The list of countries at the apparent risk of Putinization continues to expand according to op-eds and think pieces online and in the media. But what exactly are the features of Putinization according to these articles and is there any consensus among them on what it stands for? Is a new spectre haunting Eurasia and beyond - the spectre of Putinization? Or is Putinization just a buzzword which works well as clickbait, but simply means whatever an author needs it to mean?
In the past year, stories have appeared about the prospect of Putinization in countries as diverse as Poland, Turkey, Israel and Sri Lanka. In 2012 a Freedom House report generated headlines worldwide with its reference to the Putinization of Hungary and Ukraine. Similar concerns have been raised throughout Central Europe and the Balkans. Further afield, the possibility of the Putinization of Mexico has been proposed, and even in the United States a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post concluded that: “Trump’s version of American nationalism without reference to American principles is Putinism by another name.”
How is Putinization operationalized in these articles? Occasionally the word is simply used to suggest the development of authoritarian tendencies, but with no real specifics about these developments. In some there is a particular reference to restrictive media laws and erosion of freedom of speech as symptoms of Putinization. More broadly there appear to be two particular trends.
In many articles, particularly about countries outside Europe, Putinization has been characterized as the personalization of power around a strongman president. Sometimes this features a cartel of political, business and bureaucratic elites, often accompanied by a dominant pro-presidential party in parliament.
More recently, in debates about Europe especially, articles mentioning Putinization appear to use it to represent populism, nationalism and ‘traditional values’. From governing parties, to the European far right, to American presidential candidates, this is the Putinization of political ideas rather than the constitutions or institutions of states.
This note suggests that the use of the term Putinization to describe developments in a country can mean either evidence of the increasing authoritarian tendencies of a strong leader in a political system, or a rise in populist rhetoric and intolerance in mainstream political debates. Does their reference to Putin in particular offer any deeper insight? In most cases no. If Putin did not exist, headline writers might adopt the term Erdoganization instead, for example.
At times a specifically Putinesque element can be identified. In (re-)shaping a political system it might involve a key role for the secret services, as seen with the siloviki under Putin in Russia. Meanwhile in the sense of the ideas and attitudes, commentators might suggest that Russia is actively pursuing the Putinization of European politics with Putin held up as a champion of the conservative and traditional values of ‘authentic’ Europe.
As a postscript, it is interesting to note that in Russia itself there are times when a completely different term has been used to explain what has been happening there. Rather than Putinization, there has been talk of the Lukashenization of Russia, in reference to President Lukashenka, Europe’s erstwhile ‘last dictator’ in neighbouring Belarus.