18.03 Analytics

87% Dictatorship: Fictitious constitutionality, kleptofascism and protest queues

Kirill Rogov
Director of Re: Russia

'Turkmen-style’ voting result in Russia's 'presidential election' is designed to consolidate the Putin regime's transition to dictatorship under the conditions of 'fictitious constitutionality' arising from the unconstitutional changes to the constitution carried out in 2020. The war with Ukraine has become a crucial tool, allowing the regime to achieve the necessary level of repression to suppress opposition resistance, to ensure this outcome and to formulate an 'ad hoc’ new ideological framework for the regime, which can be defined as 'kleptofascism' - a mixture of corrupt motivations and aggressive anti-Western militarism. As a result, the operation to prolong Putin's presidency, which began in 2020, has led to a profound transformation of the regime itself, which in its current form has deviated far from the expectations and perceptions of the Russian everyman, especially those of the generation of 20-40 year old Russians. War, repression and fraud have allowed the regime to achieve a 'Turkmen-style' result in the presidential elections, but has not yet transformed Russia into Turkmenistan, as evidenced by the protest queues during the campaign. The social structure of Russian society, formed over the previous decades, is far from that which sustains stable autocracies. And this fact calls into question the success of the socio-political transformation undertaken by Vladimir Putin in Russia.

The first 'Turkmen-style' elections

The elections, the announced result of which was 87% of the votes allegedly cast for Vladimir Putin, was the first ‘Turkmen-style’ all-Russian election. Such a result is a reliable indication that the country is a dictatorship.

As has been written many times, there are two main types of authoritarian regimes. The first relies on substantial voter support, which it turns into 'supermajority' support through administrative manipulation, media capture, restriction of competition and limited falsifications. In such regimes, the ruling candidate usually receives 60-70% of the vote. At the same time, the opposition partially exists during elections and is, at least, legal; the regime does not resort to systematic repression, total censorship, or massive ideological campaigns. 

An indicator of the second type of autocracies is the result of the government candidate in elections in the range of 80% to 99%. It indicates that the regime does not feel sufficient support for its policies 'from below' and therefore has to resort to harsh forms of pressure: systematic repression, banning the opposition, campaigns of ideological indoctrination of citizens, and ideological control of the public sphere, as well as the removal of instruments for public election monitoring. While the first type of elections are designed to exaggerate the real support of the population for the regime, the 'Turkmen-style' elections instead demonstrate the lack of opportunities for the opposition and society to offer any resistance to the regime. This is a completely different balance of power, to which the definition of 'dictatorship' perfectly fits.

Three factors ensured Putin's 'Turkmen-style' result in 2024: the destruction of the opposition's organisational capacity through systematic and sufficiently harsh repression, the lack of control over the vote count, and forced voting organised through pressure on voters at their place of work (→ Re: Russia: 80 by 80).

Official results of presidential elections in Russia, 1996-2024, %

'Fictitious constitutionality'

However, an understanding of the meaning of Putin's first ‘Turkmen-style’ elections would be incomplete without consideration of the fact that these were also his first elections under conditions of ‘fictitious constitutionality’. In this sense, they mark the culmination of the transition period — the transit of the Russian regime from the relatively mild authoritarianism of the late 2000s and the first half of the 2010s to a consolidated dictatorship, attempting to compensate for its constitutional deficiency with a numerical result.

Having been elected to his last constitutional term in 2018 with an intermediate result of 77%, Vladimir Putin almost immediately began to prepare for an operation to extend his presidential powers. Such an operation is commonly referred to in political science as 'continuismo' ('extension’ in Spanish — the practice of extending constitutional powers was originally widespread in Latin America). From 1990 to 2019, there were 66 attempts worldwide to manipulate constitutional restrictions on presidential terms, with 20 in the former Soviet Union, 34 in African countries, and 12 in Latin America. However, only 39 of the total attempts were successful. The ability of an autocrat to amend the constitution 'for themselves' is an important marker of the level of control achieved by the regime over the political field and electoral procedures.

