20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s media roundup, Kirill Rogov explains the Kremlin’s harsh response to Open Russia’s #ENOUGH campaign; Vsevolod Chernozub argues that the controversial urban renovation program could turn into a suicide mission for the current Russian authorities; Ivan Davydov details the structure of Putin’s inner circles; Alexander Rubtsov continues his series on political narcissism in Russia; and Vladimir Frolov weighs on the Kremlin’s “diplomatic hyperactivity.” If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


As part of a large-scale urban renovation program, within the upcoming 20 years the Moscow authorities plan to demolish up to 8 thousand old residential buildings known as “khrushchovkas.” These plans cause a lot of stir among Muscovites, many of whom protest against resettlement. The slogan on the right says: “renovation equals deportation.” Photo: Dmitry Serebryakov / TASS. 


RBС: The Viral Hashtag: Why the Kremlin Has Taken up Arms Against Open Russia

  • Author: political scientist Kirill Rogov.
  • Last week, the Kremlin carried out searches and seizures at Open Russia’s Moscow offices and declared the London-based branch of the organization to be “undesirable.”
  • One of the key reasons for the Kremlin’s harsh response is the viral quality of the slogan picked for the anti-regime campaign—#ENOUGH.
  • Earlier, on March 26, thousands of people took to the streets to participate in unsanctioned protests following Alexei Navalny’s call for action. His objective was to get as many people out into the street as possible.  
  • The #ENOUGH slogan targets one particular person that Navalny’s campaign avoided—Vladimir Putin. Since Open Russia lacks the popularity enjoyed by Navalny, it seemed more effective strategy-wise to adopt a radical slogan to enhance the effect of the protest regardless of the turnout.
  • Rogov argues that Putin’s presidential campaign cannot proceed as easily as was predicted at the start of the year and the foreign policy agenda which kept the Kremlin afloat throughout the previous presidential term is all but worn out.  
  • Economic optimism has proven to be premature. There is no money available for large-scale “show” projects.
  • The Kremlin machine is primed for repression, which reduces its capacity to reach political settlements and prevent conflicts from escalating. This is especially true of social conflicts—leading to confrontation between the National Guard and factory workers in Birobidzhan, or truck drivers in Dagestan.  
  • The National Guard was essentially concocted to suppress a Russian “Maidan,” thus turning any event into a “mini-Maidan” simply by its appearance.
  • With open hotbeds of resistance amongst the elites and a clear upturn in protest sentiments, the upcoming presidential campaign is beginning to look increasingly less predictable.
  • The regime’s irremovability is leading to a situation where the battle against viral hashtags is becoming more and more costly and destabilizing for society and the elites.  
  • A full translation of the article is available here.

РБК, Вирусный хештег: почему Кремль ополчился на «Открытую Россию», 28 апреля 2017 г.


InLiberty: Systemic Suicide 

  • Author: political commentator Vsevolod Chernozub.
  • This week, the Russian authorities made a visible effort to postpone until at least July a large-scale urban renovation program that involves the demolition of numerous five-story residential buildings in Moscow.
  • Chernozub argues that this story that may appear mundane to an outsider (people are routinely resettled from old buildings in the capital without any protest) is in fact a story about under-the-carpet struggles for the post of Russian prime minister or even Putin’s potential successor.
  • The author notes that the Kremlin has few powerful public figures at its disposal, and by all standards Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin looks like a good presidential candidate for the 2024 elections. The “renovation plan” was designed to promote his public image, but the Kremlin’s calculations in that respect failed.
  • First, Muscovites reacted more angrily than anticipated, and second, they got angry not just with the mayor’s office but with the Russian authorities in general, as rumors that the “renovation plan” may be implemented across the entire country spread rapidly.
  • As the Kremlin is looking to solve the legitimacy problem by boosting turnout for the 2018 elections, various options are being discussed—from letting Alexei Navalny run to abolishing the absentee ballots so people could just come and vote anywhere (the latter may add 5 to 20 million people to the usual turnout).
  • The problem is that, even though over the last five years the Kremlin has managed to clear the streets of protesters by introducing repressive laws, the protest has not vanished, as shown by the March 26 demonstrations. When thousands are protesting on the street, people don’t care about “bans” or “permits.”
  • Some commentators call this situation “stalemate” for the Kremlin, but Chernozub argues that the Kremlin faces “zugzwang”: all options are bad and every step only draws the game closer to the end. 

InLiberty, Системное самоубийство, Всеволод Чернозуб, 4 мая 2017 г.


