CRCE Briefing Paper
Political Opposition, Youth and the Future of Democracy in Russia
Based on a talk by Luke March, June 2007
Price for print edition: £7.50
About the Author
Luke March is currently Senior Lecturer in Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics at Edinburgh University. His main research areas are: Russian and Moldovan politics; Soviet and post-Soviet politics; the radical left in Europe; democratisation (specifically political parties, electoral politics and institution-building); communism and nationalism. He is currently writing a book on the radical left parties in Europe.
Recent publications include: 'The Contemporary Russian Left after Communism: into the Dustbin of History?', Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics December 2006; 'Security Strategy and the "Russia Problem" ', in Roland Dannreuther and John Peterson (eds.); Security Strategy and Transatlantic Relations (Routledge), 2006; 'Power and Opposition in the FSU: the Communist Parties of Russia and Moldova', Party Politics, Vol. 12, No. 3. 2006.
The Constitution of the CRCE requires that its Trustees and Advisers dissociate themselves from the analysis contained in its publications, but it is hoped that readers will find this study of value and interest.
First published June 2007
© Luke March & Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies.
All Rights Reserved
Political Opposition, Youth and the Future of Democracy in Russia
Tomasz Mickiewicz: I read Luke's biography with interest, and in fact did further research which revealed that many colleagues in my department use Luke's publications on Russia. It is a pleasure for me to hand him the floor to speak.
Luke March:The subject is very topical, possibly for all the wrong reasons. You may well be aware that many analysts and politicians within Russia have talked about the death of public politics during the Putin era. Particularly since the 2003 elections, when the opposition parties were routed in the Parliament, there have been visible signs of this death. Every day over the past few weeks the western press has reported new examples of restrictions of freedom. I can think of many, one of the most fanciful was the Moscow City Duma passing a law in April, restricting the number of people allowed to take part in political rallies to two per square metre. The end of public politics will remain a hot issue for the elections in 2007/2008.
The other side of this issue is youth organisations. For some time it looked as if every day would bring a new youth organisation, particularly in the aftermath of the August 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. It seemed for a while that revolution could be a possibility in Russia. Youth organisations were seen as heralding a change in Russian politics, and politics were more on the streets. Much has been reported in the press about this, and it is usual for us academics to lambaste the press for being one-sided. There is a certain sense that this happened in the Litvinenko case last year - a rush for judgement. However, I am not going to say anything terribly controversial: opposition in Russia does exist, but publicly is becoming increasingly restricted. We have to look behind the scenes for any real opposition. Although I am going to be very critical of Russia, I wish to add a caveat: I come from the University of Edinburgh, and you may be aware that we have just had our own very controversial election in Scotland, with seven percent of the population being disenfranchised by incorrect ballot papers. I wonder what the OSCE would make of this! The difference is that, in Scotland, the incumbent authorities lost a very competitive election and – despite the ruined ballot papers – the result did reflect public opinion. I do not think you can expect an election in Russia in the next few months to be anything like as competitive.
We are going to consider the main sources, weaknesses and prospects of opposition in Russia. I was asked earlier whether I was pessimistic or optimistic for the future of Russia. I think there is a chink of light, but I have to say the likely developments are on the pessimistic side. I will raise the youth organisations as a potential outlet for public frustration, but I think one can safely say the Kremlin has been better at organising counter-movements to the youth opposition than the youth has at organising anything likely to challenge for power. So, why is opposition so weak? We can distinguish structural factors, long-term factors and the role of Putin personally, as well as the role of the opposition itself.
We can talk about a 'floating party system', or an 'hourglass society', with parties at the top and society at the bottom. Parties are not connected closely to their constituencies, and party labels have very little meaning in reality. The most famous example of this is the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, fascist or populist, call it what you will, but certainly not liberal, democratic or even truly a party. Institutions are a factor. An awful lot has been written about Boris Yeltsin lately, with generally benign views of him in the West. I would like to point out that a lot of the problems began with the institutions he set up in 1993, which restricted the organisation of opposition within the political system. It has been called an anti-oppositional regime, with the president sitting above politics as the father of the nation. Parties cannot really affect public policy directly; the president selects the key figures of the government and prime minister, and presidential appointment has grown in importance over time.
