According to Andrey Piontkovsky, Senior Fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Systems Analysis, Vladimir Putin's one man dictatorship has been effectively put into place as of September 2011. Piontkovsky spoke with IMR’s Olga Khvostunova about the catastrophic consequences of this regime and about the essential role that the political elite plays in this process.


Putin's political model is obsolete, says Andrei Piontkovsky


Olga Khvostunova: How would you describe the Russian political events that took place in September?

Andrey Piontkovsky: On September 24, a new political regime was de facto established. Until that moment, we lived in an authoritarian system that allowed for various scenarios of development, but from now on, the country is living under the regime of a lifetime one-man dictatorship.

O.Kh.: What are the characteristics of this regime?

A.P.: A lifetime one-man dictatorship translates into three things. First, Putin will never leave his post voluntarily until his death. But since he is a relatively young man who takes care of his health, he has at least 20 years left in him. Second, a lifetime dictatorship means that if Putin loses power, some very unpleasant things will be waiting for him. He’ll end up in jail, at the very least. This has been proven by the experiences of all dictators, including the latest developments in North Africa. Third, if he holds out for long, it will lead the country to collapse, meaning, in turn, that the regime will be lifelong not just for Putin, but for Russia as well.

O.Kh.: Why do you think that despite knowing the history of how dictatorships always end badly has Putin gone ahead and installed such a regime?

A.P.: The thing is that while on top, at some point your psychology distorts, and any critical attitude towards yourself vanishes. Putin is already on the verge of clinical inadequacy. Just remember him showing off and diving in the Azov Sea when he supposedly discovered two ancient Greek vases. Only two hypotheses explain his behavior. First, the most frightening in my view, is that he actually believes he found these vases. Second, no less shocking, is that he believes we are going to believe him. It's the same with his assessments of political prospects.

O.Kh.: How unexpected was Putin's return?

A.P.: The fact itself that Putin, who never leaves, was going to be the next Russian president did not seem new or unexpected to observers. But the majority of the Russian political class was shocked by the utterly cynical way in which the reshuffle was implemented. Just as shocking was the humiliation that [President Dmitry] Medvedev was exposed to, a person considered by mainstream liberals to be the next president and the possible architect of a new “perestroika” or “thaw period.”

O.Kh.: You are saying that this political decision was shocking for the elite. But why? It's hard to believe that the elite didn't understand which direction the country was moving in.

A.P.: The decision itself was not shocking. Putin's return was expected. But the majority was shocked by the style, the cynical form of this extravagaza. It was an exquisite derision. See, Medvedev really wanted to stay in his position, but he couldn’t do it without Putin’s permission.
All this fuss, maintaining an image of intrigue, Medvedev’s coquettish announcements that he was considering various options, all these acts were only attempts to persuade Putin to let him stay. But Putin decided otherwise: he chose to return. The reason for instituting Medvedev was to cause illusions among the political class during his four year tenure. The elites understood that Putin’s political model exhausted itself, but didn’t step out in opposition to it because they deluded themselves with vague hopes.

O.Kh.: In your opinion, why has Putin decided to come back?

A.P.: Though Medvedev is absolutely loyal, a group of decisive people could have used him as an instrument for change. According to the Russian Constitution, the prime minister can be fired by a presidential decree. Therefore, Putin made a sober judgement that he shouldn’t take this risk for another six-year term.

О.Kh.: What is going to happen to the country when Putin returns?

A.P.: His rule will lead to the marginalization and decline of the country.

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.

O.Kh.: Yes, but British authorities have prepared a visa blacklist to prevent some Russian officials from coming into Great Britain, similar to the Magnitsky list in the U.S. Do you think such measures can stop them?

A.P.: The Magnitsky list is a very restricted measure taken against investigative officers, doctors, and other secondary individuals. The West will never decide to put Putin, Medvedev or other top state officials on the list. The very fact of this measure annoys Russia, of course, because it creates a precedent, but it is not a real threat yet.


