From Alexei Navalny’s return to mass protests and COVID-19, new TRNN contributor Radhika Desai sits down with world-renowned sociologist and activist Boris Kagarlitsky to discuss the tectonic shifts taking place in Russian politics—and what Western media gets wrong about Russia.
By Radhika Desai
Published on TRNN, Apr 16, 2021
With so much disinformation floating around, and with so many media outlets filtering their coverage through the geopolitical interests of the West, it’s often difficult for interested audiences to know just what is going on in Russian politics today. From the COVID-19 pandemic to mass protests and the return of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in January, who suffered a near-fatal poisoning attack this summer, major political and economic shifts are taking place in Russia. Add to that the public outcry against the imprisonment of Navalny, who is now on a hunger strike from his prison cell just outside of Moscow, and the new sanctions against Russia that U.S. President Joe Biden announced this week, challenges to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power are mounting. But what do these developments mean and look like for people on the ground in Russia?
In this special production of The Real News Network, new contributor Radhika Desai helps audiences in the West navigate these and other thorny questions. Radhika directs the Geopolitical Economy Research Group, teaches at the University of Manitoba, and is known for proposing the Geopolitical Economyframework for understanding world affairs. In this important and timely conversation for The Real News, Radhika speaks with world-renowned Russian sociologist and activist Boris Kagarlitsky about Putin’s power system, Navalny’s return, and the coming tectonic shifts in Russian politics.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
“AN ACCUMULATION OF ANGER” IN PUTIN’S RUSSIA
Radhika Desai: Boris Kagarlitsky is a very well-known leftist writer, historian, sociologist, and also a political activist in Russia. He has been politically active since the time when the Soviet Union still existed and has continued to do so in Russia, offering a distinctive left perspective on Russian politics. Welcome, Boris, it’s really a great privilege to have you.
This interview has been occasioned by all the discussion about Russian politics in the Western countries with the return of Alexei Navalny to Russia. So, let me start by asking you: What was the political situation in Russia at the time of Navalny’s return in January, 2021?
Boris Kagarlitsky: Let’s start with the COVID crisis (I think this is an essential problem for every major capitalist country now—or every major country on Earth, actually). It is very important to understand that Russia has already experienced about six years of economic stagnation. Sometimes it’s accompanied with very, very modest growth, sometimes economic decline. But anyhow, the economy is stagnating for the seventh year in a row. Then the pandemic started, and in that sense Russia is very special, because in terms of providing economic support for the population, the Russian government has been absolutely specific about following a strategy of no support, ever—the idea being that the population should survive on its own. So, on the one hand, they have closed down quite a few businesses and practices, and lots and lots of people have lost their jobs. Even more people, actually, lost their income.
The actual loss of jobs was not that catastrophic in the long run, because quite a few migrant workers had to be thrown out of Russia. So, while the total loss of jobs was impressive, the actual loss of jobs for Russian citizens was not that catastrophic; a lot of that price had to be paid by people in Central Asia, by the immigrant and migrant workers who lost their jobs. Actually (this is very interesting), it ended up creating a kind of division between those who wanted to remain as immigrants and would do whatever they could to stay over, and those who made the personal decision to leave Russia and had to figure out strategies for getting back home. So, in that sense, I think the immigrant population we have now is mainly composed of people who are really loyal to Russia, at least economically—these are people who decided they have to stay in Russia no matter what.
The loss of jobs led to the increase of unemployment. But in terms of Russian citizens, or in terms of people who are actually staying in the country, it was bad, but not that bad. However, in terms of loss of income, it was a real disaster, because most businesses survived at the cost of decreasing salaries. For self-employed businessmen, they had to survive in terms of diminishing their income and diminishing their consumption. So, in that sense, we have a real catastrophe, which was very seriously understood by people as a catastrophe—it’s not only statistics, it’s a real experience.
At the same time, we had a lockdown that was probably not as severe as in many other countries, but its social consequences still must be understood and considered, because I think they will show up for quite a long time. The damage will be really long term—it’s more than just a one-time thing. As I told you before, the Russian government has chosen a kind of “third way” of handling the pandemic: not like Sweden or Belrus, which avoided lockdowns to save the economy, but not like Germany, Canada, or other countries, which sacrificed some elements of the economy but supported the population during the lockdown. The Russian third way was: “We are not supporting the economy or the people.”
That doesn’t mean that Russian leaders were crazy, though, because there was an enormous amount of support given to big corporations, both private ones and those considered to be state owned (actually, they are joint-stock companies with some percentage of the shares owned by the state. In fact, these are also private corporations, but linked to the state, like the paraestatales in Latin America in the 1970s). These big corporations have gotten an enormous amount of support, both in terms of direct support with money given to them and in terms of cheap credits and tax benefits given to them by the government. Russia gives more tax benefits to big corporations than any other major economy does in terms of the percentage of the state budget, which is actually lost to these benefits. It’s absolutely pathetic. So, that was the general policy: It was very much about supporting the oligarchy at the cost of not supporting anybody else.
Radhika Desai: One would presume that there was a certain perception of this and an increasing dissatisfaction with the Putin government?
