Putin’s New Clothes

15. 3. 2017

An interview with Ivan Krastev by Maciej Nowicki

Pussy Riot’s trial revealed the new foundations of the regime. Under this system of power, the sclerotic countryside and the Orthodox Church are playing an increasingly significant role. Also, the second in command is no longer Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, but rather Patriarch Kirill. So claims the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev in an interview with Maciej Nowicki.

To what extent did Russia change under the influence of this year’s protests by the middle class?

Considerably. Until now, Vladimir Putin could pretend to be a representative of the whole country. Following the recent election, an anti- Putin Russia has emerged. The protests have undermined the very foundation of the state: the view that there is no alternative to Putin. Now, Alexander Navalny and other opposition leaders are going as far as to say that any alternative is actually better than Putin.

But the opposition is fragmented, whereas the president is backed up by the system of power. His opponents can be found mainly on the Internet and among the street protesters. How long can Facebook be a remedy for the institutional weakness of the opposition?

That’s a good point, but let’s look at it from a different perspective. According to polls, 60% of Russians do not believe any more that elections are a genuine expression of the will of the people. And, more importantly, the regime has really undergone a fundamental change as a result of the protests.

Up until now, Putinism was “postmodern” as its goal was to include absolutely everything in the Putin mosaic. However, the Kremlin is now focused on drawing divisions within the nation: playing the provinces against Moscow; the lower class against the cosmopolitan middle class from large cities. You can see the growing role of the provinces and the Orthodox Church. Those are the new foundations of Putinism. The Orthodox Church has become the personification of a special path to be followed by Russia. Therefore, the judgment of Pussy Riot was very critical. And the countryside really does increasingly rule over the country. Former cosmopolitan elites are being replaced by people from the regions.

The difference between Russia before and after the election—Putin 2.0 and Putin 3.0—can be best captured by the juxtaposition of Vladislav Surkov, previously the main ideologist of Putinism, and Vyacheslav Volodin, formally the deputy chief of the president’s administration and currently one of the key Kremlin players. Surkov has a PR background; he authored a Houllebecque-style novel as well as lyrics for punk music groups. He is a real master in creating virtual reality. Volodin, in turn, is a typical provincial politician, specializing in exerting administrative pressure. Previously, the Russian regime focused on media, image and manipulation. Nowadays, it’s more about expanding control and mobilizing masses against Moscow.

During the Medvedev era, the catch phrase of the regime was modernization. Today, there is no trace left of it. Having found support of the province and the Orthodox Church, Putin is heading in precisely the opposite direction: against modernity.

And this is exactly my point. Putin is still exercising power but in reality the regime has changed. Election fraud and a series of protests have not only weakened the regime, but they have completely transformed it. I cannot stop wondering, how come Putin’s opponents have not noticed it. They were so concentrated on the issue of Putin’s return to the Kremlin, that they did not pay attention to anything else.

Right before the election, Vladimir Vladimirovich decided to change the strategy he had used so far. He realized that the opposition would not remain resignedly silent any more. Therefore, he decided to humiliate and discredit the protesters by the means of presenting them as representatives of the privileged elite, torn away from the majority of Russians.

And this was a crucial decision. By supporting the provincial, sclerotic Russia, dependent on state subsidies, Putin waded into a dead end street. He did recapture the Kremlin, but he cut himself off from the most dynamic Russians. During the protests at Pushkin Square, one banner read: “Farewell to the future.” Soviet communism was able to create a deceptive utopia. Putinism 2.0 could also make it. Yet, Putinism 3.0 has nothing in stock. This is a huge deficiency; so huge that it could cause its demise.

What is the difference between the current opposition and the former liberals from 1990’s, pro-Western and fighting for human rights?

People who go to the street today don’t even appeal to liberalism. This is not Yeltsin’s middle class; it’s Putin’s middle class. They’ve made their money and shaped their worldview during the last 12 years. Take a closer look at Navalny. You can see right from the beginning that today’s opposition platform is far more nationalistic. This nationalism is directed against immigration and reminds us of the one we know perfectly well from the Western states. Navalny keeps saying “Let’s get rid of the Caucasus, it is too costly for us”. Also, the present opposition has got a shot at corruption; in comparison, in 1990’s the liberals were afraid that anti-corruption slogans would question privatization. Anatoly Chubais and others used such arguments as: “Listen up, those in power are fraudsters, but at least they are capitalist fraudsters.” The elites would avoid igniting anti-corruption feelings in the society; they were perfectly aware where their money came from. It was clearly stolen by them. Although Putin was not afraid of civil rights defenders, he does hate the new opposition and is scared of it. They keep claiming that, “We are the patriots. Putin and his henchmen stole what used to belong to the whole nation.”