It is extremely hard for the West to influence Kremlin's policy, says Andrei Piontkovky


But the inability to go to the West is actually the only thing that Russian authorities are afraid of, despite the whole anti-Western foreign policy and anti-Western rhetoric. Supporters of the Magnitsky list hit a sore spot for the Russian political elite. But I think that the West will not advance far in this direction. You might have noticed that while in Russian political discourse, Putin’s return and the form in which it was presented caused a shock, in the West most of the comments added up to the fact that business-relations with Putin would remain the way they used to be, that his decision was practically backed up by the Russian population. Neither the U.S., as long as they continue the war in Afghanistan and depend on transit across Russia, nor Europe, relying on Russian gas supplies, will confront Putin’s regime.

O.Kh.: I can't agree with you on the general tone of the comments in the West. Many Western media outlets criticized the developments in Russia, emphasizing that Putin’s return was not the will of the Russian people. Some say, for example, that the “reset” policy should be reconsidered.

A.P.: I am speaking about executive power. The U.S. has officially claimed that recent events in Russia will not have any impact on the “reset.” Certainly in the West public opinion has more influence, but the mechanisms through which it can change the politics of the executive branch work quite slowly. I have no illusions about the scale of Western influence on the course of events in Russia and the behavior of the Kremlin's management. It’s minimal.

O.Kh.: All right. If not the political elite, could the Russian media or intellectuals influence the course of events in Russia?

A.P.: But they are already doing it. The fact that the discourse has changed is the result of their work, and not just over the last few weeks, but for the last four years. This influence is mediated: slowly, through the media, authorities are being pressured. The Internet and blogs changed the discourse remarkably. But I don’t know if these changes can grow into more active political measures like demonstrations or organized mass protests. In any case, people’s mentality is changing. Today, for example, you won’t find anyone who will seriously and argumentatively defend the regime. A few years ago you could find a number of such publications and hear plenty of such comments.

O.Kh.: What is your assessment of the Russian opposition? How effective (or ineffective) is it?

A.P.: I don't agree with the sharply critical assessments of the opposition's activities, nor do I share the opinion that the opposition is helpless or ineffective. Though a certain masochism is inherent to the opposition itself: they like to talk about their failures. But the change of discourse is the result of the opposition's work, too.

O.Kh.: The opposition is often blamed for lacking bright, charismatic leaders. Do you agree?

A.P.: I think that such people as [Boris] Nemtsov, [Garry] Kasparov, [Vladimir] Ryzhkov, and [Alexey] Navalny who have gained prominence recently, all of them are much brighter than the officials. And if the political system opens up, if there is freedom of speech, freedom to choose independent candidates, I assure you, there will be plenty of other people about whom we don’t know at the moment.

O.Kh.: Could you give an approximate estimate of how long this system will last?

A.P.: I can't. On that note, let me tell you a story. At the end of February 1917, Vladimir Lenin delivered a speech in front of young Swiss social democrats. They asked him a question: when will the revolution come to Russia? Lenin answered that old men like him wouldn't see it during their lifetime, but that the young people in his audience would probably be lucky enough to witness it. When he got home, [his wife] Nadezhda Krupskaya handed him a telegram about the Russian emperor's abdication in Saint Petersburg. These events are impossible to predict. The regimes at the stage of degradation that Putin’s regime has reached can crash unpredictably in a week or can last for a long time.

How did it all start in North Africa? In Tunisia, a relatively prosperous country by African standards, a young man set himself on fire because he couldn’t find a job. Putin’s regime has ripened to its end. But the end will come later rather than sooner, because of the already mentioned satiated, lazy, and cowardly elite. Still, today’s macroeconomic indicators place serious time limitations. And with serious budget deficits, ruble devaluation, and double-digit inflation, social outbursts will spontaneously form in various regions. All this will push the elite to a greater sense of courage. Which will fall first – the regime or Russia as a state – will become crystal clear to everyone in about three or four years from now.