20 years under Putin: a timeline

O.Kh: The Russian situation is quite unique: in history there are no examples of successful democratization of countries that could be compared to Russia in terms of its vast territory and natural resources.

S.G.: A number of comparisons come to mind. Let's take China, for example. It is a vast country that has undergone a series of transformations after Mao Tse-dung’s death. The size of the country doesn’t really matter: the overthrow of a regime usually takes place in the country’s capital. Yes, Russia is a very rich country. It goes without saying that even the city of Moscow is rich. Russia is a very educated country. We have a high level of internet penetration for a country with such undeveloped democracy, to put it mildly. Russia is unique, in terms of its level of corruption.


Sergei Guriev at the New York opening of Russian Visionaries. Into the Light photo exhibit; November 2011.


O.Kh: In 2012, the analysts of Eurasia Group, a political risks consulting firm, did not include Russia in their annual list of top-10 risks despite the fact that it was published while protests were in full play during winter. What, in your view, could be the catalyst for regime change in Russia?

S.G.: We discussed various scenarios with Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer. In general, Russian citizens are satisfied with their lives. With Vladimir Putin in power, their standard of living has substantially improved. This is true not only of oligarchs, but of people with low income as well. On the other hand, we see that it's not enough for people living in Moscow, who require something more-dignity, respect, the right to not fear their own government. People, who pay taxes, try to understand how the government spends their money. It's a completely new situation for the Russian government: people protest not because they lack money, but because the level of the government's lying has reached new heights. The latest example is the scandal involving Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of Russia's Investigative Committee. This high-ranking Russian official did not include accurate information regarding his property in his tax declaration form. On the other hand, the authorities try to jail Aleksey Navalny who revealed and published that information about Bastrykin. Last time  [Alexei] Navalny was taken to custody, people spontaneously came to protest at Chistye Prudy. Besides, it is obvious that authorities are poorly informed and lack adequate feedback from the public, which leads to a high probability of their making mistakes. This can become a catalyst for regime change.

O.Kh: But there were no protests after the flooding of the town of Krymsk  in July when hundreds of peopled died.

S.G.: There is difference: it was not Putin who killed these people. But if someone discovered that Putin ordered the opening of the reservoir's sluice gates and released water on Krymsk, everything might be different. But if the \number of officials who work within the Russian government and do not abide by the law reaches a critical mass, any public exposure can be a catalyst for overthrowingf the regime.

O.Kh: Perhaps, the critical number has already been reached, but people don't know about it.

S.G.: Most people who live in Moscow do know. And, as I said, the regime change will take place in Moscow.

O.Kh: Some economists predict a new wave of the financial crisis. Can devaluation of the ruble accelerate the change?

S.G.: A financial crisis would not be catastrophic per se. Yes, there will be budget cuts, which will cause people to question the authorities. Not only Moscovites will be asking those questions, but so will the citizens of other Russian regions, and for them issues of material well-being are more important than the government's stealing and lying.

Putin's answer is, if you don't like this country, you're free to leave.

Ruble devaluation is an absolutely reasonable measure. The government has to let the ruble fall along with oil prices in order to avoid the mistakes of 2008 when the Central Bank supported an  overvalued ruble. Decreasing the rate will help restore the competitiveness of the Russian economy should oil prices drop. What is Greece’s problem? It cannot devalue the euro because it’s not the Greek government that defines the euro rate. And this is the root of all their problems. Russia needs to take advantage of having national currency.

O.Kh: Devaluation could be viewed negatively by the public, it can be viewed as a flashback to the 90s. Do you think that government can is prepared to take such an unpopular measure?

S.G.: It is an unpopular measure, of course, but today the unemployment rate is at its lowest point in the 20 years of modern Russia's existence. But if oil prices drop to the level of $40-50 per barrel and  remain there for two years, we will have a different government by then. It's not the $10 per barrel that we had in 1998, but in terms of the current Russian budget, $40 today will be worse than $10 in 1998, because the budget was drafted based on $100 per barrel.