You have to say that none of this would matter if Putin were not genuinely popular, and electoral studies have proved that the basis of his support is really there. I use the terms, 'left-patriotic consensus', 'Moscow consensus' and 'quasi-centre'. These mean that, compared to the period in the 1990s when things were very polarised, we now have a real centrist consensus over certain issues, which Putin is very good at representing. That is a strong Russia position, supporting Russia's interests over western interests, a preference against foreign interference and an end to revolutions. The 'Moscow consensus' is the opposite to the 'Washington consensus', asserting that Russia will look after its own political change, which will continue within the framework of the country's own traditions. If you look at the trends in party voting over the last ten years, you will see support for the extremist parties has declined, including the Liberal Democratic and Communist parties. We see a Centre standing for the broad consensus of values, although it seems an open question to me to what degree this is manipulated rather than autonomously created. Putin does stand for a lot of things that Russians really want, bearing in mind the terrible experiences many remember during the period of the liberal reforms of the 1990s, but that is not to say we have not had a massaging of the figures on occasion, or the exclusion of those who think differently from the political process.
Putin's effect is amorphous and omnivorous; to start off with he was a blank sheet, and he is very capable of representing the consensus opinion and tacking to deal with opposition. People have said that to a liberal he can look like a liberal, in terms of supporting liberal economic reforms; to a communist he stands up for a respectful attitude to Russian history, as we have seen recently in his dealings with Estonia, and his tone with the elite that the memory of the great Soviet power is sacred. This is a manipulative approach, leading my colleague Andrew Wilson to talk of 'virtual politics'. A lot of parties are called project parties, and there is a plethora of words to describe these; 'flies' being one of my favourites. They are parties created from above with the intention of them buzzing around the heads of the opposition. Every time there is a strong opposition, we see a number of parties with very similar programmes being set up, not to win power, but to siphon off one or two percent from the real opposition.
There is an increasing amount of administrative interference – much more blatant now is the removal of political parties from ballots, tightening of registration rules, etcetera, and generally we are talking about patrimonialism not programmes, whereby who you know is a lot more important than a coherent policy position. It is worth reiterating again that the main party losers in 2003 were parties in the western sense. Liberal parties did not get into parliament and the Communist party lost half of its vote; these are parties with a clear position in terms of ideology and social support. The winners were the amorphous parties, the so-called parties of power who stood for things such as 'Just Russia' and 'United Russia'. You cannot disagree with that. Do you want an unjust or disunited Russia? One must acknowledge that the infrastructure, the social support for parties and the opportunities they have at state level have been much more important than the leadership of the parties. Most of the opposition parties have been appallingly badly led as well. The Communists are a complete charisma vacuum, constantly re-electing the same man, who intends to be 'the bridesmaid, not the bride'. This is a permanent state of affairs. The liberal parties are even worse, exhibiting a complete failure to unite, in many respects for ideological reasons, but they compound this with terrible leadership. Nothing could have damned the main liberal party – the Union of Right Forces – more than their campaign of 2003, which showed them flying around Russia in their private jets, using high-tech laptops and phones. Contrast this with the population's memory of the reforms of the 1990s, and it is obvious that this shows a complete lack of any popular touch.
I now want to look at opposition today. The Communists are there, and are a factor. They have recovered since 2003, and recent elections show them polling at 15 percent rather than 12 percent. They are likely to make it into the next parliament, and still have a national network. There are reasons for this that I am not 100 percent sure about myself. We could think that the political desires of the electorate are socialist, desiring state paternalism and social support from the welfare state. This has always been one of the reasons the Communists have done well and, in many ways, should have done better. The economy is improving, but 20 to 30 percent remain under the poverty line. The Communist Party is one of the few that can criticise the Kremlin, partly because the Kremlin does not care, knowing they will never win a presidential election. Andrew Wilson from SSEES put it very well, saying that the Kremlin is quite content 'to keep the Communists in their box'. They have their niche, get elected to the Duma, but their glory days are long behind them and they keep worse scenarios out. If the Communists were not in the Duma, something a lot less manageable could take their place. The party still says today the same things as ten years ago. One of the differences is that this has become mainstream, and it no longer differs much from Putin's rhetoric.
