Personalist Autocracy on the Rise: Constitutional Amendments and the (Poor) Prospects for Democratization in Russia

By Alexander Taaning Grundholm & Lydia Finzel March 23, 2020 Weekly Graphs

On March 10, Russia’s State Duma approved President Vladimir Putin’s proposed legislation that potentially allows him to reset term limits to remain in office and further secure his political influence beyond the year 2024. Once Russia’s Constitutional Court has approved the legislative changes (which it almost certainly will), the Russian population will be able to formally accept the changes in a nationwide plebiscite on April 22. This week’s graph uses V-Dem online analysis tools to highlight rising presidentialism amidst declines in civil society and overall levels of electoral democracy in Russia. 

In a recently published paper, V-Dem visiting scholar Alexander Taaning Grundholm shows that personalist dictators – like Putin – are especially vulnerable to popular uprisings. Ordinarily, this is a more probable avenue for a challenge against Putin than an elite-led coup. However, it does not seem very likely that opposition actors will be able to mobilize a broad-based popular uprising against Putin anytime in the foreseeable future. Civil society has been severely weakened in Russia under Putin, which reduces the mobilizational capacity of opposition actors. Since taking power 20 years ago, Putin has gradually concentrated political influence in his own hands to the point where he now has virtually unchecked exercise of power. This personalization of power coincides with an increased autocratization of the Russian political regime. 

Both of these developments can be visualized using V-Dem data. In the graph below, Putin’s power concentration process is captured using V-Dem’s Presidentialism Index, which measures the extent to which political power in a country is concentrated in the hands of one individual. The level of power concentration in Russia has increased steadily since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, beginning under Yeltsin and increasing even further under Putin, to the point where we are approaching the theoretical maximum on the Presidentialism Index. 

The parallel autocratic increase of the regime is captured using the Electoral Democracy Index, which measures the extent to which the political regime is characterized by free and fair elections, extensive suffrage, and respect for basic civil liberties. At the end of the Cold War, Russia started out with a democracy score just below 0.5 on the 0-1 index. Its score has gradually declined since then and is now just about 0.25 – i.e. a decrease by 50%.

By employing V-Dem’s Core Civil Society Index – which measures the robustness of civil society in a country – we can see a steep decline in the strength of civil society in Russia, from a fairly high level of 0.75 in 1992 to a rather low level of just above 0.25 in 2018.

These three developments minimize the probability of successful challenges against Putin by democratizers. At this point, he has amassed so much personal power that it is highly improbable that other members of the political elite will be able to unseat him in a coup – or even dare attempting to do so. In addition, if the weakness of civil society in Russia persists, we are likely to see a continuation of the autocratic reign of Vladimir Putin into the foreseeable future.

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If you want to learn more about country-specific indicator variables, visit v-dem.net for more detailed analyses.

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