Blurred traces of Democracy: The Bearish Prospects of Russian Polity

The lens of Sovereign democracy emerged in response to criticism from Western countries about Russia's human rights record, media freedom, and electoral practices.

Traditional Contestation in Ruler-Subject Philosophy

The intricate landscape of modern Russian politics remains an open book to the Western world, which has long abandoned the democratic principles that served as the cornerstone of several established democracies for instance the American experiment with democracy, protecting individual rights to the maximum extent, arming the citizens with the proclamation that borrowed from the Lockean idea of Rebellion against Tyranny and dissension to the Authority reflection carries in the Declaration of the Independence “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness…..That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”. With all its flaws the outline of the declaration opposed the “tyranny” of the leadership that violates the right of self-governance, this idea of self-governance remains one of the cores of libertarian tradition.

The Western structure of democracy recognizes the active involvement of citizens in state polity, challenging hierarchical structures of monarchies and dictators who derive their power not directly from the subjects. In Russia further, contestation illuminates in discourse of rulers and the question of citizens’ representation. This rift could be understood from one incident with the British ambassador George Buchanan in 1916 when he met with Tsar Nicholas II, the last Romanov King of the Romanov Dynasty. In the meeting, George encouraged him to appoint a prime minister who would have the support of the Duma and the nation. In response to this suggestion, Nicholas replied, “Do you mean that I am to regain the confidence of my people or that they are to regain my confidence?”

Democracy under Putin

Drawing lessons from history and casting over the modern political landscape of Russia Putin recognized one major source of legitimacy “Charismatic Legitimacy”. In the course of Tzar Nicholas II and Louis XI, the common case that appears is the “unpopularity” of these leaders that weakens the control structure of the leaders of their respective times. The question of the legitimacy of the rule is bound by the effectiveness of its control over the subjects, not through the representation of the will of the subjects in authoritarian rule the bargain of unpopularity is significantly higher than being ineffective leaders taking the case of Samuel doe that exploited the alliance interest to further his rule.  

In the 2024 Russian Presidential election, about 87 percent of the cast votes went to Vladimir Putin, who with a massive mandate became the fifth-time president of Russia. It will not be that predicament to anticipate this result when our lens boards see the autocratic Putinist style Politics has low ideological bases and the spectrum of social control not heavily influenced by the Kremlin directly, delegated the task to the subordinates Silo Viki that hold a significant stake in the political outlook and tools of propagation of kremlin ideas in the mass. As per Andrew J. Nathan, the idea of Higher Authoritarian legitimacy is vested in the sophistication of the four aspects of government economic and political performance, propaganda, nationalism, and Culture, which has been identified in the post-Ukraine invasion of Putin rule reaching new highs with 83 percent of popular rating in June 2022. 

The lens of Sovereign democracy emerged in response to criticism from Western countries about Russia’s human rights record, media freedom, and electoral practices. Russian officials argued that these criticisms were based on liberal-democratic values that did not take into account Russia’s cultural, economic, and geopolitical realities. They maintained that Russia needed to develop a form of democracy that reflected its traditions and interests. Moreover, Vladislav Surkov, a Russian politician, and businessman stated: Political institutions borrowed from the West are sometimes regarded here as somewhat “ritual,” established to be “like others”. These institutions can be likened to “Sunday best” clothes one wears to pay visits, while at home, we all know what casual clothes to wear indoors. Highlights the necessity to redraw the democratic reality in the Russian color.

The short glimpses of anti-democratic agents do not present a separate or unique case to define Putin’s Tzarist structure of Power and political violence. The political violence was covertly exercised through state agents and political institutions, the most notable being the murder of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the leader of the People’s Freedom Party in the middle of the road. The major outside opposition of the Putin regime was Alexei Navalny who organized anti-Putin protests before the 2012 Russian Presidential election, met with the fate of Nemtsov, and died in the K-3 penal colony north of the Arctic Circle located in Kharp in the Yamalо-Nenets region prison at the age of 47 in February 2024. Several other political prisoners are still in Russian prisons including Ilya Yashin.

