Super-presidentialism in Russia:less democracy?

In 2017, “Russian luxury smartphone brand Caviar has launched three Orthodoxy and prayer-themed smartphones to mark Easter. The iPhone 7 models were dedicated to the “Save and protect” and “Our Father” prayers.

The design illustrates to perfection our particular perception of Russian society: the combination of traditions/history and technology/modernity within a particular flavour that makes them unique also at the political level. A system that demands more than just an only one definition of democracy but the capacity to explore its particularities deeply and carefully.  Russian society demands strong leadership and at the same time a tolerant one to be able to keep the essence of their national society without abandon the insertion into a global model of living. There is no better way to honor democracy than to respect the decision and interests of their citizens. Although, are Russian citizens in favor of a super-presidential system? is it part of an authoritarian plan? or is it just about simple and honest democracy that represents their goals and expectations from the political leadership?.

Most of the ideas around Russia political system agree that is a super-presidential one exacerbated by the long-term position from President Vladimir Putin that becomes a key national leader within international impact -only during Medvedev´s administration becomes Prime Minister-. It raises the following question: is it about a super-presidential system or a super-president that holds power over  more than 20 years? Is it Russia less democratic than others countries in the world? Are Russian citizens consistent with this output or its about political marketing manipulation, or even worse, electoral fraude or corruption? 

The roots of a super-presidental power are based on paradoxically, democratic roots, that is to say: the voters. Is precisely Russian voters that mark the rhythm by perceiving their authorities as “heroes”, within a huge responsibility, much more than other societies in the rest of the world. Is quite different from Europe for instance,  for whom the distrust on politicians leads to give up in many issues, due to a wrong idea that there are “Government causes” instead of addressing them from a citizen engagement focus. Not because they are trusting on their political leaders as their answer for the problems, but from the wrong conception that there is a  “super power” that is out of their control.  Seems different from Russian citizens that perceives the State as an extended and idealistic version of a Welfare State that holds the capacity to transform their lives for good. There is a historical reason on that:  long periods of monarchies and the powerful presence of Stalin for whom the Nation has only capacity to change throughout a Centralised Government around a charismatic leader. An idea -or an illusion depends from which perspective we see it- that points out the especial culture from their citizens, not exactly the performance of their leaders.

In the case of Europe, Monarchies has become institutions without any trauma, and becoming respected but also part of the State apparatus. In fact it have acquired new roles that makes them been authorities within a legal framework. The combination of the rule of law + Monarchy are the basis for a renewed presence and the beginning for a new relationship with the society. The citizens do not look at the Monarchy as their main resource for Democracy or as a political point of reference, but as a symbol of their identity assigning them a strong role on Diplomacy and Mediator roles.  Instead, in Russia, still it remains the idea of sovereignty from a centralised power, a sort kind of “Democratically, modern and open Czar”.

President Vladimir Putin has been on power longer than Medvedev, an element that its important at time to analyse their long-lasting power. Is it also the reason why the main legal bodies of mostly of the countries established President for 4 years term, an indicator that societies prefer not to perpetuate leaders. The fact that it has been approved a 6 years term is the exception, as well as the confirmation that is a society deeply attached with the idea of a “one-leader-for-all-solutions”. 

Besides, at the personal level Pres. Putin has shown skills to attract the private sector and gain investors that helps to trust on his capacity to transform the country,  becoming updated to the modern challenges. It looks as if the Russian society -except for a minority in Metropolitan cities like St Petersburg- do not contradict it, and feel comfortable within a traditional society that slowly integrates innovation, instead of a whole change of the system.

Media covering is another element to take into account for the resilient journey of Pres. Putin from 1999 to present time, that allows him to go further than just “gaining votes” but to gain confidence within national stakeholders and respect and strength internationally. Being identified as the key actor in the political arena is one of the assets that starts to positionate him as a Super President within a system that has been tailored made for that purpose. However, is it good to mention that any Media covering no matter how powerful is, is not enough in politics within the pass of time, especially after 2008 financial crisis, but is it also true that the complicity of the private sector and will for national investment helps widely to upgrade his capacities and send a strong message on super power skills.

Finally, at the national level Pres. Putin counts with a very special treatment from his “political enemies” . Even if the system holds an open resource to debate at the heart of State Duma, we realise that there is not a solid and wide opposition, willing to change the current status quo. Voting against in minor issues, although together on the big and relevant ones for the futures´ Nation. 

