20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup: Konstantin Gaaze and Maria Zheleznova review the Navalny-Strelkov debate that drew lots of attention in Russia; Andrey Pertsev details a new format for Putin’s communication with the Russian people; Krill Rogov analyzes the ideological legacy of Stalinism; Svetlana Petrova profiles Putin’s old associate, billionaire Vladimir Litvinenko; and Roman Shleinov delves into the recent broil between Russia’s Central Bank and commercial bank Yugra. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


Alexei Navalny and Igor Strelkov held a live debate on July 20, 2017. Photo: navalny.com.


RBC: Common Sense Vs the Rifle: How Russians Learn to Talk about Politics.

  • Journalist Konstantin Gaaze reviews the debate between opposition leader Alexei Navalny and former commander of the East Ukrainian separatist forces, Igor Strelkov [Girkin].
  • In Gaaze’s view, Strelkov quickly lost interest in the debate, and Navalny failed to display any kind of coherent political worldview. The debate was criticized for being boring and hard to follow. Their meeting was, nonetheless, a historic moment, for various reasons.
  • First of all, the fact that there was even a debate between Navalny and Strelkov shows that public political debate is being allowed a resurgence: it is important that a conversation is being had at all.
  • Second, Strelkov’s performance revealed that Navalny has no coherent worldview, and showed that Strelkov’s own politics are coherent, but dubious: one part Immanuel Wallerstein, two parts conspiracy theory (shaken, not stirred).
  • Gaaze observes that, though Navalny is a good political strategist, and adept at drawing crowds at a rally, he cannot translate slogans into political ideas. Nor can he distinguish between his idealized vision of what a state should be and the reality of states as they exist across the world.
  • Navalny sees corruption as a simple question of diverting funds from officials’ wallets into state services. But this ignores the systemic, structural problems in the Russian state.
  • Navalny’s focus on the “fight for stolen money,” rather than on restructuring the entire Russian state, shows that he, like the Kremlin, has a myopic approach to social issues.
  • Oil policy will be a key issue for future Russian leaders to focus on, but neither Navalny nor Strelkov showed an adequate understanding of it.
  • The author thinks that Navalny’s talk of “viewers” and “target groups” is superficial, and that Russians should be thinking more deeply about how the next president should look and behave.

РБК, Здравый смысл против трехлинейки: как в России учатся говорить о политике, Константин Гаазе, 21 июля 2017 г.


Vedomosti: Toothless dialogue: Why Even Boring Debates Are Better Than Monologues

  • Vedomosti editor Maria Zheleznova also addresses the debate between Alexei Navalny and Igor Strelkov, which drew more than 150,000 live viewers and garnered more than a million views on the Ekho Moskvy, TV Rain and Reuters websites.
  • Responses were mixed. There was no clear winner, and viewers complained that the debate was slow, unfocused and unclear.
  • This led people to question the overall format, since, in the author’s opinion, the existing political structure does not allow for dialogue or ambiguity. Indeed, even during the presidential campaign, no one debates Putin.
  • Two people talking does not a debate make, and Zheleznova judges that Navalny and Strelkov’s discussion did not break the mold, due to a lack of experience on both sides.
  • But this does not mean it was a failure: the two did at least talk to each other, instead of merely exchanging monologues.
  • However, Navalny was not tough enough on one of the key actors in the Ukraine conflict. Accepting Strelkov’s well-rehearsed excuses, Zheleznova writes, is political cowardice.

Ведомости, Невооруженный диалог, Мария Железнова, 23 июля 2017 г.


