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Zirpoli: Leaders who abuse power weaken democracies

The Russian constitution states that Russia is a democracy with power divided among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

Sounds like our Constitution, doesn’t it? America also has — or is supposed to have — three equal branches of government divided among the legislative (Congress), executive (president), and judicial branches (courts). Russia has shown us, however, how such a democratic system can be destroyed by executive abuse of power.

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When Vladimir Putin was first elected president in 2000, the Russian constitution prevented the president from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms. This is 2020 and Putin is still President of Russia. I’ll let you do the math.

Clearly, Putin has manipulated the system to maintain power. When he reached his first term limit in 2008, after two, four-year terms in office, Putin hatched a simple plan to stay in power. He had his appointed prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s former chief of staff, run for president. After Medvedev won — more on the corrupted Russian election system later — he appointed Putin to be his prime minister. Then, by amending the Russian constitution, Putin sifted much of the power of the office of the presidency to the office of prime minister.

Pretty clever, right? As one Russian expert stated, Putin could be named secretary of agriculture and he would still be running the country.

From 2008 to 2012, Medvedev was president of Russia, but in name only. Then, after his first four-year term, Medvedev stepped aside so that Putin could run again for president for a third term. After Putin won — surprise — he appointed Medvedev to be his prime minister for a second time.

Putin then had the Russian Parliament amend the constitution, again, changing the president’s term from four years to six years.

After completing a third term from 2012 to 2018, Putin will complete a fourth term in 2024.

Technically, Russia has elections. But, only candidates who support Putin are determined to be eligible to run for federal positions.

Also, Putin controls all the television stations, print media, and radio stations. Reporters who try to report on government corruption are frequently found dead. Predictably, on March 18, 2018, Putin secured 77% of the vote for his fourth term as president.

Last week we learned that Putin was already planning on how to manipulate — some would say abuse— the system in order to stay in power after 2024. He announced more amendments to the Russian constitution which would increase the powers of the Russian parliament and the cabinet. Another constitutional change will be to forbid the president from sitting out a term and rerun for president as Putin did between 2008 and 2012. It was good for Putin, but not for anyone else, it appears. Russian experts are predicting that Putin will carve out a new position for himself, perhaps as prime minister, again.

Putin has clearly violated the spirit of the Russian constitution and destroyed any hope of democracy in Russia while he is alive. And if he transfers most of his presidential powers to his new office, whatever it may be after 2024, he is likely to maintain his power over the government and nation.

In preparation for 2024, Putin dismissed his government, including Medvedev, who will step down as Russia’s prime minister so Putin can implement his plan. Medvedev said, “The government should provide the president of our country with the opportunity to make all the decisions necessary for this.”

As you can see, Medvedev is Putin’s Lindsey Graham. He and other Russian politicians understand that they stay in power only by the grace of Putin. Medvedev’s loyalty to Putin will be rewarded with a new position of his own: deputy head of Russia’s presidential security council.

Democracy is fragile and cannot be taken for granted. Putin is an example of how authoritarian leaders keep themselves in power, even as they pretend to follow a constitutional government. While efforts by the executive branch to abuse power should be a red flag, a more serious red flag is when members of other branches of the government go along for political expediency.

Russia is Exhibit A on how democracies die. It is up to us to make sure America does not become Exhibit B anytime soon.

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Tom Zirpoli is the program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster. His column appears on Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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