Boris Kagarlitsky: That’s exactly the point. And, ironically, in a certain way, it did work. You see, the major fear of the Russian government and Putin’s entourage is that there will be a split within the elite. That kind of split or division was typical in the 1990s, and it was typical for Ukraine. Preventing that split is not only about some kind of class egoism (though that’s also true); it’s also a kind of political strategy. You have to keep the elite united at whatever price. Even if you have to sacrifice the economy and the people, it’s okay, because as long as you have the elite more or less united, stability is guaranteed. Once you destroy this unity of the ruling elite, then you end up like Ukraine, or like Russia in the 1990s.
So, in that sense, there is a certain rationality to this approach. I absolutely hate this approach, as you can imagine, but I just want to be fair in understanding why they behave this way. It’s not because they didn’t have the money. It is because they had other priorities, which they consider to be more important. But, of course, for the great majority of the population, that was seen as an offense, a clear signal that the government didn’t care about them, and that was a very dramatic change in the popular mood. In that sense, Putin’s popularity collapsed.
Radhika Desai: How was this dissatisfaction manifesting before Navalny returned?
Boris Kagarlitsky: Actually, it’s not very clear, because one important aspect of the lockdown—not only in Russia, by the way, but elsewhere, anywhere—is that everything was prohibited. Lockdown is the greatest pretext for any kind of prohibition. So, all sorts of popular manifestations, all sorts of popular activity, were prohibited. In that sense, there was more of an accumulation of anger that didn’t lead to anything practical, anything real. Only Navalny’s return provided some kind of channel for this dissatisfaction, this anger, to break out. In that sense, it’s very important to understand that it’s not all about Navalny; of course, it is about Navalny to some extent, because Navalny is the kind of person who really provokes that. But we did discuss it with people who were also in the streets, and probably about 10% of those who went to the protests went mainly to support Navalny. About 90% tended to say, “Well, yes, we have some positive feelings about Navalny. He’s a brave man. But it’s not about him; it’s very much about the current situation of the country, and we want to show that we are not happy with what’s happened.” That was the major mood in the country.
Radhika Desai: That sets up everything really nicely. So, we know that the protests are, for the most part, not about Navalny: Navalny’s return triggers the protests and triggers the explosion of disappointment, anger, etc. that was already welling among Russian people well before the pandemic (and exacerbated by the pandemic). Now, we’re seeing this outpouring of dissatisfaction.
Before we go on to the question of who exactly Navalny is (because this is very important for us to understand in the West), can you talk a little bit about what it was like before the pandemic, when there was essentially no prohibition or restriction of political activity? How was the dissatisfaction with the Putin government manifesting itself over the last five years?
Boris Kagarlitsky: Our dissatisfaction was accumulating. One point that is very often discussed by quite a few commentators inside Russia is that we didn’t have a lot of protests before—and, even now, there are not so many people protesting compared to the numbers of people who are dissatisfied and angry—because people are afraid of repression. This is partly true, and it’s increasingly true in the sense that the level of repression is increasing. At the same time, there is also another factor, something that kind of permanently haunts the Russian opposition: It’s this fear that the opposition is no better, or that it’s even worse, than the government. This is a major problem for quite a few people.
Actually, there seems to be a competition going on, and the government is doing its best to prove that these people who are saying the opposition is worse are wrong [laughs]. So, the government tries to prove to the people that they’re even worse than those in the liberal opposition, and they do it by trying to copy every single proposal the liberal economists put forward, even the most awful and the most incompetent. So, it’s a competition of proposals, and every time the opposition makes any stupid proposal, the government steps in to copy it.
For example, take the pension reform of 2018. We should remember a very important point: that it was the liberals and the oppositionists who insisted on and advocated for pension reform for many years. And it was the government and Putin himself, actually, who were constantly saying that they should not do it, that they should not follow this proposal for pension reform. Then, all of a sudden, in 2018, they did exactly what was proposed; actually, in many ways, what the government did was even worse than the proposal made by the liberal, free market economists. That provoked protests, and they corrected the reform a little bit, but only symbolically. But the irony is that, at that very point, most liberal oppositionists condemned the reform, which they themselves had advocated for for so many years. This is a reversal of rule in Russian politics.
Still, I know that quite a lot of people are suspicious of the opposition. And the left … well, the left is visible, but still rather weak in terms of political organization. Also, you should not forget that the official Communist Party is very much under direct control of the presidential administration, which tends to select all the candidates for the opposition party. This is a very specific Russian political technology: that the presidential administration (i.e., the government) has to approve every single candidate of the opposition. So, there are no candidates who are not approved, even the opposition candidates.
Radhika Desai: Let’s discuss this more before we go on to talk about Navalny. You talk mainly about the liberal opposition, but you’ve just started talking about the left opposition: Can you elaborate a little bit more on the state of the left opposition in Russia (particularly in light of the fact that the left opposition did manage to make some gains, at least in some regional elections, and so on)?
Boris Kagarlitsky: The left was and is quite visible in some regions, especially the left wing of the official Communist Party, which is now getting increasingly close to becoming the so-called unofficial opposition. So, in that sense, it’s very important to understand that the Communist Party in Russia is a very strange animal. Because, on the one hand, you have the leadership, which is very close to the government; on the other hand, you have the more radical, or progressive, or … I’m not sure what to call it …
Radhika Desai: More left wing?
