20 years under Putin: a timeline

As part of the Institute of Modern Russia’s ongoing interview series with Russian and Western experts, imrussia.org editor-in-chief Olga Khvostunova sat down with INDEM Foundation president Georgy Satarov to talk about social discontent, the consequences of the law on ’’undesirable organizations,’’ the principle of simplification in Putin’s politics, and the chances for a real opposition to emerge in Russia.



Olga Khostunova: Last week, it became known that the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was leaving Russia. The Justice Ministry has declared it an ’’undesirable organization.’’ What do you make of this decision?

Georgy Satarov: This is not the first example of an international foundation leaving Russia. Four years ago, before the laws on ’’foreign agents’’ and ’’undesirable organizations’’ appeared, the Ford Foundation saw where the general trend was going and left Russia. It was one of our main partners at the time, if not the most important. So, this trend is not new.

OK: Then why was the law on “undesirable organizations” adopted now?

GS: The authorities’ current goal is to limit autonomy and independence in all areas to the greatest extent possible: in media, business, society, intellectual life, and so on. The authorities’ actions against public organizations—human rights groups, think tanks such as INDEM, and others—began about 10 years ago. But because society is stronger than any regime, and more tenacious, it does not want to surrender. Society is simply structured differently, and this is a tragedy for any regime. They tell society, “Obey, fall in line,” but it doesn’t obey and doesn’t fall in line. The authorities’ reaction is quite natural: they intensify the legislative pressure, and, in essence, the repression of society. The law on “undesirable organizations,” which serves as an instrument for circumscribing society’s activism, its contacts, and its sources of financing, is the regime’s latest move toward imposing such limitations.

OK: Some in Russia and even in the West criticize the presence of foundations like NED in Russia on the grounds that there are no Russian foundations in the U.S. with as much funding as NED, and that if there were, the U.S. would behave just like Russia is behaving now. In your view, does this argument justify the actions of the Russian government?

GS: Those are strange statements, because there were such organizations in the U.S.—for example, Andranik Migranyan’s Institute for Democracy and Cooperation. The whole time that he was working in the U.S., those critics were silent.

OK: What consequences will there be from the law on ’’undesirable organizations’’ and the departure from Russia of foundations like NED? Will the number of public organizations and expert centers decrease, or will they find Russian sources of financing?

GS: Russian financing is not a real possibility. First, if we are talking about the government as a source of funding, it will only fund its own people to carry out specific tasks. It creates or tames organizations and funds them. We tried to apply for a grant from the government, which makes a certain pool of funds available to NGOs, but we didn’t get the grant. Someone even whispered to one of our colleagues, “Your application was the best, but you surely understand—we couldn’t give you money.” They couldn’t, because we aren’t among those who fall into line at the drop of a hat. And secondly, the government is rapidly getting poorer and has other things on its mind. The budgets for public organizations will be reduced.

OK: What about getting funding from private business?

GS: The private sector is extremely intimidated. For 10 years now, it has been useless trying to reach out to it or to count on its ability to freely choose projects to fund. So, we don’t expect to find any alternative sources of funding, but we will survive anyway.

OK: But how do you envision that happening? Will you reduce your staff, or decrease the number of programs you run? Or do something else?

GS: In comparison with the prosperous times of 10 years ago, we have already reduced a lot of things. We will seek other, less simple ways of obtaining financing in order to carry out our programs.

OK: At the end of June, you wrote an article for Project Syndicate about the development of the political system in Russia. You said one of the fundamental principles guiding Putin was the pursuit of simplicity. According to this logic, it can be assumed that sooner or later the system will face a task that it cannot cope with...

GS: That point has long since passed.

OK: When did that happen?

GS: Initially, in the dawn of Putin’s presidency, the goal of the system was to start a wave of liberalism while limiting democracy. This goal was the product of a kind of social consensus. The second half of this slogan is actually saying: “We know what to do—the most important thing is not to interfere with us.” Who did they want to keep from interfering? The opposition, critics, and so on. But in about 2003, the people in power became convinced that they were not going to be successful. There is a proverbial management principle that says the complexity of a system of control must correspond to the complexity of the system being controlled. Well, it turned out that the managerial resources the authorities wanted to use to solve this task were insufficient to handle the task’s complexity. Modern society and its economy are very complex systems, and it’s impossible to manage them through primitive means. Once this became apparent, the authorities discarded the idea of a liberal wave and did not consider it again.

OK: Do you mean that there are insufficient resources on the intellectual level, or is it a systematic problem of the people in power?

