Do not democratize Russia. We will do it ourselves

Lilia Shevtsova in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 24 April 2012
Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on Russian politics, democratic opposition and on why Putin may be better than Medvedev

Lukasz Pawlowski: Why haven’t the mass protests prevented Mr. Putin from winning the presidential election for the third time?

Lilia Shevtsova: Because the protest tide was weak, it wasn’t a real tsunami. The December movement had no structured leadership and no concrete agenda. It wasn’t strong enough to force political leaders in the Kremlin even to think about some serious change at the moment. Nonetheless, it shocked them and proved the society has awakened although luckily for the Kremlin it is not that frightening yet.

In Russia there are numerous parties and non-governmental organizations working against the regime for democratization. There have been there for many years and now when they got a marvelous opportunity to achieve at least some of their goals they missed it. They have been working long to get Russian society out in the streets and when they finally managed to do that they seemed completely surprised.

Everybody was surprised, maybe with exception of some people, who – just like myself – have been telling themselves every year, every month: “it will come, it will come, the bubble will burst”. But even we were not sure, when it will happen. The number of people that took to the streets was some kind of revelation. Even sociological instruments failed to reveal, what was happening beneath the surface of the society. The most respectable survey institution, Levada Center – the best in Russia, and maybe even in Europe – before the parliamentary elections in December estimated that the Kremlin party, United Russia, will get about 55% of the votes, while in the end it got officially only 45% and in reality less than 35% of the vote. So yes, for many people in the society, even in the opposition the events that followed parliamentary elections were unexpected.

But why has the opposition failed in their hour of trial, despite the fact, that we have so many movements, groups and parties? Why have they failed to get together, to find a common platform and deliver some message to the society?

There are several reasons. Firstly, the opposition is incredibly fragmented and the fragmentation has been much supported by the authorities, because it works to their advantage. Secondly too many oppositionists come from the 1990’s and therefore lack credibility in Russian society. The Russians are tired of that period and do not want it to come back. Thirdly, it was not that the political movements were not prepared for any kind of breakthrough. They were prepared for a long period of legal struggle, but they were not ready for people taking to the streets. This latter situation calls for totally different tactics, political ones.

Are you saying that the Russian opposition is not a political movement?

A lot of demands made by Russian December movement are still moral and ethical, they are calls for human dignity, for mutual respect. This is in fact chiefly a normative agenda not a profound political agenda. So, this movement has to be politicized and the people who organize and work for it, need to understand that politization requires a constant and often mundane work. The opposition cannot succeed just by organizing carnivals or happenings. It cannot be a hipster movement or a flashmob. It also cannot have too much faith in the Internet and social media. These are only tools, they can bring people out to the streets but they can also atomize them. Invited through Facebook or Twitter many people came, but then when standing on the Sacharov Prospect they saw many different people around them and began to ask themselves “What really unites us”? Some of them were there solely against Putin and if he left the Kremlin they would be satisfied, some of them would like to raise their status within the system, without changing it and making revolutions, finally some of them would like to change the system itself. It is the role of the political opposition to find a platform for unification and consolidation of those various groups. In my view the movement cannot be based solely on the rejection of the previous regime but needs a constructive element in it, a project of constitutional and political reform. We need to realize that we are not fighting Putin personally. The major problem is not the particular personality at the Kremlin, but the rules of the game – the personalized power and its close connections with big industry.

Will the opposition eventually succeed?

I’m pretty sure that this movement will continue. The first tide has subsided, but there will be second, third, fourth tide, although I’m not certain what will be the result of those tides. What will be the intervals between them? Will they succeed in Moscow and St. Petersburg in uniting people on the basis of broad liberal and democratic values, not only dignity, but rule of law and political competition?

A lot depends on whether the opposition succeeds to reach people living outside two major cities, in provincial Russia. There are up to 45-48 million people living in the former Soviet industrial cities. They are also dissatisfied with the regime but their protests may be provoked by another set of reasons. People who took to the streets in Moscow were moved by moral, ethical and to some extent political demands. The people in the post-soviet industrial Russia can be moved by social and economical woes. The problem though is that they might long to solve their problems by looking for a new “savior”, i.e. the leader who will promise that he can deal with all their miseries in the same way as Yeltsin and Putin had promised before. Such person would only take Putin’s place while keeping all the pathologies of the Russian political matrix. The major question is therefore how to combine all those social tides, how to find some common denominator and how at the same time reach people with ethical, political and socio-economic demands, how not to leave the “second “ Russia behind.

