Putin Forever?

Oppression has Trained Russians to Prefer a Strong Hand; Analyst Nina Khrushcheva Does not Predict Change Soon

nina krushcheva

Nina Khrushcheva, author and great granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, was a fellow at the Insitute of Human Sciences in Vienna | Photo: Courtesy of N. Khrushcheva

 The month October was full of PR surprises from the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin. It started on Oct. 1, where while during a meeting of United Russia (Edinaya Rossiya), the pro-Kremlin party, Putin agreed to join the party and head its elections’ list.

Then on the 14th, Putin publicly rejected a suggestion to postpone his visit to Iran in spite of rumors of a plot to assassinate him there. Then, on the 18th, he held an annual public question-and-answer session. And during those three long hours, the word “successor” was never mentioned, either by the audience, or by the President.

And a couple of days later, in the Chechen capital of Grozny, a gathering of 20 thousand was held called “With the Russian President,” supporting the idea of a third presidential term for Putin. The Russian mass-media caught the ball and suddenly, everyone was talking about Putin’s decision to stay in politics. Obviously, the world is meant to believe that this is what Russia wants and needs.  Following the local media, there was hardly a day in October without at least one Russian public figure asking Vladimir Vladimirovich to stay on.

What are the options? Some talk of a referendum that would allow Putin to remain in office for the third term, which is as yet excluded under the Russian Constitution. There could also be unexpected changes in the Constitution. Or an alternative route by way of prime minister to a president who would retire early, allowing Putin to step into the presidency through the line of succession.  At the EU-Russia Summit in Portugal Oct. 25, President Putin confirmed publicly that the third term for him was out of question, suggesting that he does not want to challenge the Constitution in such a public way.

One thing is for sure, however. Russia will continue guessing and wondering about all those endless paths until the presidential elections in 2008, although the role Putin chooses may not really matter, we can be sure that his personal PR will grow stronger each day.

Nina Khrushcheva, Professor of International Affairs, The New School, New York, concluding a two month residency at the Institute for the Human Sciences in Vienna, spoke to the Vienna Review at the end of October.

VR: What are the most significant changes in Russian politics that you may point out for the period of the two Putin’s presidency terms?

NK: Let’s start with internal politics in Russia. The first and foremost change is that although the formal institutions of Russian democracy remain in place, the actual democratic content of these institutions has eroded considerably since 2000. Of course, there are courts working, and you can theoretically address your case to Strasbourg, but when it comes to the cases that may disturb the State positions, the courts rather turn to the State position instead of law. There are opposition media, but they face problems with distribution. So, you can not say that the whole system is absolutely authoritarian.

The improvement of economic situation and economic stability in the country is seen as an achievement of the Putin’s government. They say, the Russian people are starting to live better. I am not an economist, but this is the 21st century, and you can hardly call this a break-through factor in the modern world. The salaries are higher, but it is mainly linked to the oil and gas industry revenues. Plus, if you start to unravel the knot, you’ll see that most of the threads of improvement lead to the hierarchical power system established during Putin’s presidency.

And one more note on stability. Every country in the West has its problems; the political process develops one way or another, with or without public debate. But in a certain period of time there will be elections and there will be a new president in the state – and it does not matter whether you like the current government or not and that is what Western stability means as well. On the contrary, in Russia, stability means that the current president will remain in power despite the elections. Simply speaking, Russian people are not used to the idea that from time to time, changes happen.

In the international arena I honestly do not see any significant change achieved by Putin. There is good relationship established with the heads of state – but this can hardly be called Putin’s success. The Cold War ended a long time ago, and the current political agenda presupposes such an approach. Russia is respected for oil and gas and for its control over these resources. It would be much better if Russia were valued for positive developments instead of being recognized because of fear of awaited economic destabilization in the world.

For sure, Putin is a genius of the policies he represents, making people listen to him, although even if some country leaders might nod in response it doesn’t mean they follow or even agree with Putin.

VR: Putin’s Administration invented the term “sovereign democracy.” What does that mean to you?

NK: I believe there is only one democracy. There can be no different approach to the concept. At the Valdai Discussion Club, Putin noted that Russia must have a multiparty democracy, but it cannot exist without a strong president. “Managed [vertical] democracy,” as the Kremlin calls it, does not facilitate the future development of meaningful democratic practices and “horizontal” institutions of civil society.

VR: Speaking of civil society in Russia, what do you see as the main obstacle to its development?

NK: Civil society, as well as democracy, is a deliberate choice. Civil society presupposes that people have to act, participate in policy making process and public debate. Russians prefer to trust in a Tsar, the one who knows better if he says so. Plus there is an inner need, cultivated by years of tyranny, for a strong hand. People prefer to see the “father of all nations” instead of a manager as head of state.  On the other hand, people still suffer from Gulag syndrome. There is no Gulag-like oppression, obviously, but people continue to behave as if there is.

There is no need to frighten Russians; their mentality builds the cage better.

The illusion of relative freedom and opportunity that exists in Russia now seems to be enough for people. There is nothing to fight for.  You can earn money, you can travel, and there is a sense that the door to the world is open enough.  And you have the keys to this door. Just don’t forget to lock the door, when you come back. What I am saying is, that Putin gave people the keys to the door, instead of demolishing the very wall with this door in it, that stands between Russia and the outside world.

In 1973 Andrei Sakharov said that Russians depend on the system; they “consume” anything the system gives without choking. This does work now. The power structure thinks that Russians cannot decide for themselves. The worst thing is that the Russians think the same way.

VR: What important goals Putin has not achieved during his terms in office?

NK: The best thing he could have done would have been to stabilize the anarchical democracy established by Boris Yeltsin. Instead, Putin decided to turn the country into autocracy.

VR: Can you foresee any possible positive outcome for Russia?

NK: In the short term, no. The prospects for renewed democratization in Russia look very uncertain. I think, no matter in which capacity, Putin will remain powerful after the elections, although I would prefer to be wrong in this case.

One can notice that in Russia years of oppression are always followed by a democratic remission. Take Stalin era and Khrushchev’s ottepel (thaw). I do hope that in future the amplitude of this oppression-democracy pendulum would change, so that the periods of oppressive regimes would become shorter and the forces of internal modernization and international integration will become capable to finally push Russia in a democratic direction.

As history shows, while Russia will be spending time on these switches from one regime to another, the world will go further in its progress and the country will be left far behind again. Petr Chaadayev, the 19th century Russian philosopher, once said that Russians grow but do not mature; they move forward, not in a linear,  but a curvy fashion, with no goal in front of them.

VR: What are the ways available for you as a scholar to influence the public debate in Russia?

NK: I do not think public debate is really possible in Russia now. Political scientists are basically dismissed in Russia. I am not sure that those who write and analyze are heard. And we can not make people think. As you know, commenting the assassination of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Putin said that she was insignificant in shaping the society’s views. If she was insignificant, then who is significant?!

It is not all that dark. We still have the chance to write and be published. I will keep doing this for the foreseeable future. I hope that the time for the public debate will come. Otherwise, we will remain in a trap.

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