The Russian Federation is a federal semi-presidential republic and gained its independence in 1991 after the Soviet Union broke apart. The current political scene is dominated, to say the least, by President Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party. The September 2021 parliamentary elections resulted in another win for United Russia, granting them enough seats to pass laws without the support of other parties. However, in practice these "coalition partners" were already under heavy influence from the Kremlin. No true opposition parties have entered parliament, either because they did not win any seats or because they were banned from partaking. The political networks of the jailed politician Alexei Navalny are designated as "extremist".
President Putin has used this new mandate to further his ambitions of restoring the glory of the Russian Empire and the former border of the Soviet Union. In 2008 Russia mobilized its troops to "liberate" the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are recognized by only a few nations worldwide. In 2014 it did the same with the Ukrainian territories of Crimea and Sevastopol, which overwhelmingly "voted" in favour of secession from Ukraine in a highly contested local referendum. Fighting erupted in Ukraine's Eastern regions Donetsk and Luhansk too. Relations were kept in check by the seemingly stable Minsk accords between Russia and Ukraine.
Putin's decision to fully invade Ukraine in February of 2022 came as a true shock to many, fully disregarding the international treaty it had signed. After months of military build-up at the border and increasing tensions also with the new Biden-administration, Russia launched a full-scale invasion to "denazify" Ukraine and "liberate" its population. However, due to heavy resistance met by the Ukrainian military, Russia was forced to shift its attention solely to the East, where heavy fighting continuesFears of civilian casualties are high as Russian forces conduct artillery attacks on various Ukrainian cities and target critical civil infrastructure as winter is approaching.
The invasion is marked as a turning point in history and is condemned by the West, which has imposed heavy sanctions on the Russian economy. As a response, Russia is cutting-off Europe's gas supply. Other, mostly developing countries, are wearier to pick sides. However, given the weight of the West, Russia is becoming even more isolated internationally than before. Despite Putin's war propaganda, protests broke out and well-known Russians have spoken out against the war. These were later followed by protests against the mobilisation of 300,000 reservists, which simultaneously caused a mass exodus of Russian men to neighbouring and visa-free countries to escape conscription. As Putin’s war has been anything but successful to date, criticism of the Kremlin and military officials has occasionally been part of the domestic news, even despite the Kremlin’s crackdown on independent media and press freedom in an attempt to silence critical voices. It remains to be seen though whether Putin and his loyal clique will be deterred by these forms of civil dissent.
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- 143,446,060 (World Bank 2021)
- Governmental Type:
- Ruling Coalition:
- One ruling party - United Russia
- Last Elections:
- September 11, 2022 (regional elections)
- Next Elections:
- September 10, 2023 (regional elections)
Power in Russia’s political system is concentrated in the hands of President Vladimir Putin. Since his election in 2000, Russia has experienced gradual democratic backsliding. The federation has shown an increasing level of human rights violations, repression of opposition parties and organisations and increasing control over media. Opposition parties have gained evor more difficulties in manifesting political programmes, campaigns, rallies and protests. The 2021 elections were the most unfree in the federation's short existence. In practice, no opposition parties are tolerated any longer.
A vertical political structure has been consolidated by Putin and his United Russia party in the last decade. The Kremlin tries to uphold the façade of freedom and democracy, but elections are tightly controlled. The federative character of the country seems a formality, as regional autonomy is suppressed. Constitutional constraints on the vertical power structure are bypassed by amendments or loopholes, like the two terms consecutive limit on the presidency.
In theory there is a limited time period one can remain President. However, when in 2008 Putin was ineligible to run any longer, he picked his loyal friend Dimitri Medvedev as his placeholder. Putin assumed the post of prime minister before he returned to being president in 2012. In April 2021 Putin signed into law a change in the constitution that allows him to run for two more six-year terms. Prior to this law, Putin would have had to step down after his fourth and current term in 2024, but now he can stay on until 2036.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Civil liberties and political rights are reduced by the state, and therefore the NGO Freedom House has scored Russia as ‘not free’. Independent media outlets are suppressed by the Kremlin with all kinds of tools; formal (with repressive laws) and informal (through financial takeovers). The respected investigative journalist outlet RBC was sold in 2017 to a Putin ally. All critical journalists had to leave the company after the acquisition. Other critical media outlets, like Ekho Moskvy, are threatened and attacked. There have been cases of critical journalists dying under suspicious circumstances.
