Stephen Hoffman: The Power Vertical and its Chilling Effect on Democracy

5 March 2012

By Stephen Hoffman

In 2000 Vladimir Putin came to power promising stability but additionally to safeguard democracy. Whilst some semblance of stability on the surface at least was achieved, democracy has been undermined at every turn by Putin through the power vertical.

The power vertical is a concept introduced by Putin to explain the re-centralisation of the power of the presidency and federal centre. It is defined as ‘governing from the top’ and leads to a situation where “loyal figures to the state are appointed to important positions to implement policy decisions” (Monaghan, A, 2012). This creates a top down governing system where power is held by the elites and wielded in their interests. This is extremely detrimental to democracy, as in a democracy everyone is meant to be politically equal and elect representatives who rule in the interests of the people not in themselves. Yet in Russia this is not happening, be it those in the Presidential Administration, Government Departments, the Security Services, the official State Media, the Duma or the upper echelons of the Judiciary, power is used to maintain Putin in power and to oppress those who challenge the Kremlin’s iron grip. Alarm bells should have been ringing in 2000 when Putin said “he looked forward to a certain restoration of the guiding and regulating role of the state” (Roxburgh, A, 2012, p.63). The way he sought to re-assert state power is an incredibly hierarchical way where ultimately all power is headed in the Kremlin held by himself as President. Supporters of Putin say this is trying to manage democracy, but democracy is something that should not be managed by authority, as it is meant to be an expression of the entire population. It also shows that Putin’s commitment to democracy is wafer thin. Indeed, when asked what he likes about being in the Kremlin he said “In the Kremlin I have a different position. Nobody controls me here. I control everybody myself” (Baker, P, & Glasser, S, 2007, p.62).This control has created a group of elites around him, who owe their jobs and the perks that come with it to Putin. Consequently, the Putin system generates strong loyalty with a minority of its followers, as without Putin leading Russia the assets of his key allies may become endangered.

Elections in Russia since 2000 have not been free or fair due to the power and patronage given to Putin’s party of power, United Russia, intimidation of opposition members, fawning media coverage of Putin and wide scale voter fraud. It is no wonder Russia’s elections lack excitement. The whole point of elections is for people to have a realistic chance of changing who is in charge. Yet in Russia, Putin’s election victories are expected, the only quibble being how large the victory will be. This is a pale imitation of the democracy to which Putin, laughably, claimed in his 2000 Presidential speech to be committed. The only thing he seems ideologically wedded to is a highly ordered, centralised state where he has the power to achieve the election results he needs to maintain the power vertical. He doesn’t want democracy to add chaos to this system by questioning its legitimacy. It’s unsurprising that until recently many people thought elections do not matter, because no serious alternatives to Putin have been allowed. In all of this, Putin goes against the constitutional provisions that are supposedly in place to protect the fundamental rights and values of a democratic society in Russia.

Thankfully this undemocratic system is now coming under attack from more people inside Russia, and whilst Putin won the 2012 elections with 60% of the vote, his grip on power is looking unstable. It is time the Russian people had a political system where those in power are accountable to the electorate. The current governing system had led to disenfranchisement due to the lack of political equality enforced through oppression and elite corruption. This was not what the Russian people were promised after decades of living under the oppressive Soviet Union and it is a system that the long suffering Russian people do not deserve.

Baker, P, & Glasser, S, (2007). Vladimir Putin’s Russia And The End Of Revolution. Potomac Books. Washington D.C.
Monaghan, A, (2012). The Vertikal: Power and Authority in Russia. The Royal Institute of International Affairs (88:1). [online]. [accessed 12th January 2012]. Available From: . pp.1-16
Roxburgh, A, (2012). The Strongman: Vladimir Putin And The Struggle For Russia. London. I.B. Tauris & Co.Ltd

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