GS: It’s the system. The authorities thought that the task itself and the resources for solving it were simple—something like, say, the maneuvers of an army regiment. And it couldn’t cope, because it was impossible to solve the assigned task with the chosen resources.

The regime in Russia, being a social animal of sorts, is in a mentally disturbed condition, so it is rather difficult to predict its actions. But the opposition does have a chance in elections. The approval ratings of the regime have nothing to do with reality.

OK: In the Western press, as well as in the Russian media, of course, Putin is sometimes portrayed as a highly clever, impressive, cunning, and unpredictable politician. There is even a degree of admiration for him in these portrayals, especially in comparison to many Western leaders, who have supposedly lost their luster. How do these portrayals align with your theory that Putin strives for simplicity? Is the Russian president simply not well understood?

GS: His guile and his way of thinking are probably beyond the West’s customary understanding of the world. Everything is set up differently there. They have never encountered a world leader who in fact is a little street hooligan beset by complexes. One who is able to pretend, to puff out his cheeks, to grit his teeth, and to say some smart things by rote. They have seen dictators and scoundrels, but they haven’t seen petty St. Petersburg hooligans. They had a hard time understanding it, which is why for the first 10 years, Putin just seemed unpredictable to them. Now it has become more acceptable to talk about his unpredictability, because being in power for 15 years has deformed his personality to an extent. But this happens with a lot of people—there’s nothing surprising about it.

OK: How do you envision the future of Putin’s presidency? Will he stay in power or will he name a successor once again?

GS: I think he will try to remain in power forever, in his own specific way. It isn’t important what position he holds—a person like Putin is satisfied with schemes that have been used before and were successful. But the extent to which he will be able to do this is a much tougher question, which is why he alone does not get to determine the length of time he remains in power.

OK: What circumstances could get in his way?

GS: Social discontent, and discontent among the people around him—that is to say, within the Putinist elite.

OK: Which is more important—social discontent or that among the elite?

GS: I think social discontent is more important. A serious, illegitimate change in leadership—that is, a change that takes place not as a result of elections—is possible only if two forces emerge simultaneously: a strong internal opposition and a consolidated external opposition. At present, there is already some discontent within the Putin establishment, but so far there is not a strong, authoritative, consolidated external opposition.

OK: You say there is no strong external opposition, but right now, for example, registration is under way for regional elections in September, and in practically every region and city, opposition candidates from the democratic coalition are being subjected to various restrictions. How can the opposition become strong under such conditions?

GS: The opposition is making serious efforts, learning and beginning to understand how to act extremely carefully, so that, from a legal point of view, the regime cannot find fault with it. In the end, the regime is forced to use methods that are extremely immoral and illegal. The things that have happened in Novosibirsk and Kostroma are unprecedented.

OK: Will the authorities let the opposition candidates run for office or will all their attempts be nipped in the bud?

GS: The regime in Russia, being a social animal of sorts, is in a somewhat mentally disturbed condition, so it is rather difficult to predict its actions. But the opposition does have a chance in elections. Once again, I emphasize that the approval ratings of the regime have nothing to do with reality. As a result, the opposition needs to try to participate in the elections—this will put the authorities in zugzwang. If the authorities act in a straightforward and at least somewhat lawful manner, they will have to give the opposition a chance. If they do not, they will need to rip off all the masks, and then other galvanizing forces will begin to function in society, as happened in late 2011.

OK: Speaking of societal discontent, how do you evaluate the record levels of support for Putin? Is this the result of patriotic mobilization?

GS: I don’t evaluate it at all—it is sociological fraud.

OK: In other words, you believe that a rating above 80% doesn’t count for anything?

GS: These figures, of course, have nothing to do with the reality in society. They are published by the same old three polling organizations and don’t reflect real attitudes.

OK: In your view, will the effects of the current economic crisis provoke social discontent? And, even more important, will this discontent be directed against the authorities and not against the ’’external enemy’’ represented by the Western governments that have imposed sanctions on Russia?

GS: You used the correct phrase: “Will it be?” The unpleasant consequences of the economic crisis and of the decisions the authorities are making in these circumstances will begin to be felt only in the fall. And these decisions include, of course, those which cannot be blamed on the sanctions. Therefore, yes—the consequences of the economic crisis will begin to have effects.

OK: In your view, how quickly will this discontent mount before some movement begins within the society?

GS: I think in a year or a year-and-a-half. In other words, by the time of parliamentary elections [in September 2016], the social situation may very well be different.