20 years under Putin: a timeline

The participation of Russian opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov in a recent Kremlin meeting with Vladimir Putin has reignited the debate about whether it is acceptable for the democratic opposition to engage with the leader of an authoritarian regime. Author and human rights activist Alexander Podrabinek contends that such rituals only benefit the authorities.



Questions about whether to walk in the counsel of the wicked and to cast pearls before swine were raised two thousand years ago and have not yet grown stale. These questions often arise with regard to Russia’s political life, because an “unholy alliance” is a fitting description of the country’s current regime. There is also no shortage of politicians willing to follow sinful ways.

The recent visit of Vladimir Ryzhkov, co-chairman to the opposition Republican Party of Russia—People's Freedom Party (RPR-PARNAS), to the Kremlin sparked heated discussions. On November 20, “President” Vladimir Putin met with the leaders of non-parliamentary parties, including Vladimir Ryzhkov, Sergei Mitrokhin, and Mikhail Prokhorov, as well as representatives of puppet parties that cannot be taken seriously.

After Ryzhkov walked in the counsel of the wicked, details of heated debates between members of RPR-PARNAS about whether to attend the meeting appeared in online media. It turned out that two party co-chairmen, Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov, had been categorically against the idea, whereas Vladimir Ryzhkov had fully supported it. What decision they came to and who broke the agreement are questions of inner-party politics that have nothing to do with outsiders.

RPR-PARNAS members are now insisting that Ryzhkov’s visit was of a personal nature, and that he was not representing the party. This sounds a bit naive, since it is widely known that Vladimir Ryzhkov is a party leader and was invited to meet Putin in this capacity.

The same day, Ryzhkov published a summary of his speech at the Kremlin on the Ekho Moskvy website. It was a good speech, to the point indeed. It was characterized by neither concessions nor indirectness, apart from the fact that Ryzhkov called only elections to the State Duma fraudulent, and not presidential ones. One might call this politeness.

The point is, however, that when, where, and in what circumstances a person speaks is of importance, especially if that person is a politician. Context makes all the difference. One can say the same thing in one’s home, on the Internet, during a rally, or in the Kremlin, but the effect will be different. This should be taken into consideration.

Vladimir Ryzhkov explains that, first, every opportunity must be taken to free political prisoners, and second, he expects that his meeting with Putin will bring results. These statements are as tired as they are unconvincing.

How many times have lists of political prisoners been sent to Putin? Over the last two years, this has been done several times. The lists were brought to Putin’s reception offices, sent through authorized representatives, and published in the media, always in the hope of attracting public attention. We will once more tell the ghoul that his loyal dogs are making innocent people suffer in torture chambers! This time he will not be able to say that he didn’t know this was happening! This has been done over and over again, and while there’s nothing wrong with it, every time it gets increasingly odd. Can anyone really believe that Putin does not know about political prisoners? And that he could not have a complete list of political prisoners brought to him in thirty minutes if he asked for it? Can anyone really think that only the opposition is able to provide Putin with this information? In fact, everybody understands that the act of sending these lists to the president is a ritual, the objective of which is to publicly embarrass him. He, however, does not seem to be embarrassed at all.

Vladimir Ryzhkov is happy with Putin’s reaction to his criticism—the president did not deny the existence of political prisoners and repressions, did not interrupt him, was calm and thoughtful, and promised to read everything himself and think about it. No kidding? What is there to be happy about? That the president listened carefully instead of going at Ryzhkov with a razor? Ryzhkov is not naïve; he likely understands that the point of this widely publicized meeting was not to exchange exclusive opinions and information, but rather to observe a ritual.

Our infantile opposition is still longing for a “round table,” concessions, and paternal leniency, whereas, in reality, the opposition only makes gains when the government feels its strength and intransigence.

This ritual is important for both parties. In politics, ritual is important in itself. By complying with general rules, politicians prove that they belong to the political class. These rules function as a sign of belonging, much like military uniforms, priests’ long robes, or prisoners; tattoos. It suffices to look at how politicians behave during summits. This is a real theater! They freeze when shaking each other’s hands in order to give the cameramen enough time to take their picture. Their grins can hardly fit the scope of a wide-angle camera lens. They perfectly understand each other’s need to publicly demonstrate their political exclusiveness. The protocol and the unbreakable tradition should always be observed. Those who violate these rules are thrown overboard. Nobody wants to be left out in the cold, which makes the established ritual important for both parties.

So why did Putin need a ritual meeting with the opposition? These are probably just the Kremlin’s games. Maybe Putin urgently needed to mend his democratic image in the eyes of the West on the eve of some event—the Winter Olympics, for instance. Maybe it was an attempt to oppose some clan that got out of hand during disputes between the elites. Maybe the president is trying to weaken the opposition by smearing it with his illegitimacy. But most likely he just wants to keep everything under his control. He might have a million motives, but one would have to be delusional to believe that he honestly wants democratic reforms. It is unclear what he is striving at, but judging by the experience of the last thirteen years, one should expect nothing good to come of his actions.

And why did Vladimir Ryzhkov need this meeting? He claims that he “wants to believe” this isn’t all for nothing, that he will help the victims of repressions and convey to Putin the demands of the opposition expressed on Bolotnaya Square. There is nothing to say to that—one cannot dispute another’s right to believe. It seems to me, however, that this is just ritualistic belief in a good villain. It’s evidence of the opposition’s established moral reasoning, which prefers empty talks to openly opposing the regime. Our infantile opposition is still longing for a “round table,” concessions, and paternal leniency, whereas, in reality, the opposition only makes gains when the government feels its strength and intransigence.

It is no coincidence that Putin extended a personal invitation to Ryzhkov. He understands that not many opposition members are likely to accept his rules of the game. But he needs public recognition, especially from his most uncompromising opponents. The Russian president sees himself as a sovereign who is father to his children as well as to his stepchildren. He has to victoriously demonstrate this to society. He badly needs a partner among the uncompromising opposition leaders, one who will accept him as his president, if not his policy, and see fit to have talks with him.

Some minor concessions might be made in payment for this recognition, such as party registration, appointments, seats in Parliament, and even freedom for some political prisoners. Putin can do this if he deems it necessary to preserve the regime and his personal influence. The question is whether the opposition needs it? Is it prepared to sacrifice its fundamental demands for the sake of such concessions, one of the demands being fair elections and the reelection of the president and the parliament?

The release of political prisoners could become the subject of Kremlin blackmail. Putin could now and then use political prisoners as hostages to advance his policy, thinking that the opposition would make concessions in everything else in order to obtain the prisoners’ freedom. For instance, it would be prepared to come to the Kremlin and recognize the fraudulent president as a legitimate player.

This system looks familiar. In Soviet times, the communist government bargained with the West for various concessions, promising to release well-known political prisoners and permit well-known dissidents to leave the country as a trade-off, all while throwing new ones in prisons. There was no end to it, and the system remained unchanged. The machine of repressions was running flawlessly, constantly supplying the totalitarian regime with goods for political trade. In East Germany, the communist government simply named a high price in hard currency for releasing political prisoners or allowing them to leave for West Germany. This was a way of supporting the disintegrating socialist economy.

One should learn from history. At least, when one intends to actually a difference.