20 years under Putin: a timeline

From November 21 to November 24, the 45th Annual Convention for the Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) was held in Boston. As part of the convention, IMR organized two panels and a roundtable.


Left ro right: Leon Aron (on the podium), Pavel Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Ekaterina Mishina, Richard Sakwa.


The first IMR panel examined issues pertaining to the export of corruption. Participants explored these issues from multiple perspectives. IMR Advisor Boris Bruk noted that corruption involves an “intentional manipulative act,” and in that regard, propaganda efforts (which also pursue manipulative ends) are inevitably linked to corruption. Bruk’s paper, entitled “International Propaganda: The Russian Version,” explores a number of the key instruments used in Russia to influence foreign attitudes and improve the country’s image abroad. According to Bruk, in today’s world, “in the battle for hearts and minds, international propaganda becomes either limited in its effect or counterproductive.” To achieve the required goals in the international arena, it has become increasingly important to address domestic issues, match words and deeds, and focus on creating “internal attractiveness.”

Olga Khvostunova, IMR advisor and visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, discussed some of the key issues related to media corruption. According to her, corruption in Russia has penetrated the media at both an institutional and a personal level. In her paper, entitled “Corruption of the Fourth Power: The Decline of the Russian Media,” Khvostunova pointed out that the media market in Russia is determined by three factors: the current political system (authoritarianism), the media’s historical and cultural traditions (paternalism), and global media market trends (commercialization, infotainment). “At the moment, even though the Russian media market is booming, the majority of the media serve as mere tools of the state, used to manufacture favorable public opinion,” Khvostunova noted in her presentation.

Despite the regression, there have been significant changes in Russian society. Today, many recognize the merits of citizen participation, and a significant part of society has become politically active.

Ilya Zaslavskiy, an independent oil and gas consultant, presented a broader picture of corrupt and corrosive practices. In his paper, “Export of Corrosion: How Practices from Russia Penetrate and Undermine US and UK,” Zaslavskiy looks at different layers of corruption and questionable activities and argues that currently, the mainstream international audience and the majority of policymakers in the United States and the United Kingdom do not perceive Russia’s corrosive practices as threatening their national interests. On the basis of his study, Zaslavskiy offers policy suggestions to decision-makers in both the United States and the United Kingdom.



According to panel discussant Sergei Aleksashenko, professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., a better way to describe the whole range of current international efforts may be the “export of ponyatiya,” [unwritten rules] rather than the export of corruption. As Aleksashenko argues, “the regime is exporting its ponyatiya in the outside world, exporting the corrosion of institutions.”

Participants in the IMR roundtable addressed the question of whether there will be an end to Putin’s Thermidor, focusing their attention on the period from the 1990s to the present. In his opening remarks, IMR President Pavel Khodorkovsky, who served as the roundtable chair, said that in the 1990s, the democratic process was in a stage of development. However, by announcing a successor and making Vladimir Putin interim president ahead of the elections, Boris Yeltsin gave Putin an unfair advantage instead of vesting trust in the Russian people. In effect, Russian citizens were not allowed to make their own choice. Since then, there have been multiple signs that Russia is swinging back toward its authoritarian past. In Khodorkovsky’s view, however, despite the regression, there have been significant changes in Russian society. Today, many recognize the merits of citizen participation, and a significant part of society has become politically active.

IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza argued that the period of change that occurred in the 1990s was followed by a backlash: over the period of the last 14 years, Putin’s presidency has been getting more repressive and authoritarian, while the achievements of the 1990s—political pluralism, independent media, and democratic elections—have been left in the past. But the recent mass protests against the regime and the gradual emergence of a civil society in Russia are the best indicators that Putin’s Thermidor will indeed come to an end. According to Kara-Murza, the main task of the responsible, modern pro-democracy Russian opposition is to ensure that Putin’s regime is followed by a peaceful transition to a political system based on civil liberties and the rule of law.

