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Putin's Power Play: The Anatomy of a Dictatorship

Sacaria Joseph Sacaria Joseph
25 Mar 2024

Securing 87 per cent votes in the 2024 presidential election with a voter turnout of 77.5 per cent, the 71-year-old Vladimir Putin will become the President of Russia for a fifth term, making him the longest-serving president of Russia in the last 200 years if he completes his present six-year term. Sandeep Adhwaryu's cartoon in The Times of India on 20 March 2024 depicts Putin's possible take on the mandate he received. In the cartoon, when Putin is asked, "What about the thirteen percent against you?" he answers, saying, "They'll be sent to Siberian re-education camp to learn the importance of voting correctly." Putin, the supposedly indispensable president, is the only presidential material in contemporary Russia!

With his critics silenced through imprisonment, exile, or death, there was little room for public criticism of his leadership. Hence, his victory with such a massive mandate was a foregone conclusion. Therefore, Putin has all the reasons to think the way he is depicted in the cartoon. The narrative of how he fashioned himself into the ostensibly irreplaceable and singular presidential figure is a compelling saga.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, following a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin served as a foreign intelligence officer for the KGB (Committee for State Security) for sixteen years. In 1991, unwilling to continue within the intelligence apparatus of the new administration, he resigned from the KGB, choosing to venture into active Russian politics. Owing to his ambition, vision, and determination, Putin swiftly rose to prominence. At the age of 38, he assumed the position of head of the Committee for External Relations in the office of Anatoly Sobchak, the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg. Tasked with fostering international relations and attracting foreign investments, Putin's tenure faced challenges, including accusations of corruption and investigations recommending his dismissal. However, he managed to retain his position until 1996. In the meantime, he ascended to the role of first deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in 1994.

In 1996, Putin moved to Moscow and joined the presidential staff, where President Boris Yeltsin appointed him deputy chief of the Presidential Staff in 1997. After serving in this capacity until May 1998, Putin assumed the directorship of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor organisation to the KGB. By 1999, under Yeltsin's leadership, Putin ascended to the role of Deputy Prime Minister of Russia. At Yeltsin's behest, he consented to run for the presidency in the upcoming election. Later that year, upon Yeltsin's unforeseen resignation as President, Putin assumed the role of Acting President per the Russian Constitution. Subsequently, following Yeltsin's wishes, he contested the presidential election held a few months later, clinching victory with 53% of the votes and formally assuming the presidency in 2000.

In 2004, Putin secured re-election for a second term as president, commanding an overwhelming 71% of the vote. During Putin's initial presidential tenure, Mikhail Kasyanov held the position of Prime Minister, while Mikhail Fradkov and Viktor Zubkov assumed the role during his second term. Regardless of who the Prime Minister was, their authority was notably eclipsed by President Putin, who consolidated control over nearly all aspects of governance.

Fortune favoured Putin during his presidency, with the international market witnessing a fivefold increase in the price of oil and gas. He steered Russia out of the post-Cold War economic downturn through astute economic and fiscal policies, cementing his legacy as a formidable leader.

The 1993 Russian Constitution, established during the nation's move towards democracy, echoed the presidential term limits of the United States, capping the president's tenure at two consecutive four-year terms. Faced with this constitutional barrier, Putin, driven by an unwavering desire for power, resolved to retain his influence through any available means. After completing his two presidential terms, he transitioned to Prime Minister in 2008, serving under the newly elected President Dmitry Medvedev. With the support of incumbent President Putin, Medvedev assumed the presidency. Dmitry Medvedev spearheaded constitutional amendments during his presidency, elongating the presidential term from four to six years. As his initial term approached its conclusion in 2012, Medvedev advocated for Putin's candidacy for the subsequent presidency. Although the constitution restricted individuals to two consecutive presidential terms, it did not explicitly forbid a return to the presidency following a break. Hence, in 2012, Putin assumed the presidency for six years, while Medvedev resumed the position of Prime Minister.

With the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin engineered a significant shift in Russia's state-driven foreign policy, embracing a more assertive stance aimed at reviving the former splendour of the Soviet Union. Despite facing criticism from the international community, this bold move recast himself and Russia's position on the global stage. In the 2018 presidential election, Putin secured an overwhelming 77% of the vote, triumphing over rivals, thereby ensuring his fourth consecutive term as president. However, the election was marred by allegations of electoral malpractice and the disqualification of critics like Alexei Navalny from candidacy, casting a shadow over its legitimacy.

During his fourth term in 2020, Putin orchestrated another constitutional amendment, introducing several notable changes. Among them was the granting of expanded authority to the parliament and enforcing a two-term limit for future presidents. This initiative ostensibly aimed to fortify democratic principles by demonstrating a commitment to accountability and curbing the concentration of power in a single individual over an extended period. By instituting term limits, Putin purportedly sought to alleviate concerns about authoritarian tendencies and enhance trust in the political process, both domestically and internationally. Simultaneously, these reforms included establishing a State Council endowed with amplified authority alongside the parliament. This strategic move allowed Putin to consolidate power within a single governing body, facilitating more efficient decision-making and policy implementation. Centralising authority in this manner empowered Putin to exert greater control over the country's direction.

The announcement of these constitutional reforms was closely followed by Medvedev's resignation as Prime Minister in January 2020, leading to the dissolution of his entire cabinet. Medvedev's government had been under fire, facing criticism and public dissatisfaction, mainly concerning economic stagnation and corruption allegations. While the specifics of Medvedev's resignation remain murky, it presented an opportunity for Putin to rejuvenate the government's image by signalling a dedication to addressing public concerns and enacting reforms. Mikhail Mishustin subsequently assumed the role of Prime Minister of Russia.

In the same year, Putin introduced amendments to the constitution, eliminating the existing term limit for the presidency after 2024. This move effectively allowed him to serve as President of Russia for an indefinite number of terms. Additionally, these amendments concentrated authority in the hands of the president and reshaped the balance of power within the government. Significantly, the amendments granted the president the power to appoint and dismiss key government officials, such as ministers and prosecutors, without requiring parliamentary approval. Furthermore, the president gained increased control over the composition and decisions of the judiciary, thus centralising power within the executive branch.

Under the new amendments, lawmakers were granted the authority to nominate prime ministers and cabinet members, a responsibility previously held by the president. However, the president retained the power to dismiss them, along with the authority to appoint key defence and security officials. These changes solidified Putin's grip on power and further consolidated his influence over the Russian political landscape.
These amendments were proposed by Putin for a referendum, which garnered significant support, with 73% of Russians voting in favour of the changes. With Putin potentially able to serve as president for life without opposition, and now in his fifth term, it is no surprise that he warns the West of the possibility of World War III if NATO decides to intervene alongside Ukrainians.

A leader willing to amend the constitution of his country repeatedly to suit his ambition for power and who goes to any extent to silence critics and dissenting voices for his own security may indeed be capable of launching World War III if it serves to maintain his image and power, even if temporarily. Unfortunately, such is the nature of Vladimir Putin's power play and the anatomy of his dictatorship.

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