20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup: Oleg Bouklemishev explains why the Russian elite does not aspire to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos; Vladimir Pastukhov examines the evolution of Putin’s inner circle, arguing that today, the military holds a dangerous level of power; Alexander Kynev discusses Ksenia Sobchak’s and Alexei Navalny’s campaign strategies, each presenting a very different future; Vladimir Gelman details how the Kremlin sees the “digital revolution” as the missing link in ameliorating state management; and Lilia Shevtsova argues that instead of an imminent “reset” with the U.S., Russia should expect only a sharp downturn in the international sphere.


Russia House 2018 in Davos: this year Russia's delegation to the World Economic Forum was smaller in numbers and not quite impressive. Photo: Benoit Doppagne / ZUMA Press / TASS.


  1. Forbes Russia: Mutual Rejection: Why the Russian Leadership Does Not Aspire to Davos

  • Economist Oleg Bouklemishev explains why the Russian elite does not aspire to attend the 48th World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland this week: they are waiting for the publication of a new sanctions report from the U.S. Treasury.
  • The Russian delegation, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, is not very impressive—mostly forum regulars, i.e. leaders of state companies and large private businesses. The number of Russian participants is equal to that of the UAE.
  • The title of the forum, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World,” reflects widespread uncertainty about the future of international cooperation, and in particular the state of the relationship between Russia and the world community.
  • After more than three years of economic sanctions, doping scandals, and accusations of interference in foreign elections, the majority of Russians feel that their country is unfairly treated, preventing the continuation of old relationships and the initiation of new projects, while reigniting the dangerous mantra about a “special Russian way.”
  • As Russia waits for the U.S. Treasury’s new sanctions report, set to be published this month, there is talk that the country should abandon previous obligations (disarmament agreements, Basel III banking regulations, and the World Trade Organization) and withdraw from international organizations.
  • In the meantime, the Russian economy remains a hick town in the globalized world, with its GDP rate no more than half that of global economic growth. It is visibly state-controlled and does not reward efficiency. Despite the upcoming election, no presidential candidates are involved in Davos.
  • In conclusion, the author writes that the big questions for the international community—from global warming to digital healthcare—are not present in Russian official or public discourse. There are no Russian social entrepreneurs or young leaders participating at Davos, a sign that the honorable Russian stability has turned into stagnation.

Forbes.ru, Взаимное отторжение: почему руководство России не стремится в Давос, Олег Буклемишев, 23 января 2018 г.


  1. Republic: Protection of the Perimeter. The Danger of Replacing Putin’s Friends with Putin’s Commissars

  • Political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov examines the evolution of Putin’s inner circle, arguing that today, the military holds an increasing—and dangerous—level of power.
  • The majority in Russia and abroad believe that Russia is still run by a small group—“Putin’s friends.” Perhaps this used to be the case, but in recent years, the political influence of Putin’s inner circle has diminished.
  • After taking over from Yeltsin, Putin inherited an eclectic and almost uncontrolled state apparatus consisting of Soviet-style officials and newly-formed oligarchic groups. He then fought for his right to be a “sovereign” president, creating a parallel system of power made up of people personally devoted to him (a modern-day oprichnina).
  • Putin’s dependence on the oprichnina discredited his leadership, and as “the first among equals,” he had to endure their antics, greed, vanity, and insincerity. But more recently, Putin has shifted his attention toward garnering more support from the people as a populist leader, focused on bringing younger generations into the bureaucracy.
  • His inner circle will retain their wealth, but their political role will be minimized. Political decisions will be made increasingly where they should (in formal institutions of state power) as Putin replaces his spontaneous autocracy with an organized one.
  • Putin’s decisions now rely less on the personal struggle of various associates than on institutional rivalry within the bureaucracy. In a limited or absent democracy, the struggle for political dominance is one between power and civil bureaucracy.
  • This lines up with the cyclical nature of (indirect) political dominance over the past 100 years of Russian history, fluctuating between the army and the police. In more recent years, Pastukhov points to the rapidly growing role of the Russian military in making political decisions—this was not a consequence of the Crimean annexation, but its cause, he argues.
  • What does this all mean? The increasing role of the bureaucracy in general, and the military in particular, will lead not to liberalization, but to further isolationism, monopolization in the economy, tightening of politics, imbalances in social policy, and further militarization of the Russian public consciousness.
  • The organized (military) strength of the Russian bureaucracy is an even greater threat to Russia than the unorganized power of the corrupt inner circle. More conservative than the police, the military will spread a policy based on paranoia and impending war.
  • In conclusion, Pastukhov writes that the new Russia cannot begin where Putin and his friends end, but where a new type of thinking begins—Russia needs to rethink its place in the world, renounce its exclusivity, find a non-imperial existence, and make alliances that go beyond armies and navies. This path is larger than the struggle against “Putinism.”

Republic, Защита периметра. Чем опасна замена «друзей Путина» на «наркомов Путина», Владимир Пастухов, 23 января 2018 г.


