20 years under Putin: a timeline

On November 20–23, IMR analysts and executive staff participated in the annual Convention of the Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) in San Antonio, Texas. The theme of this year’s convention was “25 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Historical Legacies and New Beginnings.” As part of the conference, IMR held a roundtable and a panel.


From right to left: IMR president Pavel Khodorkovsky; professor Vytautas Landsbergis, former chairman of the Supreme Council of Lithuania and former member of the European Parliament; IMR senior policy advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza. Photo: IMR


Russia’s 1989: The Year of Discussion

On November 20–23, the Institute of Modern Russia attended the 46th annual Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) Convention in San Antonio, Texas. There, IMR held a roundtable entitled “Russia’s 1989: The Year of Discussion,” which highlighted the historical significance of Russia’s March 1989 elections—the country’s first competitive elections since November 1917—and the opening of the Congress of People’s Deputies. Roundtable participants included IMR president Pavel Khodorkovsky; IMR senior policy advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza; and professor Vytautas Landsbergis, former chairman of the Supreme Council of Lithuania and former member of the European Parliament.

As Pavel Khodorkovsky pointed out, during the March 1989 elections, the majority of the candidates were members of the Communist Party and, predictably, these were the candidates who ultimately received the highest support (about 85 percent of the vote). One of the reasons for this outcome was the public’s limited knowledge about the new candidates, due in part to insufficient access to media outlets. That said, many leaders of the democratic movement who participated in the elections managed to be elected deputies of the congress.

According to Vladimir Kara-Murza, these deputies—among whom were Yuri Afanasyev, Galina Starovotiova, Yuri Ryzhov, Gavriil Popov, and Anatoly Sobchak—were new opinion leaders who presented an alternative to the Communist regime. The first parliamentary opposition in the Soviet Union was established in the form of the Interregional Group of Deputies, co-chaired, among others, by Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, and “human rights legend” Andrei Sakharov. The congress lasted for two and half years and its legacy includes “the abolition of Article 6 and the official condemnation of the secret protocols to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.” “The election to the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR was a milestone on the path to political freedom for the Eastern bloc,” Kara-Murza said.

Yet according to Vytautas Landsbergis, the work of the Congress of People’s Deputies was “unduly forgotten.” The congress provided for “true representation of nations and valuation of... [the] bloody crimes of the USSR.” Landsbergis reminisced that on August 23, 1989, the day of the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, some two million people of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia took part in the so-called “Baltic Way” action, joining hands in a live chain from Vilnius to Tallinn to demonstrate their protest against secret clauses in the pact, and in commemoration of the tens of millions of victims of the Stalin-Hitler conspiracy. A few months later, in December 1989, the congress recognized the existence of secret clauses in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and declared them illegal.

According to Landsbergis, the year 1989 gave Russia, as an emerging democracy, the opportunity to decide whether it was a “continuator of Stalinism or a victim of Stalinism.” Despite an initially promising response, in the 2000s, it became apparent that the state would be a “continuator of Stalinism.” “The chance was missed and the price for that may be horrible,” concluded Landsbergis.


The World Divided: Russia’s Alternative to the Ideology of Liberal Democracy

IMR’s second event at the ASEEES Convention was a panel discussion titled “The World Divided: Russia’s Alternative to the Ideology of Liberal Democracy.” The panel included IMR director Lidiya Dukhovich; IMR advisor, assistant professor for the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and visiting professor at the University of Michigan, Ekaterina Mishina; IMR researcher Boris Bruk; editor-in-chief of imrussia.org and IMR political analyst Olga Khvostunova; and Columbia University Ph.D. candidate Maria Snegovaya.

Lidiya Dukhovich, who served as chair of the panel, presented the panelists and opened the discussion. First to speak was Boris Bruk, author of a paper titled “Filling the Vacuum? The New Values to Consolidate Russian Society.” He noted that numerous pro-Kremlin commentators argue that the Western model of democracy has not only failed in Russia, but also caused serious harm to the country. As an alternative, Russian authorities have focused on restoring “traditional values” and promoting patriotism. According to recent data from the IMR project “The Faces of Russian Patriotism” (conducted in collaboration with the Levada Center), with regard to the Ukraine crisis, Russia remains patriotically and militarily mobilized, while an increasing number of Russian citizens associate patriotism with support of the authorities. However, as Bruk pointed out, for the vast majority of Russians, patriotism is also associated with a deep personal feeling—one not related to the ideology of the ruling regime.

