‘Today You Are Putin’s Friend and Have Immunity, but Tomorrow You Could Find Yourself Under Arrest.’ The System Has Started Purging Itself, the Most ‘Untouchable Ones’ May Go Flying»

Interview with Tatyana Stanovaya by Aleksandr Zadorozhnyy and Yevgeniy Senshin

Yekaterinburg Znak.com 01 Nov 16

What is going on with Putin and the groups in his entourage, with the elites, and with the public? What is on the horizon? We discussed these «big questions» on the basis of domestic political events in October with Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the analytical department at the Center for Political Technologies.

‘A Certain Part of the Elite Has an Accumulation of Fear, an Expectation of Sudden Collapse’

[Znak.com] Tatyana, October’s news stories included a dockers’ rally in Vladivostok protesting dismissals, and hunger strikes by utilities workers in Khakasiya and shift workers in Yamal about wage arrears, and by coal miners in Primorskiy Kray, also because of job cuts. In mid-October the Center for Economic and Political Reforms reported that in the preceding three months the number of labor conflicts and protests had doubled, and 65 regions were now affected. However, the subjective impression is that the protests are not particularly prominent. And Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] has said that «we have achieved macroeconomic stability.» Are things really not going so badly for «Putinomics»?

[Stanovaya] From a macroeconomic viewpoint, things are not so bad. We are assured that the lowest point of the crisis has passed, inflation is falling, and economic growth will start in 2017, and the Finance Ministry delights us with the news that the Russian budget’s dependence on world oil prices is no longer so great. In fact, within the ruling elite a very noticeable feeling is taking shape that we have «made it.» It seems to them that we have been tested with sanctions, we are going through a low energy market period (although hopes that oil prices will return to $100 «tomorrow» have not disappeared), a «cold war,» and our own food restrictions, but despite all that we are still standing firm. At one point, this could even be seen to be causing euphoria. Meanwhile, what you call «labor conflicts» are, in the regime’s system of priorities, merely minor details in a big picture where all in all things are not going too badly.

At the same time, I would like to point out an interesting phenomenon. On the one hand, there is the regime, which clearly underestimates the risks of a deterioration in the population’s financial and economic situation and by and large rules out the possibility of «corporate» protest spontaneously turning into political protest (unless, of course, there is help from «hostile forces»). On the other hand, there is a certain part of the public and of the elite (in the broadest sense), let’s call them «progressists» (by no means necessarily liberals and «anti-Putinites,» these are people who for the most part want, above all, greater effectiveness, and freedoms only after that). They do not always believe that the current «stability» is real. These people are firmly convinced that things cannot go on like this for long, and that unless there are changes the regime will fall swiftly and unexpectedly. For these audiences the question of whether everything is OK with «Putinomics» is not relevant. The only thing that matters to them is when it will collapse. There is an accumulation of fear and a growing sense of illusory controllability, an expectation of sudden collapse. I venture to suggest that both sides are wrong.

The current Russian economy may turn out to be far more robust that it seems. Moreover, the current political regime may be ineffective in all sorts of ways, but not when it comes to knowing how to curb political conflicts. Any protest that involves fewer than 20,000 people will be suppressed (neutralized) with stick and carrot. That is what happened with the medics’ protest in 2014, and with the truckers’ protests in 2015. The regime sees such protests as a manifestation not of political conflict but of tough corporate (sectoral) bargaining with the state, a sort of sectoral blackmail, which is firmly rejected in this form. So, in order for the regime to recognize a political problem in a mass protest situation, the protest has to be on a truly massive scale, involving at least 20,000 to 25,000 people. For the time being the Kremlin is trying to enhance its monitoring of the situation across the country and to adopt a hands-on approach in places where a problem is emerging. This is not always very effective, but the state cannot yet see any alternative to these mechanisms (and probably does not know how to do things differently).

