20 years under Putin: a timeline

The new political season in Russia has opened with a round of hardline legislative changes. This raises the issue of the Putin regime's changing nature: Is this hardening a temporary phenomenon, or a dangerous long-term trend? What are the moving forces behind the increasingly authoritarian character of the regime? What are the new trend’s features? What kind of threat does it pose to the country? Our Institute’s analysts have attempted to address these issues.



In September 2011, when Vladimir Putin announced to the United Russia Party Congress his plan to return to the highest office, the elite’s pessimism was so palpable, and society’s modernizing class’ disillusionment was so strong that sociologists identified the so-called “castling” move (the job swap between Putin and Medvedev) as one of the main causes of the tectonic shifts in public opinion and the winter's protest rallies. Society began to polarize between active supporters of change and the passive majority of conformists, most of whom are dependent upon the government and incapable of seeing (or unwilling to contemplate) any alternative. With the Kremlin’s “help,” this passive majority acquired a new type of political leaders, the so-called “patriotic managers.”

The ranks of these “patriotic managers” include dozens of journalists, politicians, and experts whose public activities aim to protect the regime against hostile criticism by domestic and foreign “enemies.” Their involvement in the information space drastically increased in response to opposition’s internet activism and organizing.

Thus, by the start of Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term, two clear-cut political camps have coalesced in Russian society: one favoring change and the other consisting of militant nationalists who do not represent the interests of any particular social stratum but instead see their role as supporting the government in its struggle against the opposition.

The sea change that followed from Putin’s decision to resume the presidency exceeded even the pessimists' worst predictions. Since that time, the pro-modernization camp has suffered three major disappointments:

•    First, in February, when the authorities abandoned their incipient dialogue with the opposition and adopted a more hostile tone towards them in their pronouncements.

•    Second, in May and June, when the authorities' rhetoric was translated into more repressive policies such as legislation that restricted activities relevant to the protest movement’s development and opposition to the regime. Specifically, the Kremlin-controlled Duma imposed more severe penalties for organizing unsanctioned rallies and participating in them. It also introduced the notion of treating as “foreign agents” non-profit organizations that receive assistance from abroad and engage in political activities.

•    Third, from August to October 2012, the Duma, at the Kremlin's behest, began churning out bills restricting democratic rights and freedoms. These included the restoration of the libel law, and the adoption of a highly controversial law on protecting children from online information, which creates the basis for censoring content on the internet.

Among the new legislative initiatives is the law that expands the definition of high treason; it imposes a jail term of up to five years for offenses against the religious sensibilities of believers and increases fines by a factor of 100 for profaning objects of religious worship. This law also significantly expands the room for persecution of anyone suspected of a disrespectful attitude toward any particular religion and can be easily applied to a very broad range of acts.


Even socializing with foreign diplomats, which is practiced by oppositionists as well as by human rights defenders, independent experts, and journalists, can be interpreted as falling under the article on high treason.


A stark example is the declared intent of Orthodox Christian activists to sue a prominent graphic designer Artemy Lebedev, for having written “god” with a small "g." In reality, the law is intended to shield the Russian Orthodox Church from criticism, and, more broadly, to protect the coalition between the authorities and the Church which is now viewed as one of the essential initiatives taken by Putin in this new phase of his rule.  It should be noted that the authorities are ramming the bill through the Duma, against the opinion not just of the liberal public, but also of a significant part of mainstream journalists, theatrical and film directors, politicians, and cultural figures. But their opinion is outweighed by the support of 82% of the population according to a survey by VTsIOM (All-Russian Center of Public Opinion). This ostensibly explains the intention of all four parties in the Duma to support this bill.

The bill on high treason received an unprecedented majority approval from 449 of 450 Duma members. The reason the vote was not unanimous is that one Duma deputy, Gennady Gudkov, had been stripped of his mandate. Under the new treason law, individuals may be criminally liable for “providing financial, material or technical, consulting, or other assistance to a foreign state, international or foreign organization, or their representatives whose activities are directed against the Russian Federation's security, including its constitutional order, sovereignty, territorial and national integrity.” In other words, even socializing with foreign diplomats, which is practiced by oppositionists as well as by human rights defenders, independent experts, and journalists, can be interpreted as falling under the article on high treason. The article is now open to the broadest interpretation: even a single contact with a hypothetical spy is a sufficient ground for criminal indictment, leading to a jail term of 12 to 20 years, in addition to fines.

Thus, in recent months, a broad range of tools has been designed to control and prosecute any “internal foe” of the regime. This is in contrast to the eight years of Putin’s first and second presidential terms: then, political control did not go beyond the struggle against foreign influence and its putative agents in the country. Instead of the expected return to the familiar Putin style of management (i.e. superficial changes) what has occurred is a fundamental revision of the political strategy to one that is much more repressive than during the first two terms of Putin’s presidency.

A purge is now threatening a part of the Putin-era establishment as well, some of whom are viewed by statist-nationalists as overly liberal, and therefore unreliable.

To better understand the change in the direction of internal policies, it is enough to point to one key factor: the rapid shift in the balance of power in the government in favor of the statist-nationalist faction, and the marginalization of the "liberal-conservative" group.

Arguably, for the first time in the twelve years that Putin has served as head of state, almost all key governmental posts have been filled by statist-nationalist politicians. For the eleven and a half years that preceded Putin’s current reign, there were various diverse influence groups that populated the Kremlin and the cabinet who balanced each other in one way or another while competing among themselves on the basis of their clan loyalty as well as ideological allegiance. These competing influence groups identified themselves in the framework of either clan patronage or ideology – as state interventionists, liberals, conservatives, or as Chekisty (employed by the KGB), Putin’s buddies from the St. Petersburg summer home cooperative “Ozero,” the so-called Medvedev’s classmates, etc. etc.


