20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s media roundups, Alexander Baunov argues that the March 26 protest may help overcome the schism among the dissidents in Russia; Alexander Rubtsov writes that if the Kremlin decides to suppress the protest, it will only strengthen the dissent; Alexei Levinson contends that the protest was not about Medvedev, but rather about the nature of the regime; Andrei Kolesnikov suggests that Putin will not cede to public pressure and fire his prime minister now; and Republic spoke to Russian economists about the country’s “oil curse.” If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


Moscow, March 26, 2017: anti-corruption protests erupt all over Russia. Photo: Arthur Novosiltsev / TASS. 


Carnegie.ru: Thunder ’17. What Are the New Revolutionaries Fighting For?

  • Author: Alexander Baunov, former diplomat and editor-in-chief of Carnegie.ru.
  • Baunov argues that the March 26 protest that focused on Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s alleged corruption may help overcome the schism among the dissidents in Russia. If a high-profile liberal insider becomes the central figure in the crackdown, the division into “bad” and “good” officials inside the system is rendered obsolete.  
  • The March 26 protest differs from its 2011-2012 counterparts in two key ways:
    • The object of dissatisfaction was not a political event (elections), but rather a constant state of affairs—corruption.  
    • The visual appearance was strikingly different: the protest was less focused on the capital and less “glamorous;” its participants were much younger (for them Putin is what the Communist Party was to those present during perestroika).  
  • Besides, the 2011-2012 protests were about the revolt of the middle class, whereas the March 26 protest resembled more a traditional protest of the poor.
  • The author also notes that the large number of young participants is important in bringing about a revolutionary situation without a subsequent political crisis.  
  • However, the March 26 protest lacked a clear goal, which means that the dissent will continue for some time. This also makes it harder for the authorities to extinguish the movement—they will simply have to wait for the next outbreak.
  • It is important for the Kremlin to show that it can deal with revolt more effectively than Tsar Nicholas II (whose uncertainty led to revolution); therefore it is forced to find a balance between decisiveness and open violence.  
  • Baunov concludes that Putin is not likely to fire someone based on pressure from abroad or from the streets. In the meantime the protests will likely have the opposite effect and actually strengthen Medvedev’s position temporarily.  

Carnegie.ru, Гроза семнадцатого года. За что борются новые революционеры, Александр Баунов, 27 марта 2017 г.


Novaya Gazeta: Still Waters Run Deep 

  • Author: Alexander Rubtsov, head of the Center for Philosophical Studies of Ideological Processes at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
  • Rubtsov writes that no one expected the sheer scope of the March 26 protest, but now the state machine has few options: since it won’t change course, it will either have to adjust its trajectory or resort to pressure.  
  • After the winding down of the 2011-2012 protests, the opposition movement was broken and demoralized, while the Kremlin mobilized forces in support of the regime.  
  • As for the March 26 protest, it is clear that the theme of corruption can trigger revolt like no other, but it was merely a trigger: the dissent was already there.
  • Rubtsov writes that a few years ago sociologists were alarmed at the prospect of a new generation of young Russians who have seen nothing but Putin’s politics, who remember nothing else and may not want to know anything else.  
  • But a new political generation is on the rise—a generation with a different political style, a different etiquette. They were formerly conformists, but they read a lot, see how the world works, and have access to the internet and international media. All of these characteristics contradict the beliefs of the Russian political elite.  
  • The forces at work in the March 26 protest are not going anywhere, argues Rubtsov. They are ready to mobilize, simply waiting for another energetic injection.  
  • If the regime chooses to artificially quench the energy of the masses, it will only do so through hate and fear. The regime’s narcissism and lack of honest reconciliation prevent the Kremlin from responding intelligently to this growing protest movement.  “These games will only lead the Kremlin to death by starvation,” writes the author.
  • The decision to “maneuver or pressure” is difficult and unpleasant. It all comes down to a question of time: suppressing the protest now risks incurring stronger and angrier responses.  
  • At the same time, there is fear that “maneuvering” may inspire and strengthen the protests, thus requiring a much more aggressive and harsh response later down the line, concludes Rubstov. 