Boris Kagarlitsky: I’m not sure if they’re more left wing, but they’re more honest. Let’s put it that way. There are people who are not necessarily more to the left, but they’re definitely more honest and more independent. That’s the most correct characterization of these people.
So, anyhow, there is a wing of the party that is increasingly working together with the extra-parliamentary left. In that sense, the party is moving in two different directions. So, the official top leadership is getting closer and closer to the government (because the government wants them to be very close to them). At the same time, there are more independent politicians, especially in local branches, who are moving in the opposite direction, forming some sort of united front with the rest of the left. And, as we know, there are some very important characters. For example, there’s Sergey Levchenko in Irkutsk, who was forced to resign. He was the governor of the province, and an incredibly successful governor, too: He increased the GDP of the region, increased the budget revenues and social spending, and so on.
There are a few other people, a few new personalities, also connected to local politics, like Nikolai Bondarenko, a very charismatic and prominent populist local deputy in Saratov, or Valery Rashkin in Moscow, who is the head of the Moscow branch of the official Communist Party. These people are now working together very closely, and they’re working together with the unofficial left. Just last month, for example, Valery Rashkin appeared on Rabkor, on our YouTube channel. And some people commenting on the video were pointing out that this would not have been possible even a few months ago, because everybody knows that Rabkor is a permanent critic of the official party leadership. Of course, Levchenko had been on Rabkor for quite a long time already, but for Rashkin it was a very symbolic act to be on our YouTube channel. Also, don’t forget that Rashkin is a deputy at the State Duma, and he is now openly in conflict with Gennady Zyuganov, the head of the party.
So, we don’t know how it’s all going to end up, because the party leaders (and also, even, the opposition) keep repeating that “there is no split in the party, there are just debates.” But these debates are about everything! And the proposals that are being argued for in these debates cannot fit with each other—there is no space for compromise in this debate. Some people are saying that we have to support the government and other people are saying that we have to overthrow the government. This is the kind of debate they’re saying represents just a “minor division” within the party …
Radhika Desai: This is great. Now we’ve set the scene and given listeners more context to understand the political turnings in Russia that were already occurring before the pandemic and that have taken place during the pandemic before Navalny’s return.
Now, let’s focus for a little while on exactly who Navalny is. Because, on the one hand, in the West, we read reports that essentially portray him as this great savior replacement of Putin, etc.; on the other hand, there have also been reports here and there by more knowledgeable people who talk about his links with the far right in Russia, his anti-Semitism, his anti-immigrant rhetoric, his racism, and so on. So, can you tell us a little bit more about who Navalny really is and how you view him?
Boris Kagarlitsky: Well, first of all, both views are completely wrong [laughs]. It happens often that you get images like these, which mostly reflect the ideas of the commentators rather than the reality.
Let’s start with the fact that, yes, Navalny did participate in the so-called Russkii March (the Russian March) at least twice, I think—that was quite long ago. And the irony is that Navalny also participated in quite a few activities of a very different sort: He was a member of the left-liberal party Yabloko; then he rushed to the nationalist movement and was part of the Russkii March. Then, at some point, he started moving to the left and was pushing for some progressive social policies. It was at that time that he started attracting some leftists like Alexey Gaskarov, who is an ex-anarchist, left-wing economist; at the same time, Navalny also tried to attract some free market economists.
This is why, when Navalny published his political program in 2018, quite a few people just laughed at it. There is a children’s game here where you take a piece of paper and you write something on it, then you close this piece of paper and pass it to another boy or girl who adds another line to it, then they pass it off to someone who writes another line, and so on. I don’t know if you have this game in English-speaking countries, but the point is that, in the end, when you read the whole text, it’s just complete nonsense. So, people in Russia have made jokes that Navalny’s presidential program was very much written this way: Some progressives or leftists wrote some segments about social policies; at the same time, crazy, free market economists wrote other sections about how to achieve all these progressive things, and so on [laughs]. It was like, “You have to cut the taxes and, at the same time, increase social spending!” In the same document, one paragraph would say, “Everything must be on the market, everything must be paid for, we have to monetize everything!” And then, the next paragraph would say, “We have to increase free services, every service should be free of charge, and everything will be paid for!” And these are two different paragraphs within the same document!
So, this is what Navalny is about. Navalny is a populist who wants everybody to love him; he wants businesses to love him, he wants leftists to love him, etc. He can speak as an anarchist, he can speak as a fascist, he can speak as a social democrat, he can speak as a liberal, he can speak as a kind of wise statesman, and he can speak as an irresponsible radical—depends on the public, depends on the audience. In that sense, it’s very easy to compromise him, because you can select statements he’s made for particular audiences. So, if you want to compromise him from the left, you pick up terrible statements he’s made when he was speaking to right-wing audiences. And, you see, the irony is that quite a few people on the right consider him to be an irresponsible leftist! Because they also have a list of statements he’s made that are very much of that sort.
So, the first thing to understand about Navalny is that he’s a populist who wants everybody to love him …
Radhika Desai: So, you’re saying he’s a bit of a political chameleon?
