Spoiler: When Putin became president, he had a golden opportunity to make Russia a prosperous country. But instead of introducing reforms that would benefit ordinary Russians, he turned Russia into an autocracy and enriched himself and his cronies. Russia’s institutions are designed to make Putin and his oligarchs wealthy and prevent any real opposition to his power.
He’s taken control of the media, abolished the judiciary’s independence, manipulated elections, clamped down on the civil society, journalists, opposition leaders and parties. Furthermore, he has grossly violated his population’s civil rights and even used murder as one of his means.
This is the most depressing post I’ve written. Putin has transformed a fragile democracy into an autocracy at the abyss of dictatorship. As I will show below, the actions taken by Putin de jure have de facto changed Russia in this horrible way. There are many publicly available sources for de jure actions such Aleksashenko (2018) Dawisha (2014), EuroMaidanPress (2014), Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org), Freedom House (www.freedomhouse.org, Reporters without Borders (https://rsf.org/en), Committee to Protect Journalists (www.cpj.org) and many more. There are also many reliable sources, some of them mentioned above, which also document de facto changes in Russia. A disadvantage of these sources is that they don’t allow for a comparison with other countries over time. This is fortunately possible thanks to the work undertaken by the Political Science department in Gothenburg’s Varieties of Democracy project. The data on that website also allows for a comparison with other countries. Below, Russia will be compared to other East European countries.
After an initial reform period, 2000-2003, oil prices started to increase. The state’s revenues increased, the budget deficit disappeared, and the foreign debt decreased sharply. That probably explains why Putin did not bother to continue the reform program of 2000-2003. As I showed here “…Putin’s rule has not only lead to the low innovation rate, but also to an economy which is characterised by a severely inefficient misallocation of resources, lack of competition, dominant state-owned firms, corruption and lack of rule of law. Therefore, Russia has become a low-productive economy…”.
After Putin became president, he began to consolidate his power and remove the opposition by taking control of the media. He strengthened presidential powers at the expense of republics and districts. He removed the constitutional checks and balances by abolishing the judiciary’s independence. He made sure that he and his associates would remain in power by manipulation of elections and passing through laws which reduced the opposition’s chances to win elections. He had his police and secret services harass and kill journalists, critics and political opponents who dared to criticise him. He has clamped down on civil society organisations and violated civil rights when the Russian people have raised their voices against him.
Newspapers and TV-channels were the first victims
New legislation liberalising media was introduced following the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Reporter without Borders (2019), the law on Mass Media was considered as one of the most progressive in Europe at the time. Bearing this in mind, the speed and damage done by Putin on freedom of the media in Russia is impressive.
He began to take control of the media immediately when he became president and had in fact begun to attack the media even before. He took part in Kremlin’s fight with Vladimir Gusinsky, in 1999. Gusinsky owned the media company Media Most which in turn owned the independent TV-channel NTV. In August 2000, Kremlin took over Boris Berezovsky’s TV-channel Channel One following his criticism of Putin’s constitutional reform which gave Putin the right to dismiss elected governors.
And he also went for the journalists.
And the attacks on the media and individual journalists continued. It therefore came as no surprise that the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2001 named Putin as one of the top 10 Enemies of the Press. Not only did he take control of different TV-channels but he also orchestrated attacks on other private media and journalists. His violent attacks against the media were also noted by Freedom House (2001):
“Gazprom also closed the newspaper Sevodnya, fired the staff of the weekly Itogi, and took over Ekho Moskvy radio, the last independent outlet of Media-MOST. In outlying regions, news media are mainly dependent on government subsidies and journalists face libel suits and physical harassment intended to intimidate critics. In July, a reporter in the Krasnodar region was thrown from the fourth floor of his home after he received information implicating local authorities in criminal activities. A publisher was shot and killed in the Sverdlosk region after criticizing local authorities. Judicial harassment continued of the journalist who had filmed the pouring of liquid radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan. Private police in Lipetsk took over the regional television station TVK, which had been critical of the region’s governor.”