[Znak.com] Bloomberg, citing the Bank of Russia, reported that the economic crisis in our country has already caused a reduction in the size of the middle class by 14 million people. According to other media outlets, in the early spring there were already about 23 million poor, and the situation has not improved since then. What qualitative changes in society could such phenomena lead to in the future?

[Stanovaya] There is a popular notion about the stages through which people come to accept what is inevitable: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. With regard to the Russian population’s accumulated socioeconomic difficulties, it seems to me that attitudes to the regime will evolve in the opposite direction, beginning with the final stage.

Initially we were delighted with the sanctions as an opportunity for import substitution, to develop our agro-industrial complex, and so on. Now, almost two years later, depression is setting in. On the whole, confidence in the regime remains high, but there is a growing sense that the crisis is long-term and the future unpredictable. So far, no sociological survey has detected that social irritation is becoming political, and the level of protest activity remains extremely low. Plus, given the regime’s patent abuse of the «war footing» and «besieged fortress» theme, appeals to the state are currently possible, but only on issues of a parochial nature.

As the situation deteriorates (and it is highly probable that, notwithstanding a renewal of economic growth in 2017, the population’s sense of well-being will deteriorate), various social strata will try to bargain with the regime, and depression in the form of passive suffering will be replaced by attempts to make demands. We haven’t reached that stage yet. Then, bearing in mind the regime’s chronic and deep-seated reluctance to make concessions in response to «corporate blackmail,» bargaining will give way to anger, and then to denial of the current regime’s legitimacy. Whether it will be Putin, his successor, or someone else who is around at that time is probably something that nobody can say right now. But in my view, social dissatisfaction will be in the nature of a delayed reaction and will manifest itself even when the economic situation is beginning to improve.

To this I would add an emerging values crisis, which is closely bound up with anti-American rhetoric and generally with the concept of «America wants to destroy us.» «Traditional values,» «spiritual ligaments,» «Orthodoxy,» «conservatism» — there are lots of wild ideas here, amounting in effect to a quasi-national idea, very clear and primitive, very Russian, but not very attractive, and redolent of obscurantism. In the long term, the vision of the future offered by this concept will lose to the dream of living in European comfort.

[Znak.com] Meanwhile, according to estimates by the Higher School of Economics, roughly one-third of households in Russia are unable to cope with all the necessary payments, about one-fourth cannot even pay for utilities and medicines, and 15 percent cannot pay for health services. And clearly this is not the limit, ahead lie not only an extension of the freeze on the fully funded part of the pension and on maternity capital, not only an increase in the retirement age, but also an increase in taxes on the population and on businesses. In confirmation of this, there is the Labor Ministry’s intention to subject all unemployed «parasites» to a levy of R20,000 per year. Yet the expectations of the majority are quite the opposite. The Nauman and Nemtsov Foundations discovered that 60 percent of Russians are in favor of state planning in the economy and redistribution, and 90 percent are in favor of state regulation of food prices. In your opinion, how strong an outburst of public dissatisfaction might be provoked by this contradiction?

[Stanovaya] This is probably where the risk of destabilization lies. As the Levada Center’s sociologists wrote not so long ago, Russians vote for United Russia not because they share its values, principles, or whatever. Russians vote for it because it seems to be the only force capable of stably distributing social benefits. While the state is increasing pensions and fulfilling its social obligations, the contract between the regime and society could continue to function for a long time yet. As soon as things start going wrong in this area, especially if there is a mismatch between promises and real actions, as soon as gigantic wage and pension arrears start accumulating (the Russian people are very patient), mass closures of enterprises will begin, and social discontent will start to become noticeably politicized.

Incidentally, it is often said that there are no protests in Russia because there are no capable leaders of a real opposition, the anti-Putin forces are regularly accused of being in a moral and political crisis — with no ideas or policies. But it can be said with total, 100-percent confidence that as soon as the state runs into difficulties, a crisis of management and of finances, we will immediately witness the emergence of both leaders and idols who for a long time have been in the shadows and seemed «incapable.» Unfortunately, for the current opposition it’s simply not time yet. And although voters who sympathize (in abstract terms) with the opposition currently vote for the party of power because they are afraid of destabilization and of a repeat of the 1990s, if those 1990s were to return, a search would begin for forces capable of getting out of them again, and those forces would not be the current regime but its opponents.

