20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup, Nikolai Mironov discusses Russia’s left-wing political movement; Denis Volkov delves into the issue of the strive for change in Russian society; Grigory Golosov analyzes the reasons why not just dictators, but democratic leaders as well, rule for a long time; Andrei Pertsev comments on the intertwined nature of property and power in Russia; Ivan Lyubimov draws parallels between Russia’s economic situation and that of Venezuela. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov speaks at a press conference after his release. Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS.


RBC: The Left’s Crisis: Why the Russian Opposition Does Not Have a Social Agenda

  • As the leader of Russia’s Left Front movement Sergei Udaltsov was released from prison last week, political scientist Nikolai Mironov seizes the opportunity to discuss the country’s left-wing political movement.
  • The current economic situation in Russia is drawing attention to the need for center-left projects, but leftist politicians have too narrow interests and spend their time bickering and disagreeing with one another.
  • Mironov writes that, although the 2012 protests against Putin's re-election are associated with the liberal opposition, left-wing social groups played an influential role, and the popularity of left-wing parties such as the Communist Party and A Just Russia is high. It is therefore surprising that the left wing have failed to create a strong opposition movement.
  • Mironov attests that the left movement in the 1990s was diverse and could seemingly have provided a counterbalance to power. Fast forward to 2012, however, and formerly powerful trade unions and the labor movement have been replaced by a dominant Communist Party and disjointed radical leftist groups.  
  • After the mass protests on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow in 2011, the political left fractured and became embroiled in internal quarrels about the movement's ambitions. The focal point of the split in opinion was the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent war in Donbas.
  • Now, there is no single left front or movement. Hidden and narrow interests have disrupted the movement and stopped it from reaching the masses. The declining popularity of the Communist Party demonstrates that leftist entities can diagnose the country's problems, but are not ready to address them.
  • One of the problems of the left is its inability to achieve any form of political support in Russia’s regions and provinces, whose inhabitants have an utterly different agenda to their metropolitan counterparts and accuse the latter of intellectual snobbery.
  • Mironov concludes that the current state of the left wing will facilitate the emergence of new political groups and individuals. The question is how soon this will happen. The Russian government will do anything to oppose the new groups and may even turn to the left itself. However, it cannot fully reconstruct itself, which could provoke a mass swing to the left, revolutionizing the Russian political system.

РБК, Кризис слева: почему российской оппозиции не дается социальная повестка, Николай Миронов, 10 августа 2017 г.


Carnegie.ru: After Stability. What Changes Does Russian Society Want?

  • Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov delves into the striving for change in Russian society. Since 2014, public polls have indicated a steady increase in the number of Russians who really do want change in their country. Support for change in all socio-demographic groups does not fall below 40 percent.
  • Among the population’s socially vulnerable groups, desire for change is rife. 58 percent of the elderly and 60 percent of the poor responded positively to change. Conversely, only 46 percent of Muscovites supported reform.
  • Generally, the average voter sees an alternative to power among left-wing parties and populists. Democratic parties appear unable to find a common language with everyday Russians, and consequently lose support.
  • Meanwhile, most of United Russia’s electorate voted in favor of the “leave be” option, owing to either a profound disinterest in politics or the belief that only Putin can improve the lives of citizens.
  • Volkov writes that the majority of change advocates desire social reform instead of political change. Russians are primarily concerned with low wages, insufficient social benefits and job security. All other problems recede into the background.
  • Democratic rights and freedoms are low on the list of priorities for the majority of the population. Only 5-7 percent of Russians pay attention to the gagging of independent media.
  • Only 30 percent of respondents indicated that corruption is an acute social scourge, but high-profile corruption cases in Russia have tended to attract as much attention as the events in Ukraine in 2014-15.
  • However, it would be a serious mistake to lump all respondents into one camp, as the majority of the population has no holistic understanding of the desired course. Most respondents have no idea as to how to implement these changes.
  • The Levada Center has come up with plausible scenarios of change after discussions with many focus groups. They are: “Build within the existing structure,” “Do what’s necessary,” “What will be will be,” and “Leave be!”
  • Some democratically-oriented individuals argue that change will occur after a full rotation of power, which can only be facilitated by victory at the ballot box. Others believe that change is possible in the foreseeable future, but reject the possibility that incumbents will leave power voluntarily.
  • In some cases, respondents rejected the very idea of changing the bureaucratic system, while others believe that change will occur through the system’s complete self-destruction owing to economic problems or through civil war.
  • Whereas some suggest that change will occur slowly thanks to the development of civil society and public enlightenment, others hope that Putin will play the role of reformer. However, even Putin’s own supporters recognize that he cannot be influenced and forced into such a move.
  • Volkov concludes that half the country wants to see change, but the inability to influence the state of affairs and implement any kind of scenario is increasing the sense of despondency within Russian society, hence the rising reluctance to assume responsibility for the future.
  • Current public moods will not boost innovation and creativity needed to support economic growth, but they are sufficient to preserve the status quo.

Carnegie.ru, После стабильности. Каких перемен захотело российское общество, Денис Волков, 16 августа 2017 г.


