Jannus TH Siahaan

Putin’s victory and the lessons of democracy

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a politician and former Russian spy who will turn 72 in October this year, is ahead with 87 percent of the vote in the Russian presidential election, according to vote count data announced by the Russian Public Opinion Foundation.

Second place with a very wide gap was occupied by Nikolai Kharitonov from the Communist Party with 4.6 percent of the vote. Vladislav Davankov of the New People’s Party received 4.2 percent of the vote, and Leonid Slutsky, Leader of the LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) received 3 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, around 1.2 percent of the votes in this Russian election were declared invalid. The distribution of votes in the Russian election this time raises even more questions.

An election involving four pairs of candidates is, mathematically, difficult to win with a landslide number in one round. But politics in Russia is certainly not the same as in Western democracies.

The failure of the democratic transition in the era of former Russian President Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin and the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s reign is the root of the problem.

Economically, the failure of the Eastern European-style “shock therapy” recipe applied in Russia actually gave birth to a very unhealthy economic system.

Privatization, which was one of the Washington Consensus-style “cures,” actually gave birth to new oligarchs in Russia, who controlled various former state companies left over from the communist regime of the Soviet Union.

For information, the Washington Consensus recipe is in the form of a rapid liberalization policy, which consists of a policy of liberalizing prices (eliminating subsidies), privatizing SOEs, deregulation or easing economic rules, de-bureaucratization or reducing the role of government in the economic sector, and liberalizing the currency exchange rate (floating foreign exchange.)

The failure of the shock therapy prescription was certainly influenced by political factors. Yeltsin, who had been relied on by the United States to carry out economic liberalization in Russia, actually flirted with the oligarchs. Even Yeltsin relied on a line of oligarchs to smooth his existence in power for almost ten years.

And in the context of political escape, Yeltsin also took Putin into the center of Russian power in the Kremlin. Putin’s success in rescuing Anatoly Sobchak; former Mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin’s mentor in politics, his corruption case attracted the attention of Yeltsin, who was then president of Russia.

In other words, Putin continued the reversal of the liberalization of Russia’s political economy that had been initiated by Yeltsin. Putin succeeded in converting almost all the oligarchs who were behind Yeltsin to become his loyal supporters. Meanwhile, oligarchs who were deemed inconsistent had their businesses and companies stripped down one by one and their owners exiled abroad.

So, with such political economic conditions, of course you can imagine what the reality of democracy in Russia is like today, namely procedural democracy based on oligarchy.

This means that by subordinating “almost” all the resources and economic power that exist in Russia, there is not the slightest incentive, either economic or political, for an opposition to emerge, let alone to “stand up” to compete, especially against Putin.

The economic conditions during Putin’s early days in power, namely from 2000-2008, were quite good from a macro perspective. The Russian economy is growing “coolly” by an average of eight percent, even though it is very dominantly dependent on Russia’s huge oil and gas natural resources.

Because of these fairly good economic conditions, Putin’s rule was also running well because it is supported by quite high public satisfaction. But the situation reversed in 2008 when Russia experienced economic pressure as a result of the 2008 financial crisis.

Then towards 2012, when Putin was prime minister, world oil prices fell freely. The Russian economy was hit by a drastic drop in world oil prices, which cut Russian revenues by almost half. Russia’s economic growth fell drastically and has never again touched eight percent to this day.

Not to forget, there was the added geopolitical threat of the 2011 “Arab Spring” event, which Putin considered had the potential to spread to Russia. So a year later, Putin reversed the political direction of the Red Bear country by returning to the seat of Russian president, even though it was rejected by Russian democracy activists at that time. And Putin remains in that position to this day, without much significant resistance.

So Putin’s vote today clearly illustrates how dominant the black belt in the martial arts sport judo has become in the last 20 years in the Russian political arena. Putin is Russia’s second longest-serving head of state on the European continent after Belarusian President Aleksander Lukasshenko.

It is even reported that the other three candidates in the Russian presidential election contest in 2024 are actually candidates who have been approved in advance by Putin to compete in the election.

This “conditioning” is no different from the facts regarding Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev, who was set up by Putin to become president of Russia for four years, 2008-2012.

If we go back, in the beginning, throughout 2000-2008, the West still viewed democracy in Russia positively. Even the Western world was quite appreciative when Putin no longer ran in the 2008 presidential election. Even though at that time, his decision to take a step back as prime minister of Russia aroused public suspicion. However, after Putin returned to the position of president in 2012, the concept of Russian democracy was no longer considered by the Western world.

Putin’s success in subduing the oligarchs as his loyal supporters has indeed made Putin the only central figure in the politics of this Red Bear country. Correspondingly, one by one the opposition, which usually only relied on personal popularity, had to migrate to other countries or died without a complete explanation.

Finally, Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader with a background as a lawyer and anti-corruption activist, was declared dead on February 16, 2024 in prison in Siberia, just before the Russian presidential election was held.

So what is happening to Russian democracy today is an illustration of how democracy today is only a political commodity to justify the national leadership of a country through a pseudo-democratic process. Democracy is considered important, but it is only a procedural justification, not a substantive one for fighting for the interests of the people.

In fact, too much power in the hands of one person is actually not a prerequisite for a substantive democratic process to take place, because democracy ultimately just becomes a one-man show of a single ruler who is fully backed up by a line of oligarchs.

In other words, Russian democracy is actually just the front cover, while the real content is authoritarianism covered by economic oligarchy. This should be a global warning for world democracy.

Because global tendencies have begun to show signs of being less conducive to the development of democracy. XI Jinping and Putin’s decision to abolish the term of office of the presidents of China and Russia which gave them the opportunity to rule for life increases the image of autocratic government at the global level, considering that these two countries are very vocal in their opposition to Western domination with democratic background on the one hand and the rapid performance of China’s economy in the last 30 years on the other hand.

The strengthening of the image of autocratic leaders then also triggered the power of the “far right” in the western world and Asia which also tend to be less democratic, such as the election of Donald Trump in 2016 in America, Vicktor Orbhan in Hungary, Boris Johnson in England, Joel Bolsonoro in Brazil, and Narendra Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkiye, all of which were born out of a democratic election process.

About the Author
Doctor of Sociology from Padjadjaran University, Indonesia. Defense and Environment Observer.