Digital Authorianism in Russia

The Soviet Union was purportedly a sovereign socialist state inside a federal system, regulated by a series of constitutions. Until the late 1980s, however, the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, which was all-powerful and whose leader was the country’s de facto leader, dominated all levels of government. In fact, the elections featured only one slate of candidates, with the Communist Party effectively picking the bulk of them. The rate of change accelerated and Boris Yeltsin had become the republic’s first freely elected president. He was an outspoken supporter of the legalization of privately owned land. Following the formally dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia became an independent country. On December 28, 1999, Yeltsin resigned, citing the need for a new political leader to lead Russia into the twenty-first century.  Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s popular protégé, was this leader. Putin through its reforms and economic upbringing of the country won the legitimacy for its regime. Vladimir Putin rose quickly to power, soaring in popularity and approval ratings. Putin’s approval ratings have constantly topped 60% and even neared 90% of the public’s approval, whether as Prime Minister or President. Democratically elected presidents such as Barack Obama of the United States, Moon Jae-in of South Korea, and Mauricio Macri of Argentina, on the other hand, have had significantly lower approval ratings than Putin, with several barely surpassing 50% approval even at peak approval times.  The general public was in full support of its political regime even though throughout the years, there were several reports of governmental and society human rights issues and violations. Restrictions on political competition and meddling in local and regional elections in ways that limit citizens’ ability to alter their government have persisted. The essence of the political regime in modern Russia is depicted using three sets of concepts: dominance, configuration of power forms, and power efficacy. From 2018 forward, the regime gradually shifted from “power of authority” to “authority of power.” This transformation has been further expedited by the constitutional reform. The political system has become more oppressive, conservative, and ideological in nature.

Russia’s political development under Putin is said to be best understood as a transition from a system of “competing pyramids” of machine power to a “single-pyramid” system dominated by a single massive political machine. It turns out that under single-pyramid systems that preserve disputed elections, such as Russia’s, public opinion matters more than in authoritarian administrations. The constitution established a powerful presidency, Amendments to the Constitution passed in 2020 allow Putin, but not future presidents, to seek for a second term as president, perhaps extending his reign to 2036. President Putin’s re-election campaign in 2018 benefited from a number of benefits, including preferential media treatment, also in past elections, there were several abuses of incumbency and procedural irregularities during the vote count.

Despite the fact that the constitution protects freedom of speech, authorities have broad authority to prohibit any statement, organization, or activity that does not have official clearance. The government, either directly or through state-owned enterprises and allied business magnates, controls all national television networks, as well as many radio and print channels, as well as the majority of the media advertising market. There are still a few independent periodicals, most of which are online and some of which are situated in other countries. The few people who have remained in the country are trying to maintain their autonomy from government interests. Although television is the most popular news source, its influence is waning, particularly among young people who prefer social media.

Widespread data collection, a lack of oversight, and government cooption of industry, particularly internet service providers, are all hallmarks of Russian digital authoritarianism. The Russian government is taking attempts to promote digital authoritarianism around the world and to proliferate their model and technologies in their own backyard. This demonstrates how Russia employs diplomatic, informational, and economic methods to export or encourage the imitation of digital authoritarian paradigms throughout the world. With the advent of the Internet in Russia, Russian operators began to engage in broad online information manipulation in order to control narratives and influence the country’s information market. Rather than banning or censoring a vast amount of content, Russian government actors have in the past just inundated the information market with news items, some false, some accurate, that supported government-approved narratives. Current legislation and plans to nationalize the Internet in Russia, however, may change the Russian information technology model. Russia has successfully proved the fragility of the global information market through widespread internet misinformation and disinformation in the Western world. These have ramifications that go beyond the immediate goal of lowering election trust. Russian authorities frequently prohibit access to critical political and social content on the internet. They also block or attempt to block access to a number of social media and communication platforms, citing a variety of justifications. Russia blocked roughly 4.74 million internet resources at the end of 2019, according to unofficial estimates.

Russia is increasing one of its most powerful weapons: disinformation, as the conflict in Ukraine continues. Companies that use social media are frantically responding. Russian social media users, as well as official state media accounts, have spread misleading information about the invasion. Russia frequently portrays itself as an innocent victim and has propagated misleading information, including that the US was transferring biological weapons to Ukraine (a “conspiracy theory” that the White House has dismissed) and that the victims of a hospital attack in Ukraine were hired actors.

Putin’s approach parallels China’s successful political reform, but it’s unclear whether he’s trying to copy any foreign governance models. Putin is likely hoping that his reforms would enable Russia to strengthen itself without being vulnerable to the whims of a single individual or a small group of opportunists. As a neighbor and fellow inheritor of the problems of managing a communist past, many in Russia’s political and academic communities suggest looking to China for lessons of government and economic management. While the Russian government’s recent constitutional revisions in July 2020 were widely interpreted as a consolidation of Putin’s personal power, the combination of changes tells a different story. Putin and his inner circle appear to be aiming to shift Russia’s political culture away from a single arbitrator’s authority and toward a collaborative decision-making process. While the president obtains some powers under the new constitution, other modifications clearly assign responsibility to the Duma and Federation Council.

Asifa Fida
Asifa Fida
BS hons in strategic studies