Why has the middle class only stood up against the regime recently? What has changed?

You can hear voices saying that the weakness of the Russian model lies in its open borders. But just imagine having them closed tomorrow. Russia would simply vanish; after all, it lives off selling oil and gas to the West. Besides, owing to open borders, the middle class can get some rest from the inefficient regime. Hence, the answer to the question “where was the middle class in the first place, before it started protesting?” the answer is: “in the airports.”

But why did it only take up protesting now? The major reason is of a psychological nature. When power is based on appearances and a spectacle, it is of critical importance that the spectacle is good. Previously, Putin had some good stories to tell but one year ago when it was announced that he would replace Medvedev, the spectacle flopped. Everyone thought at once that this is not just the harbinger of Putin’s third term in office, but also of the forth one. And when Russians realized that Putin would be here to stay for the next 12 years, they said: “No, this is way too long.” Had he declared, “I am staying for the next six years but then I’m off.” they probably would not even have reacted to it. But 12 years? This was that! Machiavelli, in The Prince wrote that it’s better for the ruler if the people are afraid of him than if they love him. Up until recently, this applied to Putin. But now another piece fits: that the worst situation for the ruler is when the people hate him. And this is the current predicament of Putin.

The West believed the protests in Russia were a sort of continuation of the Arab Spring. What do the Russians make of it? What is their attitude towards the comparisons with Egypt, a country which under the Soviet Union was a kind of military protectorate of Moscow, during the presidency of Anwar El Sadat, twenty thousand Soviet soldiers were stationed there…

Russians hate being compared in any way with the Third World. They stopped accepting Putin because when he declared his further 12 years in the office, he acted like a dictator of a poor country. Russians, hearing about the Arab Spring, felt insulted and replied: “We are not Egypt.” The role-model for the Russians should rather be searched for in the “Outraged Movement”. There is no denying that the middle class took to the streets of Paris, New York or Madrid. Seeing that, the inhabitants of Moscow started wondering “Maybe we should take up protesting as well?” This is, by the way, a major difference between Russia and China. If you say to the Chinese that they live in a developed country, they will get offended. Their whole strategy is namely to benefit from the status of a developing country. Russians are the complete opposite in this respect because they will always pretend to belong to a better world.

This applies to Putin as well. He didn’t care about the Arab revolutions. For him, the crucial moment was rather the power shift in Italy in 2011.

Because Berlusconi was his best buddy and the biggest ally in the West?

Another reason is that Berlusconi seemed untouchable. And suddenly people took to the streets and he was forced to step down. This is the main reason why Putin decided to head for the Kremlin. He is young and talented and he has nowhere to go. He has to die either in the Kremlin, or in his dacha. There can always be an accident, after all, he knows too much. Today, Putin is like a sultan; he is doomed to be in power.

And what do you make of the regime’s growing crackdown on the opposition? Are we observing the first step towards a sort of Brezhnievization with repression as one of the basic instruments of governance?

Organizing repression is a piece of cake. But I don’t think Putin would go for it. Repression has never been a crucial element of his regime. After all, the borders are open, there is no censorship of the Internet—which is definitely not the case in China. And more journalists are in jail in Turkey than in Russia.

Russia is neither democratic nor authoritarian. The case of “Pussy Riot” is important not because it signals a return of authoritarianism. There is another reason; this process is a sign of Putin’s new legitimization. At the beginning people believed the case had no political meaning but it was perceived as a belated and unoriginal artistic gesture in the style of the 1960’s vanguard. Then however, the government started mobilizing people against “Pussy Riot.” It soon became clear that in the new post-election reality, religion is the vital tool used by Putin against the intelligentsia. Today’s Russia is an extremely interesting example of a state which tries to defend itself against globalization by the means of separating the elites from the rest of the country. The case of “Pussy Riot” is a new milestone. Earlier, nobody realized what critical a role religion was playing in modern Russia.

