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Russia: Politics, Protests and the Presidential Election

Speakers: Leon Aron, Director of Russian Studies, American Enterprise Institute, Stephen Sestanovich, Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr., Member, Federal Council, Solidarity Democratic Movement
Presider: Fred Hiatt, Editorial Page Editor, Washington Post
February 29, 2012, Washington, DC
Council on Foreign Relations

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FRED HIATT: Appreciate everybody's attendance. Let me just remind everyone this is a meeting on the record, so watch what you say. And we will open it up to audience participation about halfway through.

Please turn off your cellphones, smartphones, BlackBerrys. Do not just put it on vibrate; turn it off. Otherwise, it interferes with the sound system.

And I'm not going to take a lot of time introducing the distinguished panel, whom you all know. Steve Sestanovich is the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies here at CFR. Vladimir is a former Duma candidate and a member of the federal council, the Solidarity Democratic Movement, and also a very prolific writer on the Russian political scene. And Leon Aron is a resident scholar at AEI, biographer of Yeltsin and other scholarly endeavors.

Vladimir, you had a wonderful little anecdote in something you posted yesterday, I think. He wrote that there was a Polish composer who went to an opera at the Bolshoi Theater a few days ago and sat in a box and found himself being booed and was kind of mystified by this until he was told afterwards that he bore an uncanny resemblance to the chairman of the election commission in Russia. (Laughter.)

So I thought I might start by asking you why is the chairman of the election commission a celebrity in Moscow? And more broadly, what does it mean we're going to see Sunday in the election and Monday after the election?

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA JR.: Well, in terms of Mr. Churov, who is -- who heads the electoral commission, he has become in many ways of course a symbol of the -- of the electoral fraud that characterized both the Duma election in December and I think is very likely to characterize the upcoming presidential election in -- on March the 4th, this Sunday. And his dismissal has been one of the main demands of the opposition protest, the biggest pro-democracy protest that Russia has seen in 20 years, since 1991.

And as far as this Sunday goes, I think it's much more important to see what happens on Monday rather than Sunday, just as in Serbia in 2000 or in the Ukraine in 2004, it's much more interesting and much more important what happens after the rigged election than on the day of it. I think it's -- the decision that Putin will be proclaimed the winner in the first round -- "winner" is not the right word -- declared winner in the first round was pre-determined after the authorities removed Grigory Yavlinsky, the only truly non-Kremlin alternative candidate, from the race and when the state-owned VTSIOM polling agency declared that Putin will receive more than 50 percent of the vote last week, which went against all the -- all the other polls for the past six or eight weeks, where he had in the high 30s and low 40s, nowhere near the 50 percent threshold necessary.

So it's not so much Sunday, it's Monday that's interesting. And the real question, I think, for this -- for this election is whether Russian society will be prepared to accept this, quote/unquote, "victory." And there, for the first time in more than a decade, I think the answer is far from certain to this.

HIATT: So let me just clarify, though. You're saying Putin will be declared the winner in the first round. But is there any chance given the field of candidates that he honestly will get more than 50 percent, you think? Or you think that's --

KARA-MURZA: Well, the word "honestly" is a tricky one, I mean -- (laughter) -- when you have candidates who weren't allowed to run in the first place. And then there was a study that showed that 72 percent of airtime on television was dedicated to Putin in the last two months and just 28 percent between -- split between the other four candidates. And we've seen attacks on independent media outlets such as Ekamaskuya (ph), Novaya Gazeta and Dosh (ph) television station just in the last two and three weeks.

I mean, a vote count is obviously a big part of an honest election. And in the Duma election on December the 4th, we saw the massive irregularities in the vote count as well. And the various estimates are that between 13 (million) and 15 million votes were stolen in favor of United Russia on December the 4th. And that was a trigger for the mass pro-democracy protests, which saw in excess of a hundred thousand people demonstrating on the streets of Moscow.

But I think even with the -- with the rest of the election being not honest -- that is, without participation by all candidates and without media -- normal media environment, even with just an honest vote count, it's very unlikely that he will honestly get more than 50 percent. I mean, all the polls that we've seen over the past eight weeks show him with between high 30s and early 40s. And then suddenly we had this jump by this government-run polling agency in the past week.

HIATT: So Steve, you -- in December when the big meeting started, you said there has been in the past in Russia some experience where people come out, and then there's nothing to keep them coming out, and so it kind of fizzles. In this case, there was March to keep people involved. So now March 5th does it fizzle, or what do you think happens the day after the election?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Well, the big surprise, in a way, of the past couple of months since December has not been popular mobilization to affect the outcome of the election, but Putin's own campaign. Putin has actually run a campaign, and hard. You know, in December a lot of us debated whether Putin's strategy would be liberalization or repression. And I think we didn't quite reckon with the possibility that he would actually make a really serious campaign of it, which he has done.

What have other -- his opponents have not run much of a campaign. They have been along for the ride. You don't see them blanketing Moscow with the material, buying up all the ads that they can, slinging around nasty comments about Putin, doing everything they can to bump up their vote. They're kind of indifferent.

But I would say popular mobilization has actually continued. I mean, this is going to be the most monitored election in Russian history because you have got an awareness that whether it is -- how fraudulent it is seen to be has a big political impact. And that's one of the reason that the next day is important.

And just a comment about the polls: One of the things that hasn't been said about the polls is that they switched over, as our polls often do not so long before the election, to likely voters. And that always produces a change in the -- in the -- in the percentages that are predicted. That may not account for the whole of it, but it is part of it. It hasn't been advertised. People haven't said -- pollsters haven't said, we're now measuring something different. They are, though.

HIATT: Mmm hmm.

Leon, what do you think is -- will Putin win on Sunday?

