“Although Russia is a contributor to and beneficiary of the current illiberal surge, its causes lie within democratic countries, and solutions must be found at home”.
To the casual follower of mainstream Western media coverage, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has, in recent years, become the platonic ideal of modern autocracy. Putin has continued the centralisation of power in the presidency begun by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. He has governed Russia for almost two decades, having returned to the job of president after a four-year stint as prime minister by interpreting Russia’s constitutional term limitation as prohibiting more than two consecutive terms (allowing for, presumably, infinite pairs of non-consecutive terms). Not only does Russia’s Parliament do what Putin tells it to, there is little evidence of other constraints in the system. To the contrary, most specialists describe Russian decision-making as an approach in which few are consulted, and one makes the calls. Then there are the crackdowns on the press that have resulted in high levels of self-censorship (though not enough to stop the crackdowns) and the use of police, the courts, propaganda and legislation to all but eliminate political opposition. Yet, and, indeed, partially as a result, Putin’s popularity appears unshakably high, even as the economy stagnates and public services dwindle. Meanwhile, around the world, illiberalism seems to be on the march. The evidence that we do have strongly indicates that, for those who seek to preserve and strengthen liberal democracy, complacency in the face of current trends would be a mistake. It is also unwise to focus too much on Russia. The bottom line is that, while Putinism may not be spreading, liberal democracy is under threat from within, albeit with a little help from (and an eye to) Russia. If it is to be defended, the defence must also come from within. Institutions can indeed protect democracy. But only if the people who value it stand up for those institutions.