Russia is a country located in the region of Eastern Europe. In the spring of 2012, Vladimir Putin was re-elected president after taking office as head of government for four years (see Modern History). Back at the presidential post, Putin pushed for a stronger control of political life while strengthening Russian influence abroad. The conquest of Crimea from Ukraine in the spring of 2014 as well as the Russian involvement in Syria from 2015 caused Putin’s popularity to rise. In 2018, he was re-elected without competition, but thereafter the figures of opinion declined as a result of a number of domestic political problems. Regardless of this, Putin has managed to create a situation where he has the opportunity to remain in his post until 2036.
- Countryaah: Country facts and history of Russia, including state flag, location map, demographics, GDP data, currency code, and business statistics.
The 2011 parliamentary elections and the 2012 presidential elections (see Modern history) were surrounded by massive protests, which prompted the government to enforce a series of laws that pushed back the regime critics. Demonstration and assembly rights were curtailed by making it more difficult to obtain permission to hold demonstrations and the penalty was significantly increased for organizing, participating in or informing about demonstrations that lacked permission. The vaguely worded extremism law was also used to stop regime critics. At the same time, the state strengthened its control over the Internet, which has become an important instrument for resistance to the regime.
The stricter laws had the intended effect. The demonstrations became fewer and the number of participants dropped sharply.
At the same time, several legal proceedings for corruption offenses against the well-known regime critic Aleksey Navalnyj were initiated. In 2011, Navalnyj and his friend, the businessman Pyotr Ofitserov, were accused of causing material damage to the state-owned company Kirovle. They were sentenced 2013 for embezzlement to 5 and 4 years in prison, respectively. In 2014, Navalnyj and his brother Oleg were convicted of embezzlement in the so-called Yves Rocher case. For Oleg Navalnyj, the sentence became a prison sentence of 3.5 years, while Aleksey was again given a conditional sentence. The judges were later rescinded by the European Court of Justice, which also found that political motives had been behind Aleksej Navalnyj’s house arrest in connection with the Yves Rocher case.
In April 2015, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot dead at an evening stroll in Moscow. Nemtsov’s supporters accused the Kremlin of being behind the murder, pointing out that Nemtsov was in the process of publishing a report on Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. Putin dismissed the charges and promised to find the perpetrators. Five Chechens were arrested and convicted of the murders, but Nemtsov’s family believes that those who were really behind the attack have gone free.
Patriotism is important
With Putin’s return as president came a promotion of conservative values, the Russian Orthodox faith, the preservation of Russian culture and patriotism. From 2012, a number of laws were passed with the intention of strengthening conservative and patriotic values and limiting what the authorities considered to be harmful Western and “liberal” influence. Examples of such laws are the prohibition on violating someone’s religious sentiments and the prohibition on propagating homosexuality among minors. Elements from the Soviet era were also missing. State programs for patriotic education of citizens were once again brought to life.
Putin’s conservative line was backed by growing right-wing forces that often acted as “storm troops” against liberal forces. At the same time, Putin allowed security services and the military, the so-called Siloviki, to have greater influence over decision-making while liberal reform advocates were pushed back. Siloviki’s influence became especially evident after the war in Ukraine started in 2014 (see Foreign Policy and Defense). On the other hand, siloviki does not appear to be a particular unified group. As a result of several transformations, there are today nine major security authorities that are mostly engaged in power struggles among themselves.
Strong support for Putin
The international financial crisis that hit Russia in the fall of 2008 was the end of a long period of strong economic growth. Since then, economic development has been sluggish and the funds built up in the years before the financial crisis have been eroded. In 2014, the situation worsened when oil prices collapsed while Russia was hit by the Western countries’ economic sanctions as a punishment for the Russian annexation of Crimea the same year (see Foreign Policy and Defense). Inflation skyrocketed and the economic problems became apparent to many Russians.
Despite the financial strain, Putin’s support was great after the annexation of Crimea when 70 percent of Russians joined him. In August of that year, 87 percent of Russians thought he was doing a good job. It was the highest figure since the war against Georgia in August 2008 when 88 percent of Russians supported Putin. Also, the involvement in the Syrian war (see Foreign Policy and Defense) has given Putin points at home where the opinion supports efforts against Islamists in light of the Muslim-colored separatist insurgency in the Caucasus (see below).
The support for Putin was an expression of the population’s quest for a strong leader and stability after the chaotic 1990s. The lack of credible alternatives also came into play. In general, political interest was low, as was confidence in the authorities.
Fewer than 48 percent of voters went to the polls in the parliamentary elections in September 2016. That was far fewer than in the 2011 election. Putin’s support party United Russia went ahead strongly at the expense of the other three major parties. The regime critics do not seem to have found it worthwhile to participate in the elections. No real opposition party passed the five percent barrier. Reports on election fraud came from all over the country and the election was criticized by the European Security and Cooperation Organization OSCE for irregularities.
Since then, sociologists have noted a shift in public consciousness: the need for stability has begun to be overshadowed by demands for change and justice.
