Russia’s Putin paradox

On May 7, Vladimir Putin will be inaugurated president of Russia after winning a resounding 63.6 percent of the vote in last month’s election. Undoubtedly, Russian elections have a long way to go, but the March 4 elections did show progress — enough to be an example to neighboring China and Kazakhstan, anyway. Despite 12 years as its leading politician, Putin's ability to manage Russia is inversely proportional to the country's growing political, economic, and legal development.

PutinWorld Economic Forum

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2009.


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The same system that helped stabilize and facilitate Russia’s recovery after the “wild 90s” now increasingly undermines Russia’s aspirations to become a modern society and remain a world power. The real problem, unfortunately, is that Putin must remain Russia’s leader if the country is to avoid unraveling — just like his propaganda says. By returning to the post of president, Vladimir Putin is readily admitting the inability of his system to adapt to an evolving Russia. What other world power or advanced political system is so dependent on one man? Unless Putin’s third presidential term shows a new Putin, a Putin 2.0, Russia will remain a perpetually semi-developed country unable to reach its full potential.

Russia’s institutions are weak and Putin does not believe them capable of withstanding the competing interests of Russia’s elite. When Putin came to power in 1999, he was willing and able to challenge the established political elite and its culture; indeed, Putin’s skill set was perfectly matched for the era in which he rose to power. He consolidated, stabilized, and reorganized the country using a network of trusted colleagues and a combination of intelligence, force, and cynical political acumen. Despite this, however, his policies have failed to build effective and independent institutions that would guarantee a stable, innovative, and prosperous environment without his direct involvement.

The 1990s were defined by a glaringly unworkable and arbitrary legal system characterized by Soviet anachronisms and naive Westernisms that resulted in undecipherable contradictions. Under these conditions, enforcement of the law became an arbitrary process open to abuse; potentially, everybody was compromised. Once Putin came to power, he used the incentive of corruption opportunities and the looming threat of legal repercussions to his advantage. He created a loyal cadre of elites that was accountable to him, at least, if not the law. In essence, he bypassed the inefficiencies that riddled the government to create a more orderly extra-legal system with himself as the ultimate arbiter.

His efforts led to economic growth and political stabilization. Slowly but surely, legal Sovietisms were weeded out, laws were streamlined, pay for judges was increased, and legal reforms were instituted to more closely reflect international standards. However, neither Putin nor his cadre adjusted their behavior accordingly; they continue to bypass the system, sabotaging its ability to evolve. Putin and his cadre feel justified in maintaining “corrective mechanisms” for high-level and politically important cases because the legal system, although it has shown marked improvement, is still unreliable. As a result, the law has evolved from being contradictory to being hypocritical. This marks progress, but without Putin managing the various competing groups, the weak legal system would collapse in the face of Russia’s powerful interest groups. Without effective legal institutions to resolve conflicts, the task lies with Putin alone.

Since Putin took power, the government has enacted reforms to significantly help the Russian economy. In 2001, major reforms slashed tax rates from a progressive 30 percent to a flat 13 percent. Big business has flourished and struggling industries have been subsidized with cash and technology. Nevertheless, the bypass habit has had a detrimental effect overall. Russia ranks 143rd in the corruption index and 120th in “ease of doing business.” For the rich and well connected, these rankings mean little, but for small- and medium-sized businesses the effects of weak institutions are stifling. Without a healthy and protected middle class, Russia will not be able to evolve into a diverse, innovative, and modern economy. Instead, it will remain in perpetuity as a resource-extracting middle-income country, which is better than the chaos of the 1990s but far short of Russia’s potential.

Politically, Putin has also struggled to maintain and modernize his system. Early on, the creation of United Russia and its subsequent electoral supermajority untangled a previously fractious and paralyzed Duma, paving the way for reforms. Today, however, United Russia retains little legitimacy after barely retaining a majority in the Duma following the December 2011 elections. In addition, Putin’s return to the presidency demonstrates his dissatisfaction with the Medvedev experiment, as he saw that Medvedev and his team were unable to overcome systemic barriers without his involvement. And Putin’s attempt to build a constructive “opposition” has not provided the in-house competition for United Russia that he envisioned would keep it from complacency.

Putin is overseeing an increasingly divided nation and a more diverse and complicated political space. Paradoxically, the group that is most passionately anti-Putin — the growing middle class — was created as a result of his reign; its rising expectations are straining the system. Although the vast majority still support Putin, in Moscow — the country’s richest and most important city — Putin no longer has the support of the majority; Putin’s party, United Russia, polled in the 30s and he himself received under 50 percent of the vote in elections that were largely considered to be skewed in his favor.

Dissatisfied citizens have protested in numbers not witnessed since 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed. Putin is caught in a Catch-22: The more successful his regime is at fostering growth, the more demanding Russian society becomes of a system with limited capacity. Ultimately, despite Russia’s rebirth under his regime, Putin must realize that his legacy hinges upon the ability of Russia’s institutions to function without his guidance. Like an overprotective parent who won’t let go of the bicycle, Putin’s hold simultaneously stabilizes yet restricts progress. Time will tell whether, after 12 years inside the system, his political platform can still show the pragmatism of his early years. 

Eugene Imas holds a Master’s degree from the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. He was previously a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan and has studied, traveled, and worked in Russia.