Just over 23 years ago, Vladimir Putin replaced ailing Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s acting president and a few hours later delivered the traditional New Year’s Eve speech. The former KGB agent was sombre. He believed Russian statehood was in danger of disintegrating in the wake of Yeltsin’s chaotic reign and he was determined to stop the collapse.
“I assure you that there will be no vacuum of power, not for a minute,” he said. “The state will stand firm to protect the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, the freedom of the mass media, ownership rights, these fundamental elements of a civilised society.”
He expanded on these ideas in a lengthy Millennium Address, posted on a government website that same evening and which said: “History proves all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government are transient. Only democratic systems are lasting. Whatever our shortcomings, mankind has not devised anything superior.”
The Putin of 2023 would surely disagree. An authoritarian ruler who has crushed dissent, surrounded himself with sycophants, and dragged his country into an unjustifiable and probably unwinnable war, he seems anything but transient.
Despite repeated defeats on the battlefield in Ukraine, the near-collapse of his sanctioned economy, international isolation and reported illness, the man who declared after winning his first presidential election in 2000 that, “we have proved that Russia is becoming a modern democratic state”, has delivered the exact opposite.
The problem, for his opponents at home and abroad, is that the authoritarianism he has come to personify is now on the rise across the globe, as more countries challenge what they see as Western hegemony.
In its 2022 Freedom of the World report, the US-based organisation Freedom House said there had been a 16-year decline in global freedom, with 38% of the world’s population – the highest proportion since 1997 – living in countries deemed “not free”. Those countries include Russia (marked down in 2004 at the end of Putin’s first term), China, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Belarus, North Korea and Afghanistan, among others.
“The global order is nearing a tipping point, and if democracy’s defenders do not work together to help guarantee freedom for all people, the authoritarian model will prevail,” the report said.
In Europe, this model is also present in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has drifted towards dictatorship. Freedom House downgraded Turkey from “partly free” to “not free” in 2018 after constitutional revisions that concentrated power in the presidency, and the repeated extension of a state of emergency after the quashing of an alleged coup attempt in 2016. Freedom House also criticised a purge of perceived enemies and a crackdown on NGOs.
Erdoğan’s power grab differs in scale and scope from Putin’s refashioning of a state in his image, but there are similarities too: the repression of political opponents, a crackdown on civil society, a sidelining of the military; and control of the media. Both men seek absolute power but recent crises – the Ukraine war and the earthquake in Turkey and Syria – have raised the question of if and how their repressive reigns might end.
“Putin and Erdoğan are becoming increasingly personalistic,” said Natasha Lindstaedt, professor of government at the University of Essex. “Power is increasingly centralised in their own hands. There’s not much of a threat from the party, there’s not much of a threat from the military, if any, and they are making decisions on their own, either in isolation or by consulting someone who is basically a lackey,”
“There’s no accountability. Normally there are checks and balances on the leader, even within an authoritarian regime,” she said, “but what they do is they get rid of term limits, or change the constitution to ensure that they either extend their time in power or are made president for life in some extreme cases. There’s no one to say ‘no you can’t do that’, so they are able to play out whatever whims or fancies they have and may become more delusional over time because their circle becomes smaller and smaller.”
This is particularly evident in Russia, where Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine last year exposed both the frailty of his strategic decision-making and the weakness of his military apparatus. Lindstaedt says authoritarian regimes tend to accept a lot of risk in conflict; poor intelligence, resulting from a hollowing out of the military, can lead to erratic behaviour and poor performance on the battlefield. The Russian economy is also buckling under the weight of sanctions even if the rise in energy prices has boosted foreign exchange earnings. Putin clearly underestimated international resolve to support Ukraine.
However, his repression of all opposition, whether political or from the streets, means that his deadly miscalculations do not seem to have weakened his grip on power. It is also true that some sections of Russian society believe the state propaganda that this is a war of denazification and essential to protect the motherland from NATO expansion. Some Russians have protested but when the populace is ruled by fear and starved of facts by a state-run media, such movements are limited, and even more so when repression is brutal and immediate.
Putin has drawn heavily on Russia’s far-flung ethnic republics to staff his army and unrest has been growing in those remote areas as the death toll mounts: so far, almost 200,000 soldiers are estimated to have been killed or wounded. Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, says Putin can afford to ignore these distant protests.
“Putin cares about what happens in Moscow and St Petersburg… everywhere else you can deal with it through a combination of bribery and coercion,” he said. “When things start bubbling in Moscow and St Petersburg, they are ruthlessly suppressed… I don’t think demonstrations by soldiers’ mothers in the periphery make much difference.”
“I suspect there is still an effort to make sure the kids of Moscow and St Petersburg, if they are mobilised, are not thrown into the meat grinder in the way that if you are a member of an ethnic minority from Siberia, you will be.”
Those seeking to oppose Putin are all too aware of the risks – his reign is littered with the bodies of those who dared to try, including Boris Nemtsov, the activist and opposition leader, Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist and rights campaigner, as well as all those officials and businessmen who died from what the Atlantic magazine has called “sudden Russian death syndrome”. Putin’s main critic, Alexei Navalny, is languishing in a penal colony after being poisoned with Novichok.