In 2020, Vladimir Putin only partially passed this test. In order to adopt the amendment to extend his powers, he had to violate the prescribed procedure for amending the constitution. The main amendment about resetting term limits was drowned in a sea of around 200 amendments, which nevertheless were approved by a single law. In order to give this unconstitutional procedure greater legitimacy, it was also necessary to devise a form of 'popular vote', which did not exist in legislation. Unlike a referendum on a new constitution, where it must receive the support of at least 50% of all voters, this 'popular vote' did not imply any restrictions. That is, this procedure for adopting amendments partly resembled the procedure for adopting a single amendment, partly the procedure for adopting a new constitution, but did not comply with either (→ Liberal Mission: The New (Il)legitimacy). 

The violation of constitutional procedures was an indicator of a certain lack of confidence of the regime in its capabilities. Moreover, the vote was held amid a pandemic, under the pretext of which the authorities went on to violate many electoral procedures, including scheduling multi-day voting. As a result, analysis of the official results of the 2020 'popular vote' showed a radical change in electoral practices. While in the previous 12 years the share of anomalous votes (fraud) identified by statistical methods fluctuated between 14-23% of the total number of votes, in 2020 this figure soared to 37% (→ Sergei Shpilkin: The Tail Spins the Comet). This means that the 2020 vote was likely not 74.2 million voters as announced, but about 53 million (less than 50% of the total electorate), and no more than 36.5 million (33% of the total electorate) voted in favour of the amendment.

Transition period and the Navalny factor

However, amending the constitution was only the first stage of the continuismo (extension) operation. The second stage required achieving a convincing result in constitutionally flawed elections. Sociological polls at the time of the constitutional amendments in 2020 showed that the shares of those supporting and not supporting the extension of term limits were roughly equal (→ Grigory Yudin: Question of polls). Similarly, the shares of those who would and would not like to see Putin as president again in 2024 were roughly equal, according to the polls. Moreover, among younger age groups (18-39) the share of those who did not want to see Putin as president again was above 50%, while the share of those who did want this was below 40%. The prospects for the 2024 elections looked very uncertain at that point. 

It is worth noting that the first attempts to assassinate Alexei Navalny were made almost immediately after the vote on the 'amendments': first in early July 2020, and then in late August. However, Navalny not only survived and investigated his own murder, but also released an investigative film about Putin's palace, which received over 100 million views in its first week. Putin's presidential ratings were at historic lows at that time, and 20% of those surveyed claimed to approve of Navalny.

These circumstances and the sudden electoral crisis in Belarus indicated that the level of repression of the regime was wholly insufficient to ensure a convincing result under conditions of fictitious constitutionality. After Navalny's arrest in January 2021, a campaign of persecution against the systemic structures of the opposition and civil society began: declaring the Anti-Corruption Foundation an extremist organisation, arresting its regional coordinators, along with mass recognition of people and organisations as foreign agents, and the forced closure of Memorial. But it was not until the war began that Putin finally succeeded in implementing a wide range of measures of repression and censorship in order to move towards 'Turkmen-style' standards. The results of the polls clearly reflect the changes in the public atmosphere (regardless of the mechanisms that ensure them).

'Would you or would you not like to see Vladimir Putin as president at the end of his current presidential term?', 2012-2023, % of those surveyed

The death of Alexei Navalny in prison exactly one month before the presidential election symbolically ends this transition period. In essence, it was another demonstration of the capabilities of the regime, which was not afraid to take this step on the eve of the vote. At the same time, as if drawing a line under the period of struggle against the opposition from Navalny and the establishment of the dictatorship, which stretched throughout Putin's entire transition period from 2018 to 2024. Prigozhin's murder showed that the death of an 'enemy of the regime', shrouded in some uncertainty, has a paralysing rather than mobilising effect on his supporters. They are ready to mourn but not protest, unequivocally blaming Putin for his death. 

'Kleptofascism' as a new framework for the regime

Apparently, the initial scenario for the 2024 elections was based on the quick success of the military campaign in Ukraine, replicating the achievements of 2014. Within this scenario, by 2024, the effects of the invasion and new occupation were expected to have already been largely normalised and smoothed out. However, the failures of the military campaign and the joint resistance of Ukraine and the West changed the trajectory of the new term.