More interesting is the attempt to create a new left-wing party, Just Russia. I think this is a party to watch closely as we approach the next election. It is the culmination of ten years of the Kremlin trying to create a stable two or three party system, to make the system more comprehensible to the voters and manageable for the authorities. This is the distillation of 40 or so parties down to three or four, and it is likely we will get four at most in Parliament next time round. This party is an amalgamation of pre-existing parties, and is not the most catchily named; its real name is 'Just Russia/Motherland/Pensioners/Life'. There is a joke that says the life of pensioners in the Motherland is really nothing to boast about. It came third in the March regional elections, with around 11 percent of the seats. This was creditable considering most of the electorate does not really know what it stands for. It is possible that, over the coming months, exposure will make a difference as it is headed by the Speaker of the Federation House (the Upper House of Parliament), a Putin loyalist. It is an opposition party that claims to oppose the government and some socio-economic reforms, but supports Putin. It is a curious phenomenon. It may do well as it represents elements of the elite, and will contribute to the debate on who will succeed Putin. It is not clear how it fits in, but it represents one wing of the machinations. People have suggested it may represent the security forces: people who stand for the more anti-western trajectory that Putin has followed lately.
Boris Kagarlitsky, a fairly astute observer of Russian politics, says, 'the party is still indistinct, devoid of ideas and principles and has no social base, activists or allies; in fact it has no policies at all. But its suitability as an ideal vehicle for bureaucratic intrigues and squabbles between competing careerists seems to be underpinning its growing success'. There is a little bit more to it than this; there is still the question why people go out and vote for it. Some of the conflicts in the regions have been fierce, and it is possible that we will see elections more similar to those in 1999 than 2003, when there was a split in the elite over who was to succeed Boris Yeltsin, with two pro-regime parties competing closely. The Parliamentary election was very bitter and dirty, and we could see this again.
The Union of Right Forces is the only real liberal party that may possibly do well. This is due, at least in part, because it has ditched much of its liberalism. In the March regional elections it did surprisingly well, winning over seven percent of the vote in every area it stood, which would be enough to get into Parliament next time. In 2003 it did not get in, and this was quite rightly seen as a crisis for western liberalism in Russia. One of the reasons for this potential change is the new younger leader who is quite an astute strategist. He is critical of the direction Russia is taking and the restrictions on freedom, but is very careful not to condemn Putin directly and has distanced the Party's official leadership from recent protests even though someof its activists took part. Support from leading liberals in higher echelons of the current regime and the running of a campaign designed to portray the Party as having turned to the left, with left-wing slogans and talk about social protection, have also aided this increased popularity.
Actual voting figures indicate that four parties are likely to win seats in the Duma in the forthcoming elections. It is not looking particularly good for any party other than the pro-regime United Russia. The only other party that will almost certainly win seats is the Communist Party, which is only to be considered an opposition in a limited sense. There is some scope for surprise; I am aware that some commentators predicted the last election would be boring, and in fact it did produce some surprises.
I will now talk about youth participation, and many of the points are supported only by circumstantial evidence. There are many reasons why the current and future developments involving youth groups may be quite significant. People are talking about the importance of a change in generation in Russia, with those educated and working under Soviet rule beginning to leave the scene. Younger people coming into the political scene are entering with no real memory of the Soviet political system. Circumstantial electoral evidence indicates a growing demand for an alternative, and a greater propensity for protest although this remains marginal, increasing from 18 percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2007. Discontent used to be expressed by the 'none of the above', which used to be quite high, but this was abolished and we do not know the effects of this. Internet and communication technologies play a role, with a growing number of political blogs and over 20 percent of the population having access to the internet. This is increasing very fast.
