Putin Poised for Political Liberalization

An interview with Sergei Markov by Filip Memches

The protests of the urban middle class are a result of an improvement in their living standards. You could compare it—which is not to be taken literally—to a rebellion of those who own a Hyundai against those who own a Mercedes— says Sergei Markov, the Kremlin’s leading “political technologist” in an interview with Filip Memches.

On the day before Vladimir Putin was sworn in as Russian president, Moscow saw mass protests. They were part of non-parliamentarian opposition activities, continued on and off since last December, triggered by reports of electoral fraud. But 8 and 12 years ago, when Putin was taking office no one protested. Does that mean that Russia has changed?

The reason for this situation is Vladimir Putin himself. Both in the positive, as well as in the negative sense. In the 90’s Russia went through an enormous disaster spurred by the fall of the Soviet Union, which you might consider a Russian Holocaust.

Isn’t that too drastic a comparison? You seem to be exaggerating.

In that case let me enumerate some facts. In the 90’s we saw a dramatic drop in population. It was as if Russia started to naturally die out. In the course of 10 years the population went down by about 15 million. This catastrophe was caused by the lousy healthcare system, which back then was on the brink of disaster after the USSR had fallen apart. A number of pensioners, who did not manage to receive medical assistance in time, died unnecessarily. The fertility rate dropped, the economic structures of the Russian Federation were in decline. The industry collapsed, just like the education system, culture, morality and the family. All these factors took a heavy toll on the quality of life of the citizens. And so from this angle you can speak of a gigantic demographic and social catastrophe.

That seems to belong to the distant past however, what about the present situation?

Putin managed to counteract the repercussions of the disaster of the 90’s, which allowed him to gain the trust of the Russian people. Political life returned to its normal course. Just like the condition of the state. And this is the primary reason behind the current protests.

Are you saying that people are rushing to the streets to manifest their discontent with what you are calling a normal political life? That is rather odd.

Well, in fact, yes. They have growing aspirations. Let me move on to the second reason. Putin wants the middle class to develop in Russia. But once it has been shaped and had their basic needs satisfied by Putin’s cabinet, like security and comfort, in line with Maslow’s theory, it started to crave self-realization. And this constitutes the third reason. Reason number four is related to the generational change. Each generation, at some point, wants to gain independence. And it is now that the next generation is articulating their need to have a say.

And what is your personal view on these developments?

A generational shift like the one we are facing now is completely normal. The fifth reason is connected with changes in the political agenda. What you now need to do is to be on the offensive at one point and on the defensive on another; to counteract the crisis and then, again, to stimulate growth. And so it seems there is a fight going on over the agenda, a fight in which various political and social groups are involved. Each of them has their own vision of how the state should be governed under these new circumstances. Actually, the list of factors has no end. For instance, the attempt to apply so-called “orange technologies” as was the case during the colored revolutions in former Soviet republics. The idea is that groups supported by foreign sponsors organize social dissatisfaction protests and in this way try to influence election results, driving masses to the streets, as was the case in Ukraine in 2004.

But the street protests are actually restricted to Moscow and Petersburg. Do you anticipate a spill-over effect to the periphery?

The problems people in Russia are facing are the same in all its regions. They are: enormous corruption, poor technological development and lack of trust in public institutions. Yet the boisterous and active minority is in Moscow. This is the urban middle class. And their demands can be described as already post-economic. Whereas the demands in the periphery are typically economic. The protests of the urban middle class are a result of an improvement in their living standards. This could be compared with the Orange Revolution, often referred to as a rebellion of millionaires against billionaires. In the case of the Russian opposition you could compare it—which is not to be taken literally—to a rebellion of those who own a Hyundai against those who own a Mercedes.

Couldn’t the fight over the agenda be led according to the rules of the democratic game? After all, the current Russian regime suppresses protests with brutality and their participants land in jail.

These are just tales which the European media keep feeding us. No one goes to prison due to the fact that they’ve participated in a protest. The police are being very delicate here, definitely more considerate than the police in France or in the USA.

What about the detention of opposition leaders Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov?

The arrested are those who have clearly violated the law on mass gatherings. In the case of the protest on the 6th of May what happened was a provocation on the eve of presidential inauguration of Vladimir Putin.

And yet this is not the only controversy. Let’s leave it there. Why did Vladimir Putin decide to become president again?

He is the most popular person in Russia. Most Russians accept him in office. And this is enough. Putin is quite an energetic person. He does have loads of plans. He is determined to continue his reforms. Can you name any Polish politician who has the immense level of public support which Putin enjoys in Russia, and who could win an election in the first round? I don’t think there is one.

Does that mean Dmitri Medvedev proved to be a poor president?

