We're no longer referring to Putin as "president". Why not, and why it matters

Tuesday, 19 March 2024 — , European Pravda
Photo: AFP/East News
Putin has joined Lukashenko in the group of leaders who have lost legitimacy but continue to govern the state. However, there is a fundamental difference between them

In the Russian Federation there is no president in the traditional sense of the word.

There is a "tsar and god" whom the absolute majority of society supports and worships, while the rest tolerate him. Public opponents of the regime in Russia are not just a minority but a negligible group in numbers, a fact acknowledged even by opponents of the Russian regime.

Meanwhile, the events of last week that Moscow refers to as "presidential elections" have raised questions about Putin's current status.

One of these questions is how to refer to him in the Ukrainian media.

"Grand Ayatollah Vladimir Putin" is how he has been aptly named by Leonid Nevzlin, a former (now disgraced) Russian oligarch and member of the Russian Federation Council, drawing an analogy with Iran, where, although secular authorities and elections officially exist, the real leader is the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Regardless of whether the supreme ayatollah is the president at any given time or whether he allows someone else to hold this position, he remains Iran's leader, unchanged for almost 35 years.

But change is long overdue.

We, in our editorial office, believe that Putin has lost his legitimacy. He is no longer recognised internationally as the leader of Russia.

From today, 19 March 2024, the outlets of the Ukrainska Pravda group will not use the word "president" to refer to Vladimir Putin. 

Instead, we are publicly declaring which terms we consider acceptable to describe this person, explaining why we find others unacceptable, and also announcing changes in terminology that we are expecting in May.

This change is justified. And it is important not only from a moral standpoint, but also as a further punishment of the Russian ruler for the international crimes he has committed in office – crimes supported by the vast majority of Russian citizens.

The Lukashenko experience

The Ukrainian media faced a similar challenge in 2020 after the most recent "election" of Alexander Lukashenko, which was accompanied by unprecedented levels of violations before and after voting. These events deprived the Belarusian dictator of any remnants of social legitimacy.

Back then, European Pravda and Ukrainska Pravda were the first Ukrainian media outlets to declare a joint and detailed position regarding our change in terminology for the leader of Belarus. Immediately after the "elections" and the wave of violence by Belarusian security forces, we introduced a ponderous term: Lukashenko was referred to as the "person performing the duties of the president of Belarus" until his inauguration.

After his inauguration, Lukashenko became the "self-proclaimed president". We still refer to him only by that term.

Because the citizens of Belarus did not elect him.

And it's not just us: many other journalists immediately adopted this approach. Many politicians, including those in the West, changed their terminology later. In Ukraine, it became mainstream, with even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs using this descriptor.

But back to the elections in Russia.

There are some similarities between the "elections" of the president of the Russian Federation and those in Belarus in 2020. These "elections" also cast doubt on the legitimacy of Vladimir Putin going forward. This isn’t just our assessment. Similar statements are being made at the political level – from the US Senate to the governments of the Baltic states.

Why Putin has lost legitimacy

Several circumstances politically undermine Putin's legitimacy.

He did not have the right to nominate himself for a third consecutive presidential term. 

Putin was first elected as the head of the Russian state in 2000, re-elected in 2004, and then forced to take a four-year break, during which he governed the state as the prime minister. In 2012, Putin returned to office as the president, extending his term from four to six years to avoid a re-election too soon. He was re-elected again in 2018 and immediately began to consider his future in 2024. Putin was afraid to hand over the presidency to someone else as he had in 2008, so he made some legally questionable amendments to the Russian constitution, which stipulated that the maximum of two consecutive terms would not apply to him.

This provoked outrage from lawyers, even under the conditions of Russian censorship. But, predictably, nothing came of it. However, this now gives the international community, and Ukraine in particular, a significant argument for decision-making.

Furthermore, the level of violations during the recent "elections" was extreme.

The opposition in Russia (as in Belarus) was purged long ago, leaving no alternatives to Putin other than fully Kremlin-controlled caricatures of parties like the Communists, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (formerly led by Zhirinovsky), or A Just Russia. But this time, Putin's fear of opponents went even further, forcing him to expunge all non-government-approved candidates from the ballot papers. And let's not forget the assassination of Navalny: regardless of the (justified) attitude towards him in Ukraine, his death was another blow to the legitimacy of the Putin regime.

The voting rules were changed before the elections to add electronic and early voting, which in Russia were already considered discredited. And journalistic investigations using mathematical models to identify the most blatant ballot box stuffing show that between a third and half of the votes in Putin's "elections" were most likely fabricated.

There was also a massive election process in the occupied territories.

This problem is not new. Russia has been illegally forcing the residents of occupied Crimea to vote in federal elections since 2014. This time, the occupied parts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts were added. Ukrainian citizens live there under the constant threat of extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture, etc. The occupying authorities reported a large number of eager voters and claimed that about 90% of the votes were for Putin's "re-election".

Putin also lacks international legitimacy, since he has become an internationally wanted criminal in most of the world.

Of course there is no legal right to call Putin a criminal until a court verdict is reached, but there are more than enough political and social grounds to do so. The world has long had no doubts about Putin's guilt of the international crime of aggression. The only question is how to hold him accountable. The Kremlin leader has been further undermined by the International Criminal Court's warrant for his arrest in the blatantly evident case of the abduction of Ukrainian children (an element of one of the forms of genocide). 124 countries – the majority of the world – are ICC members and have committed to recognising its decisions.

The list could go on. Each point, taken separately, probably isn't sufficient reason to declare Putin illegitimate. But together, they create sufficient grounds for that statement.

