20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s Western media highlights, Mark Galeotti explains the rumors behind the alleged resignation of Alexander Bastrykin, notorious head of Russia’s Investigative Committee. And Walter Russell Mead discusses Russia’s re-emergence as a superpower in the Middle East in the context of the U.S. foreign policy. In the Russian media, Alexander Rubtsov analyzes Putin’s regime from the political psychology angle, and Denis Volkov delves into the unpopularity problem of Russia’s liberal parties. 


The rumors of Alexander Bastrykin's (right) departure from Russia's notorious Investigative Committee started circulating on September 14, after Russian business daily RBC broke the news. Photo: Mikhail Metzel / TASS


From the West

Goodbye, Bastrykin?

Mark Galeotti, openDemocracy

Mark Galeotti, senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, writes this week in openDemocracy about the alleged removal of Aleksander Bastrykin as the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee (IC). Bastrykin, having defied some of the country’s top law enforcement factions in setting up the IC, is rumored to be stepping down after the September 18 Duma elections. Galeotti suggests that this political maneuver reflects the Kremlin’s wider campaign to renew the country’s elite with people who will “do their jobs a little better, steal a little bit less.” Bastrykin, a harsh boss and an ambitiously political man, surprisingly never developed a close circle of friends and allies in the Moscow elite, and acquired a reputation both publicly and politically for pursuing politically motivated investigations. His potential successors, Galeotti predicts, include Bastrykin’s deputy Igor Krasnov, whose reputation for investigative prowess might signify that the IC might finally be used to administer justice, and Georgy Poltavchenko, governor of Leningrad region, who has little law-enforcement experience, but is a Kremlin-loyal careerist. Appointing the latter would mean that Putin wants “Bastrykin-style policies without Bastrykin,” or, in other words, a system of “political pseudo-justice with a less inflammatory figure at the helm.”  


Our Russia Problem

Ross Douthat, New York Times 

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat looks into the “Russia problem” that has puzzled many on the American political scene. Over the past 15 years, support for Russia in America has swayed between Republicans and Democrats—from George Bush’s infamous “soul-to-soul” connection with Vladimir Putin to Mitt Romney’s description of Russia as America’s main “geopolitical foe.” The issue of the U.S. policy toward Russia has distinctly characterized the current presidential elections, and disrupted the traditional loyalties and suspicions towards Russia on the left and on the right. Douthat writes that ‘at the root of this uncertainty is the fact that neither the United States nor Russia seems certain exactly what kind of power it intends to be’. Led by the Obama administration, the U.S. has been losing its motivation to continue the post-Cold War policy of liberal interventionism, and the American presence is felt less throughout the Middle East, while Russian troops are on the ground in Syria on a scale not seen since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In light of the growing influence of China, Douthat asks the question: is Putin’s Russia really the biggest danger in a world of international terrorism and China’s expanding power? His answer is, “if Beijing, in the long run, is a more important rival than Moscow,” then “we may need a path to de-escalation and wary cooperation with the Russian regime.”


Russia Re-Emerges as a Great Power in the Middle East

Walter Russell Mead, The American Interest

Editor-at-large of The American Interest and prominent academic Walter Russel Mead dissects Russia’s reemergence as a superpower in the Middle East, noting that as America’s influence in the Middle East dwindles, Vladimir Putin, who has often been critical of America’s interventionist policies, has taken the opportunity to challenge the balance of power in the region. Geopolitics, which European and American leaders wrote off prematurely, is back, and as Mead notes, the West’s delusions have always been Putin’s chief tools. The Russian president could be described as lucky: the EU and the U.S. are currently consumed by internal disputes, and the Kremlin can advance its geopolitical interests despite the economic troubles in Russia and without real resistance from the West. Mead delves into Obama’s approach to the U.S. foreign policy, combining as it does both support for democracy and human rights with non-interventionism, shifting noticeably to the latter in recent years. With Syria imploding, the Obama administration had no choice but to cooperate with Putin, who offered to negotiate a political solution to the conflict with Assad. Knowing that U.S. hands are tied, Putin is successfully manipulating the situation. “Our very eagerness to negotiate incentivizes the Kremlin to tease, to stall, to hold the glittering prize just beyond reach, making us beg for it,” writes Mead, adding that “the White House may not yet understand the degree to which humiliating President Obama… has become a principle driver of Russian policy.” Ultimately, it all comes down to the two men's different understanding of leadership: for Obama it’s about “embracing negotiation,” “reaching out to one’s opponents,” and “finding common interests;” while Putin seeks to unpick this approach, which he considers weak.