LEON ARON: (Chuckles.) Well, I wonder if, you know, running -- the difference between running and running alone is the same as -- you know, my Russian friends say, the difference between democracy and sovereign democracy is the same as between chair and electric chair. (Laughter.) So the -- I wonder -- I wonder if running alone is -- could be considered running.

And I'm saying "alone" because he barred -- literally barred everybody. Every single pro-democracy leader was barred, the last one being Yavlinsky, which brings me to a point that I've been making, which is I think it's going to be -- it is going to be a Pyrrhic victory. I think he is winding up a time bomb.

And there are several reasons for that, one of which is that he effectively disenfranchised 60 percent of the population. Why? Because by the opinion polls, if you look at the -- at the protesters, they were not asked who ideally you would like to have to run, but of the candidates -- and at that time Yavlinsky was still in the running -- of the candidates that are currently in the running, who would you vote for. Well, Yavlinsky got 30 percent, and the rest of them -- Prokhorov -- the rest four, Prokhorov, Zyuganov, Mironov and Zhirinovsky, got 39 percent. Then Yavlinsky was taken out.

So as a result, you left these people, these protesters, 60 percent of them, with nobody they would like. And some of the numbers -- I apologize; you know, social scientists -- one more figure -- the polls asked not just the likely voters, but people in general, how honest do you think these elections are going to be. Thirty-five percent already say they're going to be dirty. That's 40 million people. Then they were asked, how many of you -- would you participate in the protests. Thirteen percent -- that's between 14 (million) and 15 million people -- said, yes, we'll do it. Even if 2 (percent), 3 (percent), 4 percent of these really stick with this determination to go and protest -- and by the way, the protests are going to be throughout Russia, not just -- not just there -- I think that's really -- falls into the Pyrrhic victory category.

HIATT: So let me push on that a little bit, I mean, because Vladimir has said something similar, which is that this is the end of Putinism and -- even though Putin will win --

SESTANOVICH (?): Mmm hmm. (Affirmative.)

HIATT: But how does that happen? I mean, he's going to win an election. We assume he has a six-year term, Parliament has a term, people may come out and demonstrate, and then the next day life goes on. So what does it mean to say this is the end of Putin? Give us a quick scenario of where it's heading.

KARA-MURZA: Well, first of all, life doesn't go on -- doesn't go on, life as usual for them. I think we can say with certainty that even if or even when Putin declares his victory on Sunday night, the Putin era, as we knew it for the past 12 years has finished. It ended on -- in December when in excess of 100,000 people came out to brave the freezing colds to protest the rigged election.

And it ended because not so long ago, in the early and mid-2000s, Putin can do anything he pleased. He could just ride roughshod over society and the country. He could shut down independent TV stations, jail his opponents, deny opposition parties, registration and expect nothing but silence in return -- silence and apathy.

Well, that time is over, and that time is not coming back. And that's -- I think the biggest change to happen in Russia in the last few weeks. And there's this new sense of hope and optimism I see among, you know, like-minded people, among the democratic-minded people in Moscow and Petersburg and other places that we haven't seen in 20 years.

HIATT: Is Putinism over?

SESTANOVICH: Well, I think we may pay a bit too much attention to the protests and -- not that they're not important; they're fundamental. And they reflect something very important which is the kind of erosion of fear. But I think there's something else that is important that is related to the future of Putinism and that is the fact that you see -- you have so many signs of a -- of division within the elite and that, I think, is really the big difference that we -- that you'll -- you ought to see right away, but we've already seen it in the past couple of months.

Putin has been able to coopt people. He's been able to tell them what to do, bring them onto his team. You now have an elite that is much more wary of cooptation. I mean -- and one interesting indicator will be what Kudrin (ph) does -- the former finance minister, THE most respected member of Putin's government; the -- you know, finance minister of the year; this -- somebody who has a kind of reputation that sets them apart from other Russian functionaries.

He's gone into opposition. People talk about bringing him back as prime minister, and maybe that'll happen. But Putin's own choices in the election -- here I think the way he's running the election may be sort of important -- he's chosen to run an election -- run a campaign in which he said basically his opponents are paid agents of the West. And we've laughed in December and thought, oh, that will never work; that shows Putin doesn't get it. He stuck with it, and he actually fired up the base.

But, it may have been a costly choice. It makes it harder for people to rejoin, to sort of heal the division within the elite, and I think it makes it more likely that you're going to have people who make a break with him, who really -- who see the future in a different kind of party system, in distancing themselves from what he has stood for and that means he's got a shakier position.

Hizman Zirkoff (ph) said in December when he -- when he was fired, he said, you know, United Russia is not a majority anymore. The group that -- the elite that Putin has purported to represent doesn't command a majority anymore. It's just another minority.

HIATT: So, OK, there's less fear. He's less popular than maybe he genuinely was 10 years ago. The elite's not so sure. But still so what? He's got the levers of power. What (happens ?)?

ARON: Yeah, Fred, there's a -- I think we could kind of deepen and broaden the whole thing.

The first thing is that -- it's been an open secret for a year -- at least a year and a half, discussed in the elite magazines, not just in the opposition -- in fact, largely in the elite publications -- that Putin, as the socioeconomic system that produced stability and delivered, is gone. It cannot deliver any more. And I'm not going to go into details, but there are very serious economic, social and political arguments -- cannot solve the horrible -- I mean, that cannot solve very serious problems Russia('s) facing: demographic; social; political, of course; and economic mostly. That's the first thing.

The second thing is there's a generational time bomb, here, Fred.

