Valdai Club Experts on Russian Political Trends

Putin, and the conservative advisers he is currently listening to, have yet to show that they realize the scale of the political change that is taking place in Russia. It is generational. It is an awakening, and once awake people will not go back to sleep so soon. interview with members of the Valdai Discussion Club Mary Dejevsky , chief editorial writer and a columnist at The Independent, David Hearst , foreign leader writer for The Guardian, and Gabor Stier , foreign policy editor in the Hungarian daily newspaper “Magyar Nemzet”.

What will be the general trend of Russia’s political development in the near future? Is “lukashenkization” possible?

Mary Dejevsky (MD): I don’t think “lukashenkization” is an option, and I interpret the protests that followed Russia’s parliamentary elections as evidence of that. But also because the response of the authorities, while at times heavy-handed, counterproductive and foolish (the imprisonment of the ‘pussy riot’ group), suggests they understand that the Belarus scenario is not an option.

David Hearst (DH): It is certainly possible, but whether it will achieve its desired political goal - the stabilization of political forces under a third Putin term - is highly debatable. The current crackdown on civil liberties could just as easily provoke a further and more intensive wave of mass protest in the autumn.

Gabor Stier (GS): Russian society, or rather the middle class who shapes the public opinion, is back to its origins and to the “new political thinking.” It is quite natural that after the stabilization, which is a significant result by itself, the Russian society is seeking new opportunities for self-realization. The society is not indifferent to politics; it wants to play an active role in public sphere, while the corruption, that has reached its peak, along with ossification of the regime and total bureaucratization, hamper careers. The authorities are certainly aware of this, but their own limitations lead them to address the issues of the twenty first century with the tools of the twentieth.

At the same time, the political elite feel the wind of a new era, as evidenced, for example, by the awareness of the role of soft power in foreign policy. So I would not talk about “lukashenkization.” Vladimir Putin wants to show who the boss is. In the midst of global turmoil (the Arab spring) and the economic crisis the hard approach seems more logical, given that the government wants to buy some time to stabilize their ranks. But if by the end of the year the authorities continue to tighten the screws instead of demonstrating progress, they will risk losing control over the key part of the Russian society. At the same time social challenges are a real threat to stability. If the crisis escalates and the workers from Togliatti to Novosibirsk take to the streets, the government will be in a really difficult situation.

How possible is the prospect for equal dialogue with all the political forces?

MD: It is too soon after the parliamentary and presidential elections for this to happen. The authorities probably feel they have a mandate, however flawed, for their current program. But I wouldn’t rule out a dialogue in the future.

DH: The key words here are “equal” and “all”. Putin, and the conservative advisers he is currently listening to, have yet to show that they realize the scale of the political change that is taking place in Russia. It is generational. It is an awakening, and once awake people will not go back to sleep so soon. To achieve any form of lasting modernization Putin and Russia need the creative middle classes more than he thinks. Once this particular penny has dropped, once he understands this, an equal dialogue is possible. It is however unlikely.

GS: One of the most important problems is that the government does not consider the disgruntled middle class as an equal negotiations partner. On the one hand, it can be explained by the very origins of the current elites; on the other hand, the non-systemic opposition can also be blamed. It is disunited, and other parts of society (which still comprise the majority) do not approve its methods. One of the best examples of this point is the «Pussy Riot case». The authorities do not react to the popular protests; they are cracking a nut with a sledgehammer instead. At the same time, the ruling elite would only benefit if the opposition was able to push it to the dialogue, because it can help the power vertical to transform and to be deossified.

What are the goals to be achieved by the laws on meetings, on “foreign agents” and on Internet censorship?

MD: Whatever they are, I doubt they will stem discontent, I also wonder how far the measures on protests and internet censorship will be, or can be, enforced. On ‘foreign agents’, I think part of the problem here is the translation. The combination of ‘Russia’ and ‘agent’ is immediately negative. But many countries have rules on foreign money in non-government organizations.

DH: It is to increase the state's armoury of political weapons and threats against the opposition. The problem with new weapons is that one is always tempted to use them.

GS: The Internet should be regulated; freedom and permissiveness are two different things. However, this is not the problem. The adopted law is vague and uncertain, it is not finalized. During the period of public distrust many believe that the law can encourage political regulation of the Web. However, the West attempts to exercise control over the Internet, as well as to restrict the activities of NGOs. For example, a similar law was adopted in Israel last year, and the same law operates in the U.S. since 1938. In the long run these methods will not work. The government should not punish or prohibit, it should make citizens respect and even love it. If it happens all the “cobwebs” of the “foreign agents” will be to no avail.

How will the Russian civil society develop under these conditions?

MD: That is more up to the new, young, middle class and how they use their growing numbers, than it is in the hands of the authorities.

DH: With difficulty. But a consciousness about the rule of law or the lack of it, about the inefficiency of government, the venality of rulers, will continue to develop, grow and spread geographically. If he continues on this path, it will become forever more difficult for Putin to portray himself as the agent of change. The looming danger for him and the ruling elite will be to be seen as the obstacle to change.

GS: Russian civil society is still very weak; however, it is gradually getting stronger. This process can be slowed down by tightening the screws, but it can’t be stopped at all. That is why it must be reckoned with.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.