As for the eternal Russian social demand for state paternalism, only one thing will cure it — the formation of a relatively broad property-owning middle class that is prepared to defend its assets. The very fact of owning one’s own assets will demand both an increase in the level of legal culture and civil self-awareness. I fear that at present this is not even a long-term prospect, so ideological voting for the liberals is possible only if they prove to be the only people prepared to take charge when the ruling power is incapable.

‘We Have Only One «Enemy» — the State Department; All the Others Are Its Servants’

[Znak.com] Budget expenditure is increasing on the security agencies — the Russian Guard, the investigation service, and the Prosecutor’s Office. Does this mean the Kremlin envisages the possibility of a scenario involving an intensification of socioeconomic or even political protest and the use of violence in response?

[Stanovaya] I believe expenditure is increasing (but not everywhere, in fact) not so much because the Kremlin is preparing for sociopolitical protests and destabilization, but because of an increase in the political influence of certain security groups, special services, and military. In certain areas, meanwhile, cuts are being made. The situation is not as clear-cut as it seems, but for the time being it is possible to talk only about a transformation of the general system of state priorities from issues of internal development to issues of security (and there are many different aspects to this, certainly not just social ones). There is a general increase in state vulnerability, and this is reflected in a redistribution of resources.

[Znak.com] In Orel they have erected a sculpture of Ivan the Terrible, there are plans to inaugurate a monument to him in Vladimir. Although even the famous Millennium of Russia monument in Novgorod contains no sculpture of Ivan the Terrible, so reviled a figure is he. What’s going on — the formation of a habit of violence? Or of an attitude that violence is justified?

[Stanovaya] The monument to Ivan the Terrible reminds me of a book by Anton Vayno, our new chief of Presidential Staff, The Image of Victory. When everyone began discussing this idea about a nooscope (an instrument for measuring changes in the noosphere, an invention attributed to Anton Vayno, the current chief of Presidential Staff — editor’s note), few people really knew what they were talking about. But the book contains some very engaging ideas based on the notion that a regime which enjoys an exceptionally high level of trust among the population acquires a sort of carte blanche to promote new rules of the game in the global system of relations. In general, exaggerating grossly, the main idea is that might is right, and right makes might. The book analyzes various crisis periods in Russian history, and concludes that crises have occurred when trust in the elite has been falling. This is relevant to the question of the legitimacy of the regime.

So, the monument to Ivan the Terrible answers the question about legitimacy by establishing the exclusive precedence of «affairs of state» over the individual, society, and even the ruler himself, who in this system of coordinates is merely a feeble agent of the people’s (and God’s) will. The book’s authors tell us that a crisis of governance was overcome by the year 1367, after which began the growth of «Rus’s potential to govern, » a sign of this being Ivan the Terrible’s capture of Kazan’. And then a fresh crisis began with the Time of Troubles.

In other words, a certain elite demand for expansion at any cost emerged, and this shapes the existence of the elite, shapes its demand for both power and resources. The monument to Ivan the Terrible is a demand to legitimize illegitimate violence, if you will forgive the tautology. At the same time, this is also a demand for centralization, simplification of governance, tightening of the vertical power structure. After all, in a crisis the elites also do not know what to expect from tomorrow. It could be reforms, and a return of the liberals, or protests could flare up, or the economy could get shaky. And there is a desire to keep an iron grip on all this, to keep it still. All under the guise of preserving the state, of course.

[Znak.com] As conflict increases, someone will have to be appointed as a «Chubays, who is to blame for everything.» The West, the liberals, the Fifth Column — perhaps people are already sick of all these things, as is indirectly indicated both by Strelkov’s admission that Novorossiya movement has no funding, and by Peskov’s proposal that Zaldastanov apologize to Konstantin Raykin [Zaldastanov, aka the Surgeon, leader of the Night Wolves biker club, had made derogatory remarks about theater director Raykin]. In other words, new «enemies of the people» are needed. Who has the best chance of falling into that category?