Carnegie.ru: New People for the Old President. What the New Format of Putin’s Communication with Russia’s Population Means

  • Kommersant journalist Andrei Pertsev writes in Carnegie.ru that the presidential administration has molded a new format for Putin’s communication with the Russian people, choosing to remove domestic issues from the agenda and add a more personal and natural touch to meetings with citizens.
  • In recent months, citizens’ questions to the Russian president have increasingly focused on topics desirable to Putin: international issues such as Donald Trump, moral conundrums in the form of the falsification of history and Putin’s biography, hobbies and interests.
  • The author surmises that the aim of the change in format is to promote Putin to celebrity-status and to emphasize that he is not an ordinary citizen, while the audience simply acts as a signal for Putin to speak in monologues about himself and international relations.
  • The author casts doubt over the sustainability of such an unscripted, conversational format. While young, starstruck schoolchildren may ask questions about Putin’s personal life, it is likely that older generations, who have far more pressing issues, will be keen to ask more pertinent and controversial questions.
  • Furthermore, the new format will lead some viewers to be suspicious of the sincerity of the questions posed. However, as Putin himself is passionate about these subjects, they have become the center of attention in his communication with the Russian citizenry.
  • The writer concludes that the new format testifies to a change in the Kremlin regime’s rhetoric from populist to personalist, perhaps in preparation for the 2018 presidential elections in Russia. But the incessant questions about Putin’s personal life and distant issues unrelated to Russian daily life may lead to a widespread sense of falsehood akin to that of late Soviet times.

Carnegie.ru, Новый народ для старого президента. О чем говорит новый формат общения Путина с населением, Андрей Перцев, 24 июля 2017 г.


InLiberty: Stalinism Without Stalin

  • Political scientist Krill Rogov gives his analysis of the ideological legacy of Stalinism in today’s Russia.
  • Rogov divides Russia’s recent history into stages, designating 1980-90 as a period of democratization. By the 1990s, Russia had arrived at a kind of undemocratic pluralism, but it then regressed to authoritarianism-lite under Putin in the 2000s.
  • In soft authoritarianism, loyalty is bought and social groups are co-opted. Regimes are legitimized by economic success, and are happy to be ideologically neutral and politically pragmatic. In harsher authoritarian regimes, ideology is emphasized in order to justify repressive measures and the use of violence against citizens.
  • This framework helps to understand the evolution of modern Russian authoritarianism from moderate to harsher forms.
  • Today’s political reality is a far cry from Stalinism in terms of how many people have been killed by the regime. However, the legacy of Stalinism has played an important role in legitimizing state repression.
  • The idea of being constantly threatened by external imperialist powers was a cornerstone of domestic policy in the USSR; the regime was legitimized by this “negative legitimization,” which was more effective than building a classless society (positive legitimization).
  • This paranoia also legitimized the purges, show trials and accusations of espionage under Stalin. Whether or not Stalin believed in spies or industrialization is beside the point. What matters is that he was able to consolidate his power by creating a state of emergency through engineering an ever-present external threat.
  • The threat myth is a powerful mechanism. It shifts power away from the public sphere and into the hands of secret organizations behind closed doors. The myth of the KGB as an efficient state structure played a key role in Putin’s ascent to power.
  • Like in the 1920s under Stalin, the 2014 Crimea-Ukraine crisis responded to imagined threats and became a powerful mechanism for reformatting domestic policy.
  • Rogov calls for vigilance against the normalization of state violence, because violence and disregard for citizens’ well-being often leads to the most dramatic catastrophes.
  • Stalin turned domestic policy into foreign policy by applying the rules of war to internal political dissent. This is happening now, and it ends up giving the regime carte blanche to murder its own people.

InLiberty, Сталинизм без Сталина, Кирилл Рогов, 24 июля 2017 г.


