20 years under Putin: a timeline

On February 9,  the Institute of Modern Russia and the Harriman Institute (Columbia University) hosted a panel discussion  entitled “Does the Russian Opposition Have a Plan for the Upcoming Presidential Elections?” The panelists proposed several scenario that may resolve the political crisis in Russia, such as transition presidency, a roundtable negotiation between the authorities and opposition leaders, and a new parliamentary election.



The Russian presidential elections will take place on March 4, 2012. All polls show that the current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is likely to come back as the president for his third term, which will last 6 years instead of 4 due to the recent changes in legislation. The only thing that is unclear is whether Putin will manage to win in the first round, or whether a second round of elections will take place, comprising Putin's claims to national leadership. Another issue is the role of the Russian opposition in the presidential election.

Do the opposition leaders have a plan? For the first time in the last decade, a protest movement succeeded in uniting many different opposition groups that had been marginalized under Putin's regime. However, considering their history, the question remains whether the opposition leaders have a concrete program for defeating Putin's regime.

These issues were discussed by a panel of experts at the Harriman Institute. Timothy Frye, the Director of the Harriman Institute, made a few opening remarks on the importance of Russian affairs and policies for the U.S. and introduced the panelists to the audience. Among them were Maria Gaidar, political activist and founder of youth opposition movement DA! (Democratic Alternative); Vladimir Kara-Murza, Washington Bureau Chief of the RTVi television network; and Andrei Piontkovsky, IMR's advisor and Senior Fellow at the Institute for System Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The discussion was moderated by Lincoln Mitchell, Associate Adjunct Professor at the Harriman Institute, whose focus is political development issues in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Asia, and others.

All panelists agreed that the tipping point that mobilized the opposition groups came on September 24, 2011, when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that he would swap places with  President Dmitri Medvedev. The growing feeling of resentment came to a head with the results of the rigged parliamentary elections of December 4, 2011. Some experts estimate that up to 13-15% of votes were falsified to the advantage of Putin's United Russia party. The blatant falsifications brought about unprecedented protests in all major Russia cities and worldwide on December 10 and 24, 2011 and on February 4, 2012, one month prior the presidential elections. This sudden and intense social action could not have gone ignored by the government, which hastily offered a program of political reforms. However, as Mr.Kara-Murza noted, these concessions were intended simply to relieve some of the tension  and lull the public into believing that there will be political change in order to run the presidential election smoothly.

The panelists all asserted that the opposition indeed has a plan. One of the scenarios, proposed by Andrei Piontkovsky and supported by Vladimir Kara-Murza, was a transitional presidency. The idea is to elect one of the four registered candidates as the Russian President, but only for 18 months. During this transitional term, this candidate would release all political prisoners, create new election laws, remove electoral restrictions, conduct new parliamentary elections, and then remove his candidacy from a new presidential election. Of all registered presidential candidates, Sergei Mironov came closest to accepting the idea of transitional presidency but has recently cut off negotiations with the opposition.

Another idea, also voiced by Mr.Piontkovsky, is holding a round table discussion with all interested parties within the Russian administration and opposition leaders in order to negotiate the terms of Mr.Putin’s departure. Although, even as he proposed it, Mr.Piontkovsky was skeptical that this idea could ever be amenable to the current government. "Putin and his friends understand that they are responsible for numerous economic crimes, and for Putin, it is politically and psychologically impossible to imprison a few hundreds of his sidekicks," Piontkovsky said.

Maria Gaidar added a fresh perspective to the discussion by sharing a few observations from her experience as the Vice Governor of the Kirov Region (2009-2011). She noted that the social demand for change is not limited to the Moscow middle class, but is widespread in all social strata throughout the country. "These are people who have greatly benefited from Putin being in power, but now feel that he threatens their stability. After September 24, 2011, many of them even decided to leave Russia."



Ms. Gaidar also pointed out that a large proportion of the protesters is a younger generation of Russians, in their early 20s, who, according to Gaidar, are not just career-oriented, but also values-oriented.

Concluding the panel, Lincoln Mitchell shrewdly observed that based on his studies of the Color Revolutions, protest leaders don’t usually make good statesmen. He recommended that the Russian opposition should learn from the mistakes of the previous CIS revolutions, such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or Rose Revolution in Georgia.

Gaidar also proposed that the December 2011 parliamentary elections be held again, this time in a transparent, fair way. "Such redo elections are likely to make United Russia lose its parliamentary majority, which would of course negatively impact Putin," she explained. She conceded that Putin would most likely reject this idea, as well.Overall, the panelists agreed that Putin's regime is doomed, though their estimations of its lifespan differed.  While Mr. Piontkovsky speculated that Putin was not going to stay in power for more than 1.5-2 years, Mr. Kara-Murza was less optimistic, predicting that his regime may continue for another 6 years.

In a Q&A session that followed, the issue of leadership was discussed further. The participants agreed that the absence of a single opposition leader is good in the current stage. In the words of Mr. Piontkovsky, for now, keeping the movement broad is more important than building a party. Mr.Kara-Murza added that once free elections were conducted, this problem would be overcome, as more and more leaders would enter the liberated political arena.



In the end, Maria Gaidar emphasized the importance of the work conducted within the U.S., such as the introduction of the so-called Magnitsky list.  Mr.Kara-Murza also stressed that visa bans for those who had broken laws in Russia have thus far proved to be the single most effective measure in the West's support of the opposition. Mr.Piontkovsky also suggested that Western officials should stop working with Putin, saying it compromises them.


Watch the video of this event here.