Undemocratic Democracy: the Paradox of Russian Politics

Nick Scott

February, 2018

Vladimir Putin inaugurated as President of Russia in 2012

Vladimir Putin inaugurated as President of Russia in 2012


On Sunday, January 28th, the leader of the Russian opposition party, Alexei Navalny, was arrested in Moscow. Navalny was charged for a “public-order violation” and was subsequently arrested due to his crucial role in instigating a large-scale, unauthorized political protest against the current Russian President, Vladimir Putin. The most contentious aspect of Navalny’s protest was the claim that the upcoming Russian presidential election, set to be held on March 18, 2018, is rigged to the benefit of Putin.

Russia’s constitution of 1993 defines its political system as a federal republican democracy. The constitution stipulates that “[t]he recognition, observance and protection of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen shall be the obligation of the State.”

The Russian system is a democracy on paper. However, in practice, the system does not produce truly democratic results; the system’s democratic failings are largely attributable to Putin. The Russian President has negatively influenced Russian democracy in several ways, including institutional reforms, antidemocratic policy proscriptions, and oppressive political tactics.

Although the underpinning of Russia’s current political system is rooted in the ideas of Boris Yeltsin, the first President of the Russian Federation from the collapse to the USSR in 1991 to 1999, it is Vladimir Putin who has had the most profound influence on Russian politics.

Putin has held the Russian presidency since 2000 and has cemented the position as his own, despite challenges to his regime; because of Putin’s longstanding presidency, many news people and academics refer to the Russian political system as the “Putin System”.

Putin’s reign over Russian politics is inherently undemocratic. Putin served an initial two presidential terms between 2000 and 2008 before stepping down. Putin did not run for a third term because the Russian constitution prohibits a person “to hold the position of Russian president for more than two terms in a row”. So, in accordance with the constitution, Putin relinquished power in a democratic fashion.

Upon stepping down, Putin aided the presidential campaign of his political ally Dmitry Medvedev, resulting in Medvedev’s ascendency to Russian President in the 2008 election. As President, Medvedev appointed Putin to Prime Minister.

The two colleagues then worked on an amendment to the Russian constitution that changed the presidential term from four years to six. Coincidently, Putin, having served as Prime Minister, was able to avoid a constitutional block that prohibited individuals from serving three consecutive terms as president.

Thus, Putin was able to become president for the third time, appointing Medvedev as prime minister in a characteristically Russian nepotistic fashion.

Considering the history of Russian politics under Putin, the arrest of Alexei Navalny is not as much a surprise as it is a tangible example of the Russian state’s oppressive, antidemocratic apparatus. With any one of Putin’s political opponents under the threat of arrest – and potential imprisonment – for defacing the Russian state and Putin’s legacy, Russia’s politics are mired with unease and cries of illegitimacy.

A state cannot practice free and fair elections, let alone claim to be federal democratic republic, if fundamental political rights such as the freedom of speech and the right to protest are prevented by the prevailing government regime. The arrest of Navalny is representative of much deeper problems endemic to Russian politics.

If Putin were to win the 2018 presidential election (as projected), he may have the opportunity to rid the Russian constitution of all limitations on the number of terms a president can serve, therefore prolonging his presidency indefinitely.

This signals danger on multiple fronts: if Putin were to extend his tenure as President, it would undermine Russian democracy to the point where Russia would have a greater likeness to its authoritarian USSR predecessor than a contemporary democracy; Russia and Putin have been accused of medalling in foreign elections (i.e. Trump versus Clinton, 2016), and this could be a continuing practice if Putin retains his place as President; Putin is himself an aggressor and adamant Russian nationalist (i.e. the unlawful annexation of Crimea is an example of this); and an authoritarian Russia would have even fewer domestic checks on its power which could ultimately result in increasingly belligerent foreign policy. 

The recent arrest of Alexei Navalny illustrates the undemocratic tendencies of Vladimir Putin and the Russian state. In a true democracy, everyone has the right to voice their political views; they should not and cannot be reprimanded and unlawfully prosecuted because their perspective differs from the status quo or dominant party.

To unjustly imprison political adversaries who question the legitimacy of the system is undemocratic by nature. What the state-sanctioned arrest of Alexei Navalny signifies is that Russia’s democracy is steadily becoming less and less democratic. In doing so, Russia becomes a more dangerous player in the international sphere as the domestic checks to president’s power become decreasingly effectual.

Russia’s claim to be a democracy is damaging to the ideals democracy espouses, and poses both an ideological and tangible threat to the liberal world order.