20 years under Putin: a timeline

On September 22, IMR and the National Endowment for Democracy co-hosted a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. titled “Russia One Year Before the Elections.” Russian experts Vladimir Kara-Murza, Lilia Shevtsova, and Sergey Aleksashenko discussed the current political and economic situation in Russia, with Carl Gershman moderating.


Left to right: Lilia Shevtsova, Carl Gershman, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Sergey Aleksashenko. Photo: IMR


Russians voted in regional elections across the country on September 13, and in most cases candidates of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party managed to win. Opposition candidates sought to run in Kaluga, Kostroma, Magadan, and Novosibirsk regions, but their efforts were undermined by the local election commissions, which refused to register them. The opposition managed to get on the ballot only in Kostroma, but was unable to get past the 5 percent threshold of votes necessary to enter the regional legislature. Many analysts considered these regional elections to be a preview of the federal parliamentary elections scheduled for September 2016.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, coordinator of the Open Russia movement, opened the discussion by detailing the obstacles faced by opposition candidates during the recent campaign, which ranged from arrests to bureaucratic hurdles to massive anti-opposition propaganda. He also spoke about the situation in Kostroma, where politician Ilya Yashin was running for a seat in the local parliament as a candidate of the opposition Party for People’s Freedom (PARNAS). According to Kara-Murza, in Kostroma the Kremlin sought to kill two birds with one stone: show that members of the opposition were allowed to participate in the election, but also set the opposition up for a loss.

Despite this frustrating experience, the opposition is determined to fight for seats in the national parliament next year. Kara-Murza believes that the presence of even a few opposition lawmakers in the Duma could make a significant impact and provide an opportunity to transform the system from the inside. He argued that it is impossible to predict what the mood of the Russian public will be a year from now, and that amid the country’s economic recession brought by the policies of the current regime, the elections could push people to take to the streets in protest once again.

Sergey Aleksashenko, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former deputy chair of Russia’s Central Bank, was less optimistic in his assessment of the role of the elections, saying that Russia has voting, but not actual elections. The Kremlin is being very cautious in its efforts to eliminate all “risk groups” from the electoral process, he said, referring to groups that can challenge the regime or fund the opposition. He also contended that the government doesn’t really care about the Duma elections—at the moment, he said, all it cares about is the budget, and there is no money available for populist expenditures.

Aleksashenko also shared his observations on Russia’s economic problems. He said the country is sliding into recession, but the government is not doing anything about it. As the economy deteriorates and real wages and consumption decline, the logical way for the government to face next year’s election would be to boost social spending (i.e., wages, pensions, etc.) to gain more votes, but it is not doing that. The government is saying oil prices should recover, but as Aleksashenko points out, no one actually knows when that might happen. He argued that in this unstable situation, the opposition will not be allowed to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Lilia Shevtsova, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, gave a broader overview of Russia’s political situation, identifying three major factors that shape it. The first factor she cited was that appearances can be deceiving, meaning that while the current situation in Russia may appear to be calm—some observers might even say paralyzed—this is not the case. One must ask the question, she said: If Putin is as sure of himself as he appears to be, why is he going to such efforts to suppress the opposition, fight in Ukraine, and confront the West? A closer look at these activities suggests that they are “irrational, desperate, and totally useless” efforts to “reproduce the power,” meaning to strengthen his authority. According to Shevtsova, these actions by Putin should prompt a debate about the future of the Russian system of personalized power, a system which has become unsustainable.

The second factor is what Shevtsova called the trap of legitimacy—she argued that the Kremlin has been “joggling different hats of legitimacy.” Before 2012, it was trying to project the image of the country integrating with the West, even as it was in fact only imitating a democratic transition. Then, after the mass protests of 2011-2012, even before the Euromaidan Revolution and the Ukraine crisis of 2014, Putin shifted gears, formulating a different brand of legitimacy for Russia—one achieved through confrontation and the idea of Russia as a “fortress.” This concept functioned until mid-2014, when the country was hit by sanctions, and the Kremlin came up with a new paradigm: balancing “containment” at home, meaning the limitation of people’s freedoms, including through the use of anti-Americanism and ideas of war, and remaining part of the global community. Putin realized that Russia cannot be a superpower if it is marginalized and an outcast, Shevtsova said.

Finally, the third factor is the paradoxical co-existence of stability and instability. On the one hand, the regime can survive for some time by "reproducing the power"—but this approach is based on fear, and therefore has begun to undermine itself by turning to the ideas of fascism. Decay is inevitable for three reasons, she said: first, Russia is a consumer society not ready to give up its new habits for the system; second, the Russian elite is too pro-Western, and for them Putin no longer represents a protector of their personal well-being; and third, repressive organs of the Russian government have become property owners and will no longer defend the state. In Shevtsova’s opinion, this system cannot be reformed or transformed, and at the moment resembles the walking dead, like a zombie, ready to collapse.