20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s media highlights, Vladimir Milov discusses the potential relationship between Putin and future U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Alexei Makarkin argues that the Kremlin will not let opposition leader Alexei Navalny run in the 2018 presidential elections; Alexander Rubtsov suggests that Putin may launch his own prerestroika; Kirill Martynov explains Nikita Mikhalkov’s attack on the Yeltsin-center; and Meduza debunks the most common Soviet myths. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


Future U.S. Secretary of State, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson (right) met Vladimir Putin on multiple occasions and established good relationship with the Russian leader. Experts predict it will be easier for Putin to discuss foreign policy issues with Tillerson due to their shared pragmatism. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev / TASS.


Forbes.ru: Tillerson and Putin Will Talk Without the Baggage of “Values” and “Principles”

  • Author: Vladimir Milov, director of the Institute of Energy Policy.
  • Milov argues that Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State will be a real stress-test for the foundations of the U.S. foreign policy shaped after the Cold War. At least one third of ExxonMobil’s operations are located in the countries rated by Freedom House as “Not Free.”
  • Not once did Exxon abandon its projects in these countries based on ethics or values, which allows the author to describe the company’s image as “the embodiment of the ultra-pragmatism of U.S. corporate capitalism, to put it mildly.”
  • However, given that “there is no oil in Switzerland,” international oil and gas companies are forced to deal with dictatorships because most major hydrocarbon reserves are concentrated in these countries. And oil companies often find themselves under a lot of pressure.
  • For instance, in 2006-2007 Exxon was on the verge of an open conflict with the Kremlin that blocked the company’s deal with CNPC to export gas from Sakhalin-I.
  • But U.S. foreign policy’s principles largely differ from Exxon’s narrow pragmatism. Milov suggests that Donald Trump picked Tillerson as his Secretary of State for that exact reason: the latter’s transactional philosophy (based on deals and commitments as opposed to values, principles, and strategic partnerships) reflects the president-elect’s own views.
  • This new approach bodes no good for America’s traditional partners—e.g. NATO members, Japan, South Korea—and will allow some regional powers to flex their muscles and increase tensions, if the U.S. abandons its mediator’s role in the world.
  • What will Tillerson’s appointment change in the U.S-Russia relationship?
    • First, it will be much easier for Putin to discuss issues with Tillerson, given their shared pragmatism not burdened by the “values” and “principles” that prominently featured in the vocabulary of Barack Obama and John Kerry.
    • Second, Tillerson personally lobbied for the repeal of anti-Russia sanctions, which means that Putin may celebrate his victory at least on this issue. 

Forbes.ru, Тиллерсон и Путин будут общаться без багажа «ценностей» и «принципов», Владимир Милов, 15 декабря 2016 г.


Republic: Window of Opportunity: Why Navalny Will Not Be Given Access to the 2018 Elections

  • Author: Aleksei Makarkin, political scientist, first vice-president of the Center for Political Technologies (Moscow).
  • This week, opposition leader Alexei Navalny announced his plans to run for president in the 2018 elections. Makarkin offers two different perspectives on the issue—those of Navalny and the Kremlin.
  • Navalny’s logic is quite simple: since the guilty verdict in the Kirovles case was reversed, he has a short window of opportunity to announce his bid before he gets convicted again in the newly reopened case.
    • His bid is also a signal to the public and to the Kremlin: if he is convicted again, it will not be a case against an anti-corruption blogger, but against a presidential candidate.
  • The Russian opposition’s failures in the last Duma elections (in which Navalny did not run) highlighted the leadership crisis inside the democratic forces, giving him an additional incentive to announce his bid now.
  • The Kremlin’s logic is ambivalent:
    • On the one hand, allowing Navalny to run in 2018 will make the election interesting as it gives Putin an actual opponent to play off against. Amidst Russia’s general political depression, such an intrigue can boost voter turnout—a crucial point for the Kremlin.
    • Besides, Navalny’s political views (e.g. he doesn’t recognize the annexation of Crimea) make him vulnerable to the Kremlin’s criticisms.
    • On the other hand, if the Kremlin allows Navalny to run, he will be given access to the national TV networks and his fresh face may prove to be likable (at the moment he is de-personified in the public perception as an agent of the West).
    • Another argument for that view holds that the law-enforcement agencies that currently work against Navalny may perceive the Kremlin’s directive to let him run as a ruse to undermine their grip on power.
  • Makarkin concludes that the second scenario is more likely, and thus Navalny’s “window of opportunity” will soon be slammed shut.