The -- a quarter of those who protested were under the age of 25. Over half were under the age of 40. Just think about it. These are the people who -- all right, they were either children or very, very young teens when the Soviet Union fell. Unlike their grandparents and their parents, they're not really susceptible to the key legitimizing slogan of Putinism, "OK, but this is better than it used -- than it used be." Not only in the Soviet Union, my goodness, you could, you know, buy milk without queuing --

HIATT: Even the chaotic 90s.

ARON: -- but could -- the so-called -- yes, the chaotic horrible 90s, which, of course, delivered all the reforms to Putin on a -- on a -- on a -- on a platter.

And the final -- and a bit about the generational thing. So for -- to these boys and girls, who sign up for demonstrations on Facebook and who fired up -- were fired by what they read in blogs and (left journal ?), to have somebody -- anybody -- who, after 12 years in power, wants another 12 -- which is a few years short of Stalin, six years longer than Brezhnev -- is an existential monstrosity. They are not particularly political, as they say, and such categories as, you know, "you've gotta be kidding" or "this sucks," may not be part of the acceptable political jargon, but this is what you get from their -- from their blogs and this is what you get from their communications. To them there is no reconciliation. It's an existential incompatibility.

One final thing, Fred. There's a very troubling historic precedent for this. Of course, you know, from the books of Daniel Bell (ph) or Simone Martin Lipsett (ph) or Sam Huntington (ph), a middle class lives through a period of enormous personal prosperity and personal liberty. It expands, and now it wants a say in how the country's governed. We had this in the 70s, in Greece, Portugal, Spain. We had it with the Asian tigers in the 80s. It may be Russia's turn now. And that to me is the worst news for the regime.

HIATT: Mmm hmm. (Affirmative.)

KARA-MURZA: And if I could add on this point, I think -- we often compare this to '91, what's happening now. But I think in a way it's more significant than '91 because 20 years ago was as much about economics as it was about politics. Obviously these -- that -- you know, the protests then were about as much the economic misery of Soviet socialism as it was about the lack of freedom. Today the economic slogans are not there. They're nonexistent.

These are, as Leon said exactly, these are the people who -- the people that are driving these protests, they're the people who already achieved economic well-being and now they want to live in a country with rule of law; they want to be respected; they want to be treated as citizens, not as monkeys -- (in Russian) -- as Putin called them on Channel One in December openly. They want to have a say. They don't want, you know, some guy coming out, exactly as you said, and saying, you know, I've been in power for 12 years; I want another 12; and I'm going to stay for another 12 just because I decided so. That was the point when this active, educated part of society said enough is enough. And that's what we're seeing.

SESTANOVICH: I think the evocation of the '90s actually still matters to some people, and polls show that people don't want a revolution. They fear instability, but less than they used to. And they -- it's in a way an achievement of Putin's that people now think we can have a transformation; we can have reform that doesn't produce an Orange Revolution, that doesn't produce a social breakdown.

HIATT: So what -- so does that mean he's going preside over reforms or do you think there will be some kind of constitutional break? What -- what's the scenario?

SESTANOVICH: You know, I don't do Putin mind-reading because I think it doesn't pay. He is -- he keeps his own counsel. If you had to ask, are there indications from the campaign that he gets it, I think you'd have relatively limited evidence.

There are the hints about modernization, the suggestions that there can be this or that limited political reform. But he has -- you know, he's gone back to what he's -- what he knows how to do and what he's good at and that is -- has been polarizing. It's -- I think cost him the opportunity, if he had one, to kind of win back people that he could have shown a more Medvedev-like face to.

Incidentally, I think we should not have in mind that this is something just started when he and Medvedev changed positions or when there was the fraud in the December elections. The number of people who've been prepared to say they don't have confidence in Putin has gone from 8 percent in 2008 to 24 percent last year. So that's a critical mass, really, for an opposition; it's not a majority. And one of the questions for these people is how do you bridge the demographics and try to bring in others so that you actually could create a ruling majority?

HIATT: So you said now that he's lost the intelligentsia, he's lost Russia. But you know, other people would say, well, these appeals about American agents and so forth seem pretty successful in the heartland. And why can't he run a Rick Santorum-like campaign against the elites, and not just campaign, but government? I mean, why does --

ARON: He does it. He -- that's his constituency. Steve was right, I mean, that he and Medvedev -- until he destroyed Medvedev, literally, politically, on 24th of September, his arm around him and -- this man leaving, I'm taking over -- that was the end of Medvedev. But he does have his constituency. It's -- Kirill Rogov defined it as Russia two. It's about 70 million people, the majority, and they're in small towns, and they're in the provinces.

The real issue is -- and you know, I hate to say it in this big democracy of ours that I love -- that doesn't matter. Every reform, every revolution -- you know, we know about interest groups -- they're never done by a majority. In Russia particularly, which is -- which is, like France and Germany, is so concentrated in Moscow, maybe St. Petersburg, every political change took place there. And in general, this is what happens.

Now, it's one thing if a minority wants to impose its will. Then it's really bloody. But I don't think Steve gave a good statistical datum. What we read -- I don't think people are willing to die or shoot for Putin. It's -- you know, it's maybe, you know, close to the sort of softer authoritarian exit -- Marcos, to a certain extent; Mubarak -- it is not -- it is not an October Revolution. So --

SESTANOVICH: I don't think it's right that the -- what the mass of people thinks doesn't matter in Russia. I think it can be the basis for an awkward, contentious, often unstable political rule. But if Putin can hold the working class with him, he is -- he's not in irrelevance in Russian politics.

I think that's -- it's important not to exaggerate the hold that he has on less educated, less urban, less middle-class people. There are --

HIATT: Yeah, less advanced, as a Russian friend of mine said.

SESTANOVICH: A reporter that -- an American reporter, whom I won't name, went to a(n) industrial town recently and said if Putin had been along, he would have been lynched, that there was really ferocious anti-Putinism there.

