20 years under Putin: a timeline

Such was the agreed-upon conclusion at a panel discussion hosted by the Harriman Institute (Columbia University) on November 14. With parliamentary elections coming in about two weeks, the only issues left to debate are to what extent the results will be falsified and what implications this will have for the regime.


Professor Konstantin Sonin of the New Economic School

The panel brought together prominent Russian experts in the fields of politics, economics, and sociology: Nikolai Petrov and Maria Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center, Professor Konstantin Sonin of the New Economic School, Professor Alena Ledeneva of the University College of London (School of Slavonic and East European Studies), and Yulia Latynina, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, Ekho Moskvy, and the Moscow Times. Timothy Frye, Director of the Harriman Institute, moderated the discussion.

Following Vladimir Putin’s announcement of his return as the next Russian president, political discourse on the future of the country has gradually changed. Discussions have been heating up, mostly among elites, intellectuals, and independent media outlets.

None of the experts who gathered at the panel considered the upcoming parliamentary elections to be a democratic procedure or an important political event, per se. In fact, Sonin even stated that December 4th would only be a “confirmation day.” The confirmation would demonstrate the regime’s — and Putin’s — power over the country. Sonin continued by naming the procedure the “non-elections,” given the proof of huge (according to Sonin, up to 50%) falsification of voter turnout data and results (though all this evidence is completely dismissed by authorities).

Petrov argued against Sonin , saying that that any election was better than no elections at all. In that sense, insisted Petrov, Putin is not an outright opponent of democratic processes in general, only of those where the results could be unpredictable or possibly undermine his power. Petrov pointed to another major problem: the passivity and apathy of the Russian population. “It’s not an issue of a good nation and a bad leader. The nation usually deserves the leader it gets. The problem is that in people’s minds, there’s no connection between elections, which are perceived as a staged and an inherently corrupt political show, and the state of affairs in the country.”

Experts argue that Putin’s regime has acquired features of the Soviet state. Ledeneva described it as a new Soviet state where democratic institutions and property rights exist only as a façade: “It’s not a command system, it’s a system of signals that are sent out and captured by the elite.”


Maria Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center

Some foreign policy analysts and politicians hold the view that Russian people are generally happy with the course of their country’s development. Lipman disputed that position by referring to recent polls and results of a Moscow Carnegie Center research project.  According to her data, people are discontent with the level of corruption, lawlessness, bureaucracy and nationalism: “People may be compliant with the regime, but they are definitely not happy. Some of them, especially the successful ones, are driven out of the country because they cannot deal with the lawless environment.”

Latynina contributed to the discussion by listing some factors that could determine the duration of Putin’s regime: oil prices, social indicators (such as the age and national composition of the population), the level of corruption, the role of the Internet opposition, etc. Considering them all, Latynina assessed that the regime might last from 5 to 15 years. That assessment was, to a large extent, shared by the panelists and the majority of the audience.


Olga Khvostunova