Igor Sechin, the most influential "new patriot," whom IMR discussed in detail in the June 2012 article, "Igor Sechin: The Kremlin’s Gray Eminence."


There is now a rapid repositioning and consolidation of the statist-nationalists , who only a year ago were for all intents and purposes on the periphery of political decision making. The most influential among them, Igor Sechin who was, before this latest phase of Putin's rule, the only representative of this ideological “club” having real access to strategic decision making and exercising direct and noticeable influence on government policies (even if the the only widely known example is his role in the YUKOS affair). In recent years, Sechin has been closely involved with Rosneft and the fuel and energy sector in general. When the Kremlin was in the hands of the Medvedev team, there were four years of “thaw.” Statist-nationalists wielded power mostly through the United Russia party. During the past two years, Boris Gryzlov, head of the United Russia Party Supreme Council and a leading spokesman for the official ideology of social conservatism, has eliminated the few remaining moderate “liberal” members from the “party of power.”


Boris Gryzlov, leader of the United Russia party and Vladmir Putin's close friend is reported to have infamously said in 2005, "Parliament is no place for discussions."


With Vyacheslav Volodin's arroval to the Kremlin as President Putin’s chief of staff and the subsequent relocation of Putin's working teams from the cabinet to the presidential administration (and Medvedev's teams returning to the cabinet) the statist-nationalists have consolidated their position in the administration, purging it of their ideological and institutional rivals. The political sphere is now almost totally monopolized by statist-nationalists, who moved from the public sphere to the Kremlin, that is, to the realm of practical management. Administrative responsibilities have been divided accordingly and only levers of executive power related to the economy have been granted to the weak, technically-oriented ‘liberal-conservative’ camp. This camp, by inertia, continues to implement the agendas of past cabinets in addition to Medvedev’s projects.


During the 2012 presidential elections Vyacheslav Volodin headed Vladimir Putin's electoral campaign office.


What is most worrying is that the coalition of statist-nationalists’ are seeking to exercise greater political control by establishing a coalition with those who would seek greater state intervention in the economy. In other words, the balance among various ideological groupings within the state institutions has been entirely upset in favor of statist-nationalists. They have become the main driving force behind the hardline legislation and they no longer encounter any resistance in the Kremlin or at the cabinet level (the cabinet, for its part, having been instructed not to meddle into political matters).

The foregoing implies that the new quality of the Putin regime is defined by the fact that the status-quo in the political field is being revised. It appears that the Kremlin is reverting to the 2000-2003 period, when Putin’s popularity enabled him to purge the political establishment by gradually replacing the Yeltsin team with his St. Petersburg friends. The purge is now threatening a part of the Putin-era establishment as well, some of whom are viewed by statist-nationalists as overly liberal, and therefore unreliable. In competing against their ideological and institutional rivals, the statist-nationalists plan to capitalize in particular upon the law that prohibits government officials from owning property and bank accounts abroad. This law provides an effective tool for either getting rid of those officials and deputies who have dual loyalties, or tightening the Kremlin’s control over the bureaucracy and the parliament.

Development projects in Eastern Siberia and the Far East, the consolidation of key assets under the umbrella of Rosneftegaz, as well as President Putin’s attempts to intervene directly in the work of the cabinet, all this signals the possibility of revising economic policy in favor of more assertive government regulation.

The so-called “Orange leanings” (a code word used by the Russian establishment as a synonym of disloyalty that threatens Russia with a Ukrainian-style ‘Orange Revolution’) are no longer viewed as merely a political disloyalty. Such leanings are now also seen through the economic and financial prism: in other words, for a government official to have a family abroad or large-scale investments in foreign property is now a sufficient ground to be suspected of high treason. This is an approach on which the Kremlin and the parliament seem to be in complete agreement with one another.

The new quality of the present political regime and the character of its transformation can be seen in all aspects of of policy making. In other words, the statist-nationalist monopolization of the political sphere, not only entails revising internal policy, but also foreign and economic policy as well. In foreign policy, there has been a gradual turn towards the East and Asia, giving priority to projects in post-Soviet Eurasia, and an obvious cooling in Russia’s relations with the West. Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin’s refusal to attend the opening of the fall session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is a clear case in point. Naryshkin did not want to address the European parliamentarians who are currently working on a harshly anti-Russian resolution.

Changes in economic policy are not yet apparent. In this area, the "liberal-conservative" camp, ensconced in the cabinet, still retains its influence. However, the overall trend towards a more hardline regime, as well as the political vulnerability of the Medvedev cabinet, favors increased influence in the economy for statist-nationalist politicians, as well as state-interventionist economic policymakers. In any case, development projects in Eastern Siberia and the Far East, the consolidation of key assets under the umbrella of Rosneftegaz, as well as President Putin’s attempts to intervene directly in the work of the cabinet – all this signals the possibility of an economic policy in favor of more assertive government regulation.

The Putin regime is morphing quite rapidly into something that is much more authoritarian than before. Under this system, the Kremlin, increasingly homogenous in ideological terms, is monopolizing politically significant decision making. In this process, a considerable part of the "liberal-conservative" establishment, or those in the establishment who do not fully pass the test of loyalty, are marginalized. As a result of these developments, the application of anti-democratic laws, which is currently done on a case-by-case and local basis, may very well taken on a much more general character with its impact being felt by a much wider strata of Russian society.