Новая газета, В тихой гавани черти водятся, Александр Рубцов, 27 марта 2017 года


Vedomosti: Discussion, Not Repression Is Needed

  • Author: Alexei Levinson, head of social and cultural studies at Levada Center.
  • Levinson discusses the most recent anti-corruption protests in Russia that took place on March 26 when thousands of people—many of them really young—took to the streets all across the country.
  • Levinson argues that the protest was not about Alexei Navalny, who once again showed his knack for working the crowd; nor was it about Medvedev, whose approval rating is now lower than that of Vladimir Zhirinovsky; but it was about the scale of corruption in the upper echelons of Russian power—an issue that really concerns Russian people.
  • The 2011-2012 protests were triggered by open power abuses in the Russian government (the infamous “swap” between Putin and Medvedev and the rigging of the 2011 parliamentary elections that followed).
  • At the core of both waves of protests lie public grievances about the Russian sistema, but the public still lack a full understanding of how this system and the government (as its integral element) work, or how it can be fixed and transformed.
  • Public dissatisfaction with the system is growing, notes Levinson: according to March Levada polls, 47 percent of Russians believe that the country’s “power structures are significantly ridden with corruption,” while 32 percent said they are fully corrupt.
  • Russia’s political system manifests itself to the public as a personalistic regime, thus the protests begin as criticisms against concrete people, calls for resignations, etc., but essentially the protests are about the nature of the power system.
  • Levinson concludes that since the government is afraid to cede to the public protests, considering it “the beginning of the end,” the next step it will take may be repression. 

Ведомости, Нужны дискуссии, а не репрессии, Алексей Левинсон, 28 марта 2017 г.


RBC: The First Couple and Franz Josef: Why Putin Brought Medvedev to the Arctic

  • Author: Andrei Kolesnikov, chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
  • Kolesnikov analyzes the reasons why Vladimir Putin brought Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev (whose reputation has recently suffered some serious blows) on his trip to Franz Josef Land in the Arctic, where the two leaders had a highly publicized photo op together.
  • There are two interpretations of this event: 1) Putin wants to extend his personal charisma to Medvedev, sending a message to the elites that the prime minister remains “untouchable”; 2) the trip was arranged for the two leaders to discuss the future of the regime in the same vein as the Astrakhan meeting before the decision on the “swap” was made.
  • There is also a geopolitical dimension to this trip, notes Kolesnikov: “Conquering the Arctic” is part of Russia’s comeback to the international arena and “rising from the knees” narrative.
  • The meeting will thus have grand symbolic resonance: “Among the icebergs and ice ridges” the two leaders will decide to either continue working together or respectfully part ways, as one of them has discredited the authorities.
  • Kolesnikov argues that, contrary to the rumors circulating in the media, Putin will not abandon Medvedev now, especially in the face of the protests, for that would mean ceding power to the public, which would be very uncharacteristic of Putin, especially in the light of the upcoming 2018 presidential campaign.
  • An additional argument for this scenario holds that neither is there a pragmatic reason for firing Medvedev: no catastrophic event has taken place; therefore there is no need for scapegoating. And since there is no demand for radical reform in the Kremlin, Medvedev can continue doing his job.
  • The author concludes that the decision made in the Arctic is likely to reinforce Putin and Medvedev’s “friendship,” but their long-term plans will remain unknown to the rest.

РБК, Двое и Франц-Иосиф: зачем Путин увез Медведева в Арктику, Андрей Колесников, 29 марта 2017 г.


Republic: To Be Like Mexico. How to Overcome the “Resource Curse” and Change Russia’s Economy? 

  • The Russian economy was “diagnosed” with the so-called “resource [oil] curse” decades ago. But in recent years, three major developments took place in the global energy market, raising questions about the viability of the commodity-based economy. They are: the shale gas revolution in the U.S.; electricity-powered cars; shifts in the global gas markets.
  • Republic spoke to a number of Russian economists about the country’s situation in the light of these developments.
  • According to Alexander Sharov of the Institute of National and Economic Forecasting, for Russia to catch up with the developed countries, oil prices need to be not only high, but constantly climbing.
  • As noted by Andrei Movchan, chair of the Economic Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the consequences of a collapse in oil prices for the Russian economy are disastrous:  in 1916-1921, for instance, it contracted by 62 percent; in 1990-1994 by 38 percent.
  • Nikolai Kashcheyev of Promsvyazbank argues that while the global economy is becoming more decentralized, the Russian economy (70 percent of which is generated by the state) is, in fact, moving in the opposite direction.
  • The reason for that, according to HSE’s Grigory Yudin, is because Russian elites are not interested in diversification; the “oil curse” is not a historical phenomenon; it’s a result of the conscious policy pursued by the elites, which are scared of competition and lack motivation for reform.
  • At the same time, even if Russia overcomes its “oil curse,” it will have a very narrow window of opportunity, argues Movchan: Russia may solve its social problems, but will stop developing; it may overcome the “oil curse,” but its people will remain poor.
  • And it will be demonopolization, not democracy, that will help Russia overcome the “oil curse.” And the plan to achieve that doesn’t have to be ambitious—Russia can set an example, such as Mexico, another oil-dependent country, but one that is currently showing better results than Russia.

Republic, Быть как Мексика. Как победить ресурсное проклятие и изменить экономику России? Георгий Неяскин, 27 марта 2017 г.


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.