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Towards a monarchical presidency in Russia

When exploring the sources of Putin’s popularity at home it becomes clear that foreign policy has had an impact.

April 17, 2020 - Aram Terzyan - Articles and Commentary

The Kremlin, Moscow. Photo: Larry Koester (cc) flickr.com

While presidential term limits are largely seen as an essential feature of democratic governance, several presidents have come up with “ingenious” excuses to abolish limits and perpetuate their time in office.

Proponents of presidential re-election contend that the possibility of immediate re-election increases incumbents’ engagement with public demands and enables voters to retain popular office-holders. Its opponents, however, emphasise the potential abuse of power by incumbents who seek to perpetuate their tenure.

The Latin American “models” of presidential re-election “inspired” many post-Soviet leaders, including those in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Belarus and Azerbaijan. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has largely resisted the temptation to follow their path, increasing efforts to tailor the constitution in order to prolong his presidency suggest that he is tired of legal niceties. For example, in March Russia’s Constitutional Court approved amendments that could enable Putin to stay in power for another 16 years.

As a result, questions arise as to what specific factors are maintaining “Putinism” to the point where there is no considerable political and public opposition to the president’s re-election. 

The ideological foundations of Putinism

According to widely held beliefs, Putinism is a form of autocratic rule that is conservative, populist, and personalistic. It is based on the premise that conservatism and unrestricted one-man rule are essential to restoring Russia’s place in world politics and ensuring its leadership of an international alliance of conservatives.

This is the result of Putin’s promotion of Russia as a counter-hegemonic force, opposed to the West’s “crackdown” on conservative values in a world where “moral and ethical norms are being reconsidered; national traditions, differences in nation and culture are being erased.” This portrayal of Moscow as the world’s last bastion of traditional values has resonated with Russian society, now characterised by its rejection of revolutions, homosexuality and feminism. Putin has repeatedly attacked liberal Western acceptance of gay rights, which is framed as a “genderless and fruitless tolerance” that allows “good and evil” to be valued as equal.

Apart from encouraging homophobia, this rhetoric has led to the further ‘othering’ of “the West” in Russia. This has allowed Putin to strengthen his “strongman” image, with the president not allowing the West to weaken Russia by imposing its liberal narratives on the country. In contrast, the narratives that underpin Putin’s discourse have proven popular with the Russian population. According to a survey conducted by the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Centre, nearly two-thirds of Russians believe that homosexuals are conspiring to subvert the country’s traditional values. Moreover, they believe in the existence of an organisation that strives to destroy Russian spiritual values through the promotion of non-traditional sexual relations. These beliefs are ultimately connected with the “Imperialistic West’s” efforts to destroy Russia by imposing radical minority norms on the country’s majority.

This emphasis on traditional values has also remained central to the rhetoric of the Russian Orthodox Church. The body’s religious language of traditional morality has now translated into political rhetoric openly supportive of Putin’s patriotic discourse. Thus, the close relationship between the Orthodox Church and the state has provided Russian foreign policy with a definable moral framework.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko placed great emphasis on Ukraine’s “spiritual independence”, which was seen as a key means of reducing the country’s dependence on Russia. Indeed, he hailed December 15 – the date of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s vote on future relations with Moscow – as a historic day, stating that it was “the day of the creation of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The day Ukraine finally gained independence from Russia. Ukraine will no longer drink, as Taras Shevchenko said, “Moscow’s poison from Moscow’s bowl.”

Popularity through foreign policy

Another major factor that determines Putin’s popularity is his foreign policy, which aims to secure Russia’s status as undisputed hegemon in its historical borderlands, as well as restore its “rightful” place in world politics. These great power ambitions are often viewed as fundamental to national identity and therefore enjoy widespread popularity in Russian society.

The escalation of conflict in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea are closely correlated with Putin’s growing popularity. Following these events, Putin’s approval rating increased to 85 per cent, which soon rose again to nearly 90 per cent. This was thanks to his military decisions during an especially tense period of conflict in Syria between 2014 and 2015. Overall, Putin’s assertive foreign policy has resonated with Russians’ vision of “Greater Russia”.

Strikingly, while economic prosperity has been one of the core pillars of Putin’s legitimacy, a subsequent decline, compounded by the Western sanctions, does not seem to have adversely affected Putin’s popularity. This is the result of a rally-around-the-flag effect, with Vladimir Putin’s nationalist appeals helping to increase his popularity in the face of a large-scale economic crisis. This comes as no surprise given many Russians’ belief that Western sanctions are part of “conspiracies” to prevent the country from restoring its greatness. These perceptions stem from deep-rooted anti-Western attitudes, which are consistently reinforced by Kremlin propaganda. Vladimir Putin has repeatedly accused the West of trying to contain and subvert Russia “for decades, if not centuries, as every time when anyone thinks that Russia has become strong, independent, such instruments are applied immediately.”

Such rhetoric is not uncommon in illiberal democracies and competitive autocracies, where leaders tend to strengthen their popularity by exploiting nationalism, exaggerating external threats and manipulating the media. Clearly, Putin’s discussion of external threats has become an integral part of mobilising the country behind the Kremlin and its controversial foreign policy.

Meanwhile, the Russian population seems to take Putin’s conspiracy narratives for granted and blames economic troubles on America and Europe.

Weak and fragmented opposition

Putin’s appeals to the enemy image of “the West” subsequently legitimise the importance of a strong regime, powerful enough to stand up to external threats.

Remarkably, a Levada-Centre survey on the necessity of political opposition found that 54 per cent of respondents thought Russia needed one, while a quarter disagreed with such ideas. Reasons given by the second group against the concept of political opposition ranged from concerns regarding internal divisions to its perceived detrimental effects on the country’s general stability.

Overall, respondents possessed largely negative and pessimistic understandings of the official opposition in Russia, describing it as weak, marginalised, fragmented and even a ‘dying species’.

Even a quick glance of the Duma presents an unfavourable picture of a fragmented opposition, divided by communist, nationalist and liberal ideologies. Ironically, only a shared distrust by the public appears to unite these groups, with respondents often associating the parliamentary opposition with terms such as “fake opposition”, “rubber stamp opposition” and even “pro-regime.”

This has led to a situation where ‘anti-system’ figures, including chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and prominent anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, are viewed as the real, yet extremely constrained, opponents of Putin.

In essence, there remains little room for opposition in Putin’s Russia, which is built on imperial desires to restore the country’s greatness. As a result, Russian society at this point appears to present no considerable hindrance to Putin’s plan to stay in office. 

Aram Terzyan, PhD, is a visiting senior lecturer at UNESCO Chair of Human Rights, Democracy and European Studies of Brusov State University of Languages and Social Sciences and research fellow at Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, USA.

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