Staunton, April 7 – Although Russia is still officially a democracy and holds elections, Vladimir Putin and his regime no longer mention the term very often, a sharp contrast from the first years of his rule when he routinely invoked democracy as the basis of his government’s legitimacy, Olesya Zakharova says.
In his first years as president (2000-2003), Putin referred to democracy “in almost every speech,”including his annual messages, the political scientist who divides her time between Moscow’s Higher School of economics and the University of Bremen in Germany says (ridl.io/ru/jevoljucija-idei-demokratii-v-putinskoj-ritorike/).
He defined democracy as the essential “link between the people and the government” and suggested that “without parties, neither the conduct of the policy of the majority nor the defense of the positions of the minority is possible.” And he agreed that “only a democratic state can ensure a balance of interests between the individual and society.”
But Putin stressed that democracy is important too because it makes possible the rise of a strong state. Only such a strong and democratic state “is able to protect civil, political and economic freedoms and can create the conditions for the prosperous life of the population and the prosperity of our Motherland.”
For him at that time, democracy “does not contradict identity and patriotism.” And thus, when “combined with the rule of law, free elections and the priority of human rights,” it also works together with “the principles of Russian uniqueness.”
In his second term, however, Putin shifted his emphasis to only one aspect of democracy in particular, as “a dialogue between the authorities and the people,” thus simultaneously emphasizing the self-standing nature of the former and the procedural nature of democracy as far as the citizenry was concerned.
But with each passing year, as shown in his presidential messages to the Federal Assembly, Putin shifted his attention from citizens to the state as a whole and thus began talking about ideas like “sovereign democracy,” a situation in which Russia “will decide for itself how, taking into account its various specific features, can ensure the implementation of the principles of freedom and democracy.”
In short, Putin shifted from a commitment to democracy as such to a commitment to democracy only to the extent it reflected Russian national traditions and strengthened the state, Zakharova continues. And by the time of Medvedev’s intermediary presidency, Putin was placing particular emphasis on preventing any outsider from interfering in Russia.
At first, this led only to the narrowing of the definition of democracy, limiting it only to election procedures and ignoring any reference to human rights, the rule of law or basic freedoms, the analyst says. But since 2018, Putin has gone even further. He has stopped referring to democracy at all.
“Instead of democracy,” Zakharova says, Putin prefers to talk about popular approval of the state and his personal leadership. For him, “the only thing that matters is whether the people approve or disapprove” what the powers are doing, not that they have rights to choose the government and influence its policies more specifically.
This focus on popular approval rather than democracy entails some serious consequences. First of all, she argues, it means that Russians may make demands of various kinds but they do not have any right to assume that these will be taken up because even the procedural approach Putin had adopted earlier has disappeared.
And that in turn means that Putin’s talk about “’popular approval’ instead of democracy is rapidly becoming a euphemism for traditional Russian authoritarianism.”