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Vladimir Putin – the modern Tsar of Russia

Vladimir Putin – the modern Tsar of Russia– is serving as President of Russia since 2012, previously holding the position from 2000 until 2008. In between his presidential terms, he was also the Prime Minister of Russia under his close associate Dmitry Medvedev (Putin was barred from a third consecutive term by the Constitution). However, Vladimir Putin gained 76% of the March 2018 presidential vote and was re-elected for a six-year term that will end in 2024.

The Putin’s Russia presents many peculiarities, especially regarding foreign policy in which Moscow concentrates many efforts. Russia is extremely active in the most important international issues.

As concerns Middle-East Russia has goals, but to Western observers they appear to be either transactional or, in the longer term, generalizable to the point that they constitute broad precepts rather than global, regional, or state-specific strategies. This perception is at least partly accurate. The authors contend that while Russia may not have a clear ends-driven regional strategy, its actions suggest it is applying a generalized, functional strategy: It constantly seeks to improve its short-term economic, military, and political advantages while reducing the short-term advantages of prospective adversaries. Anyway, Russia continued to play a key military role alongside the Syrian government in offensives on anti-government-held areas, indiscriminately attacking schools, hospitals, and civilian infrastructure.

In the Balkan peninsula, on the contrary, Russian strategy is very clear. Moscow is trying to obstruct the expansion of NATO and European Union. However, Russia has largely lost its fight for influence in the Balkans: nine of the area’s 12 countries (plus Kosovo, which is not a United Nations member) are in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Serbia remains the last Russian pillar in the region. Anyway, Russian action in the peninsula goes on its way.

Obviously, the United States of America represents the historic antagonist of Russia. On this way, Putin has strong interests in having the possibility to communicate with an interlocutor closer to him. Hence, it is not impossible to imagine a Russian interference in the 2016 U.S presidential elections. The Russiagate is the term describing the Russian interference in the aforementioned elections with the goal of harming the campaign of Hillary Clinton, boosting the candidacy of Donald Trump, and increasing political or social discord in the United States. Russian interference activities triggered strong statements from American intelligence agencies, a direct warning by then-U.S. President Barack Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin, renewed economic sanctions against Russia, closures of Russian diplomatic facilities and expulsion of their staff. Russian attempts to interfere in the election were first disclosed publicly by members of the United States Congress on September 22, 2016, confirmed by United States intelligence agencies on October 7, 2016, and further detailed by the Director of National Intelligence office in January 2017. The Internet Research Agency, based in Saint Petersburg and described as a troll farm, created thousands of social media accounts that purported to be Americans supporting radical political groups, and planned or promoted events in support of Trump and against Clinton; they reached millions of social media users between 2013 and 2017.

Despite the Russian-US issues, Moscow is working on one of the most important operations: bringing Russian interests in the European Union. In the last few days, Europe has been shaken by an incredible news: Moscow would have funded the electoral campaign of “Lega” (Matteo Salvini’s party, currently part of the Italian government) and other European parties in the nationalist area. In fact, BuzzFeed News released details of a secret tape revealing how Savoini (member of Lega) met with two other Italians and three Russians last year to talk about a proposed deal to covertly channel tens of millions of dollars of Russian oil money to Salvini’s far-right Lega party. Apparently, Vladimir Putin understood that the European Union’s sanctions against Russia is the main cause of the slowdown in the Russian economy. Putin’s strategy consist of helping the European nationalists to rise in Europe, whereas they are the only political faction ready to remove any obstacle with Russia by promoting a European Union closer to Moscow.

Alongside the foreign policy, the economic aspect has represented, in the last years, a point of strength for the modern Tsar. During his first presidency, the Russian economy grew for eight straight years, and GDP measured in purchasing power increased by 72%. The growth was a result of the 2000s commodities boom, recovery from the post-Communist depression and financial crises, and prudent economic and fiscal policies. In September 2011, Putin announced he would seek a third term as president. He won the March 2012 presidential election with 64% of the vote. Falling oil prices coupled with international sanctions imposed at the beginning of 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Eastern Ukraine led to GDP shrinking by 3.7% in 2015, though the Russian economy rebounded in 2016 with 0.3% GDP growth and the recession officially ended. The Russian economy is at a standstill. From 2014 to 2018, GDP grew by just 1.85% – or 0.4%, on average, each year – The Kremlin forced the Federal State Statistics Service to revise upward the figures for 2016 and 2017.

To some extent, these developments are not surprising, given the sanctions imposed on Russia by Western countries after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Those sanctions contributed to massive capital flight – in excess of $317 billion – in 2014-2018, as well as a drop in investment. As “the Moscow Times” has written: “The Russian economy is stagnating and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to revitalise it with his 12 national projects is off to a very slow start”.

Putin is already feeling the squeeze after state pollster VTsIOM reported that trust in the president fell to its lowest level in almost two decades, to 31 percent in May whereas it used to be over 70 percent ten years ago. The slow pace of progress in the implementation of the national projects led Putin to chew out deputies on live TV and has fuelled tension between the various branches of government.

