20 years under Putin: a timeline

Following the presidential election, three well-known Russian journalists, Masha Gessen, Oleg Kashin, and Aleksei Pivovarov, spoke at Columbia University. They discussed Vladimir Putin's third term, his unexpected tears, and the future of the protest movement, including some of its figureheads: Mikhail Prokhorov, Alexei Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.


Masha Gessen,  currently an editor at Vokrug Sveta magazine, came to the Harriman Institute to present her present her new book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Oleg Kashin, a correspondent for Kommersant, and Aleksei Pivovarov, an evening news anchor at NTV, were also invited to the Harriman Institute by the Paul Khlebnikov Fund to discuss the results of the presidential election in Russia. IMR's Olga Khvostunova reviewed the speakers’ key points.


Editor's note: In deference to Aleksei Pivovarov's wish to speak at Columbia University event off the record, we have removed his quotes from this report.


On the Fairness of the Presidential Elections


Oleg Kashin: Before campaigning had even begun, Vladimir Putin had names his contenders, none of whom were truly viable alternatives. None of the elections in the past 20 years have been fair; in fact, with no consequences for the politicians. What changed everything was Putin’s announcement on September 24, 2011, when he stated that he would swap positions with President Dmitry Medvedev and that would be that. This made people take to the streets. Their slogan, “For Fair Elections,” however, was a mistake. Fair elections in Russia were and remain impossible from the get-go.

On Putin's Tears at His Victory Rally


Masha Gessen: It was an amazing sight. This is the president who didn’t cry after the Kursk sank, nor after Nord-Ost, nor Beslan. And he cries when he claims to have won over 60% of the vote. Russian leaders can be sentimental, but what they are sentimental about says a lot about their priorities.


Oleg Kashin: I don't think that the wind caused the tears. Putin really was that emotional. He has gone through a lot of unpleasantness since December.  The end of the election cycle must come as a a great relief to him. By all appearances, the Arab Spring-like events triggered serious fears in Putin’s mind. He was probably also crying because he had avoided the Arab Spring scenario that he had come to fear.

On the Roles of Mikhail Prokhorov and Dmitry Medvedev


Oleg Kashin: For me, there's an even more interesting question, and it's not Project Prokhorov, it's Project Medvedev.  Why Medvedev became President is a greater puzzle to me, with a less obvious solution.


Masha Gessen: Medvedev was given a humanitarian mission. He did do some useful things, for example forming the Presidential Council on Human Rights. When I heard that political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin decided to join the Council, I asked him “What are you doing? You will be working for them!” He replied that for him, it was an opportunity to do something to distress the system from within. At the end of Medvedev's presidency, all that was left was bitter disappointment. A significant number of people who had been willing to give him a chance all saw how pathetically he squandered his opportunity to effect some measure of change. These people got mad, and that anger fueled the protest movement. In the end, Medvedev’s liberal rhetoric had an unexpected effect on civil society. It wasn’t something that Putin allowed to happen, it’s something that he didn’t see happening.

On  The Opposition and Alexei Navalny


Oleg Kashin: The chief strategist of the Russian opposition movement is Vladimir Putin. The first protest at Bolotnaya Square was a reaction to the brutal behavior of the police forces in the days that preceded it, when hundreds of people were detained, beaten up, and sent to police stations during small, peaceful rallies. The large demonstration that followed, this time on Sakharov Avenue, was largely motivated by Putin referring to the protesters as "Bandar-logs," or monkeys. He was the one who triggered the protests. I think that in the future, the scale of the protests will continue to largely be in reaction to what Putin does. This is a problem, because Russian opposition leaders are weak, ineffective, and sometimes incompetent. People didn’t rally in support of any one particular leader, they did it because they felt it was their civic duty.


Masha Gessen: I wouldn’t call it “the opposition,” let’s call it a protest movement. Alexei Navalny played an important role in it. He is a one-man campaign against corruption, and a wonderful example of what happens if you destroy public discourse. He came of age under Putin’s rule. He has this bizarre mixture of libertarian and nationalist views. I think that’s the kind of thing that grows in a vacuum. Navalny is the inevitable hero of his time, we would be fools to have expected something different.