On the other hand, I think it really matters for the -- for the protesters whether when they turn, as they have to, to electoral politics, when they start running candidates in local and regional elections -- which are coming up next fall; that's going to be the next round of politics -- they have to be able to broaden their base. They don't have a lot of people who can really do that. They have some. But it's true in Russian politics, in Russia, that the middle class is still nervous about the masses. They fear them, and they think, maybe this is dangerous; we don't want to unleash this people.

KARA-MURZA: If I -- if I could add to that, Fred --

HIATT: Yeah, just in support of that story about the industrial heartland, I was talking this morning to somebody who'd been arrested in December and said that the police all made a point of saying, we don't like Putin, we didn't vote for United Russia. And so --

ARON: By the way, Fred --

HIATT: -- it's not just the --

ARON: I said -- I said not just intelligentsia in that quote; I said he lost Moscow and the intelligentsia. In Moscow, by the way, in the public opinion polls -- again, polling the demonstrators -- it's a lie that they're all rich and they're all there in their mink coats -- no, 5 percent. But the middle class, the people who say they can -- they can afford food, clothing and maybe a television set -- (about ?) 40 percent; another 29 percent said, we can afford a car. So in Moscow and, I assure you, in all large cities, it was similar demographics.

And again, I think -- I think Russia's fate always been decided in Moscow and larger cities.

HIATT: Vladimir, you want to take this one?

KARA-MURZA: And on the same point, actually, it's what the Kremlin propaganda tries to portray: This is a tiny minority of rich, Western-educated people, whatever, against the mass of the country. This is -- this is just a lie. I mean, to continue from Leon's figures -- and there was a big Levada poll a couple of months ago, not of the protesters, but of the general population. And 43 percent of the general Russian population support these protests and their demands. I mean, it's hard to -- not to support a demand for free and fair elections. Who's going to be against that?

And you're exactly right as well: He has lost Moscow and St. Petersburg. It's not just intelligentsia. That's what they're trying to do is they're trying to -- and Govorukhin, Putin's chief of the campaign -- he said these -- he repeated Lenin's phrase about intelligentsia, which I'm not going to repeat here; you all know it. (Laughter.) And he said, these are -- and -- I mean, he -- they're trying to do that. They're trying to divide the -- they call it the 15 percent against the 85 percent. That's Channel One line, Channel Rossiya line, the state TV line.

That's just not -- that's simply not the case. This is -- this is the most active part of society. Yes, and it does -- and what happens in Russia does happen in Moscow and St. Petersburg. For good or -- for bad or worse, that's what has happened.

And let's not forget that it took just one rally of a hundred thousand people in downtown Moscow to return direct gubernatorial elections, which Medvedev promised will not come back in a hundred years. And they returned them three days after that first Bolotnaya rally. Let's just not forget that as well.

So this is -- this is a national movement.

SESTANOVICH: But who's going to win the gubernatorial elections? My point is when you get to electoral politics, it is going to matter which blocs of society you can draw support from. And I think it's -- it is not clear yet whether the protesters have a conception of what they want to do and whom they can appeal to that will enable them to go beyond their own ranks.

KARA-MURZA: Sure. It's the early stage yet. We're in the stage of --

SESTANOVICH: I -- absolutely.

KARA-MURZA: You know, to use the analogies again, we're in the stage of -- in Serbia in 2000 when -- you know, to take two, three months -- of course, they split up. And when we have a free election, which we will have, and I think earlier than people anticipate -- all of the people you see on the square -- they'll be in five or six different camps. I mean, that's natural. For now we have this one unifying goal of -- goal of getting rid of this -- of this insulting, repressive regime and corrupt regime that has been there for 12 years and wants another 12. That's the goal for now.

And of course you're right. Once there is free elections, you're going to see different camps. You're not going to see Nemtsov and Udaltsov in the same -- in the same party or in the same bloc of parliament.

HIATT: Which raises -- we haven't even gotten to the question of nationalism and whether it could go that way. But let's let the audience in. The gentlemen here.

Please -- I'm supposed to tell you -- when you get the microphone, stand, state your name and affiliation, and keep the questions brief.

QUESTIONER: Jim Moody with -- Jim Moody with Merrill Lynch. Been to Russia many times, but not lately. I know this talk is about Russian politics, domestic politics, in effect. Does -- and of course we look at our own national politics now, where we hear a lot of commentary about international issues. Is there any impact of international issues in this (context ?)? In particular, how would Russians feel about supporting this terrible dictator, I guess we would all agree, in Syria? Does that make any difference at all, or is that just way off the chart?

HIATT: Yeah, great question. Will Russian foreign policy be affected by democracy?

SESTANOVICH: I haven't seen any polls that indicate how these issues resonate. And I -- my colleagues know the answer. This has been a campaign in which international issues have played out this way: You get a crowd of 200 people in front of the U.S. embassy with posters saying, 856 people died in Egypt in the revolution; we're not going to have that here; we're not prepared to die. So it's been to call up a picture of instability, chaos, bloodshed that they want to avoid, you know. They Arab Spring is a cautionary tale for them.

KARA-MURZA: If I could -- on Syria specifically --

SESTANOVICH: It's a totally staged demonstration.

KARA-MURZA: Yeah. You're right. (Laughter.)

On Syria, the opposition leaders have publicly condemned the position of Putin's government on this veto, and Kasyanov was the one who came out most publicly against it, saying this is just preposterous, you know, that in the name of Russia, this regime is supporting this -- what's going on there.

