20 years under Putin: a timeline

According to leading political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky , the majority of people who voted for Vladimir Putin were politically passive and poorly informed. He recently spoke to IMR’s Olga Khvostunova about Putin, the March elections, and the future of the opposition movement.



Olga Khvostunova: What did you think of the election process? Do you think it was fixed?

Andrei Piontkovsky: The elections were unfair long before voting even began. Primarily because opposition leaders weren’t allowed on the ballot. In Russia, there are two ways to become a candidate for office.  You could be nominated by a party represented in the parliament. Before the elections, nine parties were forbidden from registering candidates. The second way to appear on the ballot is by collecting two million signatures on a petition. This is virtually impossible. And even if the signatures are collected, due to the lack of strictly-defined qualification criteria, the Russian Ministry of Justice can find fault with the petition and refuse to register the candidate on a technicality. Those who were able participate in the March 4th elections were little more than Putin’s backup singers. Although he refused to take part in debates, Putin constantly appeared on state-owned television channels prior to the elections – in the news, in the endless documentaries about him. The voter fraud was simply the final touch on a fixed election. And still, it was rampant.

OKh: So you were not surprised by Putin’s huge margin of victory?

AP: I trust what the experts at Golos, the independent election-monitoring organization. They conducted a parallel count of the votes and reported that the percentage for Putin was in fact around 50. Considering that the turnout was about 60%, Putin's majority transforms into 30% of the population who, by various machinations, were forced to vote for him. I wouldn't even say that this minority consists of enthusiastic Putin supporters. These are most likely indifferent or poorly-informed people who are not aware of the outrageous scale of corruption perpetrated by Putin and his circle. Besides, these elections have proven that Putin has lost his control over the political discourse. He isn’t popular in the major cities. Judging by this winter’s protests, Putin no longer has the support of the younger generation,  the most active and creative part of the population, or of the intelligentsia in general. These happen to be the segments of the population that define the development of the society at large. Without their support, the immorality and illegitimacy of Putin’s regime is clear as day—and his future is grim.

OKh: Do you believe that Putin’s presidency is illegitimate?

AP: The Russian Constitution forbids anyone from running for president more than twice in a row. Putin has already served two consecutive terms, from 2000-2008. His third term will be a violation of the spirit of the Constitution.  In my opinion, which is also shared by some prominent lawyers, it will be in violation of the letter of the law as well.

OKh: How effective is the protest movement?

AP: For one thing, it is effective in that it allowed to a large number of people to recognize their dissident feelings, which have been growing for a long time. The protesters finally found a way to articulate their discontent. This discontent has developed into a distinct political platform. Briefly, the goal of this platform is the transformation of Russia from a sovereign  kleptocracy into a normal democratic republic. This can be achieved by reforming the political system, amending electoral legislation, and holding new parliamentary and presidential elections that would fairly get progressive politicians into office. The key points of this platform will constantly be repeated in all opposition discourse. Sooner or later, they will be implemented. At the moment, the opposition is not strong enough to make Putin resign. This political deadlock and resultant stagnation is destined to prevail in Russia for a while longer.

OKh: The opposition is being reproached for not reaching the people who live outside of the major cities. While huge protests took place urban areas, citizens in small towns couldn't even get information about what was happening. Will the opposition be able to overcome this barrier?

AP: In major cities, people get their information from Internet. In small towns, citizens are more likely to prescribe to state-owned television. While television is not going to change, the number of Internet users is constantly growing. When everyone, including the 30% of Russian citizens who voluntarily voted for Putin, acknowledges him for who he is, the regime will collapse.

OKh: Do you think the opposition is discouraged by the political stalemate? On March 5th, the day following the election, much fewer people came to protests rallies than had in the previous months.

AP: I don't think the election results will kill the opposition. On the one hand, yes, fewer people  came to the protest on March 5th – only around 20 thousand. And yes, the protest didn’t have the elated mood that prevailed at previous demonstrations. But there were some new faces nonetheless. On the other hand, the protests were catalyzed by a number of objective problems that are not only being ignored by the government, but the government is essentially incapable of resolving them. These include poor economic development, the situation in Caucasus, and many others. During his election campaign, Putin made a lot of promises that were not backed up by actual economic possibilities. These unresolved issues will negatively affect everyone, including the people who continue to give their passive and unenthusiastic votes to Putin. As the domestic situation inevitably deteriorates,  the protest movement will only gain force.

OKh: So you think that Putin's campaign was nothing more than cheap populism and he is not actually going to do what he said?

AP: His boldest promise was to fight corruption. But Putin is the core of the corrupt regime that reigns in Russia. The  term corruption suggests a situation in which a businessman bribes an official. In Russia, the businessman and the government official are one and the same. Lee Kuan Yew, a great reformer and Singapore’s Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, was once asked what was the most difficult thing he had to do in the course of implementing his policies. He said that it was sending five of his closest friends to jail. If Putin decides to reform the country, he will have to imprison at least 20 or 30 of his closest friends. And to go to jail himself. It is never going to happen.

OKh: Is there any chance that Putin will try to implement at least some reforms while he is in office?

AP: How can he? Where will he get the money? As some experts have already calculated, his pre-election promises would cost of trillions of dollars. These promises are simply impossible to keep.

OKh: How many more years will Putin stay in power?

AP: I think he has no more than two years left. But everything could change instantaneously in this volatile political climate.

OKh: How do you envision his stepping down?

AP: All authoritarian regimes collapse in a similar way. Putin will have to resign when a million protesters fill the streets and his inner circle splits under the pressure. How did Mubarak leave? His own military clique betrayed him. How was Gaddafi’s fate decided? He ran away from the rebels, but they found and killed him. Something similar will happen to Assad, but he has time because his inner circle is made up of Alawis, who will hold on to their power to the bitter end. Hopefully, we will not see the kind of bloodshed that we have seen in the Middle East. But when the rallies, strikes, and general political turmoil the order of the day across Russia, people from Putin’s circle might realize that he is no longer capable of protecting their interests.

OKh: Hypothetically, if Putin leaves, what will happen next? Who will replace him?

AP: It's not a matter of replacing Putin, the bad Tsar, with, say, Aleksei Navalny, the good Tsar. It's a matter of eliminating Tsar-hood. I don't mean that there shouldn’t be a head of state in Russia, but that the Constitution should aim toward decentralizing power and strengthening the role of the Duma. Some efforts are already being made in this direction. For instance, the Higher School of Economics in Moscow recently hosted a panel discussion on the project of the new Russian Constitution. Opposition leaders and groups progressive thinkers are already working on designing new democratic institutions that will eventually replace Putin's kleptokratic ones. There should be broad consensus among the general population on the character of these institutions. And in fact, it has already been reached: the key demands of the opposition are to a large extent shared by liberals, communists, and nationalists alike, despite the major differences between these three competitive political camps. They all agree that the legislation regulating elections ought to be reformed to ensure their fairness and transparency. Free elections will determine the both the makeup and the approach of the new government, where all these opposition forces will finally be represented.