On the Role of Journalism and Social Media in the Protest Movement


Oleg Kashin: In Russia, Facebook plays a different role than it does in the U.S. The Russian version of Facebook, V Kontakte, is very popular and contains practically no political content. People who are interested or involved in politics use Facebook. They are comparatively small in number, but nonetheless very active. On the eve of the protest on Bolotnaya Square, about 40 thousand people confirmed their attendance on the event's page on Facebook. When nearly 100 thousand showed up, it became clear that the protest movement stepped beyond the limits of social media. Facebook is the core of protesters’ activities, but it’s not enough. In recent years, Live Journal has been a much more popular online platform in Russia. Even when authorities claim that only a few people came out to protest, it doesn’t really matter because the protest continues 24/7 in the Live Journal community and on Facebook. Until a few years ago, Russians did not really use Twitter. Then, Dmitry Medvedev did a lot for its popularity by opening an account. Since our power structure is vertical, whatever happens at the top goes all the way down: Medvedev’s subordinates followed suit. Still, overall, Russian politicians are light years away from using social media. The only exception is Aleksei Navalny, who has built a political career on his Live Journal. Honestly, it is a mystery to me why Navalny has been the only one so far to harness the political potential of social media. Anyone can do it.


Masha Gessen: In the past 12 years, the Russian media landscape has remained bleak and insular. This is not to say that there was nothing to read or watch, but to point out that audiences exists in their own information bubbles. Some people watch TV, others listen to the radio, read the newspaper; the savvy ones get information online and from blogs. I think that even liberal media, such as the TV-Rain internet TV channel or Ekho Moskvy radio, have not done much to expand their bubbles. The only example of a breakthrough would be Kommersant FM. I wouldn’t overestimate the role ofsocial media. It is a great tool for communicating among like-minded people, but not for attracting new followers to a cause.

On the Possibility of Putin 2.0


Oleg Kashin: It's funny to hear questions about Putin 2.0. It implies that during the past 12 years, this man has been hiding his true face, and now, when he is about to turn 60, all of a sudden, he has decided to change. No. He will always be Putin. Another question troubles me more. When Putin was speaking at Manezhnaya Square as it was cordoned off by the troops and the police,  and where people had been bussed in from outside the city as supporters for hire, did he realize that this spectacle was essentially created by force, or did he believe that this was a true manifestation of the masses celebrating his victory? One has to think about it: an authoritarian leader going mad is much more dangerous than simply an authoritarian leader. I don't know what Putin's prospects are, but if the police would stop beating the protesters tomorrow, it would already make Russia a different country. If the authorities did consented to show Alexei Navalny on state-run TV channels, Russia would become a different country. If people who live in Moscow and St. Petersburg were given back their right to electing mayors and governors, Russia would become a different country. And I don’t see anything horrible if while all of this happens, Putin remains President.


Masha Gessen: Putin is desperate to hold on to power; he cannot afford to lose any. Putin doesn’t trust anybody, so negotiating is very difficult for him. Eventually, at the very last, desperate minute he will only negotiate for himself. I’m happy to discuss other scenarios, but I don’t see what else could happen. I can only imagine him being willing to compromise as a last resort.

On the Possibility of a Review of the Khodorkovsky Case


Masha Gessen: I’m not inclined to analyze these recent developments, but if Medvedev wanted to pardon Khodorkovsky, he would have done it a long time ago. I don’t see Medvedev’s order to review the verdict for this case as part of some strategy. These people don’t have a strategy. I think it was just a meaningless gesture.


Oleg Kashin: Khodorkovsky is Putin's story. If Medvedev wanted to free Khodorkovsky, he could have called Olga Yegorova, the head of the Moscow City Court, in December of 2010, and, as it is customary in Russian politics, simply asked her not to put Khodorkovsky in jail for the second time. I think that Khodorkovsky will only get his freedom  the day after Putin finally resigns.

On the Length of Putin's Third Term


Masha Gessen: I am certain that Putin will not be the presdient for more than two years. There’s money in Russia, but no progress. Sometimes you have money, but you get older, stupider, and uglier anyway, and that is what is happening to Russia as a state. It’s deteriorating.


Oleg Kashin: Kommersant recently published an article by Andrei Kostin, CEO of VTB Bank and a close friend of Putin's. Kostin wrote that it would be great if Putin resigned in 6 years. When somebody of Kostin's status makes a statement like this, it should be taken seriously as a possible turn of events. There is some talk that Putin had not aspired to come back for a third presidential term. I wouldn’t dismiss the theory that he decided to return because of pressure from his billionaire friends, as their prosperity depends directly on his staying in power. Ultimately, I don’t really care what Vladimir Putin’s next steps will be. He can do whatever he wants. But we have to live with the fact that he is not quite a legitimate president.