Would it be easier for the protesters if Dmitri Medvedev continued as a president? His attitude towards the opposition seemed to have been a little more open than Putin’s.

Somehow paradoxically I believe that the return of Putin is better for the opposition. Medvedev’s second term would prolong hopes that he could make a difference, that he could finally become a reformer and modernizer we long for. The return of Putin gives us much clearer picture and it is better to have certainty than delude oneself that change may come from the Kremlin. During the last four years Medvedev has proved that he’s “Mr. Nobody”. He never delivered anything he promised and he already looks in retrospective like Brezhnev who also increased the disparity between declarations on the one hand and deeds on the other. In this way Brezhnev in fact helped the society to understand the rotten nature of the Soviet system. So maybe the fact that Medvedev had promised too much and never delivered will eventually be his only positive legacy that will push the educated Russians to believe that no change can come from the top.

And what will happen to Medvedev now?

Who cares?! Apparently because he was promised the post of the prime minister, he will become the prime minister but nobody will ever take any notice of him, because nobody respects him.

But he has been the president for four years, you cannot forget about this. How will the authorities officially refer to his time in power? You have to explain to the people why Putin has come back. Is it because Medvedev was such a bad president that Putin had to intervene?

They are not going to talk about that this way. The period will enter the Russian history as a period of a Putin-Medvedev tandem which in fact has achieved some goals. Firstly it created a possibility for Putin’s return to the Kremlin. Secondly it has achieved another goal, very important, of seducing the West – chiefly the United States – which believed a reset in relations with Russia is possible. You know there were many people who thought that Medvedev was a new page in Russian history. So from this point of view that tandem has fulfilled some positive goals for the regime. It helped it to survive. But now, when we are approaching the end of this tandem regime, we see that it also had some drawbacks. It undermined the presidential power and started to desacralize it. Medvedev contributed a lot to desacralization of the Russian Presidency.

Especially after the overheard conversation with Barack Obama when Medvedev said he would repeat everything to Putin, we all realized he is simply a kind of liaison officer with no decisional powers. Looking from this perspective, how do you think the return of the old/new president is going to affect Russian foreign policy?

The paradigm of Russian foreign policy will not change because the system remains the same. The foreign policy is determined by the domestic agenda. So if the leader is the same, if the system is the same, if the regime is the same – how come the foreign policy could become radically different? Thus Putin will continue with the same foreign policy paradigm which is based on two pillars. The first is pragmatism. Putin understands that Russia depends on its export to the West and the well-being of the Russian ‘rentier class’ depends on the oil prices and gas production. What is more the elite is personally integrated into the West. Their kids are in schools in London, they have accounts in western banks, they live in the West and would like to have free access to it. Therefore Russia cannot become a totally closed country. On the other hand we need to remember that the Russian society has moved and Putin needs some means to control it. He will be trying to get them by launching anti-western campaigns, by constantly searching for an external-internal enemy and by being anti-American. Thus in the end he will have to walk a very thin line proving at the international level that he is a pragmatist who can be dealt with while at the same time provoking anti-Western feelings inside the country. Until recently he has been pretty successful in riding two horses in opposite directions but my hunch is that in the nearest future it will become too complicated for him. There will be much more anti-Americanism, anti-Western feelings and much more aggressiveness and assertiveness in the Russian foreign policy because – having no means to solve domestic problems with domestic resources – Putin will be accusing the alleged enemies to distract the attention of the public from other issues. So the foreign policy will be much more, I would say, assertive than before.

Is there anything the West can do to prevent this turn? Do you think that increasing the international support for democratization in Russia would be a good idea? On the one hand it might help a lot of democratic and non-governmental organizations, on the other, however, it might provoke a fierce reaction of the authorities and help them present Russia as a besieged fortress.