But you're absolutely right, and foreign policy has not been anywhere near to the center of this campaign, except for this -- kind of the allegations that the opposition are Western-sponsored, U.S.-sponsored. And I just -- I just wanted to add as well that I think this stopped working as well, just as the reference to the horrible '90s, which most of the protesters or half the protesters don't remember having lived through -- s same with this reference to the Western sponsors, Western stooges. The same opinion poll that we -- that we cited earlier shows that there was a question: Whom do you think these protesters represent? This was, again, to the general population. And this was after Putin publicly said that Hillary Clinton is behind the protests. And 13 percent, 1-3, said that they represent the Western sponsors. Forty-three percent said either ordinary people or the middle class. And I think that's the answer to this -- to this Western-sponsored nonsense.

ARON: Fred, I think -- I'm not sure it's -- if it's disagreement, but I think there's an important facet that we need to mention here. It's true that in the campaign itself foreign policy played very -- a very, very minor role. However, foreign policy was deployed by Putin to -- or at least statements about foreign policy -- deployed by Putin to bolster, to energize the base, as Steve said.

And he's been pretty bad, you know -- you know, not just Hillary Clinton paying for the protesters but essentially, you know, it's a traditional authoritarian kind of thing -- you're -- we're a besieged fortress, and I'm here to protect you, and nobody else will protect you -- you know, the usual. He did it in 2007 and so on and so forth.

The implication here, though, which I would not dismiss, is that even assuming that he would want to change the relationship, say, with the United States specifically, West in general -- and that's a big if, because for these types of regimes, the besieged fortress -- I mean, Surkov started it after Beslan. I mean, this is -- this is how those regimes survived, you know. We're -- you know, don't come to me with democracy and all kinds of niceties; hey, we're -- you know, the enemies are about to kill us all.

By the way, read his speech on the -- on the anniversary of the creation of the Red Army, 23rd of February -- could have been, you know, the '70s, where these types of speeches were taking place.

So assuming that he would want to start, you know, shifting a bit, pivoting a bit towards a more -- you know, less aggressive, less assertive pose, if you wish -- that would take -- it's a big country. It's not like China. (Chuckles.) It will not take 10 years, but it will --

HIATT: Well --

ARON: -- it will take good a year or so.

HIATT: I would ask, on the contrary, if Putinism as much as trouble as you think it is, should we worry that to save his administration, we will see increased aggressiveness with Georgia or the Baltics or some other --

ARON: It's very plausible. It's very -- but even if -- even if it -- if it stops at this level and just at the rhetorical level, by the way, which also, you know, among other things -- it's not just Syria; it's no talks on missile defense whatsoever, and if you proceed with it, we'll do A, B, C and D -- pretty nasty stuff.

HIATT: Yeah.

ARON: So the real issue, even if he wants to stop it, combined with the either new administration or re-elected administration, which I think is going to fundamentally -- in the light of what's happening, fundamentally reassess its attitude towards Russia -- I think between May, when -- if Putin is inaugurated, May of this year to at least a year after, it will be pretty frosty and cold.

HIATT: And then we may have a reset? Is that what you're suggesting? (Laughter.)

ARON: (Chuckles.) Yes.

HIATT: Other questions?

In the back. Avis.

QUESTIONER: Avis Bohlen, retired --

HIATT: Wait for the microphone.

QUESTIONER: I'm sorry. Avis Bohlen, retired foreign service officer. My question is, what happens next? What happens on March 6th, 7th, so on? You've all made a very convincing case that Putin has lost a lot of his legitimacy, that his sort of mantle of heaven has started to come off. And how does the next year evolve?

SESTANOVICH: One of the things that's commonly said in Moscow is that united Russia is going to be put to sleep as an organization and the question is, what'll take its place?

Other people are -- you know, not thinking too much about Sunday -- are planning parties. Prokhorov has announced a semi-party. It's mysterious in the way that a lot of what Prokhorov does is. He said it's going to be a leaderless party. It's going to be more an alliance of NGOs.

Kudrin is clearly planning a party. There is going to be an effort to prepare for elections in the fall because the new leadership is probably going to come from people who do well in that round of elections. If you win the way Yeltsin won in Territorial District Number 1 in Moscow in 1988 --

MR. : Nine.

MR. : Eight-nine.

SESTANOVICH: -- (198)9, you know, you have a standing that other people don't, and that's the -- new leaders are going to emerge through that. They're going to be running, starting in the -- in the fall. They can quickly eclipse the Yavlinskys and Nemtsovs --

MR. : (I think that's right ?).

SESTANOVICH: -- and others who have been the marquee liberals for the past 20 years.

HIATT: So we may see real politics coming back.

SESTANOVICH: That's the potential in -- that people have in trying to exploit what is probably going to be some sort of political reform bill, the first reading of which was in the Duma yesterday, making it easier to form parties. But even without some of that, the -- there are going to be elections in the fall, and I think it'll be an active season.

HIATT: OK.

KARA-MURZA: I think a lot will depend on what happens four days from now, Monday, the 5th of March.

The -- there was a -- there was an article this morning by Boris Akunin, the prominent writer, mystery novel writer, and he said -- in which he basically expressed bewilderment at how the authorities -- not the opposition but the authorities -- are doing everything actually to lead to an Orange Revolution next week because -- or the color revolution -- because, as you probably know, they have banned our rally on Monday, but we're still going to come out, and it's not going to be the same as when you had 3(00) or 400 people coming out and (you can find there ?) they used to, you know, round everybody up and drive into police stations. If you're going to have 50(,000) or 100(,000) or 200,000 people come out, what are they going to do?

I mean, last -- in December, when this movement just began, a local police official in St. Petersburg, a colonel, told one of our colleagues there that, you know, guys, it was nothing personal. When there were 2,000 of you coming out, we would round you up and arrest you. When there will be 20,000 of you, we're going to think. When there are 200,000 of you, we're going to take off our uniform and join you. That's literally what he said.

