20 years under Putin: a timeline

In an interview with Open Russia Vladimir Pastukhov, political scientist and honorary senior research associate at University College London, discusses the current state of Russian society, Vladimir Putin’s political perspectives, the possibilities of the government making catastrophic mistakes, and the goals of the opposition. Given its length, this interview is published in two parts. Today, we are releasing the second part; the first part is available here.


“Six years is more than enough time for these spiders to eat each other up ten times over”

Nathan Andrews: Do you expect the government to alter its strategy if the protest activity starts to grow? How would the Kremlin react to new protests closer to the elections?

Vladimir Pastukhov: Judging by previous experience, it’s clear that the Kremlin intends to limit its use of repressive methods. However, at the same time, the Kremlin tends to overreact when it is scared. So it’s likely that the type of politics will be wholly postmodern—eclectic and twitchy. During periods when emotions are under control, the government will demonstrate its readiness to turn down the heat a little and play a complex game, flirting with the most troublesome groups in society from the point of view of the Kremlin. 

Alexei Kudrin’s Center for Strategic Solutions—a fairytale liberal think tank, in which the intelligentsia can realize their most utopian political dreams—and a colossally repressive apparatus that includes groups of all-powerful siloviki (the departments known as “K”, “M”, and the so-called “Sixes”) and essentially controls all property in the country, peacefully co-exist in today’s Russia. 

Both government-funded, the first group raves about the open economy and liberal reforms, while the second packs people off on long prison sentences for trying to defend their own property. 

I think that these mutually-exclusive policy lines will continue to co-exist and will be switched on alternately. Only as we move closer to the 2018 elections, will the amplitude of these absurd political fluctuations will occur more and more. 

NA: So are you anticipating a Putin victory in 2018?

VP: Today, I cannot see anything that would prevent Vladimir Putin from winning in the 2018 elections. The only force that can stop Putin is Putin himself. The question is how he sees his long-term strategy—to remain a “galley slave” or to become a first-class passenger on the Titanic under the command of a different captain? 

NA: In that case, how many years do you think he’ll remain in power? There is a theory that after victory in the coming elections the Kremlin will begin preparing a successor. 

VP: I don’t think that Putin’s entourage will take the risk of conducting a serious experiment before 2018, as both the domestic and foreign political situation is far too unstable. Therefore, for the next six years they will be occupied with reforming the structure of power.

The chance of serious constitutional reform before 2024 is extremely likely. One of the parameters of such a reform might be the creation of some kind of institution which will allow Putin to retain a level of governmental function for the rest of his life. For example, he could become the head of a new government council which wields executive authority. It’s even possible that the whole system of presidential, government and parliamentary branches could be restructured. Ideally, by 2024 they will need to enter a situation in which Putin could continue to control—if his health permits it—the country’s political processes without officially violating the constitution, and without exceeding the limits of a fourth term. I would say with 95 percent certainty that Putin will leave the presidency after 2024 either under these or some other conditions. 

NA: Who could become a successor if such an event were to take place?

VP: It is impossible to venture such a guess at the moment; six years is more than enough time for these spiders to eat each other up ten times over. The winner is usually he who starts last. That is to say that, realistically, we can only begin to start talking about a successor around mid-2020. The problem is that such conversations are often very abstract in character, as we assume that the system will remain the same as it is today; a very unlikely outcome. The system will remain stable as long as it does not commit any strategic errors. There are currently no external threats to the regime—it is a threat to itself. As long as the internal stresses of the system and the struggles among the elite continue to grow, then eventually the chance of a mistake being made will become a certainty. 

NA: What kind of mistake could the system make?

VP: It could be a rational, unpredictable event, or some kind of serious military adventure that produces intolerable consequences. This is the kind of situation that could set off a destructive process of self-liquidation.  And as of 2018 the chance of such a mistake being made will grow exponentially. To get by mistake-free until 2024 is going to be a huge task for the Kremlin. 

In general, the government’s main mistake will be the initiation of reforms.  Any reforms, whether progressive or reactionary will expose the inherent weaknesses of the system.  Vladimir Putin is instinctively conducting himself very carefully, not taking any steps in that direction.  This is the best defence against revolution.  The problem is that nothing is forever.  Sooner or later he will have to make a move…


“The initial years after Putin will be the most difficult.” 

NA: What will happen when Putin leaves?  You wrote about the existence of particular political cycles in Russia, what do you think the next stage is going to be?

VP: As one of my closest friends once said; it’s important to understand which cycle we’re talking about. If we’re talking about 2024, or even 2030-40, then that’s the cycle of “Russia’s children.” If we move forward to 2040-60, this is “Russia’s grandchildren.” “Russia’s children” have very bleak prospects. If Russia outlives its children, then “Russia’s grandchildren” may not have such poor prospects at all under the condition that a singular state survives on the territory of the Russian Federation. The resource base and common changes to the planet, particularly those involving the climate, are beneficial to Russia. The question is whether Russia is able to transform itself without tearing itself or the rest of the world apart, and survive to see this bright future. 

NA: And what will this depend on? 

VP: It really depends on two factors. The first: how quick today’s regime comes to an end. The second: how well organized will the transitional period be? The general formula looks something like this: the longer today’s artificial “stability” goes on for, the more powerful the explosion will be, the more unstable the transitional period will be, and the higher the risk will be that the country will be blown to pieces. 

