20 years under Putin: a timeline

OK: Are you trying to defend Putin?

SB: I am not trying to defend him, I am against demonizing him personally. He is just a typical member of the middle class who happened to get the Russian throne. As a person, he is responsible and decent enough: during all these years he has never betrayed anyone he is beholden to. Boris Yeltsin and Anatoly Sobchak are a good illustration of his principles. My main complaint about Putin that he is not fit for the job.

OK: Not fit? In what sense?

SB: The scale of his personality doen't not match the global challenges he is facing. My second complaint is the de facto legalization of corruption that occurred under his rule. But Putin is no bloody tyrant. I find it ridiculous when someone who yells “Putin's gang must be brought to court!” on every corner, goes to the GQ Club, drinks expensive cognac, smokes expensive cigars, and continues talking about bloody massacres. It sounds like a joke. No bloody tyrant would tolerate such behavior. What tyranny are you talking about if you are sitting in the GQ club, and not in the cellars of the NKVD?

Today it is more dangerous to criticize officials
who are far less prominent than Putin.

OK: This doesn’t mean that there isn’t repression. Let's not forget that this is a new type of authoritarian regime we are talking about. This regime doesn't target masses, the targets are pin-pointed, and they are people whose interests are in conflict with the interests of Putin's inner circle. Again, Khodorkovsky is a good example.

SB: A while ago I called this regime “glamour authoritarianism”. Pin-pointed conflicts do exist within it, but they are not a part of this regime’s strategy. More likely, they arise from the antagonism that grows in the course of the situation. Putin doesn’t pay attention to many of the people who treat him like dirt and threaten to have him removed. This says a lot about him. It’s not Putin that is the problem. Today, it is far more dangerous to criticize officials who are far less prominent than Putin.

OK: Still, this is the system established by Putin, nurtured and encouraged by him. As you mentioned earlier, it's a system of legalized corruption. It’s a silent conspiracy of the authorities. Even the lowest official has the opportunity to take advantage of and abuse average citizens in return for his loyalty to the regime. The bottom line is that this system has transformed into the public enemy.

SB: Yes and no. There is no conspiracy on the personal level. Every day we see how one official tries to get the better of another. The stronger wins, the weaker goes to jail. It doesn’t matter what group of authorities they belong to: hundreds of employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, of the Federal Security Service, and so many others all get arrested. These are the results of internal conflicts within the Russian elite. But the conspiracy exists on the ideological level. The main principle of this conspiracy is acknowledging that corruption is legal.

OK: What about civil and human rights? The life of an average citizen means nothing to this system, which has been vividly demonstrated during the Magnitsky case.

SB: I don't think that Putin is personally responsible for the circumstances of this case. It's a corporate conflict between Bill Browder and Surgutneftegaz, which has grown into a conflict between two competing groups within the tax authorities. Aleksei Kudrin stands behind one of them and Anatoli Serdyukov advocates for the other. Both groups will fight until the end. Can Putin put a stop to this conflict? Yes, he can, if he assumes that such actions will be perceived correctly by the public and that he be given credit.

OK: What is your assessment of this system? Is it efficient?

SB: It is extremely inefficient.

OK: So it should reformed?

SB: It should be destroyed rather than reformed. And a new system should be created instead.

OK: Is Putin capable of making this change?

SB: No, he is not, but he can build the foundation for a new system. If Putin institutes political reforms, a new system could be created after he resigns.

OK: Do you think Putin will reach a serene old age?

SB: Only God knows that, but it could be an option for him.

Putin has once and for all become the president of the uneducated working class in rural and urban areas, and of the country's periphery.

OK: Some people predict that he will meet a very nasty end.

SB: Everything is possible, but I don't see how a bad end can be the correct goal for his opponents. If the people want Putin to meet Qaddafi’s end, they should just say so. Don’t cover your real intentions with slogans about defending the human rights.

OK: How do you see the future of Russia?

SB: It will be different. On one hand, the history itself presents an enormous challenge to Russia. This challenge may be Russia’s downfall.

OK: Do you mean dissolution?

SB: Dissolution is one example, yes. On the other hand, if a critical mass of the active and creative  minority reaches 2% of the Russian population and these people will offer a new strategy and  program for the country’s development, then Russia might be reborn. But to achieve this rebirth, a new country must be formed on the territory of the current Russian Federation that isn’t subject to the old laws. It’s an extremely complicated issue. To comprehend it, one needs a broad vision and an intellectual depth that very few possess, including the leaders of the opposition. We’ll have to wait and see.