So I think literally this next week is going to be crucial in determining what happens -- what happens next and for the following few weeks and months.

SESTANOVICH: One small point. You know, there are two groups, the -- a Kremlin youth group -- and some of the protesters, who have said they're going to be in Lubyanka Square on March 5th, and that hasn't been sorted out yet, but that's a kind of recipe for a fight.

HIATT: Violence, mmm hmm.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Anya Schmemann, Council on Foreign Relations. The Putin regime has been largely bolstered by oil income, and it's said that the U.S. election may hinge on high gas prices. But what is economic outlook for Russia? How will oil prices change the picture? And can Putin keep delivering the goods?

ARON: This is -- this is a key question. The -- this is precisely why I think it's so dangerous. The revival -- you know, the stability and all those things with which Putin is credited -- if you look at '99 and compare the price of oil, which I think hovered around $18 a barrel, and chart Putin's rise and the GDP of economy, the three charts that are remarkably interesting -- the growth of the Russian GDP, the growth of Putin's popularity and the growth in the price of oil -- they're parallel. Sometimes they merge.

So your question is a very good one. What surprised me in the debates, in the economic debates, of the last year -- it's not -- again, it's not now -- is that with all of this, with all of this, there is the consensus among the top Russian economists that even if the price of oil is where it is now, the years of '13, '14 will have to bring a major belt-tightening. The pension fund is bust. They have 50 (million) to 60 million retirees who have zero personal savings, and they're all there for the state to support them. The usual demographics -- you know, 1.2 worker per a retiree -- is exacerbated by the horrendous male mortality in Russia. I'm not going to go into that, but it's beyond -- it's beyond -- it's the Third World, Fourth World, whatever. Other things are extremely important.

And it's almost like a perfect storm. And it is a consensus. Kudrin spoke about this. Many people spoke about this -- '13, '14, maybe '15 at the latest, whoever is in power will have to go through major reforms that Putin postponed, go through the lightening of the government, all sorts of things. But you can do it if you have legitimacy. It's very painful.

And the real issue is even with the price of oil as it is now or even higher, whether Putin will have enough legitimacy to come to the people and start telling them to tighten their belts. That is -- that is, if things do not happen quickly and it starts a slow erosion -- which is fine; I mean, you know, Pyrrhic victories take time -- and they go through the elections, still there will be 2014 where he would have to prevent the state from going bust. And how you do it with decreasing legitimacy -- I think that, we could assume -- is a big question.

KARA-MURZA: I think we also should discount the corruption factor in this.

MR. : (Inaudible.)

KARA-MURZA: And the INDEM Foundation estimates that up to a quarter of Russian GDP is eaten up by corruption every year. And at some point this becomes unsustainable.

And also, going back to what we -- to what we spoke early about, the nature of the -- of this movement for democracy that was born in December -- and it continues now -- it's not economics or even -- it's -- you know, as I said before, these are the people who want political rights, who want to be treated as citizens, who want civic dignity. They have the economic well-being. That's not -- and they're against the regime. So it's not as simple as maybe it was a few years ago when, you know, the world being -- the general population is growing, and support for the regime is stable. These are the people who are well-off, but they want to -- they want to have rule of law; they want to have freedoms. And they've had enough of 12 years of one ruler. So this maybe kind of lessens the importance of that factor a little bit as well.

HIATT: (Inaudible.)

Question right there, and then we'll come to the front.

QUESTIONER: Hi, I'm Susan Cornwell with Reuters. I -- one of you -- I think it was Mr. Aron -- said that you expected the Obama administration, if it's re-elected, to reassess its relations with Russia. And I just wondered if you could elaborate on that, why that would happen. Is that because you're assuming it'll probably be Putin, and they might want to reassess that relationship? Or what was behind that remark?

ARON: Well, you know, without going into the details of the reset, the -- yes, there will be a reassessment, partly because of what Russia did with respect to Syria. In other words -- in other words, the Russian domestic politics -- let me -- let me put it this way and end on this -- the Russian domestic politics are -- is going to move to the -- close to the center or the center of the U.S.-Russian relations. If you have a regime that is now at least, you know, very actively detested by a sizable chunk of the population, you build your relationship differently with that regime. Of course you -- you know, you continue to work on the things that are mutually beneficial, and we all know all of that. But how much -- you know, how many eggs are you -- are you still putting in Putin's basket? And with Medvedev finished as a political persona, who is there to provide the cover for, you know, a liberal hope that we all had for Russia is a big question.

So I think there'll be -- at the very least, there'll -- the reassessment will involve some sort of tightening of the relationship. We will stop talking about, you know, broad resets that would influence the atmosphere. And don't forget that, again, the -- if re-elected, the administration will have to decide on the missile defense. Presumably, it's moving forward, something that Russia is deadly opposed to. So there's going to be trouble, fundamental change.

SESTANOVICH: For almost 30 years every newly chosen or elected Russian leader has wanted to improve relations with the United States -- Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin, Medvedev. And I think given that, one should at least entertain the possibility that that will be a kind of strategic offensive for Putin.

Some of the issues that Leon describes as problems are definitely going to be problems. But if the Assad regime falls in the next few months -- and you know, I think one could make a case that that's in the cards -- that will certainly be one source of irritation that is removed.

The impression I have from talking to people inside the administration is that the actions taken, particularly over Syria and the anti-American rhetoric, have led to a sourer view of what it's like to deal with Russia and the potential for real benefit. But I would still add to that, you know, if you end up with Putin making a big effort to try to find a way to lower the tensions and to show some progress on issues that matter to the administration, I would say it'll be taken into account, at the very least.

And I think missile defense is one that is going to be extremely difficult to find common ground on. But just this week Putin sat and talked to experts about this, and they were mostly telling him, you know, you could probably handle this a little better than you're doing it.