The short-term factors are important, with the sense that the only politics is on the street. Activists have said that they are forced to demonstrate in a way that did not occur before, as the politicians are not listening to anything else. There is the 'Orange' influence, referred to as the 'Orange virus' by those friendly with the Kremlin. The 2004 revolution in Ukraine excited many in opposition about the possibility of something similar happening in Russia, and there was a policy of attempting to learn from this. Then there was a reaction from the Kremlin creating many anti-Orange groups, which in turn created more pro-Orange groups, starting a process of radicalisation. Welfare reform and the monetisation of benefits that went disastrously wrong inspired further waves of autonomous protest in 2005. This did give a sense that not everything was under the Kremlin's control.
The opposition on the street has recently been in the media due to the activities of a group known as Another Russia or Other Russia, an amalgamation of many other groups – a very motley crew including liberals, communists, and quasi-fascists. Its composition does mean it has rather limited popular appeal because one of the biggest rivals is the quasi-fascist National Bolshevik Party, which has toned down its rhetoric in recent years. Rather symptomatically the leaders are not that young, although many of the members are, and this is a very complex, contradictory group. Its principle spokesman is Garry Kasparov, the former chess Master, who is a great deal more popular in the West than he ever has been or will be in Russia, and is certainly linked with the USA security community. He was a member of the National Security Advisory Council, and appeared on their website until quite recently, when this was picked up by the press. The potential presidential candidate is a former prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, although whether or not he would ever be able to register as a candidate is open to question. He is clearly not an appealing candidate as he is still known for the two percent cut he allegedly took from deals as prime minister and he gains about six percent of the vote in polls, although some people say the way the Kremlin deals with the opposition could become counter-productive and could induce people to vote for the 'victim', possibly allowing him to get up to 20 percent. I would have thought this is unlikely.
The Vanguard of Red Youth is the only real communist youth group but, like the National Bolshevik Party, is more focused on throwing tomatoes and chaining members to railings than pursuing the militant tactics their image projects – its symbol is a Kalashnikov.
Also interesting are the so-called 'Orange' groups. These were modelled on the parties that had success in 2004 in Ukraine, and were around in 2005, but have now mostly been absorbed by the Other Russia coalition, and are pretty much non-functional. Another youth group worth mentioning is the youth wing of Yabloko, a liberal party that is likely to challenge for seats in the Duma in the next election. Their leader, Ilya Yashin has laid much groundwork for an anti-Putin campaign by stirring up peoples' ideologies and aiming to force free and fair elections next time around. No demonstration is complete without a smattering of young Yabloko activists, be they 20, 50 or at most a few hundred.
The Kremlin's counter-mobilisation has been much more effective. There is a profusion of groups, many of which have been prominent in acting against Estonia in the last few weeks, protesting outside the Estonian Embassy and perhaps leading the cyber-attacks. The Young Guard Movement is the youth wing of United Russia, the pro-Putin party. One can see an evolution of these groups; this started off as a group called Young Unity and Bear Cubs a few years before, with a specific remit on organising the youth wing of that particular party, and has since taken on an anti-Orange emphasis. It has been responsible for organising a demonstration of about 15,000 people in Moscow on the occasion of the April Dissenters march – organised by those opposed to Putin. Other groups include Young Russia, with a clear stop-NATO emphasis, and the much bigger Nashi, which means Our People. Nashi is most visibly and closely tied to the Kremlin. Similarities have been drawn with the Nazi parties, and this can be seen in some of the symbols, but paradoxically it sees itself as anti-fascist. It is most definitely anti-Orange, and talks of being able to mobilise 200,000 people in the event of an Orange-style revolution. There is discussion of whether this group is linked to football hooliganism. There are many other groups, some extremely nationalistic and racist, others less so.
Without addressing the question of desirability of an Orange-style revolution in Russia given the knowledge of what is happening in Ukraine, I will say I do not see this happening, at least for ten or 15 years. Then I could see something happening, not just despite the Kremlin's efforts but also because of it. With the recent tightening of the political system, the greater centralisation of power makes it much harder to deal with social discontent. Most of these youth movements are very small at the moment, varying in number of members from 50 to several thousand, and there is very little public knowledge of them so far – only ten percent of youth say they know about them. Russia is still a fairly apathetic place, and it will take a lot further to galvanise popular support, let alone action. Russia is in a very different position to that of Ukraine in 2004.