  1. Republic: Boycott or Ghetto. The Symbolic Meaning of Elections for Liberals

  • Political scientist Alexander Kynev discusses Ksenia Sobchak’s and Alexei Navalny’s strategies and their short- and long-term consequences. While they may appear similar on the surface as democratic candidates, each presents a very different future.
  • Today’s democratically-minded Russian voters have two options: Navalny’s electoral strike or a vote for Sobchak, the most active of the registered democratic candidates.
  • Navalny translates liberal discourse into a language understood by the majority, using convincing examples to back up his rhetoric on freedom and justice. He tries to create a new majority with this language, which the current regime sees as a threat.
  • In contrast, Sobchak’s campaign does not try to create a majority, but mobilize the ultra-liberal minority. It is as if Sobchak has taken all of the state propaganda from the last few years to say, “Yes, we are exactly the kind of people who are ready to talk about this.”
  • Her campaign seems to present a democratic discourse, but without posing any real threat—it is the struggle for the right to live quietly in an electoral ghetto.
  • Navalny’s strategy of the new majority is the strategy of a real power struggle, which could gain political influence through parliamentary representation and accelerate social evolution. On the other hand, the strategy of mobilizing the minority means that there will be no real influence on the authorities or replacement of them for a very long time.
  • Kynev contends that Navalny is not a knight in shining armor for Russian politics, and Sobchak’s vote “against everyone” is only an illusion. But supporting one of these two candidates today is a vote to support the trend that will continue to dominate the democratic movement.
  • The author concludes by giving readers the following options:  support gradual liberal enlightenment and vote for Sobchak;  participate in Navalny’s boycott; spoil or destroy your ballot; or vote for a hopeless, but harmless also-ran. 

Republic, Бойкот или гетто. Символический смысл выборов для либералов, Александр Кынев, 25 января 2018 г.


  1. RBC: The Illusion of the Technocrats

  • Vladimir Gelman of the European University in St. Petersburg discusses how the Russian authorities see the “digital revolution” as the missing link in ameliorating state management, arguing that the revolution is in no way capable of improving its low quality.
  • The recent Gaidar Forum demonstrated that the future the Russian elite seems to be vying for is one in which state functions are reduced and regulated by standard algorithms based on best international regulatory practices.
  • Fifty-seven percent of voters at the forum considered online platforms the best mechanism for ensuring accountability in public administration, while only 11 percent view representative democracy in this light.
  • Gelman believes that this opinion is understandable—representative democracy in today’s Russia seems unrealistic to them, and public discussion of a transition to it is almost taboo. Many who experienced 90s-era democratization don’t want to repeat the past.
  • Technocratic reformers are thus searching for new methods. Without violating the political equilibrium, they strive to at least partially reduce the risks of long-term degradation and failures in management.
  • But for Gelman, the “digital revolution” isn’t a saving grace. Plus, the expected replacement of some officials with computer programs creates an attractive image of Russia’s future for many, while online-controlled platforms—unlike competitive elections—will not bring a threat to the political regime.
  • It’s also an outdated strategy. In the Cold War, bureaucrats attempted—and failed—to introduce “scientific and technical progress” in the USSR, trying to breathe new life into a stale management system.
  • The technocratic course also ignores the fact that the goals and priorities of the country’s leaders determine what direction the country’s development will take—the impact of technocrats is limited.
  • In sum, Gelman writes that the personalistic authoritarian regime that characterizes the contemporary Russian state is unlikely to create an environment that improves the quality of public administration. In fact, it could do the opposite—the “digital revolution” could bring about the legal consolidation of unlimited government in favor of its leaders.

РБК, Иллюзии технократов: что нужно российской власти от «цифровой революции», Владимир Гельман, 23 января 2018 г.


  1. Radio Liberty: The Lepers

  • Political expert Lilia Shevtsova analyzes recent developments between the U.S. and Russia, arguing that there will not be an imminent “reset”—only a sharp downturn for the Russian state in the international sphere.
  • To restore friendship between the U.S. and Russia, the Kremlin tried to create the Moscow-Washington axis in March 2017, providing “special consultations” on issues ranging from the situation in Ukraine to North Korean denuclearization. The Kremlin was discouraged when the U.S. rejected the initiative.
  • In July, Moscow tried yet again, offering a “mutual non-interference pact.” But instead, the U.S. slapped new sanctions on Russia and started preparing the “Kremlin Report.”
  • While there are unprecedented levels of dialogue between Washington and Moscow between Generals Curtis Scaparrotti and Valery Gerasimov, Kurt Volker and Vladislav Surkov, this does not mean that the U.S. is ready for a new “reset.”
  • For example, special prosecutor Robert Mueller is still investigating Trump to unearth the reason behind his sympathy for Putin, Trump subsequently was forced to send lethal weapons to Ukraine, and a recent report by the Democratic Party openly states that deterring Russia is their strategic task.
  • European politicians and officials are following in step with the Americans, protecting themselves from any suspicions of sympathy, let alone partnership with Russia. Journalists are looking everywhere for the “Russian trace.”
  • It’s not a reaction to the repressive nature of Russian power—China is no less authoritarian—but to Russia’s behavior on the international stage.
  • In the past, cooperation between the West and Russia brought dividends to both sides, but today, Western partners who have been involved with Russians have to pay fines for helping Russian clients launder money. Siemens and Daimler AG recently were implicated in corruption scandals, paying fines to U.S. controllers for bribing Russian officials.
  • The “collective West” has new rules for its game with Russia: it is not going to drive the Kremlin into a corner or collapse the regime, but deprive the country of modernization and financial resources leaving it with one possible scenario—decay. Moreover, the Russian elite does not care about the degradation of the country.
  • Seventy-two percent of Russians believe Russia remains a “great power.” But the result of the Kremlin’s foreign policy is to cause countries to shy away not out of reverence or fear, but disgust.

Svoboda.org, Прокаженные, Лилия Шевцова, 22 января 2018 г.