“Relatively good, to bad, to worse."
That’s how the relationship between the United States and Russia was described at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative event, A Conversation with Vladimir Milov. Vladimir Milov, chairman of the Democratic Choice party in Russia, was welcomed by the Hudson Institute and Free Russia Foundation Monday afternoon to speak on matters of corruption and what lies ahead for Russia.
Milov worked in the Russian government in the 1990s and early 2000s and now represents the Institute for Energy Policy, a Moscow-based think tank. Corruption has changed in Russia since he was working for the Kremlin. In the 1990s, business and bureaucracy worked separately as two distinct entities. Private enterprise would often buy out government workers for favors in those days, but the two entities stayed relatively separate. Milov described the separation as a “firewall”.
Today, government bureaucracy and business are closely tied together. Yeltsin’s government was criticized, deservedly, for doling out favors to private interests, but today’s government, dead set on state investment, has failed to produce substantial growth in the Russian economy for quite some time. The investments that come into the country often do not stimulate the economy, rather, they enrich President Putin and his political allies. Many projects implemented by the Kremlin have been inefficient and provided little benefit to the Russian people, as has come up every so often as reported by the Russian business daily Vedomosti.
It is no question that the Russian government exercises extensive control over the state media. While some will point to President Putin’s sky-high approval rating as a broad mandate, Milov argued that that approval rating does not show the complexity of the stable but uncertain situation in Russia today. It’s true many ordinary Russians think quite highly of Putin himself, but the system he presides over still manages to invoke contempt among many of the Russian people. Russia today is a vertically oriented country-the system is exclusive and often prevents social mobility for the general populace. While the oligarchs do not have the same blatant influence they may have had under Yeltsin, they still control large portions of the government or government-subsidized industries.
It wasn’t that long ago that Russians were standing shoulder to shoulder in large anti-Putin demonstrations across the country in 2011 and 2012. Back then, Putin’s approval rating was stuck in the 40s.
“Then he injected a drug”, Milov explained. The drug being nationalism, a fervor that swept across Russia in 2014 as Crimea was annexed and the crusade against the “Fascist Kiev Junta” was on.
That fervor is still visible on TV today, but cracks may be starting to appear. Despite TV news continuing on about Ukraine, Syria, and the faults of the United States, the people of Russia are starting to slowly turn towards other priorities closer to home. Living standards are fading while the economy is starting to sink. Putin’s approval rating remains high but the authorities in general are still perceived negatively.
Elections, particularly regional elections, are still tightly controlled in Russia, but that doesn’t mean Russia’s elections are a forgone victory for United Russia. In the cities, for instance, members of the ruling party are slowly falling out of favor with the people, who are fatigued by this highly monopolized system. The patriotic fervor of regaining Crimea and fighting fascists in the Donbas are losing momentum.
In the past the Russian government has always been willing to propose plans to fix whatever issues are bothering the Russian people. That’s been a constant, regardless of whether the plan was effective or not. These days, however, the main refrain from the government has been to wait. Wait, things will stabilize and return to normal, and be patient, because it may take a few years.
This is not to say that Russia will see millions of protestors packed into Red Square in the near future calling for Putin to step down a la Maidan. The overall system in Russia is strong, and is unlikely to yield a popular uprising similar to Ukraine’s recent revolution. Milov attraibuted that to a more conservative and passive attitude among Russians when compared to Ukrainians. He did, however, expect some change, perhaps somewhat along the lines of what has happened recently in Turkey. For reference, Turkey has been under the control of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the right-wing Islamist Justice and Development Party, and his rule, like Putin’s, has been criticized for creeping authoritarianism. However, Turkey’s most recent election saw the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, lose its parliamentary majority and go to the coalition negotiation table with the secular opposition, the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) which came in second. While their party did not win the election, Turkish people who supported the CHP and other opposition parties seemed to come out of the election relieved that the system of checks and balances in Turkey was still alive and functioning. Milov stressed that this could be a turbulent and difficult time in Russia, but that the ultimate result could be a more democratic, less stagnant, and cleanly governed country.
Could things go the other way?
“Of course, and that’s in Putin’s interests!” Milov said. But evidence seems to point to the contrary. Irkutsk recently went through a political split away from United Russia as did Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city. Milov seemed to believe that low turnout may be a goal of the authorities. If Russians went out to vote in large numbers, they could, especially in the cities, present a large problem for the Kremlin.
“Public opinion still matters in Russia”, Milov explained. “Even the Kremlin wants to have the people content, and if they lose support, concessions can and very well may happen, such as in 2005 when pensioners’ benefits were monetized!”
Even the anti-American nationalist rhetoric will lose its luster if Russian standard of living continues to decline.
The subject of the murder of opposition activist Boris Nemtsov came up as well in the conversation. Milov, without hesitation, said he was under the impression that the Kremlin had arranged the assassination, stressing his knowledge of the way things worked in the Kremlin and a letter he send to the FSB rife with questions that he claimed point the finger at the state, but he also shed light on a division among liberal Russians-many of them believe that it is completely plausible that Mr. Nemtsov was simply killed by some Chechen thugs.
It didn’t take long after that for the subject to turn to one of Chechnya’s most (in)famous, Razman Kadyrov. Milov remained skeptical that Kadyrov was behind Nemtsov’s slaughter, since Mr. Kadyrov stood to lose from that type of stunt, as Kadyrov has fallen out of favor with many of Putin’s allies despite being close to Putin himself.
These types of tragedies and the search for justice, however, don’t seem to be the path to take for democratic change to happen in Russia. “If you talk to people about this kind of thing they tune out and ignore you. People want problems to be solved, and if you talk about that, people come to your side. People don’t want to talk about the murders and the bombings.”
Milov also stressed that even a period of turbulence leading to stronger democracy as suggested before would not immediately turn Russia into a western European republic. “When you speak about change, people think about Western types of democracy, forget it. We’re looking towards a more imperfect system but a better system, one where more voices need to be heard? More oppenness, competitiveness, we don’t need to western standards yet, get more competitiveness first!”
When asked what he’d do about the state media monopoly from the United States, Milov’s proposed first steps of action were simple-don’t let these moguls and oligarchs invest in the west.
It’s going to take a long time. It’s going to be turbulent and likely met with substantial skepticism and opposition. It may present problems for the governments in Russia’s neighbors. And it may not be in 2016 when the Duma elections are held or even in 2018 when Russians go back to the polls to elect a president for the next six years. And perhaps most importantly, despite the romaticization of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution, it probably won’t happen with crowds jamming Red Square for months upon months. But Russia’s stagnant and precarious position today will be called into question sooner or later. It’s up to the people to figure out how to steer the country to strength in democracy, economic diversity, and clean governance.