[Stanovaya] I am not very fond of the idea that the regime is consciously looking for «enemies» in order to maintain the stability of the regime and to artificially mobilize people. There is only one designated enemy — the State Department — and all the others are its servants, beginning with Berlin-Paris and ending with Navalnyy and the human rights activists. The entire system of confrontation in which the Kremlin exists is psychologically constructed around fear of US plans to overthrow Putin’s regime (as the oppositionists would say) or to destroy the country (as the «patriots» would say). In that case, both the Fifth Column and «foreign agents» are part of the same confrontational scheme.

The regime’s flexible attitude to its own «patriots,» who became such not in accordance with a special edict but because of a political demand — this is a different matter. Strelkov parted company with the regime a long time ago, and the funding problems are linked not to Kremlin reluctance to allot money (it is a long time since Strelkov received anything from that source), but to the general crisis of Russian policy regarding the Novorossiya project. Patriotic charity used to be fashionable, but now it is far harder to find support. As for the Surgeon [Zaldastanov], it seems to me that here the liberal audience saw more than was really there. Yes, the Kremlin distanced itself from the harsh words uttered by the leader of the Night Wolves, the Kremlin does not want to associate itself with radical obscurantism. But this certainly does not mean that he is being delegitimized. Furthermore, Raykin and his theater is part of the pro-Putin systemic consensus.

[Znak.com] Rumor has it that the Kremlin has advised functionaries to bring home any children of theirs who are being educated at schools abroad. October saw the arrest of Development Corporation Director Sergey Maslov, who is accused of embezzling R1 billion. Meanwhile, Shuvalov complained at the Valday Club that when Medvedev was president he focused excessive attention on the topic of corruption. All this looks like the next victims to be placed at the mercy of public indignation will be functionaries, and Shuvalov is defending himself. What is your opinion about this?

[Stanovaya] Indeed, there are signs of a reformatting of the elite. There is a demand from Putin (this demand probably even has personal significance for him) to increase the effectiveness of governance, to reduce corruption, to seek new technical managers who will behave at least more modestly. Where there is demand, there is supply: Throughout 2016 we observed the active expansion of the FSB’s [Federal Security Service] personal security service, which is becoming a personal security service for the president (while the Federal Protection Service simultaneously grows weaker). Those members of the bureaucracy who do not have political immunity find themselves in a high-risk zone: We will see more high-profile arrests, exposes, and shoeboxes stuffed with banknotes.

On the other hand, political immunity as a special privilege will become less widespread, more mobile and unstable. Today you are Putin’s friend and have immunity, tomorrow you could find yourself under arrest. And my personal impression is that those particularly at risk will be either people who really have lost all sense of proportion (and here even the most «untouchable» ones could go flying), or people who have simply behaved incautiously. In any case, the system has already started purging itself.

As for Shuvalov, what is striking here is another problem — total loss of a sense of sociopolitical appropriateness. There are things that must not be said, that are provocative. I don’t think this is a consequence of fear of «repression.» It is rather a question of bureaucracy’s alienation from the public.

[Znak.com] How long do you think Medvedev as premier and all his government will last?

[Stanovaya] My feeling is until Putin’s reelection. After that there could be a new government and a new premier, unless something extraordinary happens. But I would not even rule out a situation in which Medvedev retains his post after 2018. Over the past year he has become somewhat stronger politically and «grown into» his post. But there is also fierce scheming against him on many different levels. Right now it is pointless to speculate about precise time frames.

[Znak.com] Having become a State Duma deputy, Natalya Poklonskaya described the sentence in the «Gelaendewagen race» case [involving dangerous driving by the son of the vice president of Lukoil] as too lenient. Is this a signal that the top entrepreneurial stratum will also be in the «firing line»?