From Russia 

Political Narcissism in Russia: Attempt at Psychoanalysis

Alexander Rubtsov, Forbes.ru

Political scientist Alexander Rubtsov discusses what he calls the “insecurities” of Russia’s authorities and the masses who support their policies. He applies methods of political psychology and defines the main issue as narcissism with the inherent “syndrome of megalomania, omnipotence, and grandeur, but simultaneously the feeling of self-humiliation, sublimation of fears, exhausting shame, inferiority, and deprivation of anything good.” According to Rubtsov, narcissism can explain the Kremlin’s urge to impose full control over everything that has anything to do with its portrayal: “narcissistic authorities not so much repress as preserve themselves, their multilayered defense.” The idea of collective narcissism is not new, but for some reason neither social science nor media in Russia employ the political psychiatry approach to studying political power and the public, which might point to “collective unconscious repression.” There are other obstacles to adopting this approach: any political psychoanalysis of the sort, especially if articulated by a Kremlin opponent, would not be heard by the authorities (or the public that supports them, for that matter), instead causing further aggression and buildup of self-defense. As an alternative, Rubtsov suggests studying the issue from the position of a “curious amateur”—in other words, analysis with a hopeful view to “self-recognition in the mirror” and, ultimately, correct self-diagnosis.


Looking for the Voter. Why People Don’t Want to Vote for Liberal Parties

Denis Volkov, Carnegie.ru

Ahead of the parliamentary elections, Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov provides the parties’ ratings as of late August: United Russia—31 percent, Communist Party—11 percent, Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR)—10 percent, Just Russia—5 percent. Liberal parties, such as Yabloko and Parnas, are polling at 1-2 percent, which puts them in the margin of error. Volkov raises the crucial question: why are Russia’s liberal parties so unpopular? He names several factors that may explain the status quo. First, the current standings per se should not come as a surprise, since the liberal parties’ ratings have been steadily declining for close to two decades now. Second, although the size of the potential liberal electorate is estimated at 15-16 percent (up to 30 percent in Moscow), it doesn’t mean that all of these people are ready to support the current opposition. The electorate's two main gripes about the liberals can be summed up as follows: “they only criticize without offering an alternative” and “they only emerge right before the elections; all other times they're invisible.” Hence, the third reason: people know very little about them. Volkov argues that despite censorship on Russian state TV, the liberal parties have an opportunity to reach their audience through the internet and social media, but have so far failed to explore these new channels of communication, “having got stuck in the 90s.” The author concludes that “under the conditions of state-controlled television, it is impossible to break the 'losers and phonies' stereotype applied to the liberal parties unless they start engaging with supporters and members of the public in between the elections.”


Steps in the Darkness: How a Dictatorship Becomes Democracy

Sergei Prostakov, Open Russia

In this long-read for Open Russia, historian and journalist Sergei Prostakov speaks about democratization—one of the key political developments of the last 200 years—with reference to the pervasive theories of Samuel Huntington, citing the historical examples of Spain, South Korea, Mexico, and Poland. According to Huntington’s views, detailed in his classic work Third Wave Democracy, democratization has been unfolding over the last three centuries across Europe in the form of “three waves.” In this multilayered, complex process, Western countries have overcome the vestiges of the Middle Ages and established the rule of law, property rights, and equality of peoples; over this period, empires disappeared, the United Nations Organization was created, and authoritarian regimes all over the world started to crumble. However, each wave of democratization was followed by ebbs—first came the First and Second World Wars, then the Cold War. Prostakov dissects democratization, giving concrete historical examples that essentially show that many authoritarian regimes collapsed overnight, but were not always supplanted by a democracy—successful democratic transition only happens in those countries where both the people and the elites endure a long and determined struggle for their freedom. In that context, Prostakov tries to project whether democratization is inherently possible in Russia. He is optimistic for several reasons. First, Russia has already tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to democratize (no such attempts have ever been made in Saudi Arabia, for instance). Second, despite the current authoritarian reaction in the country, the civil society continues to fight repression, self-organizing and accumulating valuable experience.


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.