Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation, sat down with Alexandr Morozov during his recent visit to Washington, D.C., to talk about Russia’s political system and future, the impact of sanctions against its elite, and the changes taking place in Russian society.
“Putin is not going to change the constitution [to get rid of term limits],” says Morozov, while also ruling out the creation of a Chinese-style state council that would allow Vladimir Putin to rule for life as its head. It is more likely that Putin will find a successor, he says, a young and loyal bureaucrat – not someone from the old guard. “Whatever position Putin is in, he will remain the real shareholder of this political system,” says Morozov, adding that whoever becomes Putin’s successor will lack any political independence.
During the intermediate period of 2008-2012, when power was temporarily handed over to Dmitry Medvedev, there were hopes he would offer an independent alternative. But post-2014 Russia is very different, says Morozov. The annexation of Crimea and growing tension with the West has led to a strong mobilization of the Russian society, and Putin’s successor will face resistance to any kind of change from the entire establishment. “Therefore, Putin has a simple scheme ahead of him – in 2024 he can transfer power to someone else, and then later return,” Morozov says.
Yet Russia is no longer dependent on a particular leader such as Putin, says Morozov, as society has fully accepted the underlying system of governance. Russia’s political system has deteriorated into a form of Eurasian autocracy, says Morozov, something is seen in Central Asia and Azerbaijan. This system can go on in perpetuity since any change in the system would require completely remaking many fundamental issues.
Any attempt to reform the system from within is perceived as subversive by society itself, which has come to terms with various constraints, says Morozov. “This is not the Kremlin pressuring society, as it was before 2014 when the Kremlin was manipulating various social groups to hold them in subjection. This is no longer a problem for the Kremlin – the submission of society is completely voluntarily.”
The West is no longer a model
Russian society no longer sees the West as its political, social or cultural model, as it did 20 years ago. “It has not become an enemy of the Russian people in the full sense of the word,” says Morozov, “but it has crumbled in their minds.” Many ordinary Russians have been to Western countries and they have come to believe that the Western way of life is just one model – not a superior one – while Russia and other non-Western countries have their own models. And similar to Erdogan’s Turkey, those who disagree can leave, and the rest of society will carry on.
The new system is not simply the result of a post-Crimean mobilization. Putin has been successful during his previous terms and during the recent election in providing a comfortable social contract to the main societal groups. For example, in Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation address on March 1, it was clear to millions of people employed in the infrastructure and construction industries that a vote for Putin would bring good employment opportunities and incomes for them and their families in the coming years. The same goes for the military and defense industry, where millions of people work, and the agricultural sector, which expects growth as a result of sanctions and import substitutes. Meanwhile, the elderly are given pension increases, the younger generation is given the opportunity to get involved in urban development, and young bureaucrats are given career prospects in public service. The dissatisfactions and tensions among different societal groups – inherent to any society – have therefore been successfully managed by the Kremlin through these various promises.
Whether there are enough resources to fulfill the election promises is another question, but society has taken the offer.
The younger generation and the Russian opposition – any hope for change?
The younger generations, who grew up not knowing any other leader than Putin (and nominally Dmitry Medvedev), are very patriotic and it appears they would rather have a “young Putin” than a new political system. There is no evidence or data from social research that shows that the new generation wants to radically reform the political and social system, says Morozov. By voting for Ksenia Sobchak, they are just voting for someone younger, yet essentially still a representative of the same system. And many probably see a “younger Putin” in Alexei Navalny, too.
“Young people expect that they will be co-opted, that the politics will be inclusive of them, and that Putin’s establishment will give them a chance in life,” says Morozov. He notes that many people in their thirties and forties hold key positions in government, and those in their twenties expect to have career opportunities. Putin’s bureaucrats are undergoing a rapid rejuvenation, says Morozov, and this is very different from Brezhnev’s era when regional and federal officials were all in their sixties and seventies.
Meanwhile, the Russian opposition is often accused of not being able to reach an agreement among themselves, says Morozov. He finds that the main problem is that the ideas of liberal values that originated in the 1990s have exhausted themselves, and not only in Russia. Across Europe, for example, the leaders of Velvet Revolutions are in the minority, says Morozov.
An additional challenge for the Russian opposition is competing with the promises Putin makes to society and coming up with an alternative to Putinism. This is something Alexei Kudrin and his Center for Strategic Research have been working on: trying to convince some of Putin’s bureaucrats that even minor changes could achieve some kind of development towards democracy and freedom. Yet the anti-Putin movement in Russia is very small and “can only fight for self-preservation,” says Morozov. The Putin opposition in Russia and abroad must come up with new ideas for a transition – it is no longer enough to say we propose a European model of development, says Morozov. “For example, there has to be changed in the military, which employs 4 million people. If they say they want to change, then something can significant happen.”
Sanctions on the mafia state
Morozov says sanctions are important, as they have a clear goal: the West wants Putin to end his interventionism abroad and his propaganda. However, sanctions have little impact on internal politics. They do not seem to have worked on ordinary people, who are convinced that Russia is on the defensive against the West. The Kremlin’s propaganda has worked well; it has persuaded all levels of Russian society, including the well-educated, that if the West imposes sanctions, it is an act of economic war against Russia and Russian companies.
There is no reason to expect that this will split the elites, says Morozov. In the last ten years, there has been a transformation within the so-called “oligarchat”. Those who oppose Putin have left Russia, and those who have stayed are deeply co-opted in the system. “They have made their choice,” says Morozov, “they must carry their fate to the end with Putin.”
Putin’s Russia is essentially a mafia state, says Morozov. It is organized in a similar way, with Putin’s underlings enjoying relative freedom, so long as they don’t challenge the leader. This does not necessarily mean that Putin is always aware of or agrees with all the activities of the various factions, but he is their guardian. If Putin had clearly stated that he would investigate one incident or another and that the perpetrators would be punished, there might not be such a big problem, says Morozov. But Putin defends everyone connected to Putinism.
This became especially clear after the shooting down of the Malaysian Boeing in 2014, and since Crimea, there seems to have been other groups that have carried out “uncoordinated” actions. Morozov says, “Putin believes that the West is waging a war against him, and Russia is certainly in a weaker position militarily and economically.” This is the basis, in Putin’s mind, for legitimizing the activities of those who are part of his system, even when he does not approve of their actions. According to Morozov, Putin and the Security Council of Russia frankly believe the Boeing was shot down accidentally, that Skripal’s poisoning is a provocation against the Kremlin, and that the recent chemical attack in Syria did not happen and is being used as a pretext by the West to intervene in Syria.
What else could the West do?
Firstly, says Morozov, the West could ramp up sanctions, so Russia would focus on its internal affairs and development instead of malign activities abroad. Sanctions should also be imposed on companies – and there are around 20 of them – that are involved in recruiting mercenaries in Russia for activities in Ukraine and Syria. Furthermore, sanctions should be brought against journalists who actively generate Kremlin propaganda on Russian state TV and against organizations which co-opt Western politicians to advocate the Kremlin’s views. The latter leaves the impression in Russia that the West shares the Kremlin’s views, thus strengthening propagandistic messages.
It is also important to support groups of Russian intellectuals who might provide the answer to Russia’s future. There is also a need for closer monitoring of human rights abuses in Russia, perhaps through the creation of new institution, since Russia’s nuclear capability and UN membership means it should be under greater scrutiny and pressure.