In conclusion, there is an increased tendency for the opposition to co-operate, new leaders are coming onto the scene, and a communist decline which may open up space for other opposition. This is likely to intensify on the street, but this will still be at a low level. There remain absolutely formidable barriers to the opposition, and you can really only talk about a coloured revolution in the context of an opportunity being provided from above. This is the chink in the armour, and Putin is very aware of it, and so will delay the selection of his successor to the last possible minute. Opposition to the Orange revolution has been a tactic of Putin's regime, and many have suggested that Estonia has been demonised recently to provide a focus against which the people can unite. In the 1996 elections the communists were the enemy, 1999 was the terrorist threat in Chechnya and 2003 the oligarchs. It is shaping up to be Orange forces and westernisation in this election, but there are limits to the extent Russia could, or should, want to go down that route.
Extracts from the Question and Answer Session
Audience Member: Would you say something about the historical interventions of the West? Is there anything that the West can usefully do anymore, or would our actions more likely be counter-productive?
Luke March: The problem is that in the 1990s we, the West, completely lost our leverage, for reasons that were not altogether our fault. Maybe hindsight distorts our impressions of the options we could have taken. Overt interference in an election campaign is the subject of substantial debate. I tend to be on more on the interventionalist side than many, as I believe our values are of greater importance than our interests in maintaining good relationships with Russia, and the more that Russia projects its influence beyond its own borders, the more we risk being affected by it. China is a different situation, as it is far further away and we are largely able to turn a blind eye to issues that do not affect our trading relationship. I think a more robust defence of our values, and an explanation of their importance should be provided. It is a difficult balancing act; if we decided to remain uninvolved in Russian internal politics, the long-term effects could be counterproductive for us in terms of the direction in which Russia moves. Russia, however, has become very adept at providing counter-arguments that seem very persuasive; democracy has to evolve; sovereign democracy should be respected; the West's countless examples of falling below the standards they expect others to attain.
In a way, I feel encouraged by Angela Merkel, as I feel we need a common EU response. Quite how this would be achieved is another question, and we must ensure we are not in needless confrontation with the Russians. There must be some balance. I have been reading about the events in Estonia, and it is clear to me that Russia has over-reacted there. But, if you consider the long-term perspective, there is an issue that has been buried about the way Russians are disenfranchised in the country. To an extent, this can be said to be irrelevant as it is not the issue the Russian authorities are protesting about and Russia may have exerted its influence there anyway. EU policy in this area has always struck me as an anomaly, and could have been far more effective and given Russia far fewer issues. The foreign policy of certain western governments in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001 has been used by Russia to justify its own actions. This must not be used as a reason to give up and decline to argue for democracy. We should be more persistent in arguing that democracy is useful not just because it is one of our fundamental values, but also because it can resolve many issues. For example, the next election transition might be easier for the Kremlin if they had a more stable connection to their population (for example through stronger political parties). A much more robust and consistent approach from the EU, whatever decision is reached, would disallow Russia from playing one country off against another.
Audience Member: How do you go about your research? It was always very hard to research political opposition in the Soviet era, and to some extent we are returning to the same situation under Putin. You are not likely to read in the press how close to the Putin regime particular parties are, so how do you find out this kind of information? Have we been forced back to having to adjust opinion polls in order to move closer to the expected 'real' opinions? Do you feel happy about the possibility of doing this kind of research?
Luke March: We are almost back to that. One thing we have not talked about is the succession, but that is to some degree 'Kremlinology', and I prefer not to get involved with that. Media is limited, but a saving grace is that the internet in Russia is still relatively free, although the cacophony of voices makes it very hard. In collecting information, one constantly has to balance sources from official and unofficial media. Even basic facts are not known. For example, what is the membership of any political party? This is something that anyone can find out in the UK, but in Russia the figures will vary by half a million depending on which source you consult.
It is very important to know where information comes from, and to take information from as wide a range of sources as possible. The electronic and official media are not always inaccurate. I think most people researching this area would admit to being very unhappy about the quality of the data available, and the fact that the majority of it is not verified. Andrew Wilson is right about virtual politics, inasmuch that even the facts about politics are not always known. We are not completely back to where we were, as there are sources of information available to researchers not necessarily available to the rest of the population.