Boris Kagarlitsky: Absolutely. And he’s a chameleon in the sense that a chameleon doesn’t even understand what it is doing—it just reflects the color around it. In that way, Navalny is a perfect chameleon. So, if you get him into a crowd of radical socialists or communists, he’ll speak like a communist, I assure you. Actually, in a way, this is his strong side. It’s somewhat ironic, because, from our point of view, it’s absurd and crazy. But remember, his strategy is to get as much support as he possibly can everywhere, at every moment of his career. Maximize your support, no matter what …
Radhika Desai: But earlier you said that only about 10% of the people protesting were really out there in order to support Navalny …
Boris Kagarlitsky: Yes, but that’s another point. For Navalny, the good side of this policy is that it does attract a lot of people from different segments of society, because people do not study what he said before, you know? He just kind of appears, for example, and comes to speak to a crowd, and the crowd loves what he says. They don’t think about what he said before, or what he says elsewhere. They just know he came there, spoke to them, and he was very good. On the other hand, there is a growing number of people who remember what he said before, and they’re becoming increasingly suspicious that this guy is somebody we cannot properly trust, because we don’t know what he’s going to do. There is no indication of what he’s going to do in practice. This guy can be dangerous. But he can only be dangerous if he’s in power. As long as he is in opposition, though … well, this kind of strategy actually works.
Radhika Desai: So, while we’re on the subject, can you talk a little bit about all these other stories floating around about Navalny’s poisoning (Novichok and so on), and then the German investigation into his poisoning—and then, of course, on the other hand, the stories about Putin’s palace, etc.? How are these going down? How do Russians react to these stories?
Boris Kagarlitsky: Let’s start with the palace. The irony is that the palace story is an old one—the palace was discovered about 11 years ago. It was discovered by then-Communist MP Sergei Obukhov, who actually tried to provoke some kind of scandal. To some extent, it was his own party that blocked it from going any further. Anyhow, there was not much new in the story this time around, except that it reemerged at the very best moment. Because ten years ago, people didn’t care much; now, it’s more of a reminder.
It’s not a new story, but there were some new details about aqua-discotheques and some other aspects of the palace, which are kind of funny. There were lots of memesand videos and even songs about this aqua-discotheque [laughs]. Russians love funny things, so this story made a lot of people laugh, but it was not so much about anger. It was about people laughing and saying, “Look at this guy, who tries to pretend to be a real statesman!” Putin is always trying to pretend that he’s Peter the Great and so on, but then you learn about this strange palace, which is very petty bourgeois, luxurious, and in very, very bad taste. So, that was the major reaction. But again, I insist (this is very important) that the story was not new. I can provide you with lots of publications from years before that mention the story.
Speaking of the poisoning … This is a more complicated issue, because it is very clear that the poisoning really did take place. The question is: Who really poisoned Navalny? Yes, these people were definitely connected to the secret services, but whether they operated on the direct order of Putin is something to be questioned. Because what Navalny managed to prove was that he was poisoned, and that the people who poisoned him were connected to the secret services. But then he made the second statement, saying it was Putin who personally gave the order. There is no proof of this, just some speculation. My personal guess is that the story is a little bit more complicated.
We know that Putin’s health is not very good. Well, for years already, we’ve known that he has some health problems, and sometimes it’s getting better, sometimes it’s getting worse. This is why he was especially scared of COVID, because if you have a cancer of some kind, then COVID is really deadly. So, that’s why Putin disappeared immediately when COVID started, and he escaped to some kind of bunker. He’d reappear sometimes and then disappear again, which led to quite a lot of speculation about his health.
My guess is that Navalny’s poisoning had something to do with this problem. Because Navalny himself insisted that these people followed him for years. So, if they followed him for years, why did they poison him exactly at that moment last summer? My guess is that it was not very much about Navalny himself, because for Putin, at least by then, Navalny didn’t pose a serious threat. There was no reason to think that Navalny was able to dethrone Putin. So, in that sense, it was irrational for Putin to try to kill him at that point.
Now Navalny is much more dangerous than he used to be. But at the same time, if you consider the people who were running the transition strategy, who were working on scenarios for transitioning to the post-Putin period, and who were considering some candidates to replace Putin when he either dies or retires—in this context, the situation is different, and Navalny could have been a threat, because he could potentially interfere in the scenario and, at least, disorganize it. So, it’s possible that, if Putin was out of the decision-making process for a few days or weeks because of health reasons, for example, some of the people who were staying in control at that very moment (especially if they were scared that something could happen to Putin) could have given the order to actually execute this poisoning. I should be clear: This is my view of the story. I cannot prove it, but Navalny cannot prove his version of the story either.
Radhika Desai: At the same time, some investigative writers in the West are pointing out that it is possible, given the gaps in the story, that Navalny may not have been poisoned at all, that his collapse on the airplane had to do with certain medications and drugs he may have been taking, etc. …
Boris Kagarlitsky: This is not true. This is the version of the story that has been developed by the official Kremlin propagandists. And this version very much contradicts facts that we already know, including the most recent fact, which is really scary, that the doctor who was in charge of Navalny’s treatment in Omsk died suddenly just a few weeks ago. There are reasons to suspect that something was amiss, because this doctor was a healthy, rather young man, who died with symptoms that were strangely similar to those of Navalny himself. So, all of this gives us some reason to suspect that somebody wants to clean up the story here.