Ekaterina Mishina, IMR advisor and professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, discussed the question of Putin’s Thermidor from a legal perspective. In Mishina’s opinion, the judicial reforms of the 1990s brought a number of achievements, but the situation changed in the 2000s. For example, in recent years, the jurisdiction of jury trials—for which the public initially had high expectations—has been constrained, while the Constitutional Court has become a powerful and convenient tool in the hands of the authorities. One may observe similar negative trends in the legislative process and Russia’s enforcement of international obligations.


Left to right: Ilya Zaslavskiy, Olga Khvostunova, Boris Bruk.


According to Richard Sakwa, professor at the University of Kent (UK), Russia currently has an intensely fragmented society and a divided political class. The society faces several types of blockages, including the modernization blockage. The independent economic class that began to emerge in the early 2000s was defeated by the Putinist system, and the political stalemate has become quite obvious. The system eventually acquired the characteristics of a dual state, with all its contradictory aspects. Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that after the 2008 crisis, the regime was faced with few choices: short-term survival or longer-term economic progress and stability. The short-term survival option was chosen with Putin’s reelection in 2012. In Aron’s opinion, in recent years, the regime has evolved from a relatively “soft” form of authoritarianism to a more classic “harder” type. This regime has marginalized and alienated the opposition and stigmatized organizations of civil society. At present, a significant segment of society morally rejects the regime, and a number of key conditions are in place for successful social change.

The second panel organized by IMR featured three presentations on the topic of Russian revolution. Sasha de Vogel, graduate of Columbia University and managing editor of the Journal of Globalization and Development, presented the results of her study analyzing the nature of the Russian middle-class protests. As part of the study, de Vogel explored a number of factors that could have led to protest activity, including economic issues, the efficacy of the state, and various democratic issues. One of her conclusions is that inequality, which in Russia’s case shows that “not all votes are equal,” became an important factor that brought people into the streets. According to de Vogel, “the idea that their votes should all be counted equally, and that they as a group should have some political power, was a motivating idea for the protestors.”

Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center in Moscow, presented the results of a related study that sought to understand the causes of the protest movement. As part of his research project, Volkov looked at various structures of the protest movement. According to him, tensions such as growing discontent with the government, the feeling of injustice, and uncertainty about the future accumulated in Russian society, providing favorable conditions for protests. As Leon Aron—who served as a panel discussant—suggested, “it was a moral rejection of the current regime that provided the strongest motivation for the protests.”

As Leon Aron—who served as a panel discussant—suggested, “it was a moral rejection of the current regime that provided the strongest motivation for the protests.”

A paper prepared by Ekaterina Mishina challenges the opinion that the 1990s brought an exclusively negative experience for Russia. In the author’s view, despite the emergence of significant problems, the “wild 1990s” brought many important and necessary changes to Russia, especially in the economic and political realms. Among Russia’s achievements of the 1990s were the efficient economic reforms undertaken by Yegor Gaidar and his team, freedom of the press, the quick solution to shortages of food and goods, successful privatization, the adoption of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, and the humanization of criminal legislation. According to Mishina, “that was a time of big expectations.”

The 45th ASEEES Convention hosted a variety of other panels and roundtables, with topics covering multiple areas and presenters discussing a range of issues, including those related to Russia. For example, the paper presented by two scholars from Carleton University, Joan DeBardeleben and Mikhail Zherebtsov, offered a picture of regional elections in Russia. Current relations between the state and business in Russia was the topic of the presentation by Tina Jennings, visiting research fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. In particular, Jennings focused on a controversial draft law introduced by Vladimir Putin that would allow proceedings related to tax offenses to be based on evidence obtained by law enforcement agencies alone. According to Jennings, a decision to follow this path will likely be considered a hostile gesture by companies and will lead to the outflow of capital from Russia. Harley Balzer, professor of government at Georgetown University, presented some of the findings from his comparative analysis of Russian and Chinese integration into the global economy. In Balzer’s opinion, the best explanation of why China is currently doing better than Russia is related to the pragmatic, diversified, and successful relationship between business and the state but primarily has to do with the quality of the state’s integration into the global economy.

Russia under Putin

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