Another brake on change is the fact that those who have thrived financially under Putin are fearful of what could happen after him.
“The system itself – the elite itself – wants to keep Putin or a Putin-like figure in control, because they are worried that after him the next person may not choose to divide the spoils in the same way, “ said Bond. “We talk about the ‘vertical of power’ in Russia, but that’s over-simplifying. What you have is a number of verticals of power which converge on Putin, but do not connect horizontally and that means that they are all looking nervously at each other thinking, ‘when Putin goes, which of you is going to get to the top, and if you are not from my bit of the vertical are you going to reward the people in your vertical at my expense?’”
In Turkey, Erdoğan faces a more immediate challenge, with parliamentary and presidential elections due in May, although there is talk of a possible delay because of the earthquake. Grief is turning to anger, as the bereaved and homeless hit out at the government’s slow response and failure to prepare for such a disaster.
The Turkish leader will be keenly aware that it was that previous quake in 1999, and a disastrous official response, that heralded the political demise of then prime minister Bülent Ecevit – and the start of Erdoğan’s own rise. But that is not to say Erdoğan’s fate is sealed. Public opposition can only go so far in authoritarian regimes.
“The public has a minimal role in dictatorships,” Lindstaedt says. “That is not to say that the dictator doesn’t care what the public thinks. It’s just that they have become very adept at using their control over the media to spew out false narratives that make the regime seem more legitimate, or to ensure that there’s loyalty, or that people are at least confused or apathetic.”
For popular protests to spur change, Lindstaedt says numbers would have to far exceed anything seen so far in Russia or Turkey. She cites a study by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, that concluded that you need 3.5% of the public to protest in a sustained way to have a chance of toppling a regime.
“In Russia’s case that would be 5 million people and we are not even close to that. In Turkey, you are not close to that either,” she said. “Those who are key to overturning a regime are the security institutions – the military, the police – and if they are benefitting from the status quo then they are not going to side with the public.”
“If protests are not that big they are just going to squash them and then the regime will describe the protesters as terrorists and enemies of the state. The costs of repression are far less than the costs of accommodation.”
She believes Erdoğan can ride out the current crisis, although his situation is more perilous than Putin’s because people are more aware of his failures and less brainwashed. He has also angered the urban intellectuals and middle class, who once supported him but feel duped by his increasingly authoritarian behaviour.
“He can control the vote by providing handouts to the more impoverished areas and doing a typical populist thing and blaming danger on someone else, but he’s more unstable than Putin; he faces more threats,” she said.
Putin is also expected to survive what may be his most perilous time. Even if he were to be ousted somehow, the next leader would likely be an authoritarian. Bond says an eventual end to the war in Ukraine could spark a high-stakes blame game between Putin, if he is still in power, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, and Sergei Shoigu, the Defence Minister.
“The blame game will become more important once Putin is off the scene,” he said. “As long as he’s there you have to be careful, because you don’t want to be seen to blame Putin. If you do, then one of your rivals is likely to show their loyalty and you’ll be the one who ends up suffering.”
When it comes to foreign policy, Lindstaedt says authoritarian regimes, notably Russia and China, are more open to cooperation with one another and becoming bolder in their attempts to undermine those they believe are trying to weaken them. And although Putin is not particularly interested in proselytizing on behalf of his style of rule, Bond says, he is interested in reshaping the global order and accumulating influence.
“The fact that Wagner, with very little expenditure, has managed to drive France out of a number of countries in the Sahel is making life more complicated for France in its fight against terrorism and it makes life more complicated for the European Union, with concerns about migration from that area,” Bond says. “So it’s not so much that Putin wants Mali and the Central African Republic to have mini-Putins in charge following his model of how to run a country. It’s more that he thinks, ‘if I can move these guys from the column of broadly leaning West to broadly leaning towards me, that’s to my advantage’. It’s not that he’s peddling a specific model of governance – he’s governance-system neutral in a way – but what he is in favour of is people leaning away from the West.”
The Freedom in the World report said the 21st century had been dominated by the efforts of democracy’s opponents to dismantle the international order. “The fruits of their exertions are now apparent. The leaders of China, Russia, and other dictatorships have succeeded in shifting global incentives, jeopardizing the consensus that democracy is the only viable path to prosperity and security, while encouraging more authoritarian approaches to governance.”
In this vein, Lindstaedt is concerned about India, and also cites the rise of authoritarian tendencies in Brazil and the United States, where the 2021 attack on the Capitol shone a spotlight on the rise of anti-democratic politics.
“The Republican party is an authoritarian party – and the supporters of Bolsonaro are looking at what the extremists in the US are doing with copycat activities taking place. But India has dipped really far,” said Lindstaedt.
In its 2022 report, Freedom House described India as partly free, noting that although the country is a multiparty democracy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and his national BJP party had presided over discriminatory policies and a rise in the persecution of Muslims. There has also been more harassment of journalists, NGOs and other government critics under Modi.
The trend is clear. As the Freedom in the World report noted grimly: “It is now impossible to ignore the damage to democracy’s foundations and reputation. The regimes of China, Russia, and other authoritarian countries have gained enormous power in the international system, and freer countries have seen their established norms challenged and fractured. The current state of global freedom should raise alarm among all who value their own rights and those of their fellow human beings.”