It would be highly exaggerated to say that the quest for democratic Russia has not been made, institutions like Open Society created by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the oligarchs in contemporary Russia. The institutional surveillance has been complemented by the passive political participation of the citizens, a byproduct of the Putinist ideological war machine that deployed since his coronation as the president of Russia. Understanding the dynamicity, Khodorkovsky asserted the case for the “Russian living aboard as an opposition to the Putin Regime” for the realization of democracy in Russia. The effect comes under skepticism as the proactive stance of the Kremlin in the categorization of these independent organizations as “Foreign agents”.

Democratic Prospect in Post-Putin Russia

The prospect of democracy in Post post-Putin regime seems highly doubtful as the existing structure of the power-balancing approach of Vladimir Putin empowered the oligarch that now controls major resources including Oil, Natural gas, Telecom industries, and Mercenaries. Some influential groups include the Oil industry group Gazprom boss Alexei Miller has exercised control to starve Europe of gas, key individuals such as Nikolai Patrushev, Anton Vaiano, Viktor Zolotov director of the National Guard in Russia known as Rosgvardiya established in 2016 with the decree of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Its purpose is to suppress and avert any democratic uprisings, formally labeled “internal disturbance,” to secure peace and harmony.

The sustainability of democratic institutions relies on the citizenry’s ethos and democratic consciousness. In the absence of this dichotomy, anarchy will prevail, eventually inviting another authoritarian leader to dismantle the balance of power, checks and balances, and institutionalism. Sergey Chemezov another Former KGB agent has a historical relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, heading Roster CEO – Bank control reflecting the political stakes that will be tremendously alleviating in the upcoming new realities for the Russian Federation.

The successor of totalitarian rule in modern history prevailed towards political anarchy where authoritarian leadership that has vowed to Power as ensued in political tussle among the subordinated factions, raising the possibility that Russia’s post-Putin realities might echo the previous reality, especially in consideration of a precedent of territorial revanchism Russia has undertaken in the aftermath of NATO expansion for its strategic security and imperial hegemony.

The political passivity of the majority has been a characteristic of the Russian population, stipulating this factor Khodorkovsky suggests that the Elite revolution will be a necessity to establish transitional government in Russia that further creates the condition needed for the liberal democracy to prevail. Such an Optimistic framework excludes the majority for whom the structure of democracy supposed to be proposed. The attempt to construct an opposition coalition against Putin’s regime convened in Berlin 2023, which concluded with “The Declaration of Russian Democratic Forces”, surprisingly the content of the declaration does not resonate with Russian security and Russian sovereignty that major departure from its relevancy. 

The juxtaposition of considering that “those who have the resource, the mightiest to lead the revolution” weakens the prospect of a democratic revolution, while the existing elite system priorities the interest of their own, and its continuity guarantees in the autocratic state, which allows to negotiate the power from their resources with the autocratic leader than surrender the power of their resources, while being subject to the popular will. 

The idea of re-politicization of the Russian population which is considered a major pillar of a democratic society, does not take into account the issue of polarization that leads to active conflict in the political diaspora, imitating the Western liberal democracy that already deteriorating in the representation of the interest of masses.

Building a strong and efficient democracy requires a balancing approach between the oligarchs with the citizens, to manifest that democratic government requires to exhaust its capacity in the formation of effective institutions. The trajectory of Russian democracy remains fraught with challenges, characterized by a delicate balance between historical legacies and contemporary exigencies. While echoes of democratic ideals resonate in Russia’s political discourse, the specter of authoritarianism looms large, underscoring the need for vigilant advocacy and international solidarity in the pursuit of genuine democratic reform.

Harjeet Singh
Harjeet Singh
Harjeet Singh is a student of the University of Delhi pursuing a bachelor's in political science honors, his heterodox approaches to international studies and research that has received considerable international acknowledgement.