Vedomosti: How Putin’s Former Presidential Campaign Chief Became a Billionaire

  • Vedomosti journalist Svetlana Petrova profiles Vladimir Litvinenko, Provost of St. Petersburg Mining Institute. Petrova examines the story behind Litvinenko’s fabulous wealth, his connection to Vladimir Putin and the Yukos scandal.
  • Litvinenko became a billionaire recently thanks to his sizeable shares in the company PhosAgro, one of the world’s largest fertilizer producers. He also part-owns a small business that specializes in the production of tram sleepers and timber in Tolmachevo, a small town in the Luga district of Leningrad region.
  • Litvinenko has a rather humble background, but his friendship with Vladimir Putin that began in St. Petersburg played a crucial role in his ascent.
  • The two initially worked on joint university and municipal projects, but their relationship grew stronger when Putin defended his dissertation at Litvinenko’s university. In 2000, Litvinenko headed presidential candidate Putin’s electoral headquarters in St. Petersburg.
  • Until 2011, PhosAgro did not publish concrete information concerning the identity of its owners. When it did, it emerged that Litvinenko was the head of the board of directors and owned shares of $400m, perhaps as a reward for successful lobbying.
  • PhosAgro founder Andrey Guriev first met Litvinenko in 2003, and was soon integrated into the company to demonstrate loyalty to Putin. The company found Litvinenko to be an influential presence, especially as PhosAgro was dogged by claims of tax evasion and needed to be protected by those close to power.
  • In the early 2000s, PhosAgro became embroiled in the Yukos scandal. PhosAgro's main asset in 2001 was Apatit, a mining enterprise controlled by Gibraltar Group Menatep Limited (GML), run by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and partners.
  • Whereas Yukos was forced into bankruptcy and its managers imprisoned, Apatit and Litvinenko miraculously made a full recovery after lengthy court battles.
  • Leonid Volkov, former managing director of PhosAgro, attests that in 2001 official documents showed Litvinenko's stake in PhosAgro to be 5%.
  • Petrova writes that as Litvinenko’s shares in PhosAgro increased, beneficiaries linked to the company acquired real estate associated with St. Petersburg Mining Institute, where Litvinenko is the Provost.
  • One such occasion involving the construction of an elite housing development in St. Petersburg drew the attention of Transparency International. After a request for the General Prosecutor and the Ministry of Education and Science to investigate Litvinenko’s activities, no wrongdoing was found.

Ведомости, Как руководитель предвыборного штаба Путина стал миллиардером, Светлана Петрова, 24 июля 2017 г.


Novaya Gazeta: What Is Our Life? Yugra.

  • Novaya Gazeta journalist Roman Shleinov writes that giving preferential treatment to state-owned companies and state actors is not enough to save you from bankruptcy when the financial situation worsens.
  • The Khotin family, who became rich at the turn of the millennium through investing in real estate and the industrial sector, suffered such a fate when their bank Yugra was forced into administration by Russia’s Central Bank due to financial difficulties.
  • Shleinov writes that Russia’s General Prosecutor protested against the decision of the Central Bank but to no avail, if only to delay the process enough to allow the bank’s owners to recoup a portion of lost earnings. The unusual behavior of the General Prosecutor suggests that the Khotin family has a close circle of associates in the halls of power.
  • The Khotin family, originally from Belarus, moved to Moscow in 1997 and plied their trade in the real estate market. After buying an oil company with a dubious past, Ural Energy, the family received continuous loans from state banks and preferential export duties. They renamed the company “Dulisma”.
  • This preferential treatment stems from the fact that the Khotins have “friends in high places”. Evidence suggests that Sergei Mironov, former speaker of Russia’s Council of the Federation, and Nikolai Patrushev, former head of the FSB, have both played a part in prolonging Dulisma’s favorable export duties.
  • However, when the real estate market subsided and oil prices plummeted, no high-ranking state connection came to the rescue, and Yugra was forced into administration.
  • Shleinov notes that others have suffered a similar fate, most notably Ziyad Manasir, the former head of Gazprom, who was forced to abandon his construction company and cease being a major Gazprom contractor after his state-associated connections did not lift a finger to save his dying business.
  • The author concludes that state actors, such as those who collaborated with the Khotin family during times of economic prosperity, can only solve difficult problems when there is sufficient money. They are incapable of remedying situations when funds have expired.

Новая газета, Что наша жизнь? «Югра», Роман Шлейнов, 24 июля 2017 г.