20 years under Putin: a timeline

O.Kh.: What do you mean? What, in your opinion, is the worst case scenario?

A.P.: Putin's system is absolutely fruitless in the economic respect. We don’t have capitalism or a market system because we lack its key component: private property. [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky’s case is a dramatic example. It’s also remarkable to mention the case one of the richest people in Russia, Oleg Deripaska. He said that he was ready to give up all his fortune if Putin demanded it. Property in this country is absolutely conditional, it depends on loyalty to the sovereign and the authorities. Neither long-term investments nor innovations are possible in such a system. They only work in a resource-based economy. In terms of the global financial crisis, our system will face major obstacles. And this might not be our biggest problem.

O.Kh.: What then is the biggest problem?

A.P.: The relationship with the Caucasus and Central Asia, for example. In Chechnya, the Kremlin lost the war to [Ramzan] Kadyrov, and now pays indemnities to him. A similar relationship has been established with other Republics of the North Caucasus. Russia tries to fill this gap with money, while local chiefs perform some rituals of loyalty to the Kremlin. In reality, mayhem is taking place: not only are Russian laws are disregarded, but any legal institutions are absent as well. Besides, there is the problem of China absorbing the Far East and Siberia. With the current regime, all these problems will bring the country to collapse.

O.Kh.: You know, there is an alternative point of view out there. Some experts say that Putin can't ignore the negative trends in the country and, therefore, he will start his third term with a liberalization of the regime. Maybe even release Mikhail Khodorkovsky. What is your opinion?

A.P.: I don't believe in any modernization or liberalization during Putin's third term. It contradicts his character, his KGB mentality, and his sheer need to retain power. On the other hand, Putin is pragmatist. So I don’t exclude the possibility that he might release Khodorkovsky. He might offer a deal to Khodorkovsky’s lawyers and relatives to release him on parole or grant him pardon on the condition that Khodorkovsky not participate in any political activities and immediately leave the country.


Andrei Piontkovsky was present at several hearings during the second trial against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev


O.Kh.: Recently, political discourse in the media has become sharper, even some criticism of the regime is being heard. Can these changes in discourse lead to a real transformation of the political process?

A.P.: I don't think they will, not in the near future. All authoritarian regimes evolve in common patterns. Despite the dissatisfaction and irritation of the political class, this regime will safely crawl through the upcoming elections. But starting next year, Putin will have to rule a different country, one with a very negative attitude towards him coming from the majority of the political elite.

O.Kh.: You've mentioned common patterns of evolution for such regimes. What are they?

A.P.: Every authoritarian regime has a cornerstone myth that infects the ideology of a significant part of the population. In the case of the Soviet Union, it was the October revolution. After the regime has been installed, years of “Storm and Stress” follow, that is, the success of this myth give rise to a regime. For the USSR, the climax of this myth was the victory in World War II. Then comes exhaustion, decline, the elites start to get disappointed with the regime. All of this results in a “nausea of the elites” that leads to a phenomenon like “perestroika.” In the end, the elites destroy the system themselves. The USSR collapsed not because of the people’s revolt, but because of the “perestroika” carried out by the Communist nomenklatura. This “perestroika” converted their almost absolute political power into enormous economic power for the individual members of the nomenklatura. Another example is the Tsarist regime that was not overthrown by the peasant uprisings or by terrorist-revolutionaries, but was rejected by the Tsarist elite.

O.Kh.: What is the Putin's myth?

A.P.: Putin's myth was born during the Second Chechen war, after the terrorist bombings of residential houses in Moscow [in 1999 – O.Kh.]. The myth said that here came a man who would protect us from the terrorists. The caricature climax of this myth was Russia's victory over Georgia [in 2008 – O.Kh.], after which the regime entered the "nausea" stage. Overall, Putin's regime is a simulacrum of a larger ideological style. And it has exhausted itself in just 10 years.

O.Kh.: So how then can we explain the Russian elite? It has been feeling "nausea" for four years but hasn't done anything about it. And why was there no "thaw period" or "perestroika" during Medvedev's rule?

A.P.: Because Medvedev is a pitiful personality in the first place. But the problem is not his personality, of course, since "perestroika" was not Gorbachev’s project, but the conscious project of the whole nomenklatura. Today’s Russian elite has, in my view, three qualities that allow Putinism to quietly rot away. First, this elite is incredibly rich. The Russian establishment has never been so rich by global standards, neither in Tsarist times, nor in Communist times. They have a lot to lose. They could lose a lot, by the way, whether the hypothetical revolt against Putin suceeds or fails. Second, intellectual servants of the elite are inclined to delude themselves with liberal illusions. Thus, for four years many of them deceived themselves with fake hopes for Medvedev. And third, this elite has an exit strategy. If they see that it’s really bad in the country and they are threatened by a social revolt, they can drive to Sheremetevo airport and take a flight to London. It’s where major sums of their fortunes have already been transferred to, where they own real estate, and where their children go to school.