Debate on whether Russia is a democratic regime under Putin has attracted increasing interest from scholars and politicians alike. Whereas some suggest that Russia has instituted mechanisms that support democracy, particularly under President Putin’s leadership, others content that Russia is yet to be considered a democratic state. This therefore brings out an important question: what is democracy? According to Diamond (29), democracy describes a system of governance, where leaders are accountable for their actions to the public. In a democratic society, citizens are allowed to hold free, fair, and meaningful elections. Inasmuch as Russia holds general elections like other democratic states such as the US and the UK, it lacks independent multi-party system, thus making it an electoral authoritarian administration than a democratic state.
Putin assumed power with the goal of challenging his predecessor’s, Boris Yeltsin, regime, by giving a new direction to Russia. Before Yeltsin assumed office, Russia had conducted successful elections in 1985, which saw Mikhail Gorbachev in office. However, after being elected in 1991, Yeltsin instituted a number of anti-democratic policies that polarized Russia and perhaps set precedence to the current challenges facing the country. He began by abolishing the Soviet Union, which had been founded by Mikhail, who instituted the framework of Democracy in Russia. Mikhail’s supporters felt that Yeltsin’s decision contravened their leader’s personal commitment to constitutionalism and social consensus. Moreover, his changes resulted into critical mass resentments that further generated immense jeopardy to democratic reforms earlier instituted by Perestroika (De Mesquita and Downs, 80). As a result, Yeltsin regime left Russia in an impoverished and unstable state, which posed a further burden in his successor, Putin. In particular, the fear of instability in the country after Yeltsin’s rule led to the assumption of authoritarian rule by Putin. Putin’s situation of a single-party system is partially justified by the pressure he inherited from his predecessor, Yeltsin (Evans 148). The goal of this study is to evaluate whether the leadership of President Vladimir Putin has transformed Russia into a democratic state. In achieving this goal, this paper looks into three important claims. The first claim concerns how Putin uses his foreign policy to protect his authoritarian leadership. The second one revolves around his interests in Ukraine, while the third explores his supporters.
Claim 1: What are the incentives of Putin’s foreign policy?
Putin’s foreign policy sharply contrasts with that of other democratic states. For instance, while a number of western states supported the ouster of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich in 2014, Putin expressed his discontent, as he felt that the West was behind the ouster and that they were coming for him as well. He has often hidden behind the curtain that the West mistreats him. However, it is noteworthy that his sentiments are intended at covering the happenings in his country. Russia is an authoritarian regime and lacks simple institutions of democracy. It is an agreeable fact that Russia does hold elections as any other democratic state does. However, the country lacks a competent and independent multi-party system in place. According to Diamond (22), democracy does not only involve conducting free and fair elections, but also ensures that decisions of citizens are respected in the electoral process. Democracy can be measured by ensuring regular and competent multi-party elections. It is worth noting that Russia electoral system does not meet the criteria for a democratic state. Upon commencing office, Putin merged all political parties in the country into a single political party. His citizens have no voice about the political affairs in the country. It is therefore sound to argue that Putin’s foreign policy is oriented towards economic growth and prosperity for Russia as a whole, but fail to address the lack of liberal democratic institutions in the country. Democracy is about ensuring freedom, fairness and meaningful elections (Schmitter & Terry et al. 76). It also entails ensuring that the voices of people are heard, providing alternate avenues of information, and respecting their preferences at the ballot (Diamond 23). Russia’s lack of multi-party elections therefore supports the fact that it is more of an electoral authoritarian system than an electoral democracy.
Claim 2: What are Putin’s interests in Ukraine?
