Putin, Russia and the People: Part 2

Photo: www.vanityfair.com
Photo: www.vanityfair.com

Corruption, oligarchy, oppressions against mass media and NGOs, violations of human rights

Yet in 2000, Putin introduced the thesis of “all market entities with equidistant from authorities”. By this he, indeed, closed eyes to the arbitrariness and lawlessness of major oligarchs provided that they should not interfere in politics any more.

After being elected the president, Putin almost immediately began to take revenge from the organizations and individuals who had supported his opponents during elections and thus, made the future opposition already weak. The most famous of these revenges is the “Gusinsky and HTB” case which was examined by the European Court of Human Rights in 2004. The court decided that there had been some illegalities and abuse of political power for personal purposes. Yet, the TV channel had already been sold to “Gazprom” because of debts.

In autumn, 2000, Boris Berezovsky had to emigrate to Great Britain and sell the central package of the Channel One Russia (“ОРТ”) shares. Then, the “TB-6” that belonged to him and that had hired some HTB journalists, ceased to be broadcasted. The major TV channels, the Channel One Russia (“ОРТ”), “Rossia-1” and HTB became hereby owned by the state or state-owned enterprises. These three channels together possess the overwhelming majority of the Russian audience and only they provide nationwide coverage. The situation was such that mass media worked exclusively for the interests of the ruling elite.

Several reporters have been killed during Putin՛s presidential period. And in 2008, according to the organization “Reporters Without Borders”, Russia took the 144th place among 173 countries with its rate of freedom of speech. The main reason for this was the prevention of the objective coverage of the opposition demonstrations, toughening the law on libel and creation of the black list of web sites. On April 8, 2013, a law on publishing improper information in mass media was signed which allowed to avoid the usage of improper vocabulary in mass media. The Russian Union of Journalists described this law as “the death penalty for the mass media”1. Examples of oppressions against journalists have been numerous so far.

In 2003, the owner of “YUKOS”, Mikhail Khadarkovsky was arrested. The criminal prosecution began after he announced that he was going to finance”The Union of Right Forces” and “Yabloko” opposition parties. Soon, he was convicted of fraud, large-scale plunder and avoiding taxes. After the case of”YUKOS”, nearly all oil companies clarified their positions about paying taxes and began to fill the state budget with huge amounts of money. The growth of tax collection in 2004 was 250% compared to the rate in 2003. In 2005, the company “Gazprom” that was managed by the state, bought more central share packages of several companies and took a dominant position at the domestic market. In 2013, Pugachev (a former close associate of Putin) who had moved abroad, was arrested in absentia and an international investigation was announced. All these prosecutions and arrests were connected neither with the struggle against corruption, nor with the normal activity of law enforcement agencies. They all were directed to a supreme goal, that was to establish the autocracy of Putin and destroy all his potential opponents or, at least, weaken them. Moreover, various international research institutions like the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, link the current corrupt situation in Russia personally to Putin, calling him the number one corrupt official. Researchers believe that corruption in Russia has a pyramid-like structure and the authorities primarily take the whole responsibility. Numerous analysts think that Putin’s presidency has made corruption even systematic and profound. “The Voice of America” news experts believe that the corruption circulation in 2006 has exceeded 240 billion dollars. According to the assessments by the “Transparency International” in 2011, the rate of corruption susceptibility in Russia is 2.4 (the 143 rd among 183 countries). Even according to the assessments by domestic force centers, there is a growth in the level of corruption. Putin’s presidency has contributed to the elevation of corruption level compared even with the Yeltsin’s ruling period. According to the data by “INDEM” foundation, the corruption figures in business-government relations became ten times bigger in 2001-2005, reaching 316 billion dollars in 2005, which is even larger than the state budget in the same year.

In the 2000s, Russia joined various international anti-corruption contracts and agreements including the UN Convention against Corruption, the corresponding convention of the Council of Europe and so on. In 2011, a new order was introduced in Russia on the initiative of Putin that obliged all state officials to declare their wealth and in 2013, civil servants were banned to have bank accounts abroad. Yet, all these innovations and contracts almost completely remained on paper.

There also exist quite serious problems about protecting the rights of people, especially women, children and ethnic minorities. According to the view expressed in 2014 by Vladimir Lukin, the Russian Human Rights Ombudsman, Putin’s presidency is remarkable for the increase of racism and chauvinism. Lukin accused him of violence against ethnic and sexual minorities and particular groups of people and of supporting the hatred propaganda.