Medvedev and Putin

I strongly believe that there differences are on leadership style only, Media cover and international image, not that Medvedev has not exercised a super presidential power, In fact he has exercised on a very particular way: “he was prepared to listen the opinion of the civil society”* as on the case with the construction of the highway across Khimki forest  across a forestfrom Moscow- St. Petersbug, a project that he finally stopped. It means that he do exercise power, although from a different focus. The essence of his leadership is based more on being a “listener” from the citizenship rather than unilateral decisions within an elite, is it so that he looked “more inclusive”.  

Besides he was in “visible” power 4 years term and on the less visible form as Prime Minister, means that in terms of formal Presidency he does not hold time to display super powers, but in terms of tangible power it was a “two-headed” Super President system.

In relation to Media cover, as a difference with Pres. Putin there were not the same strength  specially at the international level. Despite the fact that in terms of policy there were fully aligned.

Super presidential power

A super presidential power do not necessary mean tyranny or irrestricted action, as a matter of fact is the power to thrive within a very specific institutional model. When there are fair and transparent elections and civil society organisms that engage with the government, the codes of democracy are safe, however not from the same root as a traditional democracy. Is quite common to identify super presidential systems with dictatorships, even if they are mechanisms that exposure them widely including the own President as happened to Medvedev and the corruption case.

Is it interesting to see Russia under a comparative analysis within the United States. The latest  have always exercised a de facto super presidential power, however not strictly from a legal institutional framework. Is in this sense that Russia looks more “transparent” and consistent from the lenses of a “pro Zar tradition” of “one leader in charge” Meanwhile, US needs the steady support from the people that turns to become biased, manipulative, and in the end aggressive. The Russian society -acknowledged for all- has accepted Pres. Putin as their leader for a vast majority., in the end, if there is a responsibility for his increasing level of power it comes from the citizens rather than from the system in itself. Is it true that this level of trust and need for a “National heroe” makes any leader, authoritarian, and the system as a whole at the service of the President. There are indeed negative aspects but it is also part of their political culture and is repeated along history, therefore it must be respected and acknowledged. Is a traditional society that ideas of changing the status quo only comes from the two modern cities as Moscow and St. Petersburg ,especially from private interests and the intellectual analysis. The latest are key whenever a society is prepared to change radically, at the same time is not enough for doing so when there is not popular support. 

Although, Russia is defined as a “hybrid democracy” mainly because of a super presidential system, is it only when we see through the lenses of the citizens that we understand that their needs are different and that the system can’t be more democratic as is precisely from them that the system comes. The people are not questioning the “super-presidental institution” in any case they are doing it in relation to “President Putin´s political decisions”. It marks a milestone on the road to debate about radical change. Seems clear that when the citizens met their local and economic needs the system does not become a burden, instead is the one that they have chosen to feel safe. 

A truly old-fashioned concept: a charismatic leader within a strong Well fare State focus that controls and protect beyond individual interests. In a sense, Russian people are more consistent than Americans, that they want exactly the same but through a steady demand on  individual freedom and liberal/libertarian politics of all kinds. 

For those in Russia against a super-presidential system they also should take into account the need to identify correctly their “enemy”:President Putin or the system. Criticising policies is not the same as going against a super-presidential system represented by Putin. Because eventually he will quit at certain point, but the traditions of a so engaged society with a particular political model, will not. They will hold the same expectations and demands to another leader even within a different agenda. Is in this aspect that is radically different to US, the citizens demands different leaderships within complete different policies: military presence in Middle East, withdrawal of troops; no taxes at all, taxes and protection to vulnerable; globalisation model and support to Global Goals, a national model within international relations; policies and subsidies towards climate change and environment protection, cancel all kind of intervention of the State on these matters, etc. 

Making America a divided society in heart, soul and body. 

Russia is only divided on body, represented by specific policies, and actions, not styles of leaderships or/and ideologies. The existence of a group from the population that is against the system is only a sign that there is an intellectual attempt to change a historical political tradition, not that collects the real needs -at the present time- from the Russian society. 

What we have so far is a extremely traditional society that within the pandemics and massive use of Internet has not shown much interest to change their point of references, following the news by National Television or using Social Media for entertainment instead of a place for debate and influence are some of those signals.

Is radically different to Europe, that Social Media become an influencer and a epicentre to make changes in politics. Social Media is the indicator of citizens´ will to change or not, and in the case of Russia looks as it does not represent a priority. Focused on domestic challenges they  make of their President a pan optical leader, pacifically accepted, that provides super presidential powers through the very basic standard of democracy: citizens´ vote. 

1.-https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/putin-and-medvedev-split-in-tandem/

https://www.rferl.org/a/putin-speaks-medvedev-resigns-and-russia-s-political-world-turns-upside-down/30379479.html

Photo: https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/8101/russian-company-launches-sanctified-smartphones-for-easter

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