At the same time, the case of “Pussy Riot” could be the largest image disaster for the Kremlin in recent times. For instance, the murder of Alexander Litvinenko was seen as a result of vendettas within a sort of neo-KGB. Now, everyone in Europe has been trying to outdo others in expressing their support for “Pussy Riot” and condemning Putin.

First of all, Russia’s image in the West is deteriorating. According to the latest study by the German Marshall Fund, after the latest election the previously positive perception of Russia in the West, particularly in France and Germany, crumbled away. 16 per cent of the respondents changed their opinion of Russia from a positive to a negative one. This is a real collapse. Second of all, the Orthodox Church has always been a major player when it comes to the integration of Russia with the widely understood Western civilization. It’s thanks to the Orthodox Church that the cultural and political elites are more Euro-centric nowadays. A similar rule applied to the secular elites under communist rule. After all, Marxism came to Russia from the very heart of Europe. But today this situation is changing. In terms of internal policy, the Orthodox Church is to an increasing extent being used in order to position Russia against the West. And the circumstances are conducive to it. We may be taking it for granted that Russia will be forced to drift towards the West because of the growing threat from the Chinese…

This corresponds with the concept of the “larger West,” endorsed recently by Zbigniew Brzeziński: either Europe annexes Russia and Turkey or it will lose forever…

It’s just that most Russians, against common sense, think of China as their economic ally and not as a threat. The latest analyses of public opinion have indicated that it’s the first time in history that the Russians have felt that good relations with Asia are more important for them than with Europe.

And what is your opinion on the recent visit of the patriarch Kirill to Poland in 2012? What role did he adopt? Was he acting as an envoy of Putin?

Well, yes and no. Obviously, the visit supplements the tactics of the Kremlin, which assumes that normal relations with the EU are not possible without normalized relations with Poland. But on the other hand, patriarch Kirill plays a major political role in today’s Russia. This role is far greater than the one played by Medvedev for example. He really is the second in command, and he does realize the vital meaning of the Catholic Church in Poland. He must have concluded then that tightening the relations with the Polish Church would be a perfect opportunity to score even more points in Russian politics.

You mentioned that the trial of “Pussy Riot” is a turning point starting a new era of Putinism. If so, how does the London trial between Berezovsky and Abramovich impact the image of Russia abroad? This is by far “the most expensive trial ever,” no other Russian had ever sued anyone for five billion dollars before. Lilia Chevtsova wrote that “Putin was stripped of his pants in front of everyone.”

Russia’s image in the West can be depicted easily by means of Russian words which in a given moment enter the daily language and from that time on are not translated. Such words in the past included sputnik, followed by gulag, and under Gorbatchev’s rule, glasnost and perestroika. Since the beginning of the London trials, another term is having its turn, cricha, meaning political protection. When Abramovich and Berezovsky discuss before the court, if 5.5 billion dollars is money to be paid exclusively for political protection or if it’s rather the price of shares, it immediately turns out in Russia that there is no such distinction which can be made in the first place. This shows something very essential. Therefore, everyone can understand that the definition of property is totally different than in the West. In Russia, property stands for “the state of possessing which we are able to defend politically or physically by the means of criminal or any other structures.”

Now let me ask you a “virtual history” question: who would have entered the previous election, had Putin not declared his candidacy?

Hadn’t it been for Putin then, probably there would not have been any election at all. This regime is based on falsified showpiece elections. In order to understand this, you need to answer the following question: “why did a guy who would have won the election anyway, falsify them and in addition signal it to everyone?” In this way, we are getting to the very essence of the Putin’s regime. Not only is Putin making use of fraudulent elections in order to emphasize his democratic legitimacy; he also wants to underline his authoritarian legitimization to show that there is no match for him, no alternative. Thus, Mr. Putin is the only genuine candidate. Therefore, his rivals will always be the same people: Gennady Zyuganov or Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Plus some fresh blood, this time Mikhail Prokhorov. But the very fact that his campaign was based on a slogan “I’m taller” clearly shows what kind of differences between the candidates count here.

Valentin Iumachev, Yeltsin’s son-in-law, has said recently that Yeltsin appointed Putin for his successor because he was convinced that this was the only way to save Russia. This might not sound like a realistic scenario but let’s assume that Yeltsin had chosen a representative of the liberal elite, for instance Chubais. What would that have meant?