It’s dangerous to be a journalist in Russia. Here are some journalists that have been killed: Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova, Nikolai Andrushchenko, Anastasiya Baburova, Ivan Safronov. And here are many more who have been killed under Putin. And here and here are other sources providing that awful information
In interviews, Putin sometimes claims that there are no oligarchs in Russia. As shown by for example Åslund (2019), Dawisha (2014) and Alekshenko (2018), that is a blatant lie. Regarding the media industry, Putin gave control of Gazprom-Media (former Gusinsky’s Media-Most) to Yury Kovalchuk during his second presidential term. After Putin enforced RAO UES to sell its share in the independent broadcaster REN-TV, Kovalchuk became controlling shareholder in 2007. And Putin also transferred ownership of the federal TV channel Petersburg-Channel 5 to him.
One has to admire the efficiency of this raiding of TV-channels. According to Aleksashenko (2018), in 2008 all Russian television channels with news broadcasts were under the Kremlin’s control either directly or indirectly through the ownership by state-controlled companies or by Putin’s cronies.
But merely stealing media outlets was not enough. During the puppet Medvedev’s presidency, Roskomnadzor, an agency tasked with control of dissemination of information through media and over the Internet was established. Roskomnadzor was given powers to require media owners to remove information from their websites. Putin must have discovered that ordinary Russians had turned to the Internet for news instead of the propaganda the official TV-channels broadcasted.
After the protests against his manipulation of the elections in 2012, he turned towards the Internet
Still, Putin didn’t pay much attention to the Internet until 2011/2012, after the mass demonstrations against the rigged parliament and president elections. The demonstrations were coordinated on Facebook and VKontakte, where also irregularities and evidence of frauds were published. Other web sites as Golos and social media were used to raise money and exchange information about arrests and other matters. In 2012, Kremlin began its crusade against the free Internet in Russia. Reporters without Borders (2019) have made a chronology of all the laws and other measures used by Kremlin to control the Internet. The laws aimed at ban certain content, monitor Russians interactions on the net, make anonymous communication impossible, silence individual bloggers and journalists. In short, censor the Internet.
For that purpose, he;
- gave the Prosecutor General’s office the right to request blocking of websites without court order;
- imposed restrictions on internet search;
- imposed restrictions on the activity of news aggregators on the internet;
- made news aggregator sites with over one million users/day were accountable for content of all information disseminated via their sites;
- ordered electronic messages systems to provide their decryption instruments on request of the FSB;
- blocked LinkedIn in Russia because it refused to comply to rules in the law stipulating that personal data of Russian citizens may not be stored on servers located outside the country;
- blocked BlackBerry Messenger, Line and VChat in Russia;
- ordered operators with services including messaging systems’ to reveal id by phone number and block on request of Roskomnadzor;
- restricted foreign ownership of media companies to 20%;
- made it mandatory for media companies to inform Roskomnadzor about funding from “international sources”;
- introduced a law on extensive data retention measures for providers of telecom services and internet services requiring them to store for example identities of individuals and contents disseminated. These data must be made available to authorities on request and without a court order;
- introduced a law on defamatory information empowering judicial officers to block websites that contained such;
- introduced, law targeting information that is unsuitable for children that initially led to the shuttering of more than 180 sites;
- introduced a law on “sovereign Internet” allowing for controlling the traffic on the Russian web and preventing Russians from accessing web sites outside Russia.
Despite these attacks that have decreased the freedom on the Internet for Russians, the government’s efforts to censor print and broadcast media have been larger (and more successful), c.f. Figure 1.
Figure 1. East European governments censorship efforts of print and broadcast media (left) and Internet (right) in 2000 and 2018
Source: Varieties of Democracy, https://www.v-dem.net/en/analysis/regional/. Note: The censorship of print and broadcast media indicator ranges from 0 to 4 where 0 indicates direct and routine attempts to censor and 4 no attempts. The censorship of Internet indicator ranges from 0 to 3 where 0 indicates government blockage and 3 no restrictions.
These figures all compare the situation in 2000 with 2018 which corresponds to the length of Putin’s reign. The diagonals show that there has not been any change during the time period. Points below the diagonal show that media have been more censored during Putin.
