Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia January 20, 2020. Photo Credit: Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin.
On January 16, 2020, the world awoke to the news that the entire Russian government had resigned in response to President Vladimir Putin’s constitutional reforms announced in his address to the Federal Assembly the previous night. While affirming the need for a strong presidential model, he proposed seemingly counterintuitive measures that would transfer power to the Duma (the state’s parliament), such as the ability to appoint the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers, and also suggested vesting stronger powers in the state Security Council, among other amendments.[i] Though most public analysis has focused on what this could mean for Putin’s ability to remain in power, the impact on Russian governance and its citizens–particularly women–has been notably absent from the narrative. This column will bridge this gap by arguing that the new constitutional amendments will enable a more feminist government, and in so doing, ensure Putin’s political power and increase Russia’s legitimacy as a great power competitor with the West.
The first step for Russia to build a more competitive, feminist society should be embarking on an aggressive domestic policy agenda to increase women’s rights and participation. Valeria Hudson’s landmark research found that one of the prime indicators of a state’s peacefulness is its gender equality or lack thereof.[ii] Similarly, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy reports that women’s equality is more determinative of a state’s sustainability than democracy or even the country’s gross domestic product.[iii] Russian women account for the majority of the country’s population (54%),[iv] yet by virtue of their political representation, they share only about 14% of the decisionmaking power. Despite gaining the right to vote in 1917,[v] women in Russia only comprise 61 of the 450 Duma seats as of 2018.[vi] Additionally, Russian women still only bring home 70% of what Russian men earn due to a clear gender pay gap, unnecessarily constraining the Russian economy.[vii] Removing these barriers to gender equality will cultivate a more inclusive, productive society vital to building momentum for Russia’s great power status in the international community.
The second step Russia should take is working to eliminate gender-based and sexual violence. The United Nations reports that about 35 million women worldwide have experienced sexual violence,[viii] and Human Rights Watch estimates a minimum of 12,000 Russian women die each year due to violence at the hands of their partners.[ix] Yet Russia decriminalized domestic violence in 2017 for all cases that do not result in broken bones or occur more than once per year.[x] In Russia, it seems, it is acceptable to hurt women, so long as it is not too violent or frequent. But “secure states do not automatically correspond with secure people; in fact, secure states can also render [their] own people insecure.”[xi] If Russia is to reinvent its gender norms, it will require reversing edicts like these that exacerbate divides in society. Realistically, this will also require women in positions of power championing these reforms, which brings us back to the issue of Putin’s new investments in parliamentary power.
This column realizes that Russia is nowhere near considering true feminist principles. In a country where “feminist” is a dirty word,[xii] it would be laughable to argue that an outright feminist agenda would gain traction—and yet, even without the name “feminist,” the results would be the same. Nearly all the commentary on Putin’s suggested constitutional amendments refer to an overwhelming plot for Putin’s self-interest to remain in power. In the system he has devised, President Putin is effectively the state. His self-interests guide Russia’s strategy, policy, and actions. A man heralded for his masculinity worldwide would likely never adopt feminist-oriented policies—and yet, it may be the prerequisite to what he seeks.
Guided by feminist values, Russia would see increased levels of participation from the 78 million women who call the country home.[xiii] Their inclusion in political decisionmaking would open a gateway for passing intersectional policies that address racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. In this framework, individual security bolsters Russian security; increased stability translates to state influence. What Vladimir Putin knows and has expertly exploited throughout his political career is that the kingmaker is the king in Russian politics. Increasing women’s rights and political participation would be a favorable component of Putin’s legacy, cementing his cult of personality. Supervising this transformational change would surely still allow him to pull the strings behind the scenes, assuring his permanence in political power.
With more women in government and a feminist domestic policy agenda, Vladimir Putin would achieve one of his most coveted goals: beating the West at their own game. After interfering in electoral politics to sow divisions in the United States, his government could ensure equal rights for Russian citizens. After exciting political divides that led to the #MeToo movement, his government could protect women from sexual violence. And after completely disassembling his own government, Vladimir Putin holds the keys to the empowered feminist state most Western countries only dream of, now conveniently enabled by his own lust for power. Like so many other cautionary tales, Putin’s hubris could be the key to his undoing. But feminist reforms implemented through the Duma’s newfound power have the potential to transform the Russian regime, improve living conditions for Russian women, and will ultimately enable the state to be a more competitive international leader. Increasing female representation in public service could surpass western participation rates, creating a platform of legitimacy for more democratic governance worldwide. A feminist society is what Russia needs to succeed at home and abroad–the only question that remains is when Putin will seize this opportunity.
[i] Vladimir Isachenkov, “Putin Engineers Surprise Russian Political Shakeup That Could Keep Him in Power Longer,” TIME, January 15, 2020, https://time.com/5765369/russia-prime-minister-medvedev-government-resigns/.
[ii] Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, “Feminist Foreign Policy.”
[iii] Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, “Feminist Foreign Policy.”
[v] Amie Ferris-Rotman, “Putin’s War on Women,” Foreign Policy, April 9, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/09/putins-war-on-women/.
[vi] Loretta Marie Perera, “Russia’s Feminists Work to Smash the Taboo,” The Moscow Times, February 21, 2018, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2018/02/21/smashing-the-taboo-a60587.
[vii] Francesca Ebel, “In Russia, Gender Equality is Still a Long Way Off,” AP, March 8, 2019, https://apnews.com/70499d77d5bd4ea3b4462d32907420d4.
[viii] “Facts and Figures: Ending Violence Against Women,” What We Do, UN Women, November 2019, https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures.
[ix]Ebel, “In Russia”; Ferris-Rotman, “Putin’s War.”
[x] Ferris-Rotman, “Putin’s War on Women.”
[xi] Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, “Feminist Foreign Policy.”
[xii] Zena Chamas, “What’s Behind Vladimir Putin’s Government Shakeup and Why Officials Quit? What You Need to Know,” ABC, January 16, 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-17/what-you-need-to-know-about-putins-government-shakeup/11874726; Ferris-Rotman, “Putin’s War.”
[xiii] Perera, “Russia’s Feminists.”