Republic, Окно возможностей: почему Навального вряд ли допустят на выборы-2018, Алексей Макаркин, 14 декабря 2016 г.


Vedomosti: Short-wave Politics

  • Author: philosopher Alexander Rubtsov.
  • Rubtsov analyzes an international relations theory put forward by  European University in St. Petersburg professor Alexey Miller and Russia in Global Affairs editor-in-chief Fyodor Lukyanov, who draw parallels between the Russia-Europe relationship in the nineteenth century and that of the present day.
  • The theory holds that the relationship is a repeating cycle that goes through the same stages—from Russian piety for Europe to its willingness to join the “concert of civilized countries” to full-scale confrontation and, finally, to “quiet detachment.”
  • Rubtsov criticizes this theory, noting that the authors are trying to show that the Kremlin has a chance to exit the current confrontation with the West (that Russia has already lost) without losing face (through “quiet detachment”).
  • Rubtsov notes that the idea of so-called “path dependency” (meaning that Russia is doomed to go through the same cycles over and over again, unable to change course) should be viewed as embarrassing for such a large country; and this idea doesn’t justify Russia’s political passivity.
  • The author argues that in today’s fast-paced world with its technological innovations, all political cycles (reforms and counter-reforms, “freezes” and “thaws,” liberalization and reaction) are becoming increasingly shorter and more condensed, therefore regime change may take place within the rule of one political leader.
  • The current deterioration of the Putin regime is entering a dead-end stage, and Putin has no other choice but to launch a perestroika of his own “developed Putinism.”
  • Rubtsov argues that Putin is already subtly implementing this scenario. But since the latter fears to repeat Gorbachev’s fate, he is taking pre-emptive measures, reinforcing the special services to secure victory in case of a coup.

Ведомости, Политика на коротких волнах, Александр Рубцов, 12 декабря 2016 г.


Novaya Gazeta: Burnt by Yeltsin

  • Author: Kirill Martynov, political editor of Novaya Gazeta
  • Martynov reports on the public attacks launched by the acclaimed Russian film director Nikita Mikhalkov against the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg for its supposed “anti-establishment politics.” The author notes that Mikhalkov was close to Yeltsin during his 1996 election and stakes the claim that Yeltsin rescued Russia from catastrophe.  
  • Mikhalkov harshly criticized the ten-minute video that opens the exhibition for apparently portraying Russian history as “vileness, dirt, betrayal and slavery.”
  • Martynov asks: what does this short film actually show? His view is that it holds to account the dogmatic vision of Russian history which measures the country’s history solely by the development of the state. The protagonist of the Yeltsin Center’s story is the Russian people, not the state.
  • Thus, the film attempts to portray Russia’s past as a people’s journey towards liberty. It offers a more optimistic and romantic picture of the Russian people taking fate into their own hands, not simply being accessories of authority.  
  • This narrative has the “statist” Mikhalkov in a twist. His reaction reveals his view that the people do not have a right to liberty—even the attempt to discuss this idea is essentially criminal and “anti-historical.” Mikhalkov wants a monopoly on history, in such a way as the Tsars had a monopoly on vodka.  
  • Martynov observes that this heated reaction from Nikita Mikhalkov shows that the Yeltsin Center’s exhibition has hit the nail on the head. The exhibition forces the viewer to consider the non-imperial history of Russia—the history of its people, not only its rulers; the history of liberation rather than violence; the history of those who made their country a fine place to live, rather than fighting for geopolitical greatness.  
  • It is essentially a republican view of history written by the downtrodden, rather than those attached to the corrupt food chain of the state. Such a version of history is still to be written in Russia and awaits the right person to put together such a work.
  • Martynov concludes that we live in a society where the words of artists on politics and history are indeed taken very seriously. “For some reason we accept the convictions of Nikita Mikhalkov regardless of the fact that they are nothing more than an artistic expression of certain political myths of a particular era.”

