Russia’s reelected leader, Vladimir Putin, has flummoxed the world with his idiosyncratic style of leadership.
Putin, in the early years of his presidentship, had seemed like a modernizer, West-friendly and dependable, but in a few years he has transformed into an unconstrained and idiosyncratic leader seen by his military’s annexation of Crimea, the bombing of Syrian cities to support Assad’s autocratic regime and institution of authoritarian policies domestically. The last of this is truly alarming as he seems to have staged an ‘executive coup’ of sorts, by eliminating all opposition, restricting media freedom and amending legislative rules to be able to control the electoral competition. Calling the dominant-party system a ‘sovereign democracy’, he has managed to concentrate all power in his hands.
Experts have been trying to arrive at an explanation for Putin’s motivations for turning to authoritarian nationalism and aggression towards Western counterparts. Nobody seems to think the explanation is cultural or even deeply historical. As Princeton’s Harold James has stated: “it is a grave error to turn Kremlin policy into a psychodrama that can be understood only through a deep exploration of the Russian soul.” Many see Putin’s actions as a calculated move to destabilize European unity and Western alliances in a bid to rebuild Russia’s own sphere of influence among neighbouring nations and create a Chinese style political system in order to stay in power till the end of his life.
Samuel Huntington, in his classic essay, ‘Democracy’s Third Wave’ (1991), showed how countries of the world have democratized in successive waves and often ‘reverse waves’ occur where previously democratized entities revert back to authoritarianism. (For eg. The first reversals were seen in Italy and Germany after fascism came into existence in the 1920s). Russia’s reversal at this point, occurring in a wave of illiberal democracy that has swept from Turkey to Hungary, Poland etc., validates Huntington’s predictions for a third reverse wave, occurring around the time of a major global economic collapse (the 2008 financial crisis) and escalation of security threats (terrorism and insurgency).
How long will this reverse wave last? Experts have been for long predicting Russia’s economic collapse due to the Western sanctions, falling oil prices and ‘self-destructive economic policies’ although that is not proving to be the case at the moment, going by the decline in inflation, reduction in government deficit, falling unemployment rate and even a stronger rouble. Although Russia is still in recession, its rate of decline has improved over successive quarters. However, it is also true that Putin has not announced any measures to make the economy competitive and the economy relies on closer diplomatic relations with China for its oil and gas exports. It is also closely integrated with other European economies as vast amounts of its surplus are parked in European financial systems.
Thus, while the Russian economy is very vulnerable, it is also not in a significantly worse off position and thus doesn’t signal an end to Putin’s popularity back home any time soon. If the Russian economy successfully models itself like its Chinese counterpart then there is no telling if Russia will ever function like a democracy which in turn might weaken democracies everywhere else. The question then is: is time on the side of democracy?