ARON: I agree, with one -- with one caveat -- with one caveat, Steve, and that is, you know, the usual question of politics: What's in it for Putin? In other words, why would he domestically -- and you know, in the end, you know, all foreign policy is about domestic politics. Why in the end he would want a better relationship with the United States if several legitimizing devices are already eroded and -- but one that's traditional bedrock, I'm here to protect you from America, may still work.

HIATT: Angela.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Angela Stent from Georgetown University. Leon, there's a fourth chart you could have referred to vis-a-vis oil prices, and that's the correlation between oil prices and U.S.-Russian relations. (Laughter.) And surprise, surprise: Usually lower oil prices produce better U.S.-Russian relations.

ARON: True, that's very true.

QUESTIONER: And right now oil prices are rising. That's not my question. My question is the future of what is going to unite the opposition. It comes back to what you mentioned, Fred, at the end. Not everyone out in the streets are liberals or democrats. You have nationalists, mild nationalists, extreme nationalists, proto-fascists, whatever. They're united because they want Putin to leave the Kremlin. Once he's back, what unites them? Or could you really see more fissiparious tendencies there? And what happens to this sort of nationalist vote? And of course we know that Alexey Navalny, right, maybe the most popular of this leaderless protest movement, is both an anti-corruption fighter, but also a Russian nationalist.

HIATT: Do you want to take a crack at that?

KARA-MURZA: I could start on that. Angela, thanks for the question. And I think that's another -- that's another kind of bogus threat that the Kremlin's people are really interested in and increasing, that you know, these people are extreme nationalists. Well, when the state TV covered the opposition protests, they tried to pick out from the crowd, you know, people with masks or with black flags and, you know, some -- you know, some nationalist activists to say, that's what they're trying to peddle to. This was completely refuted by a big polled study that I think Leon referred to as well earlier. There was a -- one of the biggest protests was on Sakharov Avenue at the end of December when 120,000 people were there. And Lavada Santa (ph) did a big poll of the protesters. And 69 percent described their views either as democrat or liberal.

MR. : Correct.

KARA-MURZA: Nationalists were 6 percent. So I think we just -- we should keep this in perspective. Thirteen percent were communists. So if you -- if you group these two as, you know, kind of nondemocratic, that would still be less than one-fifth of the masses of people who are out in the streets.

But the slogans that unite the opposition movement now are obviously nonpolitical and nonpartisan. The main three are: release political prisoners -- which would mean from all stripes -- of course to register opposition parties -- once again would mean everything, everybody -- and hold new early elections, first parliamentary, which was the main demand after the Duma vote, and now I'm sure after this fraudulent vote on Sunday, we'll see the demand for early presidential elections as well.

And actually, it's really important what Steve talked about earlier. One of the concessions offered by the Kremlin after the first protest was the easing of the political party registration process. So we will see an appearance of new parties. We're already seeing them now. You mentioned some of them. There are going to be left-wing groups like Udaltsov's. There's going to be nationalist people like Savelyev and others. There's going to be, obviously, very active party-building in the -- in the liberal -- (inaudible) -- Nemtsov, Kasyanov and Reshkov (ph), the Party of Popular Freedom. That will be registered now with the new rules. We see Yabloko still there. Navalny hasn't actually yet indicated that he is interested in that type of thing. But we will see that -- the fragmentation, but I don't think that goes against keeping a single, unified bloc.

But this is all, of course, while the regime is there. I think while the regime is there, we don't have to worry about splits in the opposition. While -- when it's gone and when we have a free parliamentary election -- and more and more people are now talking about a new constituent assembly on -- kind of on the model of the one we had or we would have had -- but you know, in 1917, which was dispersed after one day -- but the Yabloko came out with this officially just this morning that they're calling for a new Constituent Assembly, one -- and if that election takes place, you will see, you know, a multitude of -- we'll all split up in different camps. But that's normal; that's democracy. You don't -- you know, you don't expect one single, unified bloc in a democracy. But we're not at that stage yet.

HIATT: Yeah.

QUESTIONER: Russia is set to enter the --

HIATT: (Inaudible.)

QUESTIONER: I'm sorry. John Selib with Senator Max Baucus. Russia is set to enter the World Trade Organization this summer. What impact will greater economic integration have on Russia's politics, corruption, human rights, if any, do you expect?

HIATT: You don't want to throw Jackson-Vanik in there? (Laughter.)

MR. : I'm --

MR. : (Inaudible) -- Jackson-Vanik.

MR. : OK.

ARON: Can I take a crack at this first?

HIATT: Sure.

ARON: I'm afraid not much. You know, foreign -- trade with Russia is under 1 percent of overall U.S. trade, world trade. Forward I think there is a benefit because presumably, we will try, through the mechanisms provided and tools provided by the WTO, to go and enforce certain things and protect our companies better. Presumably, that would also have some sort of salutary effect on the situation in general.

But overall, I think certainly Putin will be able to contain that very well. His constituency, if -- you know, we're talking about Russia 2, small towns -- and he has an economic constituency too. And that's of course, you know, the very inefficient -- essentially former (kolkhoz ?) chairmen, who produce food. It's more expensive and worse than the frozen parts, for example, they get -- they get from Tyson's or from Montana -- the beef from Montana.

And this is -- this is the sort of thing that I think Putin will be very happy to, you know, tweak if not curtail, so let them pay higher prices, but it's for our -- you know, for our stuff.

So I'm not sure that -- you know, if he goes that road of the general kind of tightening of boundaries, more assertive position in foreign policy, why not go for some sort of, you know, economic -- not, of course, you know, complete isolation -- that's impossible -- but to sell oil, you don't need WTO.