The New Times: The Upper Echelons of the Kremlin

  • Author: journalist Ivan Davydov.
  • The Russian government is a closed book, and the Kremlin’s decision-making process remains a mystery and subject to expert speculation. The “who’s who” lists of Kremlin insiders vary, and one must decide on faith which to believe.
  • However, based on conversations with 24 political experts, The New Times suggests a new approach to gleaning information from such lists.
  • Based on the number of times a certain official was mentioned by the experts, NT produced a four orbit-ring chart reflecting the structure of the Kremlin’s inner circle.
  • The first orbit includes five people closest to the president: Dmitry Medvedev, Nikolai Patrushev, Yuri Kovalchuk, Arkady Rotenberg, and Igor Sechin.
  • Almost all experts that NT spoke to agree on the following notions: 1) being able to speak directly to Putin does not guarantee influence; 2) Russia’s government system has to be described in terms of everyday psychology in which each person determines the personal preferences, habits, likes and dislikes of one single person—Putin.
  • As Yekaterina Shulman notes, the Kremlin doesn’t have a single centre where all decisions are made.” There may have been unity among the upper echelons of power “during the golden years of the regime, when it was wealthy and stable,” but now the manageability of the regime has “fallen sharply” on all levels.  
  • Many experts believe that Putin is currently focusing on foreign affairs. Yet, on the list there are only three people with diplomatic experience (Sergei Lavrov, Yuri Ushakov, Dmitry Peskov), and all of them are in the most remote (fourth) orbit.  
  • According to Valery Solovyov, there are two types of worldview in the Kremlin: “Chekist,” which implies inherent conspiratorial thinking; and “technocratic,” in which liberal ideas are not used as values, but rather as tools.
  • As Alexander Morozov notes, all of the people in the president’s circle are “enlightened liberal imperialists,” but at the same time “Putin doesn’t keep people with strong ideological views in his inner circle.” Therefore, people in the closest orbit share one ideology—that “if we cherish Putin, we cherish Russia.”
  • Relations among members of the inner circle are complicated. For example, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin go hunting together, yet there is no friendship between them—possibly because both are eyeing the post of prime minister.  
  • It is not clear if there are any stable coalitions among the outer orbits of the Kremlin, or whether only tactical relationships exist for particular goals. But it has been suggested that Putin does not allow such coalitions to form, in order not to lose control of those close to him.
  • There is also the opinion that the Kremlin elites group together not by virtue of personal preference, but by function. For instance, Putin’s “friends” control the assets, while “managers” carry out the orders.    

New Times, Небо Кремля, Иван Давыдов, 1 мая 2017 г.


Forbes.ru: Political Narcissism in Russia: Fake Present and Victory Day

  • Author: Alexander Rubtsov, head of the Department of the Philosophical Studies of Ideological Processes at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
  • Rubtsov continues his series on political narcissism in Russia, focusing in this installment on the upcoming celebration of victory in World War II (on May 9) and the 100th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution.
  • The current regime is using the past, or what it perceives as “glorious history,” as a mirror to inflate its own sense of grandeur. But as facts may still shine through and spoil the perfect image, the regime tries to remove them from the picture. Whole chunks of history are being wiped out from public sources and public memory—new ones are being inserted instead.
  • The “sterilized past” looks more alive than the miserable present.
  • Political narcissism was also inherent to the Soviet system, writes Rubtsov. Everything—from Soviet culture to outer space—had to be world best. But the current regime, despite all its attempts at “greatness,” is incapable of inventing or producing anything new. In fact, decline is observable everywhere, along with public fatigue due to numerous and expensive “grand projects.”
  • Essentially, what is happening is that Russia is “escaping from the present.”
  • Rubtsov argues that the current regime has to be super-narcissstic to “try and build a monument to itself on the ruins of the country.” And the public that boasts today about the current state of affairs has to be a victim of major disorder.
  • Thus, the only option left to the regime is war. “Revolution” was the key word in the Soviet Union, while in Russia it is “Victory,” i.e. a successful “war.” Only participation in military conflicts (direct or indirect) allows the Kremlin to break from isolation. Besides, this “ephemeral influence” abroad induces “patriotic exaltation” at home.
  • The problem is that this approach is replicated at many levels: official ideology, propaganda, and individual attitudes.
  • Ignoring a narcissist carries the risk of provoking outbursts of anger and aggression, including physical attacks and murder. Rubtsov concludes that it is scary to observe the regime acting exactly in line with clinical episodes described in works on psychopathology and psychoanalysis.

Forbes. Ru: Политический нарциссизм в России: ненастоящее настоящее и День победы, Александр Рубцов, 29 апреля 2017 г.


Republic: Diplomacy of the Impossible. What Russia Can Reach an Agreement on with the West This Summer

  • Author: Vladimir Frolov, expert in international affairs.
  • This month the Kremlin embarked on what can be called “a diplomatic marathon”: Angela Merkel and Recep Erdogan have already met with Vladimir Putin, with Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas expected to visit Moscow next week. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni will also visit later in May.
  • Frolov argues that this “hyperactivity” seeks to impress the domestic audience, as restoring Russia’s great power status is the basis of Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy at the moment. However, the real results of Moscow’s diplomatic efforts are quite modest.
  • Washington remains the main source of the Kremlin’s frustration, given the terms of normalization of U.S.-Russia relations laid out by Rex Tillerson during his recent visit to Moscow. These terms include cardinal changes in Russia’s policies toward Syria, eastern Ukraine, and Afghanistan, ending the violations of the INF Treaty, and ending the Kremlin’s interference in the U.S. and European elections.
  • Clearly, the Kremlin is not ready to meet these terms, given that it will be perceived at home as folding under the U.S. pressure.
  • Frolov argues that the only strategic “turning point” in the bilateral relationship that can be achieved lies in Syria—but only if Russia succeeds in taking control over Damascus’s “party of war.”
  • At the same time, the good news for the Kremlin is the U.S. silence on Russian domestic politics (human rights violations, including gay rights in Chechnya).
  • Thus, instead of the Big Deal between Russia and the U.S., one should only expect piecemeal agreements on certain issues.

Republic, Дипломатия невозможного. О чем Россия может договориться с Западом этим летом, Владимир Фролов, 4 мая 2017 г.


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.