Новая газета, Утомленные Ельциным, Кирилл Мартынов, 12 декабря 2016 г.


Meduza: Everything was better in the USSR! Actually, not: The greatest myths about the “Golden Era” of the late Soviet Union.  

  • Meduza dissects the symbols of the Soviet nostalgia that has been spreading all over Russia. The remnants of the Soviet Union exist in almost all spheres of contemporary Russian life, but these idealized visions of life in the USSR are far from the truth. Meduza debunks the basic myths about the Soviet life.
  • Myth #1: The USSR had the best education in the world. And it was free!
    • The facts: Soviet education certainly had its strong points, such as mathematics and physics. Soviet scientists were in great demand and many went on to achieve great things.
    • However, ideology was a huge barrier to Soviet education which penetrated practically every region of academia. And Soviet higher education existed in almost total isolation from the rest of the world, with only works by approved authors being available to study.  
  • Myth #2: The USSR had the best medicine in the world. And it was free!
    • The facts: Independent research has shown the sorry state of the Soviet healthcare system towards the end of the USSR. Receiving a medical education often required having the right connections, rather than the right knowledge.
    • Modern equipment, medicine, and techniques were available only to a select few doctors, most simply did not have access to them. The government often boasted that the USSR had more doctors than any other country; however, quantity did not translate to quality. Hospitals were often overflowing, with patients having to wait weeks, sometimes months to receive the correct treatment.  
  • Myth #3: In the USSR everyone had what they needed (e.g. sufficient pensions, wages, flats).
    • The facts: Krushchevki, the vast apartment blocks erected in Russian cities during the Krushchev years, were a genuine benefit to many people. However, “a Soviet citizen was provided a living space a quarter the size of what an American had,” writes Russian journalist Maksim Trudolyubov in his book The People Behind the Fence.
    • In 1985, a Soviet citizen on his or her wage or pension could technically buy as much milk, bread, and vodka as it would be possible in 2016, but the main problem was the deficit of everything else. In order to purchase “luxury” goods, such as a car, one had to wait years, and the choice of goods in shops was the same as in today’s North Korea.
  • Myth #4: In the USSR, there was stability (“one could be sure about tomorrow”).
    • The facts: Of course, with such state control over prices and wages people got the impression that there was stability in the system. For some, however, it was stagnation.
    • It was the same “stability” that brought the Soviet Union to its knees. In 1960-1980, the USSR increased its dependence on food imports, often paid for it in gold, and thus exacerbated an already unsustainable economic model.  
    • That became starkly clear when in 1972 the cost of Russia’s food imports exceeded its main export—energy. This “stability” eventually led to hyperinflation and chaos.  
  • Myth #5: At least they were scared of us!
    • The facts: During the Cold War it’s true that the United States and the West in general feared open confrontation with the Soviet Union, especially in a nuclear capacity. Many were alarmed by the Soviet tradition of maintaining control in the countries of its “zone of influence,” such as Czechoslovakia or Hungary.
    • But the flip side of that power was sad: most people in the USSR were poor, malnourished, could not easily get medical treatment, could not go abroad and could not influence in any way the policies brought about by their government.
    • So yeah, it’s true that the Soviet Union was feared around the world. On the other hand, it’s not entirely clear why this is a reason to proudly rejoice.  

Meduza, В СССР все было самое лучшее! На самом деле нет. Главные мифы о «золотом веке» — позднем Советском Союзе, 9 декабря 2016 г.


* Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.

Russia under Putin

Our newsletter delivers a digest of analytical articles and op-eds published on our website, along with the latest updates on the IMR activities on a monthly basis.