The notorious law on NGOs is also remarkable, as it forces the NGOs which are financed from abroad to register as foreign agents. The international community has repeatedly expressed concerns about the extremely tough and illegal attitude towards NGOs in Russia.

In 2014-2015, a new momentum in the struggle against the manifestations of corruption was observed (as a result of critical financial and economic situation inside the state and extreme need for funding). On July 1, 2014, the President ordered the executive body to improve the anti-corruption strategy and make next steps more concrete. As a result of this, the 2014-15’s National plan of the anti-corruption struggle was created.

Soon, the moment of “tightening the belts” arrived, as the state financial resources had been reduced so much because of the financial crisis that the state was obliged to tighten the control over financial flows and limit the appetites of their users. On this background, the Komi Republic leader was arrested on charges of state fund’s embezzlement. This was followed by checks in the Russian pension and social insurance funds, Federal Fund of compulsory medical insurance, various state institutions (Rosatom, Vnesheconombank and so on) and many state services. These checks revealed various violations and illegalities and a plan for their elimination was created. The impression of a new anti-corruption struggle which was effective and conducted personally by Putin was created. Conversely, on December 9, 2014, the Russian Novosti published that Kirill Kabanov, the head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee had admitted on air that almost one third of the Russian officials were corrupt. The situation remained quite the same in 2015. I would like to make it clear that this tightening or, at least, the impression of tightening the struggle was connected with the temporary redistribution of resources (on the basis of extreme financial crisis) and never with the desire to finally eliminate corruption in the country.

All the above-mentioned corruption risks and issues left severe effects on the Russian economy, indeed. On the background of this, as well as crisis, economic sanctions and absence of diversification, the stagnation of the system began.

The system stagnation

In my opinion, the social management system created in Russia has entered the stagnation stage today. The social, political and legal reasons for this are the following:

  1. Massive corruption – as we have already indicated, corruption in Russia truly has systematic volumes, and besides swallowing a significant portion of resources, it also leaves severe effects on the country’s political situation.
  2. Dependent and ineffective judicial and legislative system – as it has been stated earlier, there is no clear separation of government branches in Russia, there exists only one source of power for the enormous bureaucratic system, and that source is the personality of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and this does not have anything to do with the government branches.
  3. Rise of nationalism and xenophobia – it is out of the question that no prosperous and successful system can exist in a country where such movements have raised.
  4. Political apathy – the statistics by the Russian “ВЦИОМ” show that almost 60% of the Russian population is not interested in politics at all. In a study conducted by the Levada, 94% of the interrogated people said that they could do nothing or almost nothing to change the current political processes. This is indeed a result of not only the extreme centralization of power and elimination of the counterbalance which is the pillar of any democratic system, but also corruption and the inability to control the system.
  5. Viewing free thought as dissidence – the policy conducted with mass media, NGOs, opposition parties and liberal intelligentsia can be described as the perfect implementation of the principle “whoever is not with us, is against us”. I strongly believe that whenever free thought begins to be viewed as dissidence, society ceases to be liberal.

The economic reasons are:

  1. Absence of diversification;
  2. Sanctions – one of the main reasons for the economic crisis are indeed the Western economic sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of its foreign policy;
  3. Devaluation and inflation of Ruble;
  4. Bad business sphere, unfavorable conditions for starting a new business and recently increased unemployment. (Yet, it was possible to control the latter by excluding the cheap labor coming from post-Soviet countries out of the labor market.)

Despite all this, Putin’s rating still remains very high. The public TV and other means of propaganda present his personality not only as an exclusive stronghold that protects Russia from external dangers, but also as the only competent official who is capable of and who is highly concerned with solving internal problems. As previously suggested by Surkov, the system relied exclusively on internal legitimacy or, to be more precise, on the Putin’s rating. The ratings of all other ruling institutions, organizations, individuals and forces are so low that the President’s support is the only means to preserve power. As a result of this, there exists a discredited authority and a highly credited president. This situation is abnormal and it cannot last long, indeed. Living conditions of the Russian people have become much worse in recent years. And having entered the stagnation stage, the system cannot get out of it without fundamental changes.