Republic: It Isn’t All About the Length of Tenure. Putin Has Been In Power for Nearly 18 Years, But This Is Not the Main Problem

  • Political scientist Grigory Golosov analyses the reasons why leaders in dictatorships, and sometimes democracies, rule for a surprisingly long time.
  • Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia for over 17 years, but of the 19 countries whose leaders will soon overtake Putin’s length of tenure, there is not a single democracy.
  • Golosov argues that a long stay in power is, however, not completely incompatible with democracy: Franklin D. Roosevelt served as U.S. president for more than three terms, while Angela Merkel has led Germany for 12 years.
  • The personalization of politics is the main reason why leaders of modern democracies can and do stay in power for so long, according to the author. To win an election, one must connect with TV viewers on a personal level. And whereas opposition politicians must make special efforts to appear on TV, the incumbent rarely leaves TV screens for their tenure, so they are more likely to be re-elected.
  • This is a completely new phenomenon for modern democracy. Golosov argues that the personalization of politics has led to the misguided idea that power in any given state is nestled in the hands of one individual, and modern leaders perpetuate this myth.
  • Modern dictators manage the same feat through mimicking democracy and propaganda. Modern democracies contribute to this mass illusion.
  • Due to the personalization of politics, stays in power may grow longer in modern democracies. New political dynasties such as the Clintons are likely to emerge, and mass belief in omnipotent leaders will continue both on the back of their own statements and through the propagation of authoritarian regimes.
  • The fundamental difference between dictatorships and democracies lies in the fact that democratically-elected leaders have numerous and effective restrictions that render them unable to usurp power.
  • Golosov concludes that the tendency to personalize politics is natural, but contains risks to the existing order. The recent authoritarian transformation in Turkey and threats to democracy in Poland and Hungary attest to this.
  • However, restrictions on power still work in most democracies, and the anti-liberal trend is likely to be temporary.

Republic, Дело не в сроке. Путин у власти почти 18 лет, но это не главная проблема, Григорий Голосов, 11 августа 2017 г.


In Liberty: Poor Property 

  • Journalist Andrei Pertsev discusses the intertwined nature of property and power in Russia.
  • The case of Moscow’s recent renovation, in which the city administration decided to forcibly resettle more than a million city dwellers in high-rise apartment blocks against their wishes, demonstrates that the current understanding of private property contradicts the Russian Constitution.
  • Pertsev writes that some citizens still tacitly recognize the state as the chief property administrator. Those connected with power have greater property rights than ordinary citizens owing to their ability to pull strings.
  • In such a system, it is impossible to talk about the legality of obtaining property in a broad sense. It is not official income that counts, but power and position. On gaining power, the holders can increase property and prosperity for friendly firms by eliminating the competition.
  • The connection between wealth and position in the Russian hierarchy is usually characterized as neo-feudalism, except that property dependent on power is not inherited. If a person remains in the branches of power, he will retain his property. As soon as he falls from grace, however, his assets will be plundered and a new owner found.
  • Pertsev notes that this modus operandi can be traced back to Ivan the Terrible, and bears similarities to Stalin’s Russia.
  • Russian society recognizes the gaining of wealth by a person in power as semi-legal, meaning that wealth itself is automatically shameful. If a person lives well, it means that they have a murky past.
  • There are consequences of such a thinking pattern. Firstly, the normal state of affairs is buried in the Soviet mentality that those at the top are untouchable, even if the rest of the country lives poorly. Secondly, Russians are less and less willing to do business owing to a lack of protection from the law.

InLiberty, Несчастная собственность, Андрей Перцев, 4 августа 2017 г.


Vedomosti: Will Russia Follow in the Footsteps of Venezuela? 

  • Economist Ivan Lyubimov compares Russia’s economic situation to that of Venezuela, a country in political and economic turmoil due to a lack of economic diversification and reliance on the export of natural resources.
  • The diversification and complexity of the Venezuelan economy has not changed over the past 18 years. The slump in oil prices catastrophically reduced its export capability, and subsequently affected its imports, too.
  • The reduction in imports led to a humanitarian crisis resulting in a huge increase in the number of deaths, especially in infant mortality.
  • Lyubimov notes that traditional trade theory suggests that Venezuela should indeed focus on exporting oil without trying to use resources to create and maintain more complex industries in which the country has few comparative advantages.
  • However, the failure to find innovative ways to extract oil cost-effectively has led to a lack of sustainable development. In the past 15 years, diversification, not specialization, has been recognized as the most beneficial economic developmental strategy for developing countries.
  • Russia is in a similar predicament to Venezuela. An oil-producing country that relies heavily on oil and gas exports, Russian reserves have dwindled in recent years and price forecasts for natural raw materials are pessimistic. The economy needs to diversify, a question as of yet untouched by the authorities.
  • Current government policy revolves around substituting international imports with home-grown products for domestic consumption. The author argues that this policy is weak because such developments will not increase Russia’s stock in the global market.
  • This model offers scant opportunities for economic development and will not solve the problem of insufficient export diversification,  risking  a Venezuelan-style slide into chaos.
  • Lyubimov concludes that it is impossible to think of replacing all imports, as Russia does not have the required know-how. For export diversification to work, it is vital to encourage the successful export efforts of producers and leave behind those who cannot enter the global market.
  • As goods nowadays are increasingly produced jointly by several companies in several countries, Russia should focus on exporting parts and components, or on final product assembly.
  • This approach will make it possible to earn revenues worldwide, and Russian companies will learn from their international partners how to produce ever better parts and components. Unlike import substitution, such a strategy will avoid the need to reduce imports and consumption, as in today's Venezuela.

Ведомости, Пойдет ли Россия путем Венесуэлы, Иван Любимов, 14 августа 2017 г.