And so -- and so I think that the salutary effect is probably going to be minimal.

SESTANOVICH: One of the ways in which you make the numbers add up for Russia -- for the Russian economy over the next 10, 20 years is through significantly increased foreign investment. And the obstacle to foreign investment is not being out of the WTO; it's rule of law -- absence of rule of law, corruption, the difficulty of doing business, the sheer horror of having to cope with, you know, Russian officialdom.

But for that, WTO is not the solution. But it's a step. And it's being used in the way -- it can be used, particularly by single-minded Russian leadership, to push the kinds of reforms that are not absolutely required by WTO but that can advance a solution to the problems that impede foreign investment. So it's part of that strategy toward dealing with economic difficulties, with a political implication, of course, too: You're taking on the state bureaucracy.

KARA-MURZA: And there is an important human rights aspect to this too. As Congress will presumably move to consider the elimination of Jackson-Vanik with the WTO membership, there's a -- there's an idea which is growing in popularity on the Hill, as you know better than I do, of replacing Jackson-Vanik with a new bill, which is called S. 1039, the Sergei Magnitski Rule of Law Accountability Act, which is bipartisan, already co-signed by 29 U.S. senators, from the liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans. And the Russian political opposition and the Russian civil society actors are very much in support of this idea. The idea is to remove sanctions from the entire country, which is effectively Jackson-Vanik, and replace them with specific targeted sanctions against those officials who violate internationally recognized human rights, who engage in election fraud and all these violations of freedom of assembly.

This is the same model as the Belarus Democracy Act already adopted, so remove sanctions from a country -- from the country and introduce targeted visa bans and asset freezes on those corrupt officials and human rights violators among the Russian government. And I think that would be a very important switch, and that would certainly help a lot to help the cause of human rights in Russia, because they notice these things. I mean, they want to disperse rallies like in Burma or rig elections like in Zimbabwe, but they want to go shopping to New York and go skiing in Austria. So they really -- they really would notice that, these people.

HIATT: We have time maybe for one more. Way at the back. Or maybe two if we can do it quickly.

QUESTIONER: OK, I'll be quick. I'm Carroll Bogert, from Human Rights Watch. I wanted to ask what you think President Putin will do, but in -- what his actions will be in regard to Russian civil society. He's made several statements about how Russian civil society exists only on foreign handouts and is, you know, a dangerous ally of the West.

Russian civil society has developed very quickly in recent years. There are thousands and thousands of groups all across the country doing a wide range of work, not only human rights work, but some relatively apolitical civil society work. Do we expect them to survive in -- under "Putin Two?"

SESTANOVICH: We expect them to survive but not to be greatly encouraged by President Putin. (Chuckles.) It's just not in his nature to think that this is what the country needs.

KARA-MURZA: That seems absolutely right, but I -- but I think from now on it's going to matter much less than it did, say, in 2003, 2004, 2005. You look at the latest Freedom House rankings. All the -- you know, all the figures for the -- for the electoral process, for media freedom -- this is all continuing to go down, as it has since the year 2000 or '99.

The only ranking that began going up to the more positive direction is civil society, as you know. And this is what we talked about earlier. He can no longer expect to do whatever he did eight or nine or 10 years ago and expect silence. He can expect now active civil society resistance and active protests, as we have seen in the last few years. So I totally agree. They -- his instincts, there's no reason for them to change.

And we've seen this in the campaign. The attacks against Ekamoskvy (ph) -- (inaudible) -- like I said, the attacks against GOLOS, Russia's largest election monitoring group, which was ordered out of its offices in the middle of the election campaign to disrupt their entire organization -- their instincts are the same as they have been 10 years ago. Society has changed. And that's -- I think that's the most important thing to note.

HIATT: In support of what Steve said, I -- in his excellent op-ed in the Washington Post, President Putin wrote, "Our civil society has become much more mature, active and responsible, but I strongly believe that we do not need a circus of candidates competing with each to make increasingly unrealistic promises." (Laughter.) So you can't take these things too far, in other words.

Do we have time for one more? One little short one? Yes.

QUESTIONER: Sandy Saunders from Greenberg Traurig. Everybody seems to be pretty sanguine at the answer for what happened -- about what's going to happen on Sunday. But given the corruption that has driven the regime and the way Putin has ruled -- his own presidential -- Medvedev's presidential commission declared the Khodorkovsky trial to be baseless, and people are speaking back -- can he hold that -- can he exercise that level of control and stay in power for six or 12 years? The next month may be easy, but what's the prediction six years from now when everybody comes back? Is he running for re-election?

ARON: I'm already on the record.

HIATT: Lightning round: How long is he going to be in office?

ARON: Yeah -- (chuckles) -- he will not even start his second term. Cannot bet you $10,000, but -- (laughter) -- something within a smaller range.

HIATT: Vladimir.

KARA-MURZA: He will not even finish his six-year first term. Two or three years max, that's my -- that's my assessment.

HIATT: And now for the sober conclusion. (Laughter.)

KARA-MURZA: It has to be one year for you if it decreases.

SESTANOVICH: I'm sorry to say I think he'll probably serve a term, but I don't think it'll be two. And I think it's partly because of what is going to start on Monday, that is, people are not afraid to be organizing actively for the elections in the fall, for the next parliamentary elections and for the presidential elections that will come after that. And Putin is -- has got an awful lot of assets still under his control, but he doesn't have the ability just to dictate what that political -- what the shape of things to come is going to be. There are going to -- there are a lot more people who are going to be participating in that process.

HIATT: I think we can all agree that even a year ago, this idea of unpredictability would have seemed highly wishful. And so this has been great. I hope in a month we could get you all back and see where it's taken us and where we're going.

But thank you very much.

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