were simplified, leading to the creation of new businesses across the country. Despite this, the economy is now highly dependent on the price of oil. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov warned “if the price of oil falls to $70, that means the ruble will sink, the price of food and medicine will go up 30 percent as most are imported, and there will be a wave of social discontent”.
Corruption is also an issue; the famous scandal with YUKOS and the imprisonment of Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is well known to the world. At the same time, the ‘Sunday Times’ reported that during Putin’s era the companies of his own family, friends and close associates have many times won state tenders. According to the newspaper, Putin’s clan controls assets worth $130 billion and it is possible that he is coming back to safeguard his financial empire.
Putin has also left his mark and showed his ‘iron hand’ in Russian politics. Over the years he weakened the powers of the Russian Duma and centralized it to his own advantage. In 2004, soon after the Beslan tragedy, Putin announced that the governors in Russia’s 89 regions would no longer be elected by the people—the President would appoint them instead. This step was explained as a fight against terrorism, yet the connection is hard to grasp. Then, with the help of Medvedev, the original maximum of two consecutive four-year terms as President was changed to allow two consecutive six-year terms, giving Putin the opportunity to stay in power until 2024. As for the Duma, the last elections showed wide-scale manipulations that resulted in the first massive protests across the country. However, nothing is likely to change. Most of the parties that came to power have never opposed Putin or his government and have always voted together with ‘United Russia’ on important legislation. Other liberal parties, such as ‘Solidarnost,’ were simply not registered by the courts for the elections. Mikhail Gorbachev once famously said: “Putin castrated Russia’s electoral system”.
The hallmark of Putin’s era is the suppression of free speech. It has taken decades for Russians, used to life under communist propaganda, to finally embrace this vital requisite of democracy. However, Putin was very quick to reverse their progress. In 2011, Reporters without Borders ranked Russia 142nd out of 179 nations in the Press Freedom Index. Since coming into office, Putin has closed almost all of the independent broadcast and print media. The few that are left are Novaya Gazeta, Radio Ekho Moskvy and Radio Svoboda. Attacks on journalists are frequent and murders also take place; one of the most well known in the world is the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, who was a harsh critic of Putin’s policy in Chechnya. The censorship of Putin-related criticism in Russia is happening daily. Russian media is instead full of reports that praise Putin and portray him as a strong, national hero. Without the internet there is little truth ordinary Russians can hear from the state-controlled media.
Today Russia enjoys artificial economic and political stability; the West is suspicious and alarmed by the prospect of Putin’s realpolitik resulting not only in conflicts over gas, but also the possibility of real wars occurring. Russia has once again become a force in world politics by playing its own dangerous games. Whether democracy, with its accountability, individual choice and freedom of expression, is fair price to pay is a question for the Russian people. After all, how long the ‘iron hand’ will rule is up to them.