Putin concentrated and consolidated his presidential power by dismantling the federation, abolishing the judiciary’s independence, manipulating elections and banning parties and candidates
In 1999, when Putin became prime minister, he faced opposition from the governor’s bloc in the upper chamber of the Duma. They could veto legislative initiatives from the federal government and nominations to important political posts. In May 2000, a reform was launched which gave him the right to hire and fire governors and heads of regional legislatures [Aleksahenko (2018)]. In July the same year a law which restricted opposition parties was adopted. Regional parties were prohibited and restriction and requirements for registrations of parties were introduced. Other laws 2001-2004 removed the judiciary’s independence, gave Kremlin control over electoral commissions and increased vote thresholds for political parties to be represented in the Duma (from 5 to 7 percent).
In order to restrict political competition, he has;
- introduced a law on political parties requiring state registration and quantitative requirements;
- prohibited regional parties;
- banned national referenda in years when federal elections were held;
- merged the Unity Bloc and the Fatherland-All Russia parties into United Russia
- introduced an electoral reform which gave Kremlin control over electoral commissions;
- manipulated elections, banned electoral blocs, replaced gubernatorial elections with presidential nominations and restricted establishment of political parties;
- deprived citizens with two or more passports or residence permits in other countries of their rights to be elected to office;
- forbidden political parties to have members of other political parties on their electoral lists;
- prohibited people with criminal records from being elected to office;
- increased the presidential term to six years and the length of a State Duma seat to five years;
- deprived citizens owning foreign assets of their rights to be elected to office;
- given regional legislatures the right to eliminate direct elections of city mayors and heads of municipal units;
- persecuted Navalny, by jailing, banning his candidacies to elections;
- made it impossible or very difficult for unwanted opposition parties to register and run in elections.
That these de jure actions also had effects de facto is confirmed by the political scientists engaged in the Varieties of Democracy project, c.f. Figure 2.
Figure 2. Presidentialism (left) and barriers for political parties (right) in East European countries 2000 and 2018.
Source: Varieties of Democracy, https://www.v-dem.net/en/analysis/regional/. Note:Thepresidentialism indicator ranges from 0 to 1 where 0 indicates lack of concentration of power to the president and 1 full concentration. The barriers for political parties indicator ranges from 0 to 4 where 0 indicates that parties not affiliated to the government are forbidden and 4 no barriers.
In the left panel, points above the diagonal show a deteriorating situation while it is the opposite in the right panel. The panel to the left show that the presidential power has increased in Russia and the panel to the right that Putin has made it more difficult for political parties other than his own.
Regarding the 2011 elections to the parliament, OSCE noted for example that the vote counting “…was characterised by frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulation, including several serious indications of ballot box stuffing.” Regarding 2012 president election, OSCE observed media campaigns and coverage in overwhelming support of Putin and during the election that administrative resources were used to mobilise votes for Putin and that public employees were ordered to vote for him.
Putin has the courts and judges in his pockets
As many other authoritarian leaders, Putin detests political systems with checks and balances which would make it possible to hold him accountable for his violations of the constitution. He also thinks it’s unnecessary with courts that protect civil rights. He therefore;
- changed the laws and placed the judiciary under Kremlin’s control;
- purged the top levels of the judiciary and put people loyal to him there in their place;
- gave himself (the president) the right to choose the chief justice of the constitutional court;
- removed the constitutional court’s right to remove the chief justice by vote;
- liquidated the Supreme Arbitration Court;
- purged justices from the Supreme Court.
The de facto results of these changes are visible below, c.f. Figure 3.
Figure 3. High court independence (left) and judicial (right) constraints on the executive powers in East European countries 2000 and 2018
Source: Varieties of Democracy, https://www.v-dem.net/en/analysis/regional/. Note:Thejudicial constraints indicator ranges from 0 to 1 where 0 indicates that the executive powers do not respect the constititution and that the judiciary is not able to act independently and 1 the case where the executive powers respect the constitution and comply with the rulings of independent courts. The high court independence indicator ranges from 0 to 4 where 0 indicates no independence and 1 indicates full independence.
In the two panels above, points below the diagonal show deterioriations of courts independence and the possibilities to hold Putin accountable for his actions. Since 2000, Putin has made sure that the high court does not consitute neither a check nor balance to him and also made sure that other courts keep quiet.