Opponents of the regime are being marginalised. Critical voices such as anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny were previously able to express their discontent with the regime through social media and rallies but are held back at critical moments, like elections. He is currently serving a two-year prison sentence after his suspicious illness, experts believe was a poisoning. He was arrested upon returning from his hospital treatment in Germany. The content his followers publish on social media is often taken down by Russia’s internet watchdog, and a tactical voting app developed by his organization for the 2021 elections has been banned. Other movements have also been undermined or even forbidden.
NGOs and other organisations are being repressed and controlled by the ‘foreign agent law’. Signed into force in 2006, the foreign agent law requires organizations engaging in political activity and receiving foreign funding to register as foreign agents. As a foreign agent, an organization is monitored more closely: ‘political activities’, including participation in protests, must be registered with authorities before they are allowed, material and finances need to be registered, etc. Critics have harshly condemned the law, as ‘political activities’ can be too loosely interpreted causing the law to be used arbitrarily, against all opposition.
Since the invasion control has tightened even further on critical voices. It is currently illegal to spread any information about the "special military operation" that is not in line with Putin's propaganda machine. Through these new amendments to the law, the Kremlin is systematically repressing and silencing independent media and individuals from expressing critical opinions. This has not stopped journalists from interrupting live tv broadcasts or other prominent figures from speaking up though.
Human Rights and Gender Equality
The Kremlin openly tolerates discrimination and violence against the LGBTIQ community; the authorities have even passed an ‘anti-LGBTIQ propaganda law’ which prohibits any positive or neutral discussion of LGBTIQ matters with minors 2013. In July of 2022 parliament went even further, moving forward with a bill that would even ban public discussion of LGBTIQ relationships in a non-negative way altogether and prevent any LGBTIQ content from being shown in movie theaters. Several brutal incidents with LGBTIQ people were reported in recent years. In December 2022, an accepted bill that expands a ban on ‘LGBTIQ propaganda’ makes it illegal in Russia to suggest that non-heterosexual relations are normal.
Ethnic minorities are also tightly monitored by the Kremlin. Minority religious groups can be designated as “extremist” under Russia’s broad counter-extremism laws, a treatment that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Islamic groups have undergone. Furthermore, under federal pressure in 2017, schools in the Tatarstan region were forced to reduce Tatar language classes.
Women are underrepresented in public life and politics. Only 1/5th of the Duma consists of women, and there are only 2 female ministers in the current cabinet. Meanwhile, domestic violence is widespread in Russia. In February 2017, a law was signed that decriminalises violent acts in the home that only cause pain and do not result in permanent physical harm.
Relations with the West
Russia's relations with the West have been in decline since the early 2000s, but have reached an all-time low now. Following the Euromaidan events in Ukraine (whereby the pro-Russian government stepped down), the annexation of Crimea in February 2014, and the support for the separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine, Russia has increasingly been put under pressure by Western countries, notably the US and the EU, who have issued multiplied sanctions against the country. Subsequently, Russia has increased tensions with almost every Western country over the last few years. Since the invasion in Ukrainewas initiated by Putin in February of 2022, the West has been trying to isolate Russia economically and within the international political system.
In response to the Western sanctions, Putin is reaching-out to other non-Western powers like China, Iran and India, as well as putting economic pressure on the West as far as it is capable. The gas-flow from Russia to Europe has decreased significantly already, but is likely to be put to a total stop by the Kremlin. Hiking-up energy prices only further contributes to high inflation levels, leaving their mark on Western economies and the world system alike. Meanwhile, Russia's growth potential in the middle-long term has been dampened drastically. It has been banned from international financial markets, lost its main importers of oil and gas and has is not likely to attract businesses or foreign direct investment in the years to come.
Putin prepares for 2024
On 15 January 2020, after his annual state-of-the-nation address, Putin shocked the country (although not in comparison to February 2022) by announcing some radical constitutional changes along with the resignation of Prime Minister Medvedev. Shortly after this announcement former tax Chief Mikhail Mishustin was appointed as Prime Minister by Putin and tasked with forming a new government. Medvedev remained head of the United Russia party and was appointed as deputy head of the Security Council. This council is expected to be granted more power over the years as analysts expect it will allow Putin to remain in power without violating the constitution.
