The Perpetual Reign of Vladimir Putin

1 minute read

Barring some unlikely turn of events, Vladimir Putin seems poised, courtesy of thinly veiled constitutional manipulations, to solidify his perpetual grasp on power in Russia. And, despite an element of courageous (and sometimes short-lived) opposition, he will do so with the support of a majority of Russians.

Putin is plainly not the only populist and nationalistic strongman to emerge in recent years, and frankly Russia has a tradition of admiration for strong leaders and a very thin history of voluntary withdrawals from power. But the reality of majority support for such leaders, often expressed through forms of voting, raises the question of whether they measure up to the core governance principle of legitimacy.

Admittedly, while legitimacy is a non-negotiable element of good governance, strictly speaking it is about general acceptance of a regime rather than particular processes. Thus Max Weber described “traditional” forms of authority (check out the dei gratia reginainscription on Canada’s coinage) and “charismatic” forms (think of Mussolini, Mao and Che Guevara), in addition to “rational-legal” forms like electoral democracy. That said, most modern leaders, Putin included, prefer to claim democratic legitimacy.

But in fact Putin miserably fails the democratic legitimacy test even as low-in-the-polls leaders in truly democratic systems pass it. First, a litmus test for legitimacy is the general acceptance of a government’s decisions even by those who disagree with them. The willingness of Putin’s opposition to suffer harassment (and worse) suggests he has a real problem here. This reflects the absence of “voice” – a genuine opportunity for all stakeholders to be fairly heard and their dignity respected. Historically, dictators have often used plebiscites, enjoying large and even enthusiastic majorities. But heaven help you if you were in the minority.

Putin’s brand of legitimacy and supposed democracy is wholly incompatible with other principles of good governance – transparency, accountability, and equity. It is all but impossible, especially at the level of national leadership, to have meaningful accountability without a democratic reckoning in which opponents get a fair shake. And it is equally impossible for a system like Putin’s, which relies on a pseudo-democratic veneer, to function without the systemic corruption of institutions and free media.

Elections and majority rule alone do not a free society make.

About the author

Karl Salgo

Karl Salgo

Executive Director - Public Governance

As Executive Director of Public Governance, Karl provides advisory services to multiple levels of government (provincial, federal and international) on all aspects of public sector governance, including institutional capacity, the center of government, organizational design and effectiveness, accountability, oversight, and risk management. He also plays a lead role in the IOG's research initiatives, including the work of the Public Governance Exchange, a syndicated, multi-jurisdictional forum for developing and exchanging ideas on public sector governance. Additionally, Karl provides educational services to public servants and appointees on a broad range of subjects, ranging from policy development and MC preparation to political savvy and the operations of government, to the responsibilities of directors in a wide range of public institutions.

A career public servant, Karl has degrees in political science, history and law from the University of Toronto and in public administration from the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies. He worked for many years in the federal Department of Finance, in areas as diverse as tax policy, communications and financial markets. In the latter capacity, Karl helped to establish the governance framework for the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and later served as Chief of Capital Markets Policy.

From 2004 to 2012, Karl worked in the Privy Council Office’s Machinery of Government Secretariat, where he provided advice to the Clerk of the Privy Council and the Prime Minister on the organization and structure of the Government of Canada – the Cabinet, portfolios, and the creation, winding-up and governance of individual organizations.

As Director of Strategic Policy from 2007 to 2012, Karl was the secretariat’s lead authority on Crown corporation governance, the conventions of the Westminster system, and the conduct standards applicable to ministers and other senior public office holders. Karl was the author/editor of numerous PCO publications, including Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State and Guidance for Deputy Ministers. Actively involved in realizing the myriad governance and accountability changes that flowed from the Federal Accountability Act, Karl played a lead role in the design and implementation of the accounting officer mechanism of deputy minister accountability.

LinkedIn613-562-0090 ext. 239