Audience Member: Do you think there is any significance in Dmitry Rogozin's nationalistic idea of a 'Great Russia' party? Could that add to the unpredictability of the forthcoming electoral scene?
Luke March: I do think nationalism could be a factor. It is interesting the way that the re-launch of Just Russia has tried to exclude the exclusively nationalist streaks. Although Rogozin is a member of the parliamentary faction, he is not influential in that party. I think a niche for nationalism is there, and the question is whether there is space for it within the Liberal Democratic Party, which has tended to play more on the left-wing front lately. In certain circumstances, this party could enter the Duma. The complicating factor here is - if past practices are anything to go by - satellite parties will form around the main ones. This is sometimes simply to take them down a peg or two, sometimes as a safeguard against extremism. I would not want to predict how far this will develop, but I think it is an indication that the elite is a lot less united. Either you see the rise of nationalism as part of some great plan, or this is part of some individuals' interest within the grouping. I tend to favour the latter suggestion. Part of the problem is the Communist Party, which has all the while defended nationalism and the great Stalinist state values. I could see nationalistic ideas could play a role, but it should be noted that support amongst the electorate is still in single digits.
Audience Member: One of the most interesting Russian political scientists I know is Olga Kristanovskaya, and I wonder if you have seen her new book on the Russian political elite. She recently gave an interview to a Russian weekly and was asked how she felt about the country's future. She said she was convinced that, for the next 40 years, the KGB would run Russia. Do you think she is a reliable commentator on the Russian political scene.
A second point: I talk to a number of people who work in and around Whitehall, and I find I am in a very small minority in considering Russia to be a real potential threat to the interests of the United Kingdom. The majority believes that it does not matter to those of us outside Russia and the Russian political system, what happens there as she is no longer a potential danger to us. I think Russia, whether she becomes stronger or weaker, does still present a danger. Is this a very eccentric view, and do you know anyone else who agrees with it?
Luke March: I do not know Olga Kristanovskaya personally, but have respect for her work. This does not necessarily mean that her prediction needs to be accepted. I think it is possible that, in 40 years, the FSB could still be in a position of power, and they will certainly not be in haste to give up the power they have at present. Russia is a soft authoritarian regime – maybe less soft if you live there, but I do not think the term dictatorship is helpful – that has gradually shifted to this position from semi-democracy under Boris Yeltsin. Authoritarian regimes can last for years, but they can crack in a moment. I tend to see the Russian regime as, in many ways, very fragile. The failure to command direct support from the electorate for modernisation and reform is a constant of Russian history. This has led to a form of permanent revolution from above, and a cycle of reform and reaction occurs because the state is not flexible enough to develop in a consensual way.
The stability of the state depends to a great extent on Russia's economic growth, linked closely to hydrocarbon prices, which will not stay the same forever. This FSB dominated regime could last 40 years but, equally, I see scope for fundamental change within ten – although not necessarily to democracy.
I do not like to think in terms of Russia being a danger. There is definitely a camp within the US that would like to consider Russia as a Cold War threat, even if such a threat did not exist. However, I think over the last two or three years we have reasonable cause to consider Russia a potential threat to the political systems and economies of this country and other European states. Russia has become increasingly assertive, and has values (at least at the elite level) that differ so fundamentally from ours. This does not mean a new Cold War, but I do not think the concerns over security of gas supply are greatly exaggerated. The shocking thing about Alexander Litvinenko's murder, whether or not you consider the higher echelons of the Kremlin to be responsible, is the response of the Russian authorities, which acted as if they had something to hide. I believe we should treat Russia with caution, rather than as a danger.
Audience Member: Perhaps one of the reasons that Russia may be considered at threat, or at least needs to be considered with caution, is the loss of the West's leverage there. This may be because the West has decided that Russia does not matter so much any more, and has not encouraged people to study it very closely. The few people who do probably do not have the same access or influence within political circles as they used to. As a pointer to what is happening, in the BBC, which has broadcast to Russia for a long time, 60 years if I am not mistaken, World Service funding is now focused very heavily on the Arab World for obvious reasons. This has left the Russian Service and others in the region starved of funds. It has not been a government decision, but is a result of anti-terrorism policies. It seems to me that there may be more the academic community could do to highlight the problem.