He proved to be a mediocre president. There were no major slip-ups, obviously in comparison with Boris Yeltsin or Mikhail Gorbachev he fared well. But Putin is a very good president. Compared to him, not only Medvedev comes out less favorably. You could name here many other leaders like, for example, Donald Tusk.

People had high hopes Medvedev would liberalize Russia. Was this soft picture of him, as compared with the image of president Putin, just a game?

Back then it was not about liberalization but rather about closer relations with the West which could in turn lead to Russia’s modernization. Those were only some mediocre experts telling stories about liberalization, but there were no such plans. Yet, the West rejected Russia’s offer to get closer. An extreme example of this was the war in Southern Ossetia and the support of Western states for Mikheil Saakashvili. Also, you can refer here to General Motors’ blocking the sale of Opel to Russian Spierbank so that technologies do not enter Russia. And so, with the West deliberately blocking technological development of Russia, why unite with it?

How do you envision Vladimir’s Putin third term in office as president?

On the one hand you should expect continuation of his previous reforms. On the other, the agenda has changed. As I said, earlier the agenda was focused on combating the crisis, now the time has come for a growth agenda. Moreover, his activity in the social field was negligible, whereas now it has been obviously intensified. I presume, with regard to economy there will be more state involvement, more stimulation of industry and counteracting social issues. But you need to keep in mind that this has nothing to do with Putin himself. It’s just that the liberal economic model proved to be a total disaster in the whole world.

Does that mean hardening also with respect to political matters?

No, in this field you should expect liberalization.

Can Russia afford it?

Increasing socially-oriented activities requires more liberal legislation.

But if the state is to be more active in the economy, the group at risk of harassment should be the oligarchs…

The oligarchic nature of capitalism is a serious issue in Russia. The thing is that among Russian oligarchs there are no people who are hostile towards the state. And fighting with friendly oligarchs is rather troublesome.

You are a critic of the Western policy towards Russia. What do you think Russian-American relations will look like under Putin’s presidency?

Vladimir Putin has at the moment a far better attitude towards President Barack Obama than he used to have four years ago. In principle, Russian- American relations have not deteriorated. And now, as president, Putin has more leeway so there is a chance to develop better partner relations. Yet a number of problems come up. One of them is connected with the American anti-missile system development in Europe. Also, the aggressive Middle-East policy pursued by Europe. I mean the bombardment of Libya here. In order to remove Gaddafi from power, the Americans supported local radical fundamentalist groups. A similar scenario might be repeated in the case of Syria— that’s what they are attempting to do. You also need to mention the pressure exerted on Iran with regard to nuclear weapons here. But something else is crucial in Moscow-Washington relations: the issue of the USA blocking post-Soviet states from entering a customs union with Russia. It especially applies to Ukraine. Moreover, the antidemocratic regimes of Latvia and Estonia, hostile towards Russia, count on American support. It’s about the discrimination of Russian communities in these countries.

This seems to be a rather one-sided view, which actually distorts reality. But what happens in the event that a Republican becomes the next American president?

This would be a threat. Mitt Romney has declared Russia to be the top enemy of America. And it is no secret that Republicans are responsible for the outbreak of Persian Gulf War, and subsequently for the invasion of Iraq. They will always gladly exacerbate the situation. Therefore, if a Republican wins the next American election, nothing good will come out of it. Just consider politicians among the Republicans such as John McCain, whose Russophobia is slowly turning pathological.

The customs union between Russia and other post-Soviet states is of primary importance for Vladimir Putin. In the future, it should transform into a Eurasian Union. From this perspective, it seems to be a project of Soviet reconstruction because you can see very clearly its geopolitical dimension. So maybe the Americans’ concerns are in fact justified?

A customs union is simply a regional development institution. Mind you, Poland joined the EU, so what? For Russia the customs integration with countries like Ukraine means the growth of a common internal market.

So the borders of this union would not expand?

In the case of the states from outside the former Soviet Union, and which are EU Member States, it’s only Turkey which is going to join the customs union with Russia.

Why?

Because of their geographical situation, close to Russia, and because the European Union does not want Turkey to become a Member State.

Is this Eurasian integration project Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the concept of Russia as an ethnic nation-state advocated by Alexey Navalny? According to this idea, Russia would lose part of its ethnically non-Russian territory. Also, because in regions such as Tatarstan you can observe separatist tendencies.

There is no chance whatsoever that Russia will become an ethnic nation-state. Russia is a multi‑national state even if within the Russian Federation it’s the Russians who hold the statebuilding power. You can expect more regional autonomy but it will not be political autonomy, but rather budgetary one. This issue is being discussed more and more frequently.

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

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