O.Kh: What will happen to the promises that Vladimir Putin generously made during his presidential campaign? Will he be able to keep them? Experts calculate that they will cost the Russian budget billions of rubles.

S.G.: His promises are impossible to keep.

O.Kh: Doesn't this give to anyone who voted for Putin the right to ask him about the inconsistency between his words and actions?

S.G.: Yes, but Putin's answer is, if you don't like him, vote for a different candidate. Or, another possible answer could be: if you don't like this country, you're free to leave. But since the majority votes for a candidate who lies, what can be done? This is our democracy. If you think that the elections were rigged, go to the court. If the court decides that they were not, that's it, sorry.

O.Kh: It all sounds logical, but with Putin in power, the Russian judiciary has become very selective. There are many examples, from the YUKOS case and to the Magnitsky case. When it’s necessary, the courts make decisions that the government wants them to make.

S.G.: Selectivity is not the biggest problem. A while ago, when the [Russian] Presidential Council on Human Rights was conducting an expert examination of YUKOS’ second trial, they asked independent experts, including me, to evaluate the case. After reading all the documents, I realized that there was no case whatsoever. I have not read the documents of the first YUKOS case in detail, as I did with the second case, but to me it was obvious that the court made a mistake in the second trial. And it’s not the problem of selectivity. Some other cases raise questions, too. But one should not be surprised – this is how all non-democratic regimes function.

O.Kh: The absence of rule of law is one of the major complaints that  U.S. politicians have against Russia.

S.G.: They are free to say so. We cannot restrict freedom of speech in the U.S.

O.Kh: But in his turn, Putin retorts by saying that the U.S. should not interfere with Russian domestic affairs.

S.G.: This is Putin's position,  and this is one of his major foreign policy priorities. You can read the first decrees that Putin signed on May 7th. It is clearly stated there that Western countries should stop interfering. Russian diplomats are instructed to “to take active measures to prevent  U.S. unilateral ex-territorial sanctions against Russian legal entities and natural persons.” In general, Russians support Putin’s foreign policy.

O.Kh: Do you think that Putin will last till 2018?

S.G.: First, authorities can make many mistakes. Second, the opposition can make many mistakes. Third, oil prices can change in either direction. If they increase, there will be no opposition at all. But I wouldn't bet my money on it. I think that by 2018 we'll have another presidential election. Or there might be something like the Arab Spring. Problems with capital flight will not go anywhere. The government can say that we are doing fine as many times as they want, but people emigrate, money is withdrawn, scientists leave and never come back. All these facts contradict the government's claims that Russia is modernizing.

In general, Russians support Putin’s foreign policy.

O.Kh: There is a gap between the government and average citizens in Russia. Tragic events in Krymsk have once again demonstrated that people are used to dealing with their problems on their own. They don't expect any help from the government. Two years ago people fought the forest fires in the suburbs of Moscow, also on their own. This gap is growing wider. Is there any way to overcome it?

S.G.: Your observations are correct. In Russia, there is a great mistrust between authorities and the public. In this respect, Russia is similar to Greece where budget cuts hardly work, because citizens and officials find themselves "in different boats [going in different directions]." Can anything be done here? I think that fair elections can help the situation.

O.Kh: Do you think that the current authorities are capable of conducting fair elections?

S.G.: Here, we return to my argument about being overweight. If you only eat fois-gras, you can end up having a heart-attack.

O.Kh: How real is this «heart-attack scenario»?

S.G.: Quite real. Last year, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas-Llosa was awarded a Nobel prize for literature. Among other books, he wrote The Feast of the Goat. It's a novel about Rafael Trujillo, the man who ruled the Dominican Republic for 30 years. Despite being popular in the country, he was murdered as a result of a coup. Anything is possible. Actually, ruling the country without fair elections is difficult and dangerous work.