[Stanovaya] I don’t quite understand what you mean by «firing line.» So far we are seeing no large-scale purge of the business community, no dekulakization, apart from certain local episodes linked for the most part either with corporate interests (the case against AFK Sistema in the context of the fight against Bashneft) or with regional ones («the power generators case»). At present there is no marked interest «from above» in mass imprisonments.

There is another point, which is linked to the rise and expansion of the reactionary, ideologically charged section of the elite, for whom the point of existence (self-preservation and expansion) is to pursue «enemies.» Not on instructions from above, but because of these people’s own genesis. Poklonskaya, Mizulina, Yarovaya, Milonov, Vladimir Markov [as published], Kiselev…. These are the «spiritual ligaments» of the Putin regime. Sometimes the regime can distance itself from them, dismiss them, criticize them, but they are now a part of this regime (as a phenomenon). Markin’s dismissal from the Russian Investigation Committee will in no way lead to a weakening of hardline ideology within the regime. Putin’s criticism of Kiselev and his «nuclear ash» by no means reduces the desire of the military to thump America. The paradox is precisely that initially there was a demand for people with ideas, but then the ideas acquired an existence of their own separate from those political figures. The latter can change, fall, or rise, but the ideology remains within the regime as one of its props.

‘»Hands-On Management» Has Been Replaced by a Lack of Any Management at All’

[Znak.com] Putin said recently: «Providing maximum freedom for business is the best response to sanctions.» At the same time, according to the Antimonopoly Service, whereas in 2005 the state’s stake in the economy was no more than 35 percent, 10 years later it has doubled. Do Putin’s words express a real intention, or are they, as before, ritual rhetoric?

[Stanovaya] I reckon Putin sincerely believes that conditions for the normal conduct of private business have been created in Russia. Yes, there is the influence of the crisis, there is the factor of the world economy (unfavorable market conditions), but overall, from the institutional and administrative viewpoint, things are not so bad in Russia — Putin has said this repeatedly. I would point out that he frequently uses liberal economic rhetoric, on the basis that the strategically key goals of supporting business in Russia have already been achieved, and it is a question merely of cosmetic adjustments, evolution, and enhancement. That is why I do not believe at all in the possibility of real structural reforms in the Russian economy in the current political situation. Even if the president agrees conceptually with a proposal from the «system liberals,» it will stall at the implementation stage.

Russia’s current problem is that «hands-on management» has been replaced by a lack of any management at all. It takes a very long time for decisions to be made, and often they are made only after Putin has intervened. In this regard I agree with those people who say that Putin’s goal is not to increase state control of the economy but the absence of any goal and a fear of doing harm. Therefore, decisions are often made when not making them becomes more dangerous than doing nothing, as we can see in the situation around the privatization of Bashneft and the sale of Rosneft to itself.

[Znak.com] The most prominent personnel decisions have been Vyacheslav Volodin’s move to State Duma speaker, and Sergey Kiriyenko’s to deputy chief of Presidential Staff. Do you think these moves will be followed by any changes in domestic policy?

[Stanovaya] It always seems to me that both Surkov and Volodin were more like designers of the «mechanism» of the system of domestic public politics. They changed the fundamental rules, determined the content of domestic political process and their technical implementation. Kiriyenko in the same situation will be a «driver,» someone who manages the system, who maneuvers but who does not interfere with the mechanisms that have already been devised. Overall, the field of domestic politics is getting narrower, it is becoming a matter of routine. In the Kremlin’s understanding, everything has been perfected and fine-tuned. All that remains is to ensure there are no glitches. Kiriyenko will not be a revolutionary in this sense, he will not be an ideologue or reformer, neither should we expect any «thaw.»

