Russian political analyst and Director of the Institute of National Strategy Stanislav Belkovsky spoke with IMR's Olga Khvostunova on the need for a pivotal change of the state paradigm for the rebirth of Russia.



OK: What do you think of the elections' aftermath?

SB: There was nothing interesting about these elections, the outcome was obvious since last September, when Putin announced he would be switching places with Medvedev. It was clear that Putin would win in first round.

OK: Was it clear? Many experts discussed the possibility of a run-off.

SB: Yes, people were speculating. But run-off elections would have been impossible because Putin has never participated in a run-off before, and psychologically, it would have been extremely stressful for him. The second reason there wasn’t a second round is because it may have allowed for the opposition vote to be mobilized even more than it was in the first round. On March 4th, the pre-determined election results were simply confirmed. It was also clear that Putin would win through large-scale manipulations and fraud, which is the way of his regime.

OK: If it was that clear, why did people protest following the parliamentary elections in December?

SB: There is just one reason that I can think of to explain these mass demonstrations and the close public scrutiny of the elections, which didn't mean anything per se. The reason all of this happened is that a social group that that previously been loyal to Putin changed their mind.

OK: What social group?

SB: These are people who, in 2000, accepted Putin as a figure capable of stabilizing the social and economic situation. With Putin in power, this group finally gained an unprecedented amount of basic freedoms – they could travel, buy things, and so on, at the expense of their political freedoms. Now he no longer has this group’s support. Having lost it, 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. He has effectively lost a large share of his traditional base, chiefly the politically active segment of the population.

OK: What is the real percentage of people who support Putin?

SB: 38%.

Putin has never participated in a run-off before,
and psychologically, it would have been
extremely stressful for him.

OK: Where does this figure come from?

SB: It's an aggregated and weighted average, derived from the actual sociological data tha texisted before the elections. All the public polls would provide the political estimate which took into account expert opinion and was adjusted for administrative intervention. The resultant estimate is 38%.

OK: It's quite a high percentage.

SB: It is high, but nevertheless it's a loss for Putin, not a victory. If the elections were in fact fair and if the opposition would have had a chance to nominate their own candidate, Putin would have lost. It’s important to deflate the myth that Putin would have won anyway. It’s not true. To win, he had to take advantage of his powers of administrative intervention and manipulate the will of the electorate.

OK: According to your estimate, it comes out that almost 30% of the vote is fraudulent. However, the Golos Association reported that only 15% of votes were falsified.

SB: In their calculations, Golos experts did not make adjustments for the immense coercion and pressure employed by the government. Although only 15% of votes were falsified on the day of the election, if the competition were fair in the first place, Putin would still not have won without abusing government resources to rally and intimidate potential voters.

OK: Do you think he would have lost in the run-off?

SB: It depends on who he would have been running against. For example, if it were against Zyuganov, Putin still would have won.

OK: And if it were against Prokhorov?

SB: Same thing. But if the opposition had introduced a nominee who could represent all the opposition forces and was completely different from Putin, like Oksana Dmitrieva, for example, then Putin would have lost.

OK: A surprising choice, considering that Oksana Dmitrieva is far from being at the center of political activity. Why not someone like [Alexei] Navalny?

SB: Navalny could be such a candidate, but he is a worse choice, because the candidate in question must be an alternate to Putin in every way, while Navalny and Putin have a handful of things in common.

OK: Like what?

SB: They share the image of a macho man, a masculine leader. Although, in my opinion, Navalny is a much stronger politician than Putin. However, Putin is more well-known and experienced, so he can compensate for this deficit of tpolitical power with other means.

OK: Are you saying that they’re similar in their style?

SB: Yes. But I think that Russia needs a pivotal change in the paradigm of state power. It needs to shift from the masculine paradigm, that always comes with the repression and coercion of its own citizens, toward the paradigm of tenderness, if I may call it that. The latter means that Russian authorities will figuratively fold their people into their loving arms. A female president would be a great alternative to these macho men, especially during the period of transition from a presidential republic to a parliamentary one.

