By Anna-Cara Keim. Originally published on 2013/03/06

Putinism is an expression widely used to describe the ruling style of Russia’s current president Vladimir Putin. This ruling style has been described as a guided democracy with a carefully managed economy resembling the rent-seeking oil economies of the Persian Gulf. Moreover, gas and energy have also become Russia’s defining foreign policy features. Media censorship might not be comparable to the days of the Soviet Union – however, it is ensured that the life of the few remaining independent and critical journalists is as difficult as possible.

Who is Vladimir Putin? What we do know is that already as a teenager he dreamt to join the KGB, but his ambition was only realised after he graduated university with a law degree. He was then sent to Germany where he more or less acted in minor capacity. Although little is known about his exact task, it is rumoured that his duty was to recruit functionaries from the German Communist Party and the Stasi to back the reformer Gorbachev against German party leader Erich Honecker. As the communist system around him began to crumble Putin returned to St Petersburg, then still known as Leningrad, to work for the city’s mayor Anatoly Sobchack.

With the country’s economy in ruins, the 1990s were a difficult time for Russians – the country was as sick as its leader, Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin’s heart disease resulted in his frequent absences, and, at times, incapability to rule. A new class of Russians –the Oligarchs – snapped up the best state assets during the rapid privatisation process, becoming extremely rich – extremely fast. Soon this narrow circle was to prove untameable.

Putin began work in the Yeltsin administration in 1996. His rise to power was stellar – in 1999 he became Prime Minister, and in 2000 President. He served two terms before he installed Dmitry Medvedev as his successor and himself as Prime Minister. In 2012 he returned as President to serve a prolonged term of six years. One of his first actions as a president was to install a plaque honouring the former KGB chairman Yuri Andropov*, on the house where he once lived. This action may be open to countless interpretations, yet it is symbolic for the importance of the KGB, and its successor FSB, in Putin’s rise to power. And not just KGB in any form – during the Andropov period the organisation was driven by paranoia. A system that was based on the tight control of all of the regime’s opponents and left little space for any kind of democratic pluralism was also to become one of the defining characteristics of Putin’s government.

Nonetheless, Putin was popular among Russians. He appeared to bring stability after the years of chaos, and the economic situation seemed to improve. Putin decided that it was time to re-write history, since the bad image that haunted Russia after the 1990s was not suitable for his political goals. The newly fabricated history featured Russia’s greatest moments garnished with bits of Soviet nostalgia. Additionally, he sought to inspire a non-ethnic based nationalism in order to motivate the masses. To a great extent the regime’s economic success was due to the unforeseen rise in oil and gas prices – yet, the regime completely failed to modernise Russia’s infrastructure. Much of it seems to be dating back to the Stone Age.

Putin’s rule cannot be called totalitarian, and is certainly not Communist, but it can hardly be describe as democratic pluralism either. Unlike in the days of the Soviet Union people are allowed to move and travel freely. However, free media are only allowed to exist on a small scale, and it is difficult to describe elections as truly ‘free and fair’. All power is preferably to be kept in the hands of the ruler’s friends and allies, as an insight in the ownership of Russia’s biggest companies will reveal. Most important policy decisions are made by the “Deep State”**, a kind of permanent super-elite rather than by the Duma.

Little remains of Russia’s opposition movements. Nonetheless, the endemic levels of corruption accompanying Putinism might still turn out to be the death knell of the regime. The regime’s opponents have established websites in order to make corruption cases public – and as the internet is an area relatively free of government censorship they appear to be enjoying some success in revealing the shocking facts.

We cannot be sure how much longer Putin will remain in office. And if he steps down who will succeed him? And more importantly – will Putinism outlive Putin? Is Putinism really another ideology with someone’s name attached to it like Marxism? Or is it just a way by which the media and political analysts seek to analyse its rule which does not quite appear to fit in the existing categories between totalitarianism and liberal democracy? Putinism could be seen as a set of ideas and aims  influenced by Vladimir Putin and his closest allies as described above – yet, how much of it remains and whether we will still speak of Putinism in a few years time is a question that we will only be able to answer in retrospect.

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This post was inspired by a public lecture delivered by the author and journalist Anne Applebaum at the London School of Economics and Political Science on February 12 2013. The podcast of this lecture is available here:http://www2.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=1746

Other readings on Putin and Putinism include Edward Lucas (2008) The New Cold War,
Masha Gessen (2012) The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty’s  excellent blog and podcast Power Vertical.

*Andropov was head of the KGB from 1967-1982.

** An expression that originates from the Turkish political system. It refers to a kind of state within a state comprised out of the most influential members of the intelligence service, military and judiciary.

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About the author: Anna-Cara Keim holds an MA in Political Science from the University of Glasgow. She is the editor-in-chief and founder of Crossing the Baltic. Her research interests include contemporary politics, especially identity formation and identity politics, within the Baltic Sea region

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