I can absolutely guarantee that the initial years after Putin will be the most difficult; Russia is living its future today. The fate of future generations is being tossed into the furnace of today’s “stability.”  And so young people are instinctively coming out on to the streets, although they do not realise just how bad their situation really is.  The longer this regime survives, the weaker, more tainted and rotten the country will be as it enters the next historical cycle. 

I sympathize most of all with the average Russian in the street who has ended up in a very difficult psychological position. On the one hand, their affection for Putin and the current regime is completely understandable. On the other hand, people should make the decision today: to live in difficulty tomorrow, although nothing that can’t be overcome, or to live a normal life now without thinking much of tomorrow, but then on the day after tomorrow comes a real perfect storm, a full-blown revolution. Even in daily life we rarely choose to put ourselves through moderate difficulties tomorrow in order to avoid the nightmare that comes the day after. This takes tremendous will power.  

The historical catch for us all is the opportunity to extract from the transitional period two things: an understanding of the importance of freedom in the European choice, and an understanding of the role and purpose of the state, order and institutions. 

NA: So you believe that the transition of power will not be peaceful?

VP: Since Putin has taken upon himself the entire burden of the country’s political and economic life, even distancing himself from power, not to mention a full exit, would lead to a situation where the growing stress in the system results in an explosion, and the country would descend into chaos.  It doesn’t matter whether this chaos has a liberal or a fascist tone; both are dangerous. It’s very important that when this moment arrives we take lessons from the final stages of the Russian Revolution: the 1990s. First of all, we have to preserve an understanding of the role and value of statehood, as well as the importance of law and order. This will ensure that the process of liberalization is not an explosion, but rather a managed process with due regard for the future. This will help us not to go into a tailspin from a great height, but rather glide down slowly.

The earlier the transitional period gets under way, the better. In that sense, any movement in any direction is better than standing still, and when this period gets started, it’s important that it be a managed process. I would prefer any “bad” revolution from above rather than a “good” revolution from below.  

And then, if we’re speaking about the very distant future, Russia will be able to change and save itself only under the condition that it undergoes serious federalization and decentralization; Russia does not have another choice. A country with such an enormous territory can only exist either under an autocratic or decentralized system. In the first instance, it doesn’t matter what name the autocrat goes by—whether it’s Putin, Navalny or someone else—the country will look the same as today. In the second scenario, under the conditions of political and economic decentralization; when Russia consists of 20-25 large formations, relatively autonomous, but with a common military and foreign policy — only then can we hope to see some kind of alternative to today’s system.  It’s only in this scenario that we will be able to speak about liberalization and a constitutional state governed by the rule of law. However, this is a long-term perspective.  

NA: What can the opposition do today in order to hasten the transition to a Russian democratic model?

VP: Today Russia is a “people’s prison” in the traditional sense. If a person ends up in prison, the only thing he’s able to do in preparation for his freedom is to work out in the gym. Therefore, the best thing the opposition can do today is to prepare for the future, particularly in an intellectual, and emotional way, training the brain and willpower. There's no point in endlessly repeating the phrases “we want freedom” and “we want democracy”; we must work through our mistakes and understand that we've been doing things the wrong way for the last 25 years.  For now, we will continue to follow the same current—which began with perestroika and has yet to come to an end.  Putin is only a part of that process. 

I believe the gravest mistake was the idea that we needed to return the country to the 1990s, as supposedly at the time there was such a thing as freedom. This is not quite so: the 90s were in many ways total chaos, although they were accompanied by minor, external elements of freedom. 

Freedom is an organized environment. Real freedom suggests integral institutionalization, which distinguishes it from anarchy. There was no such institutionalization in the 1990s, making Putin an inevitability. We should not get rid of the current regime only to collapse into the same pit from which we have only just managed to climb out. We should get rid of the regime and keep on climbing higher. 

The historical catch for us all is the opportunity to extract from the transitional period two things: an understanding of the importance of freedom in the European sense, not the Russian sense, and an understanding of the role and purpose of the state, order and institutions as guarantors of these freedoms. In order to attain such an understanding we have to do a lot of banal thinking. We need to understand which reforms have to be undertaken and how exactly they will be conducted. We need to soberly analyze the position that the country is currently in and strengthen the forces which we can rely on in the foundation of a new society.  The Russian opposition must develop a comprehensive agenda. 

NA: So thinking rather than doing?

VP: The French Revolution was succeeded by a trend of so-called “club politique.” The whole country was teeming with discussion clubs where people would get together and debate the pressing issues of the day. This is an inseparable part of the French Revolution to which the country owes its greatness.  First of all, words and thoughts are born, then everything else follows suit. I have a feeling that in Russia we’re always desperate to skip over this fundamental period of “word and thought.” Maybe Putin was given to us in order to allow us time to think. The question is: will we make use of the time that has been given to us?

The best thing that the opposition can do today is to strengthen itself intellectually and organizationally, since it is impossible to “create” a revolution. A revolution is not organized, it is a natural process. The revolution will be sparked by the regime itself. After that, everything will depend on whether certain forces in society have matured and are ready to take on the political responsibility of holding power.