OK: What do you think of Russia's opposition movement?

SB: You have to distinguish the protest movement from the opposition. People who came to Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue are not the opposition in a conventional sense. They are just protesters, they are Muscovites who went to the streets to protest against Putin's return and to defend their own specific interests, not to stand in support of any politicians.



The opposition are the people who spoke to the protesters from the stage. And they have already started fighting for their demands. In addition, many unconstructive decisions have been made by opposition leaders.

OK: What are some examples?

SB: The first mistake was establishing a Protest Organizing Committee. By transforming it from a logistical structure into a political one, the protests became associated with the negative qualities of some of this Committee's members. I have always said that the Committee should be entirely anonymous, so that no one could throw a shadow on the mass rallies. It was important to decide whether the goal of the Committee's members was to properly organize a rally or to promote themselves without any regard as to how the rally would be put together. Many members weren’t capable of choosing the greater good over self-promotion. On top of this, the main demands of the protest movement were  never articulated correctly and this resulted in a smaller turnout at the rallies than what could have been.

The opposition leaders have already made 
a number of unconstructive decisions.

OK: Which demands shouldn’t have been made?

SB: The demand for the annulment of the results of the parliamentary elections.

OK: Why were these unreasonable demands?

SB: It was unobtainable. When you mobilize people, you cannot set the goal knowing in advance that it cannot not be achieved, especially when you see it not happen in real time. People went to the streets to get the election results annulled. They did it one, two, three, four times. The results were not annulled. And then the protest leaders raised their hands in disappointment and announced “It’s not happening.” Why would you call for people to go to the streets in the first place?

OK: What should they have done?

SB: They should have just called for political reforms. Especially since the reforms are already happening: President Medvedev introduced a bill on the new procedure for party registration and governors’ appointments. The opposition leaders should have explained to the people that these reforms were a result of their efforts. They could also have tried to call for early parliamentary elections. These mistakes are not fatal, they can be overcome. The potential of the protest activity in Russia remains high;  the  people’s indignation and discontent with the lack of political freedoms and the total cynicism of the ruling class will not just go away.

OK: So what’s next for the opposition?

SB: First of all, the opposition needs to set up new goals for protest activities. The rallies need to continue. Next, three new parties need to be established. The ideological divisions among the opposition can support this.

A female president could be a good
alternative to Putin.

OK: What would these three parties be?

SB: They would be the National Democratic, Social Democratic and Liberal Right parties. Navalny and a group of the nationalists could form the core of the first party; the Frondeur deputies (members of A Just Russia and the Communist Party already represented in the State Duma) along with Sergei Udaltsov from the Left Front could create the second one; and Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov and a group, led by Mikhail Prokhorov and Aleksei Kudrin, could unite to start the third one. These three parties could take part in  early parliamentary elections and win seats. The opposition could also then nominate their own candidates for the governors’ posts. I think that Nemtsov could be easily re-elected as Governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region. Aleksei Navalny, Ilya Ponomarev, and Vladimir Ryzhkov have good chances of being elected as governors as well. Winning the regional offices could be a stepping stone to the Kremlin.

OK: Did you read the articles that Putin published during his campaign?

SB: Most of them, yes.

OK: Do you think he will keep his pre-election promises?

SB: These articles don't legally bind him to anything. You can forget about them. Some of these promises might be kept, others might be not.

OK: What do you think his policies will be?

SB: Putin is not a strategic thinker, he is a tactical player who makes all his decisions at the last moment and ad hoc. His economic policies will be focused on maintaining the existing model of Russian economy, which is based on natural resources. It means that Putin will align all of his  tactical decisions with oil price fluctuations. In political sphere, he might make some concessions to the active part of the Russian population.

Navalny and Putin have a handful of things in common.

OK: Are you referring to the political reforms introduced by Medvedev?