Olga Khvostunova spoke next, presenting her research paper “Democracy Derailed: Are Russian Intellectuals Responsible for the Ideological Rationale of Putinism?” which studies the history of the complicated relationship between intellectuals (the intelligentsia) and the Russian authorities. According to Khvostunova, throughout modern history, intellectuals have proven themselves to be one of the most influential and controversial social groups worldwide. In the political arena, they serve as “idea brokers” and “experts” who produce ideas, develop ideologies, consult politicians on various issues, and play the role of mediators (“interpreters”) between the public and the political sphere. The problem in Russia, however, is that intellectuals, often without realizing it, become "engaged"—siding with the authorities and legitimizing their policies, as opposed to keeping their distance and operating as independent critics. In her presentation, Khvostunova mentioned two ratings of Russia’s most influential intellectuals, compiled in 2009 and 2013 by the online publication Colta.ru (formerly Openspace.ru). As part of a comparative analysis of the role of intellectuals in public discourse, Khvostunova also delivered data on which Russian political experts are most quoted in the media. According to her, the data suggests that in today’s Russia, the intellectual elite is fragmented and rifts run deep.

According to Landsbergis, the year 1989 gave Russia, as an emerging democracy, the opportunity to decide whether it was a “continuator of Stalinism or a victim of Stalinism.” However, in the 2000s, it became apparent that “the chance was missed and the price for that may be horrible.”

Maria Snegovaya’s research paper, titled “Individual level predictors of support for populist parties,” seeks to identify the factors that “explain voters’ support for populism in a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe that have faced a number of challenges similar to those of Russia.” In the wake of the liberal period that started in 1989 and ended by the 2000s, populism has been “tearing the region apart,” leading to a number of political victories by populist parties. Focusing on the experience of Eastern Europe, Snegovaya noted that a significant predictor of the populist vote is public sector employment rates: “Once populists come to power, they immediately start creating a huge number of public sector jobs.”

In her comments on the papers presented by the panelists, Ekaterina Mishina pointed out that, despite a number of important political changes introduced after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia has seen a democratic rollback. For example, the 1993 Russian Constitution introduced such ideas as the supremacy of human rights, rule of law, separation of powers, and other internationally recognized principles; yet what we’ve seen emerge in reality has been “the strengthening of the vertical of power, subordination of law to the political will, politicization of the judiciary, [and] selective application of justice.” The case of Mikhail Kosenko, one of Russia’s political prisoners, has demonstrated a return to the punitive psychiatry that was used during the Soviet times, while the government’s current focus on state enemies is reminiscent of Bolshevik legislation, which relied heavily on the concept of an “enemy.”


Issues of Russian Politics at the ASEEES Convention

As in past years, a number of world-recognized experts on Russia participated in the ASEEES Convention. IMR summarizes some of this year’s presentations:

Providing a broader picture of Russia’s current reality, Richard Sakwa, a professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, suggested that in the face of multiple challenges, the year 2014 opened the door to a new epoch for Russia. With the development of the Ukraine crisis, a number of structural weaknesses have exacerbated in Russia, and early attempts to join the European community have given way to alternative projects. Under these circumstances, according to Sakwa, the ruling regime remains safe, while the opposition has been “marginalized, weakened, [and] disarmed.”

Vladimir Gelman, a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg and the University of Helsinki, expressed a similar take on the Russian opposition. In his words, the Russian rallies of 2011–2012 allowed the Russian opposition to “come to the front stage of Russian politics”; however, despite certain accomplishments, it did not establish any form of “viable organization” or manage to develop a clear, positive agenda. So far, Gelman observed, the Russian opposition has not achieved its goals: “It is still bitterly divided by internal contradictions, harshly coerced by the authorities.” The slogan of the protest rallies “Russia Will Be Free!” has remained “a key item on Russia’s political agenda.”

Several presentations at the conference addressed problems of civil society in post-Soviet Russia. Elizabeth Plantan, a PhD student at Cornell University, spoke about the phenomena of “selective repression and selective encouragement” in Russia, with a particular focus on domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs). As Plantan explained, the government has restricted the activity of certain civic groups, and, at the same time, encouraged other, more patriotic forces within Russian civil society. The effort has been not only to repress civil society, but to shape it. As Plantan put it, “not all [Russian] NGOs are created equal.”

Since Russia’s domestic policy and foreign policy are integrally related, the regime’s repressive efforts at home have been reflected in the international arena, where Russia’s image has been deteriorating of late. The government tries to improve the situation by employing soft power initiatives and generously investing in them. Tuomas Forsberg, a professor of international relations at the University of Tampere, stated that the Russian government is driven by its ambition to position the country as a great world power. According Forsberg, though, most of its initiatives have been ineffective, as has become increasingly evident with the development of the Ukraine crisis.

Russia’s concept of a “great power” is linked to its civilizational views and aspirations. As Andrei Tsygankov, a professor at San Francisco State University, pointed out, Russia’s official discourse has increasingly engaged the notion of civilization, especially during Putin’s third presidential term. According to Tsygankov, in addition to this civilizational focus, the ideology of Putin’s regime incorporates ideas of national unity, traditional values, and sovereignty.

The 47th annual ASEEES Convention will be held next November in Philadelphia. IMR is currently working on proposals to participate in the conference.

Russia under Putin

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