Also, another curious detail: Numerous publications have stated that Navalny received the treatment of atropine, an anti-poisoning medicine, which was injected immediately in the ambulance, before he was brought to the clinic. Which means that somebody knew that he was poisoned. Also (and this is the story that I published), there is serious reason to think that there were some secret service people who were trying to kill him and other secret service people who were actually saving him.
Radhika Desai: It is Byzantine, as we say here …
Boris Kagarlitsky: Yes, but this is exactly how the Russian services operate: Different services do not know much about what other services are doing. They are very often in relations of rivalry, and these rivalries reflect rivalries and contradictions that exist at the highest levels. So, the very fact that Navalny was not killed is an indication that somebody wanted him to survive.
Radhika Desai: What about this idea that, if Navalny was poisoned by Novichok, he could not possibly have survived, and he could have even endangered other people on the plane and anybody who came into contact with him (his family, the doctors, etc.)?
Boris Kagarlitsky: I have doubts about whether or not it was Novichok, by the way—this is another interesting point. I think the story about Novichok is very much a fixation of Western media, because Western media knows the story of Novichok after the famous scandal with Petrov and Boshirov in Salisbury, and that’s why any kind of poison is now “Novichok.” Also, if you read Western reports, they always couch discussion of the kind of poison that was used on Navalny by saying it belongs to what they call a “Novichok family,” which is a very broad definition.
The fact that he was poisoned is true, but what the exact poison was is another story, and it should be investigated as well. Novichok was designed for a completely different kind of operation—it’s not something that was designed just to kill individual people.
Radhika Desai: Well, and the same thing would also presumably apply to the Salisbury poisonings, in the sense that, had they actually been poisoned by Novichok, they would not have survived …
Boris Kagarlitsky: No, not necessarily. Because it depends on the dose, it depends on how they use it, and it depends on what substance is actually being used. Again, even Western reports speak about the “Novichok family,” right? There are different substances in that family, and they have certain kinds of chemical elements that make them related, but these are not necessarily the same substances.
There was one really funny story I heard from a Russian police operator who’s close to the government. He made a statement that seemed to be a bit odd when I first heard it, but the more I’ve spoken about it with other people the more they’ve said it’s not complete nonsense. Basically, what he said was: Some of the substance, some of the Novichok, was probably just stolen on the way. These are some very precious poisons, which can be used “commercially” to eliminate someone’s competitor, or somebody’s wife, or somebody’s mother-in-law, or somebody’s dog, or whatever. It’s very precious stuff that can be stolen—and, once you steal some of it, then you can add some water, and there you go. So, that may be why Navalny’s poisoning worked the way it worked. Of course, it sounds a bit absurd, but knowing Russia and how the Russian government operates, it doesn’t seem completely impossible.
PUTIN’S POWER SYSTEM
Radhika Desai: This is all very interesting, and it’s really helpful to know exactly how you think about it. Because, as I think you would agree, there are just so many questions swirling around this story, and it’s important to examine them while understanding that the reality is probably quite complicated.
Now, I wanted to move from here to talking about your very interesting and, I think, important account of how Putin’s power system works in Russia. How would you describe Putin’s power system (which, as you rightly pointed out, is now at a moment of possible transition)? Would you say it is part of this kind of congenital authoritarianism of Russia?
Boris Kagarlitsky: Well, first of all, I think this image of an authoritarian country that is being run by one person doesn’t really work for any authoritarian country in practice. There are class interests, there are interest groups, there are elites, there are state apparatuses, bureaucracies, and so on. So, even if you have an authoritarian, absolutist government, it is never just a one-man show. Unless you take a small country like Haiti, the Central African Republic, or somewhere like that where you can imagine the country being controlled by just one person and a gang of thugs. But if you have a big country like Russia, whether we’re talking about Stalin or Ivan the Terrible, you cannot run the country without accounting for all the specific interests, the specific logic of the apparatuses and decision-making processes involved—and all of that definitely involves more than one person. So, the first thing to understand is that this model, this image of an authoritarian country that is being run by just one or two people, is not possible in the real world.
Second, it’s important to note that, until very recently, the way Putin’s government operated was consensual. As I told you before, it is very important for the Russian government to keep the elites more or less in agreement, so that elites and oligarchy groups are not attacking and fighting with each other and, instead, are more or less working together. And so, the task of the government is to guarantee a permanent consensus that is repeated and reproduced time and again within the elite, but that is probably changing.
In that sense, the role of Putin was very much that of moderator and consensus maker, the kind of person who was really trying to distance himself from all major players and groups while, at the same time, satisfying all major players and groups—and, until recently, also satisfying considerable parts of the society. Because social stability was one of the priorities; the problem is that it was not the main priority. The main priority was consensus among the elites. Ensuring that the rest of society was more or less satisfied was the second priority. And during the pandemic, when the government had to choose, they chose to preserve the elite consensus against the consensus within society more broadly, because they just didn’t have the resources to satisfy both. That was a very important break with the previous Putin experience.