This required the mobilisation of society and elites on positions of an ideological doctrine justifying the war, which had generally emerged by the end of the second year of the war and which can be defined as 'kleptofascism'. This doctrine combines traditional tools for elite consolidation via a platform of kleptocratic mercantilism and the demand for compulsory loyalty to a militarist-nationalist anti-Western ideology, which is declared to be the value framework of the Russian nation-state or state-civilisation.

In his pre-election address to the Federal Assembly, Putin quite clearly outlined the obligatory oath of allegiance to the ongoing war in Ukraine and the ideology of 'kleptofascism' for those who want to occupy or retain significant positions in the new regime (→ Re: Russia: Putin's Reshuffle). The ongoing property redistribution in Russia is intended to reformat the Russian elite, which has maintained a dual identity for the past decades (one foot in Russia, the other in the West). The core of this elite must be consolidated by its complicity (even if only symbolic) in war crimes and the assets obtained as a result of this complicity may be taken away from owners not loyal enough to 'kleptofascism'. Such grounds for elite consolidation, according to their architect's plan, should preserve the country's anti-Western course for decades and allow it to outlive Putin himself.

Thus far, this plan looks convincing enough, but it will require considerable efforts, likely provoking internal conflicts. One root of such conflicts will be the contradiction between the broad co-optation of new owners into the elite and the established system of family chaebols in Putin's inner circle, where the main rent assets are concentrated. However, systemic social factors appear to be much more important. For all its problems, from a social point of view, Russia is by no means Turkmenistan: the level of social and human capital, the civic culture and social structure of megacities, the degree of penetration of European and Western influence, all clash with the ideology of Putin's dictatorship, which is being formed 'ad hoc' and seems archaic and exotic even against the backdrop of the pragmatic nationalism of the largest states in the so-called Global South.

Stable closed autocracies like Turkmenistan stand on the shoulders of either a clan-paternalistic social structure, deep Islamic religiosity, or both of these factors together. Without such a foundation (→ Re: Russia: Will Russia Succeed in Building an Orthodox Iran?), the Putinist dictatorship is forced to rely on coercion, exaltation, war, and an ad hoc ideology rooted only in a certain part of society, provoking permanent social conflict.

Protest queues

These contradictions will manifest themselves one way or another in the medium term. It is not so much a question of the regime's conflict with the liberal opposition as of its conflict with the ordinary people's desire for bourgeois normality. However, the specific timescale of this conflict depends largely on how quickly the new regime reveals its economic insolvency.

The generation aged between 20 and 40 today will be the primary source of resistance to the transformation of the regime in the spirit of Putin's ‘kleptofascism’. With life attitudes shaped by the prosperous and somewhat 'protest' years of the 2010s, under the conditions of the new regime they find themselves partially deprived of the future, the expectations of which formed these attitudes. Even against the backdrop of the regime's increasing repression in the 2010s, they have become accustomed to a much higher level of ideological tolerance and social freedom. Alongside old Russian business with its dual identity, they are another large group of citizens that 'kleptofascism' regards as hostile.

This determines, in particular, the widespread rejection of the war by this generation, which serves as the main tool for disrupting expectations. It was this group that largely made up the contingents of the protest queues that ultimately became a significant part of the 'presidential campaign' of 2024. The queues for Nadezhdin's nomination were replaced by queues for Navalny's grave. The latter was then replaced by queues for 'noon against Putin'.

Social anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova is absolutely right when she defines this protest as a 'weapon of the weak' (→ Alexandra Arkhipova, Yuri Lapshin: Spontaneous Sanctuaries). However, the resilience it shows indicates the potential for real social polarisation and that the 'Navalny' generation will remain a significant social factor, shaping the environment of those who await a moment for political revenge. Symbolically, the protest queues quite clearly signalled that the first 'Turkmen-style' elections in Russia have taken place, but neither the war nor the elections have yet turned the country into Turkmenistan.