SB: Yes. But Putin might make even more concessions because the major priority for him now is legitimizing the results of the presidential elections—specifically, making the active segment of the society, who didn’t support him inthe elections and didn’t recognize their results, come to terms with his stay in the Kremlin until 2018.

OK: Do you think Putin will last until 2018? Some experts (Masha Gessen, Andrei Piontkovsky) predict that he has no more than two years left in power.

SB: Such prognoses cannot be confirmed mathematically, which is why I won’t give you any numbers. I think that the best case scenario for Putin would be to leave halfway through his term—in 2015/16. But my prediction is that he will stay until 2018. There is nothing wrong with that if he institutes political reforms, including transforming Russia into a parliamentary republic, adopting a new Constitution, holding early parliamentary elections, and forming the coalition government.

OK: What is the likelihood of Putin's actually instituting these reforms?

SB: It's hard to say how many concessions he is willing to make, but some of these reforms will definitely be implemented.

OK: Will they be substantial or just for show?

SB: The more concessions Putin makes, the higher the public demand for them will grow. Similar things happened during the Gorbachev era. He didn’t make any conscious reforms aimed at substantially rebuilding the political system. Through cosmetic repairs, he wanted to preserve the system and strengthen his own power. Putin wants to do the same thing. The difference here is that the public atmosphere and the situation within the country and beyond won’t let Putin get away with minor measures. Today, radical steps are in order. And Putin might have to take them, despite himself.

OK: Should we expect a fourth term from him?

SB: No. If even Andrei Kostin, head of VTB Bank and a close ally of Putin’s, who is fully dependent on him, wrote an op-ed for Kommersant in which he stated that Putin must not, by any means, stay in power after 2018, what else can we expect? It is clear that Kostin would never have written anything like this unless he knew what was on his patron's mind.

OK: Why did Putin go for a third term at all?

SB: It was the Kremlin's response to the events of Arab Spring. Putin thought that in those countries, the opposition had been sponsored by external forces, such as the U.S. and European Union. He figured that if anything similar happened in Russia, Medvedev would not be able to manage the situation. But it turned out that Putin’s decision to come back caused a social revolt and detonated the protest activity that we see today.

I would not rule out the possibility that Khodorkovsky
will be released this year.

OK: Do you think that the Kremlin didn't expect that kind of reaction to Putin’s return?

SB: I don't think so, otherwise they would not have supported it. Putin made a major political mistake. If the Kremlin had endorsed Dmitri Medvedev for a second term, the rallies at Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue would never have taken place. As a result, the active part of the Russian citizens would have lost two or three years in unrealistic expectations of liberal reforms from above. Putin’s mistake helped us to skip these years, which is a great advantage to us. In a sense, Putin did a good thing by taking the third term.

OK: What does this mistake mean to the Kremlin?

SB: I would guess that this issue is taboo. Nobody wants to make Putin acknowledge his mistake. Most likely Medvedev and many businessmen close to the Kremlin see what a wrong turn it was.

OK: Experts point out that some coalitions have formed within the political elite that want to distance themselves from Putin. How much influence do groups such as these have?

SB: The majority of the ruling class aspires to keep their distance from Putin, understanding that close ties to Putin’s Kremin can negatively impact their legitimacy in the West. Maintaining their legitimacy is a priority for the Russian elite. They are very interested in political development, making concessions, and providing guarantees that Putin is not going to campaign for another term in 2018.

OK: Could one of these concessions be the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

SB: I would not rule out the possibility that Khodorkovsky will be released this year.

OK: How do you see it happening? Under what conditions?

SB: Psychologically, it will be hard for Putin to release Khodorkovsky, but doing so could be an effective step toward legitimizing his claims to the presidential office. Putin will never enter negotiations with Khodorkovsky. It can only be a one-way action, made possible by Putin’s need to protect his political interests. It’s hard to tell whether he has the heart go through with it.

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.