That’s even more true for Ukraine, the Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian media. It would be strange and unnatural in the extreme to continue recognising Putin as "president" after his "election" under such conditions, with Ukrainians voting at gunpoint under occupation. Even some Western partners have declared Putin's loss of legitimacy. The most interesting is the official statement by a spokesperson for the German Foreign Ministry, who announced that Berlin has stopped referring to Putin as president.

So who is Putin now (besides being an international criminal)? There is no obvious answer to that.

A criminal ruler of a criminal state and people.

Although there are some similarities to 2020, it would be wrong to take the same approach to Russia and Putin as we do to Belarus.

There is an important difference between the "election of Lukashenko" then and this year's "election of Putin".

The "elections" in Belarus and the illegal declaration of Lukashenko as "president" were accompanied by incredible protests. Over a million voters participated in rallies at their peak, despite the real danger of being remanded in custody (over 35,000 people were arrested during the protests), criminal prosecution, and even being beaten to death by the police. 

The public sentiment displayed during the elections and the events that followed created significant reasonable doubt that Lukashenko could have counted on being re-elected had there been free voting and fair vote counting.

The way he has retained power – using the police and state means to suppress protests – cements Lukashenko’s status as a dictator and tyrant, who can and must be separated from the people subject to him. This also confirms that the term "self-proclaimed president" is absolutely justified with respect to him.

It would not, however, be correct with respect to Putin.

The difference is that the Russian ruler, unlike Lukashenko, retains unquestionable authority among the majority of Russian citizens. We have not seen million-strong protests since the elections in Russia, even though the population of the Russian Federation is ten times bigger than that of Belarus.

Even if Putin did not receive as many votes as claimed, there is no doubt that if the votes were counted fairly, he would still win the elections in Russia in the first round. Not with 87%, but with only a slightly lower percentage – and with a lower turnout, because the claim of a 77% turnout is unscientific fiction.

But support for Putin per se raises no objections from either sociologists or the Western diplomats or independent journalists who remain in Russia.

Russians also broadly support the war against Ukraine, a fact that has been confirmed over and over. This is a war of the Russians against Ukraine. It’s not just "Putin's war".

So any terminology that separates Putin from his nation and lays the blame solely on him, distorting the responsibility of ordinary Russians, is incorrect. That is why even after Putin's next inauguration, we will not use the term "self-proclaimed president". That would be incorrect. 

Putin may have lost the right to be elected, and lost his legitimacy as the president of the Russian Federation, but he remains the leader of the Russian state.

How we will refer to Putin and the Russian government

To emphasise that we no longer recognise Putin's legitimacy but do not deny his leadership in Russia, European Pravda and other outlets of the Ukrainska Pravda group have agreed on the following descriptors for Putin:

  1. The ruler of the Russian Federation (or Russia, which is synonymous).
  2. The leader of the Russian Federation or the Kremlin leader.
  3. The chief of the Russian Federation or the Kremlin chief.
  4. The head of the Russian Federation/Kremlin.
  5. The de facto leader of the Russian Federation (this last option, though perhaps complex, is the most appropriate in Western terminology and emphasises Putin's illegitimacy).

This is not a complete list. Other terms may be used depending on the context. But Vladimir Putin is no longer the President of the Russian Federation.

After Putin's next inauguration, set to be held on 7 May 2024, the terminology used for him will remain unchanged, but there will be some slight amendments, as the Russian government will resign on that day. The illegitimate "president" Putin will then need to appoint a new prime minister, deputy prime ministers, and key ministers.

The new "government" of Russia will also lose its legitimacy, and the ministers will not be legally appointed. So it will be more appropriate to refer to them in the news using terms like "the de facto government", "illegitimate government", "illegitimate minister" and so on, or to describe the functions of the ministers (such as "the head of Russian diplomacy").

Yes, this may be cumbersome, but it is a more accurate reflection of reality. And that really matters.

Putin's place is in The Hague, not the Kremlin

"Putin's legitimate place is to be in The Hague as a war criminal. Violations of international law in conducting so-called 'elections' in the occupied territories, forcing people to participate in these so-called 'elections'... we understand that this is a farce," Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna said after the so-called "elections" in the Russian Federation.

However, despite an ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court, there is a serious obstacle to holding several Russian officials accountable.

International law even has a special term, "troika", for those who enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution while lawfully performing their duties. The "troika" consists of the president, the prime minister, and the foreign minister. Other senior officials are sometimes also included. There is also the concept of "functional immunity", which protects officials from prosecution while they legitimately hold positions and follow the instructions of the leadership.

These immunities are not absolute, but overcoming them is not easy. In particular, the negotiations on creating a special tribunal for the crime of aggression against Ukraine (also known as the "tribunal against Putin") is currently facing this obstacle. Everyone knows who should be in the dock, but some states oppose the precedent of holding "troika" representatives accountable. So the current Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, the Goebbels of racism, travels the world calmly with no fear of arrest.

If we manage to convince the world that Putin and his government have lost their legitimacy, then this immunity will vanish.

It’s not going to be easy, but who if not Ukraine should publicly launch this process? We anticipate that recognising the illegitimacy of Putin and his team will become the position not only of the Ukrainska Pravda group, but also the whole of the Ukrainian media and the Ukrainian state – even in official statements by the president and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Finally, another no less important consequence will be that this will provide an opportunity for Ukraine to clearly and officially state that any negotiations with Putin are meaningless.

We cannot negotiate future actions with the Russian Federation and sign agreements with a person whose legitimacy Ukraine expressly denies.

Given that attempts to push Ukraine into such negotiations in the future are very likely, steps to create such safeguards should be taken now. There are more than enough reasons and grounds to do this.

Sergiy Sydorenko, European Pravda

This article reflects the common position of the editorial board of the Ukrainska Pravda group

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