The people

It is important to understand the reasons for Putin’s high rating and great popular support. This support does not substantially decrease even on the background of the last socio- economic crisis, and not coming up to expectations, it increases as a result of aggressive foreign policy. Even such effective tools as the economic sanctions were unable to shake the fundaments of the system. The reasons should be looked for in the psychology and cultural receptivity of the Russian peoples. The Russian political culture has always been isolated from those in the West, and the Russians have developed the faith in their uniqueness and great-power chauvinistic nature. Whenever the West accuses Putin of conducting an expansionary and imperialistic policy, the Russians warmly welcome this and consider it as a positive progress. Different peoples view and perceive different political governing systems in different ways. Democratic and liberal values have never taken and are not going to take a dominant position in the Russian reality in the nearest future. Instead, the Russians highlight state-centralization and great-power chauvinism. In the typical Russian way of thinking, an individual is subordinated to the collective and the state as well. And Putin not only completely meets these principles, but he also flatters the great- power chauvinistic ego of the population often with his impudent and demonstratively independent policy. The Russians consider their country as a negotiating party again, a party which is being reckoned with and they are eager to suffer much hardship for this sake. High tolerance of hardship is another typical aspect of the Russian reality (the statement that the Russians have never lived a prosperous life inside their country is much likely to be true) which makes the regime almost insensitive to external impulses. Another cultural peculiarity is the inclination towards autocracy. This inclination further strengthens when the nature of the person pretending the autocratic power is monumental. Of the numerous existing indicators of public support, I would like to cite the most expressive one which is the immigration-emigration positive flip. That is to say, far more people immigrate into Russia than emigrate from it (even in the current socio-economic situation). And the main circle of emigrants consists of the liberal intelligentsia which has never managed to find its place in the Russian reality.

Summary

In spite of all imperfections, we should admit that Putin generally managed to pull Russia out off the deep crisis it had fallen into after the USSR collapse. And it was not only an economic crisis, but also a crisis of identity, civilization and ideas. This crisis is likely to have led Russia to destruction as a single federative state unit. And it was Putin who managed to unite and gather the Russians around him at the crucial moment and save the country. It would be fair enough to mention that the corruption, inter-ethnic tight relations and tycoons competing with the state which Putin had inherited from the USSR, have probably been one of the most ferocious periods of the Russian history.

Putin’s character is also phenomenal because Russia has had a very few great and charismatic leaders: during its 1000-year history, there have been less than 10 leaders of this kind, and the popularity Putin enjoys can be explained through this. As the “Times” said, the Russians finally get the Czar they have been dreaming of. Achievements especially concern to the formation of a united state system, establishment of internal peace, institutionalization of authority, improvement of social and demographic conditions, as well as sports and cultural spheres.

However, a significant part of the reforms Putin launched in his presidential period, either failed completely or did not give the desired results and stagnated (retirement, state insurance, judicial, local governmental, military, utilitarian and land reforms). Various corruption schemes and scandals are related to all these spheres, and the situation is so serious that it will take decades to correct it even with the presence of a great political will. The system created in Russia is indeed neobonopartistic, but the “chinovnik” (bureaucratic/clerk) oligarchic authority is also typical of it. This authority is naturally a far- right dictatorship: it is anti-revolutionary, extremely retrogressive and interferes in economic, as well as cultural, ideological and informational spheres. The economy is completely absorbed by state-monopoly institutions. Clerks are superior to business and do not allow it to grow. Russia has gradually become not only one of the non-liberal countries of the world, but also one of the sponsors of such systems. With its economy exclusively based on raw material, Russia adopted the imperialistic ambitions of its leader Putin and began a struggle to become a great power, a global force center. As seen from experience, Russia was not ready for it at all and in fact, became included in that struggle because of unreasoned ambitions. The situation in Russia that seems to be prosperous is not connected anyhow with the results of reforms or good government. It is exclusively a result of the enormous, almost limitless resources of that country.

Putin is indeed a remarkable character. Moreover, he will be the one among the current world leaders to be mentioned in the annals of history. As for how he would be mentioned, is to be determined by future generations.


1The most vivid practical expression of this policy is the case with the Russian TV channel “Dozhd”, see for more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dozhd .


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Author: Areg Kochinyan: © All rights are reserved.

Translator: Yeranuhi Antonyan


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Putin, Russia and the People: Part 1

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