Now we have a new moment, and the elites are getting increasingly frustrated themselves, because it seems they don’t have the resources to survive if they keep functioning the way they are functioning now. Everyone understands that somebody has to be sacrificed, and everybody wants somebody else to be sacrificed. So, who’s going to pay the price? They already made society pay the price the first time around, but then they saw that wasn’t enough. The price will have to be much higher, so it is going to have to be paid by somebody else, not only by the wage earners, not only by the masses—some segments of the elite have to sacrifice something as well.
We have now come to the point when you have increasing conflicts within the elite, no matter what Putin wants. So, the consensus building is getting less and less possible at this very moment. What we are seeing, then, is that Putin seems to be changing the way he has operated traditionally. He is now becoming more of a player, rather than a consensus maker. In that sense, ironically, this authoritarian image of Putin running everything is getting closer and closer to being true now that Putin’s regime is in crisis. Because he cannot satisfy everyone as he used to, which means he now has to concentrate on satisfying a very small circle of his closest friends.
Radhika Desai: Can you name the key conflicts emerging that are making the task of creating an elite consensus more difficult?
Boris Kagarlitsky: It seems that we had 100 families, more or less, which were in control. And, of course, we know these people who control everything: Rosneft, Lukoil, Gazprom, and also people in the administration like Kiriyenko, who controls the bureaucracy and obviously has his own interests. We also have some local elites who have to be taken very seriously, because they have their own interests (like in Tatarstan, for example—the elites there used to be very powerful). So, there are quite a few of them. There’s also Sobyanin and his Moscow gang controlling the capital, and also specific business interests around St. Petersburg—very regional, but also very powerful. So, they all had to be involved in the process.
And now it seems that, for example, Sobyanin’s group is alienated from the Kremlin. Of course, they have to demonstrate that they are loyal. But demonstrating their formal loyalty is all they do; they’re not involved in doing things on the ground. For example, when we had the protests, most of the government was kind of alienated from the process of decision making. Most of the repressive practices that we saw used against protestors, for example, were directed by the federal administration. Sometimes that has led to some funny developments. For example, recently in Moscow, protests and marches were banned. But there is a small territory close to the Kremlin where we have this monument, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the territory around that monument is actually controlled by the military governor of the Kremlin. And so, while manifestations around the city were banned, the military governor of the Kremlin allowed a demonstration on his territory, which was very small, but it was still permitted and definitely contradicted the general policy. And, by the way, that tells you a lot about what the military thinks about what’s happening now …
Radhika Desai: Very interesting.
Boris Kagarlitsky: And so, I think that original elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg are now being pushed aside; they’re definitely alienated from the process of decision making. Ironically, we are definitely seeing not only private businesses but also some of the semi-state businesses getting less and less influence over the process. At the same time, we see specific families becoming increasingly powerful, like the Rotenberg brothers, who are the main subcontractors of the state or for big state projects, like the Crimea bridge, for example. And the Kovalchuk brothers—the whole Kovalchuk family, as well—who are very much involved in the privatization of resources that used to be dedicated to developing different science projects and so on. So, as long as Putin is ill, these people technically control the budget, among other things.
Here’s an example, which I know about from my personal experience: I have good connections to Sergey Mironov, who is the head of this small social democratic party in the State Duma (which is now in the process of being destroyed thanks to some decisions made within the Kremlin, but that’s a different story). Every time there were problems in the past, Mironov was able to reach out to Putin, because they were friends for many years—that was one of the reasons why this party was able to exist at all. When there were problems, when something went wrong, he always had the chance to get a meeting with Putin, to complain to his old friend, the big boss, and the big boss always protected him. Now, the party is being forced to merge with two other parties that have nothing to do with social democracy and nothing to do with Mironov; Mironov seems to be in the process of being replaced and thrown out. So, I asked him, “Why didn’t you try to reach out to Putin so that Putin could save you like he did a few times before?” He said, “There was no way I could get to him. There was no way I could get a meeting. Everything’s controlled by two or three people, and there is just no way anyone can get access to the President.” So, in that sense, it’s also a technical issue. There is a small group, a very small group, which is trying to concentrate power. It’s not Putin alone; it’s a small group of people. But they control the president, among other things. And they are now in conflict with the rest of the elite, because they do not let others have access to Putin.
THE COMING CONTEST
Radhika Desai: So, I think we should probably wind things down, but I have a couple of important questions with which we can bring this interesting conversation to a close.
You painted a very vivid picture of how Putin’s power system has been undermined by recent challenges (neoliberal reforms, the COVID-19 pandemic, etc.), and how Putin is now facing this groundswell of opposition. But you have also described how Navalny is not necessarily the leader of this opposition—and we know that Duma elections are coming up in September this year, so more changes may be coming. With all that in mind, can you say a little bit about how you see all of this playing out? What political forces will benefit from this present political churning? What good, bad, and ugly scenarios do you think might possibly unfold?
