Note: This short essay was written before the Russian invasion of the Ukraine (an assignment in a course about Russian History).
When Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, it was with the support of the oligarchs. Some people who became very rich and powerful in the post-communist era. Over time these oligarchs turned into critics and a danger for Putin and his circle or business friends.
Most of these oligarchs were forced abroad and left with at least an amount of the wealth they had acquired in dubious ways. New oligarchs appointed and trusted by Vladimir Putin filled their places.
More recently the government in Russia is shifting more and more from autocracy to dictatorship. Now the second-longest serving European president in history, Vladimir Putin is in no position to leave office. The system of oligarchs and corruption would simply collapse.
During his first tenure as president, the Russian economy grew for eight straight years, with GDP measured by purchasing power increasing by 72%, real incomes increased by a factor of 2.5, real wages more than tripled; unemployment and poverty more than halved and the Russians’ self-assessed life satisfaction rose significantly. The government also controlled most of the news on television, radio, and newspapers—the most important news sources in those days.
In recent years the part of the population frustrated by the widespread corruption and failed economy is growing. Now political opposition is informing and mobilising the people of Russia with weekly programs on youtube and other free internet channels. These channels make it easier to communicate with millions of people. The youtube program Navalny reveals investigation into ‘Putin’s Palace’ is even seen by many people outside Russia. Alexei Navalny is the most famous political prisoner in Russia nowadays. He won the European Parliament’s Sakharov prize for freedom of speech earlier this year.
The government reacts with repression to demonstrators and technical sabotage of internet sources used by critics and the opposition. In 2019 president Putin signed a so-called sovereign internet law that forced Russian internet providers to install hardware that allows the state to filter, block and slow down specific websites.
The regime has moved from a consensual autocracy supported by co-optation and propaganda to a dictatorship resting on repression and fear. The new political order resembles in some way to the new order when the original oligarchs were forced to leave abroad. Now political opponents and journalists are removed abroad. This already has resulted in the biggest political exodus since the 1970’s, in the days of the communist Soviet Union.
This time the system is not built on an ideology or a cult of personality. It is a combination of different things hustled together to stay in power despite falling popularity and dissolving legitimacy. President Putin changed the Russian constitution to remain in power for as long as he wishes and enforced that change with repression.
It is hard to see Putin’s political system surviving him. This gives hope to human rights activists, democratic politicians and a younger generation of whom a growing number wants a democratic government that respects human rights.
Like Professor Emeritus Peter Kenez says in his lecture: ‘Russia under Putin was a dangerous place for opponents and journalists.’ In this new era of repression, the situation does not look better. It is still like many say: There is no rule of law in Russia; there is just the law of the ruler.
The Economist : Russia’s new era of repression https://www.economist.com/russia-film
YouTube : Navalny reveals investigation into ‘Putin’s Palace’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8J2dW-QYQY
The Wall Street Journal: Navalny Urges Protests Against His Detention in Russia https://www.wsj.com/articles/navalny-detention-sparks-wave-of-western-criticism-of-russia-11610981536?mod=Searchresults_pos11&page=1