Luke March: I could not agree more. I certainly know there is a pervading bias within political science for democratisation, and a sense of comparative studies downgrades the subject of Cold War history, which is reflected in the organisation of universities. We could also talk about of the shutting-down of Russian language centres in the 1990s and so on. There was a report from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1999 that talked about the state of Russian studies. I was very junior at the time, and hope I am not misrepresenting the outcome but, as I remember, it was concluded that Russian language should be studied and we needed more experts. The response was: 'There is no market for it'. I think the West simply ignored Russia with Boris Yeltsin at the helm. It was not seen as being important enough.
Audience Member: It seems to me over the decades we have paid far more attention to Russia than to our own subconscious attitudes to Russia; making the implicit assumption that all Russia's problems are home grown, and neither caused nor provoked by the outside world. After the fall of communism, I got the impression that, in Britain, there was little political or editorial interest in Russia in any sense other than it being a threat. This is a very unfortunate message to send and it is time to reconsider this attitude. In the 1990s we thought the Russians did not count, and now that they do, they are making up for lost time in exerting influence.
Luke March: There can be a knee-jerk reaction to Russia as a threat and, clearly, much of the press over the last two or three years – particularly concerning pipelines and Litvinenko – have portrayed the President as 'scary Mr. Putin'. I do think there is a tendency in the media to focus only on how Russia affects us, and treat it as the antithesis to Europe. There is body of opinion that considers Russia remains a threat. Generally, and certainly among my students, there is a real interest in Russia as a country, and not just because it is a big, scary place. It is a matter of balance. I do believe there is a basis for caution, especially towards Russia's hydrocarbon politics, perhaps extreme caution. There is a strong argument for saying Russia is becoming a threat, but that is different from assuming it beforehand. Many of the reasons are not just home-grown, and I noticed this a great deal in the discussion of Boris Yeltsin. My personal view was rather more critical than many expressed. There was some balance, but there was also a lot of euphoria, forgetting that he had been an absent president for the last four years of his tenure and disappeared for a week during his re-election campaign, as though these things would not have mattered.
Audience Member: Do you think there was an opportunity for Russia to succeed in becoming a functioning democracy after the fall of communism? If so, where do you think the responsibility for straying from that path lies; Gaidar's shock therapy; Yeltsin's appointment of Putin; Putin himself?
Luke March: There were possible alternative paths. It has to be said that things were far more difficult for Russia than any other state, in terms of the triple transition people refer to. It was not just an economic transition, but moving from an empire to a nation state and reorganising the polity also. The starting point and history made it likely that the transition to a free society would be difficult and, particularly in his first term, it could be said that Putin was the lesser evil. It was always predicted that there could be a fascistic reaction along the lines of Weimar Germany, and Putin looked to be a very mild form of reaction; although this is much less the case in his second term. It is difficult to pinpoint the cause, but one can suggest different things. The 1993 constitution is a cause of many problems but, looking back, it is not easy to ascertain whether Yeltsin could have done differently at the time considering the opposition he faced.
So, who lost Russia? It is very difficult to say. I do think the fact that Yeltsin set up the political system that Putin was able to exploit is omitted from much of the political discussion. There were not sufficient checks on executive power. There was legal chaos and the political institutions were shaped very much by individuals and so could take differing formats depending on the leader. Gaidar would say he was fighting fires but, if you were going to try and apportion blame which is not very productive now, I would see the failure being during the Yeltsin era. Putin, to some degree, is responding to the Russian electorate, and its memory of the trauma under shock therapy. That is why he is popular. Without Gaidar and his reforms, and the political institutions Yeltsin set up, Putin would not have been possible. Other options were possible, but I do think that the current trajectory had a certain element of inevitability about it, in terms of Russian history and the difficulties of transition, and was always the most likely scenario.