No typical liberal stood a chance of being chosen under those circumstances. They were absolutely discredited. But more importantly, people have started wondering: “What if a liberal and not Putin had been appointed in 2000 ?” They keep forgetting that in 2000, Putin himself was a liberal! Additionally, he was the only acceptable liberal: a liberal from the secret police. This enabled him to accomplish the secret plan of saving Yeltsin’s family. Besides, he was not involved in privatization which meant that he was not a thief.

So this was actually a liberal scenario, a very specific one though, a sort of mixture of economic liberalism with the KGB power-base. Back then, it was presented as a way to strengthen the Russian state. This was the message Putin wanted to send to the world. However, his real goal turned out to be the redistribution of wealth within the Russian elites. Putin in a way nationalized the oligarchs. He let them choose, either get involved in the state’s mechanisms or leave for London. There was no third way.

Sergei Witte, a prime minister in the early 20th century, said there was no such thing as Russia, only the Russian empire. If you take a closer look at Russian history you quickly realize that the state was an international superpower only during two periods: before 1815 and from 1940’s until the Afghanistan war. Then, Russia was a full-blown authoritarian state. Can Russia afford democracy if it wants to retain its strength?

People don’t have the slightest idea what dilemmas is Russia facing. Criticizing Russia is a piece of cake. It’s more difficult to rule it though. When Putin says that democracy can cause fragmentation in the state, he is not talking rubbish. This is a relatively plausible threat. After all, in 2000 the potential for the secession of the Caucasus was still quite real.

Let’s begin with the most obvious thing: where can you find the natural borders of Russia? What is the Russian national community? Precisely because Russia always remained an empire, and not a nation-state, these questions are unanswerable today. Under the Soviet Union, creating a union was driven by ideology. This was complemented by the collective experience of the World War Two. You can’t find anything like that today. Or, take the issue of corruption. Why is Russia so corrupt? There are hundreds of explanations, like the lack of institutions etc. Surely that’s true. Still, this doesn’t explain everything. I believe one of the reasons is a lack of sense of belonging to one nation. After all, what do the cosmopolitan elite from Moscow and the people from Dagestan have in common? The answer is, nothing.

There is this joke: “Gorbachev led Russia to the brink of disaster, and Yeltsin, one step further.” Within the narratives of his previous spin doctors like Gleb Pavlovsky, Putin used to be depicted as the absolute opposite of those weak leaders. They kept saying: “ true, Putin might have his drawbacks but strength is always better than chaos.”

I believe that at the beginning, Putin focused on reconstruction of the state, however, this simply did not work out. His idea, in fact, did not apply to the construction of a strong state but rather to concealing its profound weakness. He had no intention of building motorways or competing with the Chinese. His strategy was different. He pretended that Russia was better than in reality. Take the war in Georgia. I don’t want to go into detail who was to blame or who was provoked in 2008…

Especially if you consider the revealed documents proving that Putin had been planning this war for a long time already…

Something else matters more, the fact that tiny Georgia can be the main problem of a huge empire. This shows that, in the end, this powerful empire is not at all that powerful. But the West picked it up, assuming that building democracy is difficult, whereas an authoritarian state—so in a way a similar one—is much easier. This is rubbish. It is definitely not easy to build an authoritarian state… it suffices to indicate some things Putin’s state is not able to do. Let me give you a simple example. Supposedly Putin instructs his governors: “this election must be fair and democratic.” Does that really mean that the election would be fair and democratic?

Obviously not, the governors would instantly think it’s a trap…

Precisely! Governors are well aware that if Putin got 35 per cent of the vote in a gubernya, he would lose his post in a split second. Therefore, a governor will always cheat, even if it’s contradictory to the orders of the president. And secondly: Russians drink a lot and live very short lives these days. Shorter than, for example, inhabitants of Mongolia. This is a real disaster. The government should combat this problem. But Putin will not even touch it because he remembers very well the revolt organized by Russians against Gorbachev who tried to fight against vodka. Whenever Putin wants to show his strength, he chooses easy issues in which he can be certain there will be no resistance whatsoever.