When the new government was presented by Mishustin, several ministers remained on their post: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Finance Minister Anton Siluanova. Lesser important ministries were subject to change. The same day proposed amendments by Putin were approved by a committee from the lower house of parliament. Analysts suspected that this sequence of events all served the purpose of keeping Putin in power, and in April 2021 they were proven right: a change in the constitution was enforced that allows Putin to remain in office for two more terms, enabling him to remain President until 2036.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation gained independence on 24 August 1991. The country is a federal democratic republic with a strong presidential system. Previously, the people elected the president for a four-year term, but an amendment to the constitution prolonged the term to six years as of 2012. Vladimir Putin, who served as president from 2000 to 2008, was succeeded by Dmitry Medvedev, his appointed successor. However, Putin was re-elected in 2012 for a third term in office, and again in 2018. This way he undermined the two-term maximum to the Presidency. In March of 2020 another law was passed emphasizing this, with a specific new start date of this law exempting Putin from the rule again.
The Federal Assembly has two chambers. The State Duma (Lower House) has 450 members, elected for a five-year term through a mixed electoral system (half of the parliamentarians elected in majoritarian single-mandate districts and half – through party lists). The Federation Council (Upper House) has 170 members, two delegates for each of the 85 regions. These include 22 republics, 46 oblasts, nine krais, three federal cities, four autonomous okrugs and one autonomous oblast, emphasizing the size and diversity of the country.
From the 17th of September till the 19th of September 2021, parliamentary elections were held in Russia. The official turnout was low, approximately 51.7 percent (compared to 47,81% in 2016, and 60,1% in 2011).
Final election results
|Parties||Seats in parliament||% of votes|
|United Russia||324||49.82 %|
|Communist Party (CPRF)||57||18.93 %|
|Liberal Democratic Party||21||7.55 %|
|Just Russia||27||7.46 %|
|New People||13||5.32 %|
|Party of Pensioners||0||2.45 %|
|Communists of Russia||0||1.27 %|
|Russian Ecological Party "The Greens"||0||0,91 %|
|Russian Party of Freedom and Justice||0||0.77 %|
|Green Alternative||0||0.64 %|
|Party of Growth||1||0.52 %|
|Civic Platform||1||0.15 %|
The ruling United Russia party gained 49.82 percent of the votes, making them the big winner of the elections. This percentage of votes translates into 324 seats. This is fewer than after the last election, but still enough for a constitutional majority, enabling them to make changes to the Russian constitution. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) received 18.93% of the votes, leading to 57 seats, a gain of 15 since the last election. The Liberal Democratic Party won 7.55% of the votes, translating in 21 seats, a loss of 18. Just Russia won 7.46% of the votes, and 27 seats (23 in 2016). This year a new party crossed the 5% threshold to enter parliament: New People. They gained 5.32% of the vote, leading to 13 seats. All other parties did not cross the 5% barrier, and therefore gain no seats from party lists. Nevertheless, Rodina, the Party of Growth and the Civic Platform gain one seat through single-mandate constituencies.
Election monitoring was limited this year as fewer parties were permitted to monitor, and the process of monitoring itself was made more difficult. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) did not send observers due to the restrictions imposed by the Russian authorities. Officially, the observers were welcome to monitor the elections, but restricted to a limited number of personnel, officially due to the pandemic. Due to these restrictions the OSCE did not monitor the elections.
Not only were there fewer election monitors, the Kremlin has also set up processes that make election monitoring more difficult, for example by encouraging online voting and spreading the elections over three days. The official reason for these steps was the coronavirus, but critics say the extended poll lacked transparency and created paths for abuse.
Repression and violations
In the preparation of the elections efforts to suppress the opposition were reported. In St. Petersburg the authorities contrived to register a pair of “clone candidates”, with the same name and a striking facial resemblance to one of the opposition figures on the ballot. Critics claim that this was done in order to confuse the voters and make it more difficult to determine who the opposition candidate was. The organization of Navalny, the jailed opposition politician, started up a tactical voting campaign to deal a blow to United Russia. By use of an app, the campaign urged followers to sign up to be allocated a candidate judged to have the best chance of defeating United Russia in their election district. In order to repress this opposition activity, the Kremlin has deployed tools to disrupt the app, forcing Alphabet’s Google and Apple to remove it from their stores.
