OK: Did you read the articles that Putin published during his campaign?
SB: Most of them, yes.
OK: Do you think he will keep his pre-election promises?
SB: These articles don't legally bind him to anything. You can forget about them. Some of these promises might be kept, others might be not.
OK: What do you think his policies will be?
SB: Putin is not a strategic thinker, he is a tactical player who makes all his decisions at the last moment and ad hoc. His economic policies will be focused on maintaining the existing model of Russian economy, which is based on natural resources. It means that Putin will align all of his tactical decisions with oil price fluctuations. In political sphere, he might make some concessions to the active part of the Russian population.
Navalny and Putin have a handful of things in common.
OK: Are you referring to the political reforms introduced by Medvedev?
SB: Yes. But Putin might make even more concessions because the major priority for him now is legitimizing the results of the presidential elections—specifically, making the active segment of the society, who didn’t support him inthe elections and didn’t recognize their results, come to terms with his stay in the Kremlin until 2018.
OK: Do you think Putin will last until 2018? Some experts (Masha Gessen, Andrei Piontkovsky) predict that he has no more than two years left in power.
SB: Such prognoses cannot be confirmed mathematically, which is why I won’t give you any numbers. I think that the best case scenario for Putin would be to leave halfway through his term—in 2015/16. But my prediction is that he will stay until 2018. There is nothing wrong with that if he institutes political reforms, including transforming Russia into a parliamentary republic, adopting a new Constitution, holding early parliamentary elections, and forming the coalition government.
OK: What is the likelihood of Putin's actually instituting these reforms?
SB: It's hard to say how many concessions he is willing to make, but some of these reforms will definitely be implemented.
OK: Will they be substantial or just for show?
SB: The more concessions Putin makes, the higher the public demand for them will grow. Similar things happened during the Gorbachev era. He didn’t make any conscious reforms aimed at substantially rebuilding the political system. Through cosmetic repairs, he wanted to preserve the system and strengthen his own power. Putin wants to do the same thing. The difference here is that the public atmosphere and the situation within the country and beyond won’t let Putin get away with minor measures. Today, radical steps are in order. And Putin might have to take them, despite himself.
OK: Should we expect a fourth term from him?
SB: No. If even Andrei Kostin, head of VTB Bank and a close ally of Putin’s, who is fully dependent on him, wrote an op-ed for Kommersant in which he stated that Putin must not, by any means, stay in power after 2018, what else can we expect? It is clear that Kostin would never have written anything like this unless he knew what was on his patron's mind.
OK: Why did Putin go for a third term at all?
SB: It was the Kremlin's response to the events of Arab Spring. Putin thought that in those countries, the opposition had been sponsored by external forces, such as the U.S. and European Union. He figured that if anything similar happened in Russia, Medvedev would not be able to manage the situation. But it turned out that Putin’s decision to come back caused a social revolt and detonated the protest activity that we see today.
I would not rule out the possibility that Khodorkovsky
will be released this year.
OK: Do you think that the Kremlin didn't expect that kind of reaction to Putin’s return?
SB: I don't think so, otherwise they would not have supported it. Putin made a major political mistake. If the Kremlin had endorsed Dmitri Medvedev for a second term, the rallies at Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue would never have taken place. As a result, the active part of the Russian citizens would have lost two or three years in unrealistic expectations of liberal reforms from above. Putin’s mistake helped us to skip these years, which is a great advantage to us. In a sense, Putin did a good thing by taking the third term.
OK: What does this mistake mean to the Kremlin?
SB: I would guess that this issue is taboo. Nobody wants to make Putin acknowledge his mistake. Most likely Medvedev and many businessmen close to the Kremlin see what a wrong turn it was.
OK: Experts point out that some coalitions have formed within the political elite that want to distance themselves from Putin. How much influence do groups such as these have?
SB: The majority of the ruling class aspires to keep their distance from Putin, understanding that close ties to Putin’s Kremin can negatively impact their legitimacy in the West. Maintaining their legitimacy is a priority for the Russian elite. They are very interested in political development, making concessions, and providing guarantees that Putin is not going to campaign for another term in 2018.
OK: Could one of these concessions be the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky?
SB: I would not rule out the possibility that Khodorkovsky will be released this year.
OK: How do you see it happening? Under what conditions?
SB: Psychologically, it will be hard for Putin to release Khodorkovsky, but doing so could be an effective step toward legitimizing his claims to the presidential office. Putin will never enter negotiations with Khodorkovsky. It can only be a one-way action, made possible by Putin’s need to protect his political interests. It’s hard to tell whether he has the heart go through with it.