20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s media roundup, Gleb Pavlovsky discusses the Russian political triangle—Khodorkovsky, Navalny, and Putin; Dmitry Travin delves into the eternal struggle between the Russian opposition and the repressive regime; Konstantin Gaaze weighs in on the issues facing Sergei Kiriyenko, whose job is to create the “new Putin majority;” and Maxim Artemyev writes about the substance of the presidential campaign. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


Russia's opposition leader Alexei Navalny (center) appeals his 15-day arrest following the March 26 anti-corruption protests. Photo: Valery Sharifullin / TASS. 


Republic: Russia Returns to Politics. What Role Have Khodorkovsky, Navalny and Putin Chosen to Play?

  • Author: political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky.
  • As the Kremlin blocked protesters from entering Red Square on April 2, Mikhail Khodorkovsky launched his “ENOUGH” (NADOELO) campaign, seeking to mobilize more public protests on April 29. Meanwhile, Alexey Navalny is calling for another demonstration on June 12.
  • Pavlovsky notes that in the coming year three very different figures will make up the dramatis personae of the Russian political scene: Alexey Navalny, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Vladimir Putin.  
  • Alexey Navalny: The question is: do people follow him as a person, or does he simply represent a narrative? Navalny reflects certain desires of the opposition—primarily to punish those in power. He is playing the role of a hero taking on the system on the behalf of those without a voice. And Navalny always avoids any contact with Putin.
  • Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a symbolic persona from another epoch. Though Putin put him in prison, he also saved Khodorkovsky by releasing him 10 years later, and through this twist of fate the two men are connected not just in the past, but likely in the future. Besides, both are considered to be people who have achieved great success through unknown forces.
  • Khodorkovsky is very aware of time frames. When he started talking about a “transitional period,” the Kremlin immediately picked up on the issue and developed its own concept of a transitional period (that Putin’s next term may be his last). The two concepts are essentially competing with each other.  
  • Pavlovsky argues that the next 12 months will be turbulent for Russian politics. The Kremlin is striving to make sure that there is no alternative to Putin in 2018, but by launching the concept of a transition period Putin himself broke the rule of being unopposed.
  • Khodorkovsky claims he is not an enemy of the Russian establishment, but is not a loyalist. Whereas Navalny sees himself as a potential heir to Putin, Khodorkovsky sees himself as more of a leader-moderator of the establishment.  
  • When a small group of people runs the country, a “neurotic fear” emerges: what will happen when they leave? Khodorkovsky, through his Open Russia movement, claims to be “discharging this bomb” by developing an alternative scenario. He funds various civic initiatives and promotes the old idea of a roundtable. But the feuding factions are not yet ready to sit down and negotiate.
  • Pavlovsky also notes that it is symbolic that Khodorkovsky chose London as the place of his exile and did not proceed further to the West—to the United States. Russia’s European (not Western) path is the highlight of his program. Since Peter the Great, Europe has been the key vector of Russia’s domestic and foreign policies.
  • Pavlovsky concludes that Khodorkovsky is the only prominent figure able to square up to Putin, but in reality it is Navalny who is considered the only presidential alternative to Putin, since Khodorkovsky is not considered for that role.
  • The upshot is that Putin wants to remain in the Kremlin, Khodorkovsky believes it is bad for the country, and Navalny wants to replace Putin. It looks like a family rift: “Putin is looking for self-preservation, whereas Khodorkovsky is showing him the exit.”  

Republic, Глеб Павловский: Россия вернулась в политику. Какие роли выбрали для себя Ходорковский, Навальный и Путин? 17 апреля 2017 г.