A democratic state recognizes and supports freedom, fairness, and inclusiveness of its citizen. Most importantly, it ensures peace and stability at its boarders so that its citizens can practice their freedoms. Putin’s interest in Ukraine however raises an important question regarding whether Russia is indeed a democratic state. Ukraine boosts of a wealth of natural resources, including gas and crude oil. Moreover, the country has strived at adopting a distinct model of governance, similar to that of other members of the European Union. The latter demonstrates Ukraine’s ambition as a state. In that, it wants the best of its citizens, in terms of good governance, economic growth, regional development, as well as to enhance security and stability of its borders, all which are profound attributes that define a democratic state. Putin’s intervention into the Ukrainian territory however is to gain complete control of Ukraine so that he can rob it of its natural resources and instead use them to spur economic growth in Russia. In addition, Putin’s insistent interest is also geared at protecting their military rockets found in the Crimea vicinities to the EU. Since assuming power, Putin has endeavored to protect Russian interests, key among them being avoiding EU politics and influence. Just as the US seeks to influence other nations into emulating their ideology, Russia believes that it is a complete and powerful state on its own, which other nation have to learn from and not the other way round (Tsygankov 143). Putin therefore fears that countries such as the US might have access to Ukraine in the event that he loses its missiles in Crimea, resulting to unpleasant situation for Russia. The US might gain access to Ukraine, thus threatening Russia’s dominance in the region. Thus, Putin’s concern for Ukraine is to see to it that this does not happen. His desire is to extent his ideology to Ukraine devoid of western influence. Based on this information, it is noteworthy that Putin intends to rob Ukraine of its national heritage, its freedom, and liberty in exchange of his authoritarian leadership. His approach to Ukraine’s crisis reflects much of his authoritarian approach than his desire for a better, freer, and liberal Ukraine, which contravenes the very principles of democracy (Larry 21). Democratic states have better trade, regional, and international relations with one another. They advocate for peace at all times and rarely go to war with each other. Putin’s insistent interest in Ukraine therefore demonstrates that Russia is not a democratic state but rather an authoritarian regime.
Claim 3: Who are Putin’s supporters?
A look at Putin’s supporters could as well reveal interesting insights about the country’s quest for democracy. Over the years, Putin has established strong ties with a number of states, in an effort to restore the lost glory after the reign of Yeltsin. North Korea has played a leading role in supporting Putin during his reign. Essentially, the relations between the two countries are based on mutual benefit. Putin’s intentions have been clear in light of these relations. He expects to use its potentiality for enhancing regional development, economic prosperity, as well as ensuring security and stability in Northeast Asia. North Korea on the other hand, intends to use it for a number of benefits, key among them being getting military support from Russia. Putin’s support for the latter however might increase conflict in Northern Asia, which in particular contravenes the principles of democracy. The US and China have also supported Putin, leading to the establishment of the China-US-Russia triangularity (Shin 111). These relations however have little bearing on democracy insofar as Russia is concerned. China’s politics for instance, have barely changed, in spite of its tremendous economic growth in the past three decades. The country’s leadership tends to focus on more on economic prosperity rather than democracy (De Mesquita & Downs, 78). Russia however does not have strong ties with the US, as it fears completion from the latter (Shevtsova 86). This information demonstrates that Russia does not have good relations with democratic states, from which it can emulate basic principles of democracy. The country tends to associate itself more with tyrannical states than democratic ones, thereby revealing its support for authoritarian leadership.
The purpose of this paper was to evaluate whether Russia is a democratic state. Based on the discussion above, it is noteworthy that Russia is yet to be considered a democratic state. This is because of two important reasons. Firstly, lacks an independent multi-party system, which hinders free, fair and meaningful elections in the country. A democratic state not only create and support institutions that ensure free, fair, and meaningful elections, but also ensures freedom of expression on political affairs. Secondly, Putin interest in Ukraine reflects his pursuit for economic prosperity, power, and control than his desire for a better, freer, and liberal Ukraine. Democratic states have better trade, regional, and international relations with one another. Putin however intends to rob Ukraine of its natural resources, freedom, and liberty. Thirdly, Russia has stronger ties with a host of authoritarian states such as China and North Korea than democratic states such as the US. This information demonstrates that Russia does not have good relations with democratic states, from which it can emulate basic principles of democracy. The country tends to associate itself more with tyrannical states than democratic ones, thereby revealing its support for authoritarian leadership. It is therefore worth concluding that although Putin has placed Russia on a better position economically, he is yet to achieve democracy for his citizens.
De Mesquita, Bruce Bueno, and George W. Downs. "Development and democracy." Foreign Affairs (2005): 77-86.
Diamond, Larry Jay. "Thinking about hybrid regimes." Journal of democracy 13.2 (2002): 21-35.
Evans, Alfred B. "Vladimir Putin’s design for civil society." Russian civil society: A critical assessment (2006): 147-158.
Lo, Bobo. Vladimir Putin and the evolution of Russian foreign policy. John Wiley & Sons, 2008.
Shevtsova, Lilia. Putin's Russia. Carnegie Endowment, 2010.
Schmitter, Philippe C., and Terry Lynn Karl. "What democracy is... and is not." Journal of democracy 2.3 (1991): 75-88.
Shin, Beom Shik. "Russia's Place in the Changing Strategic Triangle in the Post-Cold War Northeast Asia: From an Outcast to a Strategic Player?." Journal of International and Area Studies (2015): 109-134.
Tsygankov, Andrei P. "Vladimir Putin's vision of Russia as a normal great power." Post-Soviet Affairs 21.2 (2005): 132-158.
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