In March 2017, Aleksey Navalnyy managed to create major manifestations against the corruption within the power elite. Protest marches took place not only in the big cities, but in a number of smaller towns around Russia. Ahead of the 2018 presidential election, Navalnyj organized a series of protest actions with the common name Zabastovka izbiratelej (Voters’ Strike) against the decision-makers not to allow Navalnyj to stand in the presidential election. Hundreds of people, including Navalnyj himself, were arrested by the police for participating in the unauthorized demonstration, but the majority were later released without penalty. Prior to Putin’s installation as president, another series of demonstrations was organized in a number of Russian cities. The slogan of the protests sounded On nam ne tsar ‘(He is not our tsar).
A pension reform that would raise the retirement age to 65 for men and 60 for women became very unpopular with the population at all levels of society. The state was considered to have breached its promise to provide social security. Despite the many protests during the late spring and summer 2018, the reform was implemented. The protests against pension reform suggest a changed mindset of Russians: the old view that residents are beneficiaries of government services may give way to the view that citizens can demand rights from the state because the state’s activities are financed by the citizens.
The years 2018–2019 were characterized by large-scale protests against sweeping reform. Residents of smaller cities outside Moscow went out and demonstrated against the continued use of overcrowded dumps that spread toxic and foul-smelling gases. As it was no longer possible to transport Moscow’s garbage to surrounding cities, the rulers decided to send them to regions of northern Russia and soon the protests took off there as well.
Re-elected Putin faces adversity
In the spring of 2018, presidential elections were held. Navalnyj announced that he intended to stand in the presidential election in the spring of 2018, but his candidacy was stopped by the electoral authority on the grounds that he was convicted of embezzlement. According to the electoral law, a candidate must not be convicted.
Without Navalny, there were no real contenders for Putin in the presidential election. Putin won, as expected, with over 76 percent of the vote, which was more than 16 percentage points higher than in the 2012 election. Second came the Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, who won nearly 12 percent of the vote. The opposition accused the elections of being rigged and independent election monitors reported a number of cases of voting fraud.
After 2018, it became increasingly clear that Putin’s popularity among citizens was declining. Popular dissatisfaction was expressed in a series of regional elections in 2018, where a number of opposition candidates won over United Russia and the party lost its majority in several regional parliaments. This development was new in a Russia where the ruling elite has not been challenged by the opposition forces for almost two decades. In 2019, support for Putin was reported to be the lowest measured by the opinion polling institute VTSIOM since they began this type of question in 2006. Interest in Putin’s annual questioning with the public was also record low in 2019.
Setback in local elections
The excitement was great for the local and regional elections in the fall of 2019 after a summer marked by protests. In May, residents of central Yekaterinburg (a city on the Ural Mountains) succeeded in halting the construction of a cathedral in a park, and in June, a renowned burial journalist who was detained for alleged drug crimes was acquitted. Thereafter, several demonstrations were organized against the corrupt judicial system and for the release of other political prisoners.
During the summer, protests in Moscow also erupted following the election commission’s decision not to approve a number of opposition politicians as candidates for city council. Moscow’s dissatisfaction was expressed in street protests that took place every Saturday for one and a half months until the September 8 elections.
The manifestations that were not approved by the authorities were brutally turned down by the police, who seized both protesters and ordinary passers-by. The absolute majority of those arrested were sentenced to fines, but around twenty people were indicted for various types of crimes against the social order.
The election in Moscow became a palpable defeat for Putin. Since most of the opposition candidates were barred from running for office, Navalnyj urged voters to vote on any candidate who could beat a candidate loyal to the Kremlin rulers. None of the candidates dared to stand for the increasingly unpopular United Russia (Putin’s support party). Putin’s allies chose to refer to themselves as independent but that did not help. The Kremlin’s support troops lost a third of their seats in the Moscow City Council and managed to retain only the majority by a small margin.
Putin on reform humor – wants to change the constitution
At the beginning of 2020, Putin surprised both the country’s politicians and his fellow countrymen as he launched a series of constitutional reforms in his annual speech to Parliament, including the balance of power between various government agencies.
Mr Putin said in his speech that he wanted to give Parliament greater influence over government formation and other appointments and to strengthen the role of the advisory government. Another proposal was to limit the number of re-elections to the presidential post and to tighten the requirements for presidential candidates and other persons in public positions. Furthermore, Putin wanted to give the Russian constitutional priority over international law. He also prohibited a restriction on municipal self-government.
Putin’s play triggered a series of speculations about what was really going on. Most analysts agreed that the reforms aimed at securing Putin’s continued influence even after resigning as president in 2024. He could, for example, exercise power as chairman of a strengthened Council of State.
On paper, the reforms seemed to give Parliament’s two chambers more power, but the proposals did not mean any real shift of power from the president to the parliament – rather the lawyer Anna Zotééva writes in the UI’s online magazine Foreign magazine (read the article here).