Carnegie.ru: Autocratic Opposition against Authoritarian Power

  • Author: political scientist Dmitry Travin.
  • Travin argues that the current debates on the consequences of the anticorruption protests, and specifically the attacks on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, are pointless. Even though Medvedev is a “systemic liberal,” these attacks will not strengthen the authoritarian elements inside the Kremlin, nor will they serve as a symbolic step towards democratization.
  • Despite being prime minister, Medvedev has no real power, as it is Vladimir Putin who defines all key aspects of Russian politics. But his weakness serves a purpose—to highlight the president’s power and strength.
  • The same principle has been applied to all previous prime ministers since Mikhail Kasyanov (e.g. Mikhail Fradkov, Viktor Zubkov) and is applied to all parliamentary chairmen. All of them seem uncharismatic and unlikable as compared to Putin. And it is not a coincidence.
  • The Kremlin’s inside feuds should not be interpreted as struggles for ideas (pro-European or not), but as a fight for resources and influence, which is the essence of an authoritarian regime, not a hybrid one, argues Travin.
  • By choosing corruption as the centerpiece of his campaign, Alexei Navalny offers an opposition agenda that is stripped of any ideology. This is the issue that can unite all opposition factions—from the left to the right.
  • However, some opposition members believe that such an approach is too populist and lightweight, because opposing the regime involves ideological resistance.
  • Travin recalls that historically the Russian opposition has always been too weak to succeed in its ideological resistance to authoritarianism, while previous attempts to unite opposition factions have failed. Operationally, the current non-systemic opposition has become autocratic.
  • Russian realities leave little room for public optimism, which gives rise to demand for mass populism. And since attempts to appeal to the public common sense have failed, autocratic opposition leaders (such as Navalny) resort to populist slogans that gain traction because at this point Navalny is not responsible for Russia’s poor state of affairs.
  • Travin concludes that the struggle between the two authoritarian forces is the result of the inability of the Russian elite to reach a compromise. Roundtable negotiations have failed, and what is left is a competition between two populist models.

Carnegie.ru, Автократическая оппозиция против авторитарной власти, Дмитрий Травин, 19 апреля 2017 г.


RBC: The Problem with “Normalization”: Kiriyenko and the Enemies of Putin’s New Majority

  • Author: journalist and political commentator Konstantin Gaaze.
  • The Kremlin is torn between the task of securing Vladimir Putin’s next presidential term and its geopolitical interests.
  • Sergei Kiriyenko, who was appointed deputy chief of the presidential administration, has been brought in to “normalize” the domestic political scene.
  • His key objectives are: create a new Putin majority that is both loyal and legitimate; set a new ideological direction for the country to replace the “Crimean majority”; engineer a “vision of the future”; create a new vocabulary for the Kremlin, explaining how and why Putin should govern the country for 25 years.
  • The Putin majority will be his third and will have to be attained piece by piece—bringing together the remaining forces in society that are united by nothing more than their loyalty to the president.
  • However, the main enemy of this plan is Putin himself: his war in Syria is a fundamental barrier to rallying support. Putin compromised his own future by bringing on board Bashar al-Assad for the sake of foreign policy goals.
  • It has been said that the Russian ruling class wants to “organize another perestroika, but only among themselves.” They are ready for change as long as the current distribution of resources is not affected.
  • Putin can renew his mandate for the next presidential term, but his legitimacy could soon collapse if the elite is not prepared to share its power and wealth. The ongoing “purges” of the elites will only buy time for Putin, but it will not solve the underlying problems.
  • Gaaze concludes that either the interests of the elite will be sacrificed in the fourth presidential term, or Putin will spend the next six years fighting with regular citizens demanding the modernization of Russian civil society.  

РБК, Проблемы «нормализации»: Кириенко и враги нового путинского большинства, Константин Гаазе, 13 апреля 2017 г.


Forbes.ru: Putin’s Choice. Arrests of Governors and Oppositionists as a Symbol of the Election Campaign

  • Author: journalist and historian Maxim Artemyev.
  • Artemyev discusses two high-profile arrests that happened in Russia last week: former head of the Mari El Republic Leonid Markelov and blogger and activist Vyacheslav Maltsev.
  • By arresting a former official and an opposition figure, the Kremlin is sending a message on the substance of the upcoming presidential campaign, which means a show fight against corruption and targeted purges of the opposition.
  • By highlighting the fight against corruption, the Kremlin is trying to hijack Aleksei Navalny’s agenda and show to the Russian people that the authorities are listening and reacting to public concerns.
  • Putin will present himself as a unifying figure fighting not just random enemies but also traitors among people close to him. The fight will be used to rejuvenate the system and inject “fresh blood” into the power regime.
  • The 2018 campaign has to offer a new, reinvented Putin, but at the same time the man people are familiar with—the “new old President.” He will remain the “guarantor of stability,” but will also appear fresh, energetic, and eternally youthful.
  • Artemyev also notes that the targeted purges will not dominate the agenda, since the Kremlin is looking to run a positive campaign.

Forbes.ru, Выбор Путина. Аресты губернаторов и оппозиционеров как символ предвыборной кампании, Максим Артемьев, 14 апреля 2017 г.

Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.