But the main challenge for him will not be establishing relations with his predecessor but the «sharing out» of spheres of influence with the siloviki, who are ever more actively interfering in domestic political matters. Who is to be deemed «foreign agents,» should oppositionists be put in jail, which criminal cases should be opened, should the persecution of governors be continued — all this takes domestic political decisions away from the Domestic Politics Administration. I reckon there will be a gradual change in the role of the All-Russia People’s Front, which will become a more technocratic and less politicized structure. Kiriyenko will need to decrease tension in certain areas, including relations with governors. It was Znak.com that wrote the other day that Kiriyenko is beginning to review relations with the expert community, the ideological function of proregime experts will decrease somewhat, and the rhetoric will become calmer. Although it is important to realize that Russia’s information space is managed polycentrically and, despite Putin’s recent conciliatory words, there will continue to be a place for «nuclear ash» in the future.

As for Volodin’s departure, I don’t really believe in the theory that Putin wants to strengthen the State Duma. At the same time, I would not rule out the possibility that the complexion of the lower chamber of parliament will change in the direction of greater politicization, but that’s not the real reason. Volodin was the «architect,» he created the institutions and rules of the game, and within the system this is now perceived as a potential risk of an upset of the balance, of a loss of control over the situation. It is simpler not to change anything. A multitude of factors may have played a role here — the ambition (antagonism) of the All-Russia People’s Front, difficult relations with the governors, and the siloviki’s occasional disagreement with the policy of the Domestic Political Administration, or rather their different understanding of the priorities. In general, what the regime needs now is executors, and creative individuals are being pushed down a bit. Let’s see how this works.

[Znak.com] Why do you think Putin has just expressed approval for the idea of a law on the «Russian nation,» what might this lead to?

[Stanovaya] Note that the main priority of national policy was defined by Igor Barinov, head of the relevant agency, as «the development of a system of public-state partnership»: The regime is keen to minimize the risks of uncontrollable conflicts developing in interethnic relations, and to strengthen control in this sphere. Incidentally, all this looks like a modification of attempts to seek an eternal Russian national idea, some sort of universal system of values of a patriotic nature.

But evidently the catalyst for the desire to «tackle the problem» was provided by external geopolitical factors: Ukraine (Ukrainian refugees, the problem of the Crimean Tatars), the migrant crisis in Europe (let’s give Brussels a lesson), and Syria (the problem of Sunni radicals). All this comes on top of the regime’s constant search for an opportunity to mobilize the public, it is no coincidence that at a meeting of the council (for interethnic relations, held in Astrakhan on 30 October — editor’s note) it was stated directly that patriotism itself is the national idea, in other words: Love the state first, and yourselves second. Almost a prewar mobilization of the Russian people — this seems to be the essence of all this searching, and it meets with the full understanding of Putin, who operates according to the logic of a «besieged fortress.»

[Znak.com] The Finance Ministry proposed cutting Chechnya’s budget, and Kadyrov sharply opposed this. «Geopolitics» is being weighed in the scales against money. What will Putin choose?

[Stanovaya] The Finance Ministry is currently proposing cutting expenditure for everyone and everything, it’s a trend, and Chechnya is no exception. On the other hand, Kadyrov is trying to appeal to Putin, counting on his privileged position as a notional «guardian of Russian sovereignty,» which in his view is more valuable than the functions of any other Russian component head. But they will come to an agreement with Chechnya, they will find a compromise, at the moment I see no grounds for the emergence of a conflict situation of a political nature. (After the interview with Tatyana Stanovaya it became known that Putin had given instructions for funding for the North Caucasus to be increased — editor.) So far this is just bargaining, which, if it does grow into a crisis in relations, will only do so in different financial and economic circumstances.

[Znak.com] According to calculations by the Civil lnitiatives Committee, about 18 million people have left Russia since the late 1980s. You yourself live in Paris. Would you advise those who remain in Russia to leave the country if they have the opportunity?

[Stanovaya] My choice to leave the country was not an end in itself, it was linked exclusively to my personal circumstances. It just happened that I had to leave. I have no right to advise others, everyone is free to decide for themselves. All I would like is to see Russia as an open country, and Russians with the opportunity to choose how to live, where to live, and what to do.



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