A few hours after Putin’s resignation, the next surprise came: Prime Minister Dimitrij Medvedev, in agreement with Putin, announced that he and the government would step down to pave the way for the changes. Putin nominated Michail Misjustin – head of the Russian tax office – as Medvedev’s successor.
Medvedev has largely been the focus of dissatisfaction with the ruling party and when Putin nominated a technocrat for new prime minister it was interpreted as a way to show voters that Putin wanted to clean house with the old one and put in place a new law that can implement the pending reforms. At the same time, Medvedev was relocated to a newly created post: as Deputy Chairman of the National Security Council. In doing so, he will work closely with Putin, who chairs the Council.
When Misjustin presented his government, it was clear that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shujgu had to keep their jobs, as did Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and Energy Minister Alexander Novak. In the social field, changes occurred when the ministers for health, education, work and economic development were replaced.
Misjustin stated that he asked government members to immediately tackle the “national projects” that Putin launched in early 2018 but which have since stalled. The projects aim to accelerate economic growth and raise the standard of living. They include investments equivalent to more than US $ 400 billion in infrastructure, digital economy, education and healthcare until 2024.
When Putin’s reform package was pushed through in the duma in a second reading on March 10, the matter took another turn. A Putin member made a proposal to reset Putin’s four terms as president when his current term expires in 2024. The proposal was presented as a surprise and Putin said he accepted the idea of the Constitutional Court not opposing it. Subsequently, the proposal was immediately adopted by the Duma together with the other constitutional amendments. Shortly thereafter, it was also approved by the House of Parliament, the Federation Council. The idea is that the entire reform package should be submitted to a referendum. One is scheduled for March 22.
Islamic caliphate and terrorism
For many years, a rebellion against the central power has been going on in the northern Caucasus. The situation in Chechnya has stabilized after the 1990s war (see Modern History) but the violence has spread to neighboring republics and now has its center in Dagestan. The Russian military has not been able to gain full control over the region for a long time. In 2007, in the Caucasus, the rebels proclaimed an Islamic state, the Emirate of the Caucasus, which, however, weakened in part in the 2010s due to radicalized groups joining the Islamic State struggle in Syria from 2014. Most so-called “IS warriors” from Russia originated in the Caucasus. The emirate was dissolved during the years 2015-2017. Since then, the rebel movement has split, but there is still no end to the conflict (read more about the conflict in North Caucasus: Chechnya and Dagestan)
Rebels from the Caucasus are also behind a number of terrorist attacks in Russia against institutions representing the Russian state. From 2009 to 2011, several people were killed in blast attacks against trains, the subway and an airport in Moscow. At the end of 2013, a double attack with many deaths occurred in the city of Volgograd in southern Russia. Ahead of the Sochi 2014 Olympics, the rebels vowed to carry out massacres but the games could be conducted without the blood spill. In 2017, a bomb exploded in the metro in St. Petersburg and 16 people lost their lives. According to data from the organization Kavkasskij Uzel, a total of 86 terrorist acts were carried out in Russia between 2000 and 2018, in which more than 1300 people lost their lives and nearly 3,300 were injured.
Follow the ongoing political developments in the Calendar.
READING TIPS – read more about Russia in UI’s online magazine Foreign
magazine: Difficult interpretation of Putin keeps Russia in uncertainty (2020-01-24)
Bad news for Russian authorities (2019-09-20)
Russian attempts to restrict freedom of expression on the Internet (2019- 02-08)
more years in the Kremlin – no one can upset Putin’s order (2018-05-16) Vladimir Putin – a tsar without loyal subjects? (2018-04-23) Conservative tsar Putin’s model (11 March 2018) Russian presidential election a referendum on Putin (2 February 2018) Correcting his past – a Russian history (10/01 2018) The Russian revolution – inevitable and disaster (2017-12-19)
Today’s Russia pays tribute to strong men – not revolutions (2017-12-01)
Putin’s neighbors in Moscow voted against opposition (2017-09-27)
Corruption revelers face Putin’s dilemma (2017-06-04)
Protests in Russia – a cry of despair in the desert (2017-03-27)
“Young people in Russia have lost their illusions “(2016-12-20)
FACTS – POLITICS
Rossijskaja Federatsija (Rossija) / Russian Federation (Russia)
republic, federal state
Head of State
President Vladimir Putin (2012–) 1
Head of government
Prime Minister Michail Misjustin (2020–)
Most important parties with mandates in the last election
United Russia 343, Communist Party 42, Liberal Democrats 39, A Fair Russia 23, Others 3 (2016) 2
Main parties with mandates in the second most recent elections
United Russia 238, Communist Party 92, Liberal Democrats 56, A Fair Russia 64 (2011) 3
just over 67% in the 2018 presidential election; just under 48% in the 2016 parliamentary elections
parliamentary elections 2021; presidential election 2024
- Putin was also President during the period 2000 to 2008
2. The figures refer to the members of the lower house, the duma
3. The figures refer to the members of the lower house, the duma