It’s a very complicated question and there is no unanimously accepted answer to it. I’m not sure that my opinion on that is popular even among other Russian liberals. I would say that the old model of democracy promotion that has been successful during the third tide of democratization is now outdated and has lost its effectiveness. At that time the western foundations and governments were trying to help to promote democratic norms and rules of the game in transitional societies and in authoritarian societies as well. For instance they tried to help those societies to build parties, to understand the importance of the parliament, democratic elections, free media etc. In my view the Russian society does not need this kind of assistance. Western money coming to Russia to support different initiatives and to support democratic cells within the society could be counter-productive, because – as you said – the authorities can always present the recipients of such assistance as a kind of fifth column and thus discredit domestic routes to democracy. True, we have different groups and organizations that have no financial means and survive using foreign funds. They are good people doing good job: they defend citizens against the authorities, they address the West when they notice human right abuses etc. If the West cuts its financial help those groups will cease to exists, so some external support is definitely needed. Western governments should not do anything more though. It seems to me that Russian society already understands what democracy is, what party building is, what independent parliament is, what free media is. Thus we really need to rely upon our own sources and create our own movement.

In that case is there anything the West can do?

Certainly, it can do at least three things. Firstly, it would help us if the West practices what it preaches, because at the time being it is no longer a systemic alternative for Russia mainly due to its hypocrisy. Secondly, the western leaders when communicating with their Russian counterparts should remind them that Russia belongs to the Council of Europe, that it signed various declarations and promised to follow the rules of the game that are written in the declaration on human rights. Being a member of the Council of Europe means that Russian domestic decisions are not entirely up to Russian politicians, that the West can criticize Russia. Thirdly, the West can significantly influence what is going on in Russia by influencing the Russian elite abroad. If western governments tried to persuade the representatives of the Russian political and business elite living and working in western countries that their possibilities in those countries depend on how they behave in Russia it would be a great asset and assistance to democratization movements. Regretfully western governments are ready to send money to the Russian society to support human rights activists but they are not willing to do anything to influence members of the Russian political elite who live within their borders.

But you yourself are an analyst at a multinational foreign policy think-tank, independent, yet as it says on its official website “promoting active international engagement by the United States”. Does this affiliation somehow influence your work?

Yes, I work for Carnegie Moscow center that is affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment but I work with many other institutions: I am an associate of the Chatham House, member of the Davos World Economic Forum Global Councils Network (and the founding chair of the Global Council for Future of Russia), and even a key researcher for the Institute of Economy (the Russian Academy of Sciences). I expect all these institutions to give me total freedom of expression. My colleagues at Carnegie may have different views on Russia and the rest of the world. Some of them are defenders of the US-Russian reset, I am its tough critic. I’ve never experienced any pressure from those institutions, including Carnegie Endowment. Moscow Carnegie Center has its own status and its own agenda. It is funded by many Western foundations (not only Carnegie) and it accepts funds only on the basis of having total independence in using these funds for the democratic agenda. The fact that our autonomy is respected allows us to be part of this network. It allows me to be critical of Obama administration (I was critical of Bush too) and its policy toward Russia. My personal agenda is the Russian transformation. This goal sometimes coincides with the western agenda and sometimes not.

Can a radical change in Russian political system come about only by a pressure exercised by a bottom-up movement or is at least a tacit consent of the elites needed as well? If so, which elites are likely to become tired of Putin – military, economic, political, maybe religious?
The last nearly 20 years have proved that real transformation of the Russian system can come only under pressure from the society, that is from the broad social and political movement. Just like the transformation of the communist systems that took place in the Eastern and Central Europe. Any top down changes within the Russian matrix can only either prolong its life or (ironically) start to undermine. However, even in this latter case we cannot guarantee a civilized and peaceful transformation but rather a sudden collapse. That is why the organized social movement and some pressure from the bottom are needed.

Nonetheless a peaceful transformation will depend on whether the ruling elite gets fragmented, and pragmatic grouping emerge that will be interested in the pact with the anti-systemic opposition. Hopefully, this will happen. From my observations the majority of experts working for the Kremlin understand that the system is not sustainable in the longer run. They are simply not ready to become heroes yet… They are not kamikaze. Despite that I hope such cooperation sooner or later will be established. Who will join the opposition? It is difficult to say – it depends on the degree of courage, understanding and… conformism too. Much depends also on when we will have the next tide of wrath and whether it will trigger some serious work on the political and ideological alternative. Because, you know, the worst scenario will be if the Russian system starts to unravel before the alternative is built.