There have not only been reports of repression in the preparation of the elections, but there have also been numerous reports of election fraud. Golos, an independent election watchdog, recorded thousands of violations, including ballot stuffing, threats against observers, efforts to get rid of opposition votes, and ‘carousel voting’, where the same voters are taken around several polling stations to vote several times with an absentee authorization.
The combination of voter fraud and the repression of the opposition have given these elections the reputation of the ‘least free elections’ in twenty years.
On the 25th of September, protests broke out against the results of the elections. Hundreds of people gathered in Moscow calling out to “bring back the elections”. The protest was organized by several politicians, most of them Communists, saying they were cheated of victory by the online voting system. During the elections the Communists were in the lead in Moscow, but when the electronic votes were counted United Russia suddenly gained the majority. This development has been viewed by many as fraudulent.
International and domestic reactions
International reactions to the elections have been negative. The U.S. State Department said the election conditions had not been conducive to free and fair elections, both during the elections themselves and during the preparation to the elections, where opposition parties were excluded. Britain’s foreign ministry called the vote a setback for democratic freedom, and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the bloc noted several reports of serious violations.
Within Russia critics and members of the opposition have also protested the election results. In Moscow, Communist protesters demonstrated after they felt cheated during the elections. Communist candidates opposed to United Russia had been ahead in more than half of the electoral districts in Moscow, but all of them lost their position after electronic votes were added to the total. Navalny’s allies have also protested the results, but the Russian authorities nevertheless claim that the elections were free and fair, even “exceptionally clean and transparent”.
On 18 March 2018 presidential elections took place in Russia, in which 67,96 percent of the Russians cast their ballot.
Final election results
% of the votes
Vladimir Putin (Independent)
Pavel Grudinin (Communist Party of the Russian Federation)
Vladimir Zhirinovsky (Liberal Democrat of Party of the Russian Federation)
Ksenia Sobchak (Independent)
Grigory Yavlinsky (Yabloko)
Boris Titov (Party of Growth)
Maxim Suraykin (Communists of Russia)
Sergey Baburin (Russian All-People's Union)
Incumbent President Vladimir Putin was re-elected with 76.69 per cent of the votes. Consequently, he secured his fourth mandate. Putin has been president between 1999 and 2008. He was prime minister under Medvedev between 2008 and 2012 when he was ineligible to seek another consecutive term, but was widely believed to be in charge in the background. In 2012 he was re-elected president.
The other seven candidates all received less than 1/8th of the votes. Pavel Grudinin, the candidate of the Communist Party, gained 11,77 per cent, which is a 6 per cent loss compared to the communist party’s bid in 2012. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, acquired 5,65 % of the votes, a similar result to the last elections in which he was running for president as well. The remaining candidates all received under 2 per cent of the votes.
Opposition leaders and independent monitors stated that the election was characterised by the suppression of the opposition. The OCSE concluded that the elections took place in a state-controlled environment in which citizens were pressured to vote and candidates were unable to develop a competitive campaign. All candidates expressed their certainty that the incumbent president would prevail. High-potential candidate Alexey Navalny excluded from the electoral process. The media gave the incumbent president an advantage over the opposition candidates. While no large disturbances occurred, over two thousand incidents at polls were reported. Including carousel voting, ballot-box stuffing and violence.
The reactions from Europe were mixed. Serbia was one of the first countries to congratulate Putin, citing that Russia is a genuine friend of Serbia. Hungary, Bulgaria, Moldova and the Czech Republic followed the Serbian example. Other European countries didn’t officially send congratulatory messages to Putin. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said it was not a "fair political competition," according to European values and that Russia would "remain a difficult partner."
- CIA World Factbook
- Election Committee Russia
- Human Rights Watch
- Moscow Times
- OSCE Elections observation mission Final Report Parliamentary elections (12 January 2012)
- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
- Russia Profile
- Russian Energy Policy Toward Neighboring Countries (Sept 2009) CRS Report for Congress
- Russian Political, Economic, and Security Issues and U.S. Interests (January 2010) CRS Report for Congress
- Russia-U.S. Relations and Russia's vision for international affairs (13 April 2010 Washington D.C.) The Brookings Institution