Welcome to the first chapter of Motherland Russia. In today’s episode, I will analyze the deeply rooted kleptocracy of Putin’s Russia and how it benefits the beloved President, especially by being extended abroad.
Before I dive into the foreign policy implications, let me explain why Mr Putin is having such a great time with his kleptocratic country.
Russia is a perfect environment for these practices to spread.
Even though kleptocrats are increasingly present in democracies, Russia is a perfect environment for these practices to spread. Why? Because there is a real need for survival. Russian elites desperately want to stay in power; especially Putin, who might as well be considered the most powerful man in the Russian Federation.
The way the Russian system works allows for a small number of individuals that collectively work to enrich themselves through gathering the majority of the power and resources, which is not the case in democracies since the decision-making powers are divided among a greater number of representatives and institutions. Nevertheless, corruption is widely spread throughout the main decision institutions and individuals in both systems, no matter if they are from the public or the private sector.
Putin enjoys economic and socio-political advantages over the average citizen.
Thanks to the way the system was designed, men like Putin enjoy economic and socio-political advantages over the average citizen that make their positions their main asset. Basically, Putin, his main advisors and his close colleagues in power would not have acquired a big part of their economic and social privileges if they had not reached their political status. These advantages are significantly reduced in other countries, especially in full-democracies, just by the mere existence and upholding of both civil and human rights (or at least, that is what we hope). This is not the case in Russia, since, for instance, Putin has not been fairly democratically elected for… a while (following Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2019 report).
Wealth distribution in Russia clearly shows how the system benefits Putin.
To put this into numbers: In January of 2019, the Meduza (a Lativian newspaper) reported: “the richest 1% of the population controls more than a third of Russia’s wealth, the poor are getting poorer, and most of the wealth produced domestically is hoarded and invested abroad.” Russia is still better in terms of inequality than the US, states the OECD, so it’s not like Western democratic countries are way superior in this aspect.
And now, let’s talk about the foreign policy implications of the kleptocracy.
Within the 1% of wealthy Russians, their dear president holds the control of the main contributing factors of GDP in the country – natural gas. And guess who makes foreign policy decisions on resource-based motives in order to keep the “throne” and the system from failing? Yup, you are right: Vladimir Putin. The most recent example: his Russian involvement in Libya. Libya is nowadays a pretty unstable country, but it also is the richest country in Africa in terms of oil. The result? We have a foreign leader (Putin) meddling in Libyan political internal affairs in order to tip the balance towards a beneficial outcome for Russia’s economic relations with the African state.
The intervention in Libya is not only due to the abundant Libyan oil but also because of the Kremlin’s intentions to increase influence and power in Africa and the Middle East. This is mainly due to natural resources, trade and the quest for international allies (as well as securing a strong Russian presence abroad to maintain the world power high up in the ranking of big and scary countries). The truth is that political reasons are as salient as economic ones. Nevertheless, what led the Russians to intervene in Libyan affairs were, primarily, economic incentives.
We must remember many of Putin’s actions come from a largely mysterious background since Russia is not famous for its transparency. Sure, statesmen keep their foreign policy decisions “top secret”. However, it is common knowledge that this aggressive foreign policymaking (especially aggressive towards Western countries and institutions like the UN, since it undermines its credibility) is a means to maintain Russia’s kleptocracy alive (in the end, Russian GDP is entirely dependent on its natural resources).
Furthermore, the world’s paradigm is shifting. As you know, Russia was one of the leaders of the two major blocs during the Cold War. Thus it is in Putin’s best interest to use the imminent fall of the US hegemony and its political impotence to achieve the level of recognition and salience that Russia once had.
Overall, I have provided you with a few reasons why Russia’s leader and his closest colleagues would like to establish a kleptocratic regime, mainly the desire to keep their positions and to grab a bigger piece of the economic Russian cake. Russia’s kleptocracy might only be an element that influences the imbalance of power in the country; or it might be a direct consequence of the complex political, economic and social system put in place after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I hope you enjoyed this piece and write to you soon!