Boris Kagarlitsky: Good, bad and ugly, huh? [Laughs]. Well, let’s see … I don’t see any good scenarios at this point. But let’s start with the forces on the ground. If you look at the Navalny bloc, a sociologist who runs the sociological opinion survey service gave Navalny’s party about 15% of the vote if we have fair elections. And by the way, 15% of the vote is pretty good, but it’s far from being the leader of the nation and running ahead of all other oppositional forces. The Communist Party is approximately at the same level. And, interestingly enough, whenever the party becomes more radical, when they have more radical party leaders, their potential share of the vote increases to about 25-30%. Altogether, the sociological score of United Russia, the ruling party, is about 25-30%. That’s bigger than any other party right now, but it’s still far below the level they used to be at, which was around 50-60%. So, they last half of their electorate, at least, if not more …
Radhika Desai: I should just clarify for listeners that United Russia is Putin’s party.
Boris Kagarlitsky: Yeah, it’s the official party, Putin’s party. And that party used to be very unpopular with the people in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but they managed to command and enjoy the support of great majorities in small towns in the rural areas. It’s interesting, because, as you also know from places like the United States, the most decaying, degenerating areas are not necessarily the ones where you find more leftwing views. Quite the opposite, actually—the people there are much more conservative. However, what Navalny produced, the so-called “Snow Revolution,” showed that the political geography has changed. Now, interestingly enough, it’s the small towns that are very angry. They’re not necessarily choosing any particular political force to represent them, but the most angry, most radical marches and protests were happening in the small towns, which used to be the bulwark of the official party.
If you’re just looking at the sheer number of the people who went to the streets, you can see here and there that there were, like, 500 people at smaller protests. Okay, by the population of the town where this or that protest took place is maybe only 10,000 people, you see? If you have a town with a population of 10,000, and you have 500 people in the streets, that’s a huge mass of people! It’s still a much higher proportion of the population than the protests in Moscow and in St. Petersburg.
So, the sociology of Russian politics is changing. And the big question is: Who is going to command the support of these people in the long run? But the strategy of the current presidential administration, by way of Sergey Kiriyenko, is very simple: “We are not going to allow any kind of vote to influence the outcome of the elections. The elections are too important to leave it to the voters …
Radhika Desai: [Laughs]. Correct.
Boris Kagarlitsky: And, you see, in 2020, we already developed a new way of counting votes here, which is the so-called “three day vote.” The voting process continues for three days, and for the first two days, the votes are not counted. So, usually there are votes that theoretically had to be cast in the first two days of the voting process but were prepared before the election. You already have the packs with the ballots, and these ballots are prepared before the election. They already did this in September 2020: They count votes on the last day of the election, but in the first two days we already have enough ballots to cover about 60% of the vote. Which means that, no matter how you vote, the outcome is already guaranteed.
Radhika Desai: It’s a form of ballot stuffing, basically …
Boris Kagarlitsky: Well, yes, it’s ballot stuffing of a sort, but it also doesn’t even allow you to count the votes! And this is what we already saw in September. I traveled around to a few regions at that time, and everywhere I went it was the same picture. Once you open the packages with the ballots from the first two days of the election, 100% of the ballots in the package were for the government candidate [laughs]. Not a single one for another candidate. They didn’t even try to pretend that there wasn’t anything shady happening.
This is why the big question is whether people will even take this election seriously. Out of the 450 candidates who are going to be elected, United Russia already selected 340 candidates. Now, I’ve got a report from one very well informed colleague that United Russia is saying that’s not enough, because they cannot satisfy everybody whose interests they’re supposed to be representing. So, now they are asking for five more seats: 340 out of 450 is not enough; you need 345 to make everyone happy. And so, for the opposition, that’s only going to leave 105 deputies.
But that’s only part of the story. To make things worse, the strategy of Kiriyenko is to prevent any opposition politician who is popular from running at all. This is very important: They’re not preventing these candidates from getting elected; they’re preventing them from running. Why? Because, if they run, they can organize a campaign, they can mobilize people, and then, once they get steamrolled by electoral fraud, they can use that fraud to mobilize their supporters to protest. So, the point is not to let them register to run in the first place.
Radhika Desai: If I may just clarify something for a second: What you said about Putin’s party wanting 345 seats assured for itself—this is some of the gossip you’re hearing coming out of the rumor mill?
Boris Kagarlitsky: Well, it’s kind of gossip, but I can guarantee it’s true [laughs], because it’s gossip that I have heard from the people who work for the administration …
Radhika Desai: Right. I just wanted our listeners to know that this was the case.
Boris Kagarlitsky: Okay. But the point is that their policy now is to prevent people from running. For example, I mentioned Nikolai Bondarenko before, right? Nikolai Bondarenko is a very famous and popular blogger in Saratov. Vyacheslav Volodin, the current Speaker of the Duma, is also from Saratov. And so, Bondarenko announced that he was going to run for the same constituency, for the same seat as Volodin. Of course, everybody knows that Bondarenko is many times more powerful than Volodin, especially in Saratov. And of course, we know that Bondarenko is not going to be allowed to win. So, now they accused Bondarenko, ironically, of financial fraud. They’re going to put him on trial. And once he (probably) gets sentenced, he’s not going to be put in jail, but he will be prevented from running for office, because according to Russian law, if you’re convicted, you cannot run. This is happening right now.