The International sanctions contributed to the collapse of the Russian ruble and the Russian financial crisis. They also caused economic damage to a number of EU countries, with total losses estimated at €100 billion (as of 2015). As of 2014, Russia’s Finance Minister announced that the sanctions had cost Russia $40 billion, with another $100 billion loss in 2014 taken due to the decrease in the price of oil the same year driven by the 2010s oil glut. In addition to the sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of conspiring with Saudi Arabia to intentionally weaken the Russian economy by decreasing the price of oil. By mid 2016, Russia had lost an estimated $170 billion due to financial sanctions, with another $400 billion in lost revenues from oil and gas.

However, according to the Central Bank, Russia’s macro-fiscal buffers remain strong, with fiscal surpluses across all tiers of government and low public-debt levels. When compared to advanced economies, Russia spends less on health and education. Rebalancing in favor of these categories could improve the overall efficiency of public spending.


Russian law issues as well as the economic and foreign policy issues are experiencing difficulties. Under president Vladimir Putin, Russia has experienced the worst crackdown on human rights in the last years while becoming one of the biggest kleptocratic regimes in the world. Anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric, directed by the Kremlin to justify its authoritarian methods, paints the United States, NATO, and the EU as threats to Russia.

Opposition figures as well as journalists and commentators critical of the government are demonized as enemies of the state, creating an environment in which an opposition leader like Boris Nemtsov – on 27 February 2015 – can be gunned down yards from the Kremlin and others are harassed and intimidated, and in a number of cases forced to flee the country.

“Reporters Without Borders” ranked Russia 148 in its 2013 list of 179 countries in terms of freedom of the press. It particularly criticized Russia for the crackdown on the political opposition and the failure of the authorities to vigorously pursue and bring to justice criminals who have murdered journalists.

Domestically, the Kremlin has waged a concerted campaign to limit NGOs from working on sensitive issues like human rights and/or receiving foreign funding. The Constitution of Russia forbids arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment. However, in practice, Russian police, Federal Security Service and prison and jail guards are regularly observed practicing torture with impunity – including the “Elephant Method” which is beating a victim wearing a gas mask with cut airflow and the “Supermarket Method” which is the same but with a plastic bag on head, electric shocks including to genitals and ears (known as “Phone call to Putin”) – in interrogating arrested suspects. Even the World Report 2019 underlined critical issues on Torture and Cruel and Degrading Treatment, Freedom of Assembly, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Expression Online, acceptance of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Attacks on Human Rights Defenders, Disability Rights, Freedom of religion and Domestic violence.

Despite issues concerning human rights, freedom of expression and economic stagnation, Vladimir Putin showed a strong political consensus. On 14 March 2004, Putin was elected to the presidency for a second term, receiving 71% of the vote, he won the 2012 Russian presidential elections in the first round, with 63.6% of the vote – despite widespread accusations of vote-rigging- and he won the 2018 presidential election with more than 76% of the vote.


According the OSCE-ODHIR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights)  – one of the most famous institutions for observing political elections – voting was conducted in a manner that was generally procedurally correct. Occasional lapses in certain procedures were noted, but in the polling stations where these occurred they were mostly judged not to be of a scale or character to affect observers’ overall positive evaluations. However, counting and tabulation were assessed by ODHIR observers as more problematic. Observers made a negative assessment of the overall conduct of the counting in per cent of the polling stations where the count was observed. The assessment was based on the PECs’ failure to follow procedures for the sorting and counting of ballot papers, which produced a lack of transparency in the establishment of the results at those polling stations.

Freedom House – the most important NGO concerning research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights – ranks Russia as “not free” with 20/100 points divided into Political rights (5/40) and Civil Liberties (15/60).

The absence of freedom in Russia seems to derive from a government led by a modern Tsar. In fact, the former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, in the TV program “Morning Joe” claimed that “those of us who have dealt with Putin know how he feels, that he is truly nostalgic and believes himself to be a new Tsar”.

Actually, Vladimir Putin presents analogies with many Tsars of the past: Tsar Alexander I decided to invade Finland with similar way Putin decided to occupy Crimea. However, Alexander I represented a revolutionary Tsar, Putin is conservative. Another clear analogy is between Putin and Tsar Peter the great: Peter, tsar and emperor of Russia built a strong and centralized empire, but with a particular interest in Europe (interest shared by Putin). Another comparison was made by a Oxford russologist, Robert Service, who compared Putin’s arrogant character to that of Nicholas I (the comparison was made also by “Le Monde”). Despite the analogies with Alexander I, Peter the great and Nicholas I, president Putin has claimed his admiration for another Tsar: Alexander III.

Despite Putin’s indisputable charism, Russia has to face many problems: the financial crisis has exposed Russia’s chronic governance crisis and dashed its dreams of being a true rising economic power. Russia suffered the G20’s deepest recession in 2009; recent protests show that Russia is restless but not yet revolutionary. The protest movement is a minority, but is drawn from Russia’s most dynamic demographic groups – the Moscow based, the middle class, the young and the cultural elite. Despite his promises of reform, Putin will be more dependent on oligarch allies and prone to economic populism.

Overall, his authoritarian rule, long-lived government and charismatic figure make him a “Modern Tsar”. However, even the Tsars’ kingdom came to an end, in this way also Putin’s Russia is going down. The question is: when

 

By: Domenico Greco

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