Much to Putin’s dismay, people don’t stay quite even though they can’t get their voices heard in media, get elected or get their cases dismissed by the courts. They form organisations to raise their voices against an unjust society. And they organise protests and manifestations in cities al over Russia. Coming from the KGB, Putin was very aware of the old Soviet tactics. In this case; accuse opponents and critics for being paid by the west to create disorder and unrest in Russia.
And clamped down on political opponents, restricted civil liberties and oppressed civil society organisations
The purpose of eliminating other power centres, taking control of the median and abolishing high court independence is of course to make sure that people have nowhere to turn when their rights are violated. Beginning soon after Yeltsin made him president, Putin clamed down on political opponents and began his crusade to make opposition illegal. He
- had Khodorsky, owner of Yukos, arrested.;
- introduced a law on resistance to extremist activity;
- removed freedom of assembly from the constitution;
- imposed compulsory state preapproval of gatherings;
- introduced a law which gave bureaucrats wide discretion in monitoring and shutting down NGOs, especially those which the authorities considered to be critical of official policy;
- introduced a law on assemblies, meetings, demonstrations, processions and picketing which restricts the right to freedom of assembly and increases penalties for various violations during meetings and demonstrations;
- tightened procedures for organising public meetings and demonstrations;
- implemented a law on administrative arrests for organising unsanctioned meetings/demonstrations;
- introduced criminal penalties for organisers of unsanctioned marches, demonstrations and picketing;
- amended the above-mentioned law so that also participants in non-sanctioned public events could be put in administrative arrest;
- introduced a law on undesirable organisations which gave the authorities possibilities of extrajudicial liquidation of international and foreign organisations;
- made the constitutional court assign itself the right to block execution of European Court of Human Rights decision;
- introduced the law “On amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation and certain legislative acts of the Russian Federation” which restricts freedom of speech and targets especially those who reveal corruption;
- introduced “On amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation and to Article 151 of the Criminal Procedure Code of the Russian Federation” which limits the freedom of dissemination of information. According to the law, the disclosure of information relating to abuse, violations of law and human rights, may be punished as “disclosure of state secrets”. The concept of “state treason” is made broader;
- introduced a law that prohibits the adoption of Russian orphans by citizens of countries that legalized same-sex marriages;
- introduced a law which violates the rights of members of the LGBT community and limited their freedom of expressing their views;
- restricted the right to freedom of movement of citizens and foreigners within the Russian Federation by adoption of a law;
- persecuted Navalny, by jailing him and have the Central Election Commission barring him from running, explaining that a past bogus conviction on embezzlement charges rendered him ineligible;
- allegedly had Nemtsov killed;
- introduced a law enabling authorities to classify individuals as “foreign agents”;
- harassed institutions representing Russia’s large Ukrainian minority;
- discriminated and abused LGBT by for example having gay rights demonstrations attacked by counterdemonstrators or suppressed by the authorities;
- introduced a law requiring all electronic products sold in Russia to contain mandatory Russian software;
- enabled persecution, detainment, torture and murder of LGBT people in Chechnya;
- introduced a federal law that effectively made it illegal to talk about homosexuality in public.
And those of you who can read Russian can find statistics over people being detained and accused on made-up charges on www.politpressing.org. That site reveals that Putin’s oppressive judicial system is attacking a lot of people exercising their rights. Even so, oppressing people is more difficult today than it was during Soviet times . Some people protest when they are denied their rights and the authorities rig elections. Others plan for a life outside Russia.
Capital and people are leaving Russia
No wonder then that capital and people are leaving Russia in high numbers. Firms and individuals are transferring capital out of Russia due to the weak protection of property rights and the corrupt administration. The capital flight from Russia is enormous. Novokmet et al (2018) found that offshore wealth in 2016 was about three times larger than official net foreign reserves. The amount of financial wealth held by rich Russians abroad matched what was held by the entire Russian population in Russia. This shows up in Russia’s official statistics as an unexplained very large discrepancy between the large trade account surpluses and the low amount of foreign assets held by Russian households, c.f. Figure 4.
Figure 4. Novokmet et. al. on Russian capital flight.
Source: Novokmet et al (2018) Data Files to “From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016”. https://wid.world/wid-publications/
Also, human capital is leaving Russia. As pointed out by Herbst and Erofeev (2019), the difference between the emigrations during Putin and earlier waves, is that more well-educated Russians are leaving. The motives are not only economic but also desires to live in free democratic societies where human rights are respected. The flow of emigration increased significantly in 2012 following the growing oppressions.