In a word, you believe this is a classical story of a weak leader pretending to be strong…

Yes. There is no point in denying that Putin has personal power. He does. But apart from that, he has no major power in Russia. In the past, before the protests, I talked to the opposition leaders and they would tell me, “People in the Kremlin are marvelously shrewd. They will easily wrap us around their little finger and manipulate everyone.” But when I talked to those in power, I heard a very different story. The higher I reached, the more they complained that nothing works properly, that they are not able to complete anything, that they don’t have enough power, that the governors are doing what they want or that there is corruption everywhere.

But this corruption brings them money as well…

Corruption is a problem for them because they can never be sure which solution will ultimately win. They give an order, but then the money flows in. And everything can change. A weak power has only two options. Either to remain a weak power but then it needs a superdemocratic legitimization. That you can forget it in Russia, obviously. Alternatively, it can pretend to be strong, and this is what we are witnessing now. It’s just that then you end up thinking like a gangster. A negligible enemy does not exist, you need to trample down everyone. It is just ridiculous what they did with Navalny, checking his bank accounts, following his every step, accusing him of embezzlement, putting him behind bars. It’s utterly paranoid.

In terms of statistics on corruption, Russia is placed next to Papua New Guinea. In 2001, the average bribe was 60 dollars, today it amounts to 175. Putin won legitimization by the means of combating oligarchs. Today, a following question should be asked, would there be less thievery in Russia without Putin?

It’s high time that he stepped down. The only problem is: how to accomplish this. Those who claim that Putin is doing good things for Russia are wrong. What previously was believed to be stabilization, turned out to be stagnation. The Soviet Union can be compared to a queue: you stand in a line, chat and gossip with everyone and if you are fed up, you go back home. If you stay, at the end of the day you will buy something. Perhaps even what you wanted to buy. Yet, Russia under Putin is like a huge traffic jam in Moscow. You are sitting in a car, which is more comfortable than to stand in the freezing cold, you can even use your mobile phone. But you are standing still. Occasionally, you see big cars of elites pass you by on a special lane. And you go crazy. The point is that the affluence of the elites, who owe their fortunes to selling oil or gas, do not depend on the fate of normal Russians and their well-being. Russia is, to some extent, a society which is not exploited, where there is only scant violence. Never before in the history of the world has so much money been stolen with so little bloodshed. The only goal is that the rest of the society should not bother them. They had better stay on the sidelines. As a result, Russia is currently in a far worse situation than ever before. For the first time in its history, it is less developed than all its neighbors and rivals, including not only the USA and Western Europe, but also China and Poland.

In the past, Putin would fuel tension between Moscow and Warsaw. Later, since 2009, he changed his mind. Of course this does not mean reconciliation. But it’s become much calmer. Will this continue, despite the tough course on the domestic front?

Limiting tension in relations with Poland has always been what Putin aimed at. This does not apply to Medvedev because he never had sufficient legitimacy to even try to get on the same page with Poland. There was a moment when Russians saw Poland as their biggest opponent in Europe. After George W. Bush announced his plans to construct an anti-missile shield, Warsaw was believed to be the main player in a plot aimed at isolating Russia. This changed however. Firstly, I believe, at the end of the day, Putin does respect Poland. Because it is a strong country, whereas other states in the region are not. Why would he respect the claustrophobic Czech Republic? Or paranoid Hungary? Secondly, the Polish understanding of politics is much closer to his than the Eurocratic language which he keeps hearing from Brussels. But most of all, he realized some time ago that if he wants to be on the same page with the EU, he has to have more or less decent relations with Poland. The same applies to Germany, because Angela Merkel respects Donald Tusk. In relations between Moscow and Berlin, Warsaw is always the third party. And let me go on with some more speculation here. The question is, how do the Russian elites envisage the future of Russia? They no longer compare themselves to the US— the discrepancy of power is too wide. Germany is too legalistic and this does not appeal to the Russian character. Therefore, I think Poland stands a chance of being a role-model to some extent. After all, this is an energetic, assertive, ambitious country, confident of its own capabilities. Poland is the sole state in Europe, apart from Germany, which in the last four years gained so much.

Yet, this does not preclude the return of anti- Polish rhetoric in the future…

By no means, it could surely happen. Foreign policy is, after all, the only thing which depends on Putin. Oil prices, the economy or reforms are fields that he has no impact on. He can pick anti-Western or anti-Polish slogans, but these will remain words only. Not long ago in Russian political practice, Poland functioned only as an internal problem. Now it has become a player.

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

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