So, why did they accuse Bondarenko of financial fraud? Because he is collecting donations on his YouTube channel …
Radhika Desai: [Laughs]. That’s right …
Boris Kagarlitsky: This is considered to be financial fraud. And the same thing actually happened to another guy from the Moscow City Duma, who mentioned that he was probably going to run for the State Duma elections. He was the first one to be convicted of financial fraud, and they charged him because he redistributed money between his aides—money that was reserved for aides working for him in the Duma. He didn’t take a single penny of this money for himself. But they still said he was wrongfully distributing the money between his people. So, he was also convicted and kicked out of the City Duma. Now, after that happened, I made sure to post a statement on my YouTube channel saying, “I’m not going to run for the Duma” [laughs].
Radhika Desai: [Laughs]. Well, that actually brings me to the question: How are you planning to participate in the upcoming political processes this year? And what scenarios do you think might likely emerge after the election?
Boris Kagarlitsky: First of all, I think much will happen before the election that will determine the eventual outcome. Because, right now, they have plans, we have plans, everybody has plans—but these plans may change, and maybe some things will not go according to the plans, whether those are the plans of Kiriyenko, or Putin, or Kagarlitsky, or anybody else. That’s the first thing.
Second, I think that we have to build on this emerging bloc, this emerging coalition between the left wing or the independent wing of the Communist Party and the extra parliamentary left, which is an emerging force that has become increasingly visible in many regions. Whether it’s for elections or for anything else, we have to build that coalition up.
Of course, we also have certain leaders who are becoming increasingly important for the national agenda. Sergey Levchenko, for example, remains one of the most prominent people on the left. And there is a tremendous and continuous attack on him. Did you know that his son was arrested and is now in jail? Come to think of it, he is also accused of financial fraud [laughs] … It’s a very standard accusation.
Radhika Desai: It’s a good accusation to make against anyone you want to undermine, apparently …
Boris Kagarlitsky: Exactly. And it makes sense, too, because there are also quite a few people who are arrested for political charges, but in Russia those kinds of charges don’t work in terms of undermining reputations. On the contrary, if somebody is arrested for political charges, it is good for his reputation. That’s why they keep accusing people of financial fraud. And, you see, because the Russian financial system and the Russian tech system itself is so irregular and chaotic, it’s very easy to accuse people for any irregularities. Everyone knows that.
Anyhow, Sergey Levchenko’s son, Andrey Levchenko, who used to be a deputy for the original assembly, used to be the chair of the faction in the assembly, is now in jail. Actually, he was sitting in the same jail as Alexy Navalny. I don’t know whether or not they were in communication—you cannot really check, and there was no way you could contact these people. But the point is that Andrey Levchenko was sitting there for much longer. He’s been sitting there for a few months and they didn’t even interrogate him. He’s like a hostage.
We know that Sergey Levchenko is not the kind of person who will be frightened or will surrender. And Andrey is staying quite firm, too. So, I think that Sergey Levchenko is going to continue being active. And now the very interesting question is: How can the government prevent him from running in Irkutsk? It’s an open question, though, whether they will actually be able to do that—possibly not. We’ll see …
One problem is that, in many ways, the Communist Party leadership is an ally of the government against its own members. That makes it very difficult. But in April, we’re going to have the First Party Congress and we’ll see who’s going to win, because the party is moving towards a big conflict. One other rumor I heard—which might be true, or it might not be—from Levchenko and Rashkin themselves is that the presidential administration wants to replace Gennady Zyuganov, who is the current leader of the opposition party, with someone who is completely under control. Personally, I think Zyuganov is terrible, but still, as one of my CP colleagues told me, “You will miss him once he’s replaced by the new leader.”
Radhika Desai: Because the new candidate will be even more under the control of the Kremlin …
Boris Kagarlitsky: Exactly. So, that’s the strategy of the administration—whether it’s going to work, we don’t know. There is increasing resistance to it within the party. There is also a growing movement within local branches of the party, and some of the more radical activists have now been expelled. For example, Maxim Kukushkin in Khabarovsk, one of the most prominent leaders of the protests and a deputy elected to the Communist Party ticket, is now expelled from the party. Also, quite a few people are going to leave Spravedlivaya Rossiya(the Just Russia Party), because of the merger that has been imposed on them.
So, we are now trying to bring all these people together within one movement, one coalition, a broad left coalition, which involves the CP people, those who were expelled from the party, the extra-parliamentary left, trade unionists, and so on. And I think we can achieve quite a lot by going down this road. We have the support of at least some radical elements within the CP, and I think we now have the resources to do it, and we have the connections. So, we will be building up this coalition. And it’s not about elections—it’s about protest, it’s about grassroots politics, and it’s about long-term goals.
Radhika Desai directs the Geopolitical Economy Research Group and teaches at the University of Manitoba and is known for proposing the Geopolitical Economy framework for understanding world affairs.
Headline Photo: MOSCOW, RUSSIA – JANUARY 31: (RUSSIA OUT) Police face protesters during an unauthorized protest rally against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny clash with police, on January 31,2021, in Central Moscow, Russia. Police on Sunday detained more than 4100 protesters demanding the release of Vladimir Putin’s critic Alexei Navalny. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
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