Herbst’s and Erofeev’s findings are supported by the Russian Levada Centre. Its survey found that more than half of the Russians aged 18-24 would like to emigrate. These young people grew up under Putin’s reign so they what they’re talking about, c.f. Figure 5.
Figure 5. Russia’s youth are packing their bags.
Source: RadioFreeEurope https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-s-youth-want-to-move-abroad/30305392.html
As usual there are both pull and push factors for leaving Russia. The pull factors are demonstrated above and important push factors are the awful human rights conditions in Russia. The number of politically killings have increased at the same time that Putin has acted to abolish freedom of expression. The scope for exercising individual rights knowing that one is protected from government oppression has become much tighter during Putin, c.f. Figure 6.
Figure 6. Freedom from political killings and freedom of expression (left) and liberal rights (right).
Source: Varieties of Democracy, https://www.v-dem.net/en/analysis/regional/. Note:Thefreedom from political killings indicator ranges from 0 to 4 where 0 indicates that killings are practiced systematically, incited and approved by the government and 4 the absence of politically motivated killings The freedom of expression indicator ranges from 0 to 1 where 0 indicates a society where the government does not tolerate a free press or that ordinary people’s or the academia’s freedom to discuss politics. 1 indicates full tolerance of freedom of expression. The indicator for political rights, the liberal component index, ranges from 0 to 1 where 0 indicates a society without rule of law, no limits on the government, no protection for individuals’ and minorities’ civil rights or checks and balances. 1 indicates the opposite.
Aleksashenko, S. (2018). Putin’s counter revolution. Brookings Institution Press. Washington DC.
Aleksashenko, S. (2018). ” Limitations of Putin’s economic model.” Chapter 10 in Becker & Oxenstierna.
Becker, T. & Oxenstierna, S., eds., (2018). The Russian Economy under Putin. Routledge. London & New York.
Committee to Protect Journalists. www.cpj.org
Dawisha, K. (2014). Putin’s kleptocracy. Who owns Russia? Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. New York.
Euromaidan Press (2014). List of repressive laws adopted by the State Duma of the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin’s presidency.
Freedom House. www.freedomhouse.org
Gaddy, C. & Ickes, B., (2005). ”Resource rents and the Russian economy”. Eurasian Geography and Economics, 46. No. 8 pp 559-583.
Gaddy, C. & Ickes, B., (2010). ”Russia after the global financial crisis”. Eurasian Geography and Economics, 51. No. 3 pp 559-583.
Herbst, J. E. & Erofeev, S. (2019). “The Putin Exodus: The New Russian Brain Drain.” Atlantic Council 2019. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/the-putin-exodus-the-new-russian-brain-drain-3/
Human Rights Watch. www.hrw.org
Inozemtsev, V (2019). Putin doesn’t care about economic growth. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/russia-economic-stagnation-prospects-by-vladislav-inozemtsev-2019-06?barrier=accesspaylog
Reporters without borders. www.rsf.org
Vartanova, E. (2016). “Media Ownership and Concentration in Russia”. In Noam, E., M. and the International Media Concentration Collaboration (ed). Who Owns the World’s Media?: Media Concentration and Ownership around the World. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Åslund, A. (2018). ”Russia’s crony capitalism”. Chapter 11 in Becker & Oxenstierna.
Åslund, A. (2019. Russia’s crony capitalism. The path from market economy to kleptocracy. Yale University Press. New Haven.
 After the channel’s in-depth investigation of the alleged terrorist attacks of buildings in Moscow and other cities, Gusinsky was attacked by FSB (Putin) and the Kremlin. The NTV investigations suggested that it was the FSB under Putin that was responsible explosions (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_apartment_bombings). Gusinsky was arrested in 2000 when Putin became president. Gusinsky made a deal with Putin and was released from prison in exchange for his properties including his Media company.
 The TV-channel’s criticism of Putin’s handling of the Kursk submarine disaster probably wasn’t regarded as helpful by Putin. Also TV-6 was taken over by the Kremlin (https://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/23/opinion/silencing-critics-of-the-kremlin.html).