An Inside Look at Russia

Friday, December 7, 2018
Sputnik Photo Agency/Reuters
Yana Gorokhovskaia

Postdoctoral Research Scholar in Russian Politics, Columbia University

Nina Khrushcheva

Professor of International Affairs, New School

Leonid Volkov

Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellow, Yale University; Chief of Staff to Alexei Navalny


George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; @SSestanovich

Panelists discuss current political and economic policies in Russia, and how Russia’s domestic affairs influence its foreign policy.

SESTANOVICH: Good, why don’t we get started. I want to welcome everyone. I’m going to have to do my professorial thing: Class is beginning.

I’m Steve Sestanovich and I’m a fellow here at the Council. And I want to welcome everyone to this afternoon’s meeting on Russia.

We have a terrific group here, and I want to briefly introduce them, but not tell you everything exciting that could be said about them because you’ve got their—you’ve got their bios. On my far right, Yana Gorokhovskaia, who is at the Harriman Institute, Nina Khrushcheva from the New School, and Leonid Volkov, who is this semester at Yale, but otherwise moonlights as a chief of staff to Alexei Navalny.

We’re talking about Russia today from the inside, and from the inside, the way Russia looks is as a newly unstable or unpredictable set of political questions and social and economic ones. Russia is still in the headlines, always in the headlines, but we’re going to try to look at some issues that are beneath the headlines, that get at the new uncertainty in Russian society and politics.

Suddenly, Putin’s party is losing elections. Suddenly, Putin’s approval rating is down. Suddenly, there is popular dissatisfaction with his policies. Suddenly, people criticize this or that aspect of Putinism. And you even have divisions within the elite asserting themselves, and we want to try to get to all of those issues, how the elite responds to this uncertainty, how the opposition responds to it, how we see society and public opinion responding.

I’m going to start with Yana and then—and put a question to here. We’ll have a conversation here amongst ourselves and then open it up to you and you can challenge us as to whether or not we’ve gotten sufficiently beneath and behind the headlines.

Yana, the question I want to put to you to start with is, given this kind of uncertainty, how does the Putinist system respond? How does it try to deal with the electoral outlook going forward, the rules of the game? Over almost twenty years now, Putin has been said to manage the system in a way to keep it serving his interests. What are the new developments that you see in trying to—I don’t want to use the word “rig,” but structure the system so that it serves the interests of the regime?

GOROKHOVSKAIA: Right. So elections obviously bring uncertainty and instability into the system. And so it’s in the Kremlin’s interests to try to do as much as they can to ensure the outcome that they want in elections. We’ve come to call this the menu of manipulation. And there’s lots of options in this menu and the one that I think we most often hear about, and what Steve is sort of hinting at, is fraud. And we know that fraud happens in Russian elections. It’s been happening since the 1990s, probably since Yeltsin’s second run for president. But as we saw in 2011 and 2012, using fraud is inherently risky, because if you bend the stick too far, then you sort of mobilize people to come out and participate in antiregime protests, and we saw that in the winter protests after the Duma elections in 2011, so you need other ways of managing an election.

One that’s become quite prominent is to control who appears on the ballot by disqualifying sort of undesirable candidates. This happens at all levels of elections. I mean, the most kind of prominent example happened in January of this year when Navalny was disqualified from running in the presidential election, despite the fact that he opened offices all across Russia. He was disqualified on a technicality.

But there are some advantages of using this sort of technical mechanism to limit voter choice. One is that it’s done by the electoral commission, so there’s an arm’s distance from the Kremlin. Another is that it happens often for technical reasons, so Navalny was one example, but usually it happens for a reason like your nomination signatures, there’s some problem, or there’s some problem with your paperwork, and so you’re not allowed to run, but it’s not for an obviously political reason. And these disqualifications happen months before the election actually takes place, so for most elections it flies under the radar. So Navalny got a lot of attention, but this happens in a lot of different elections and most of the time voters don’t notice.

What we have seen in terms of new developments in this presidential election, the 2018, is mobilization in the workplace, so managers and owners of large enterprises actually directing their employees to vote and, more than that, supervising their vote, making Sunday a work day so you have to come in, busing people to electoral stations. There were even reports in the media of people having to photograph their ballots. So this is a new development and this is the movement of mobilization into the workplace.

The one thing kind of, if I can add a bright spot maybe to it, is that all this manipulation that’s been happening for such a long time, as you say, means that members of United Russia, who are now in office, are not very good politicians, they’re not very good candidates, right, because they’ve never had to participate in competitive elections, they don’t know how to run a campaign because they’ve relied on these administrative resources.

And just a few days ago, United Russia announced that they’re going to launch a school for deputies or a school for candidates to teach United Russia candidates, who want to participate in upcoming elections, how to actually run in an election. Which is, if you think about it, the party has been in power for a long time and they’re only now thinking about, well, how do you actually run in an election? And I think that they’re taking a cue from the work of the opposition, which has been—part of which has been in training people how to—how to be politicians, how to be candidates.

SESTANOVICH: Putin last year lectured all of the United Russia candidates about how you had to win the people’s trust.


SESTANOVICH: You had to convince them you’re on their side.


SESTANOVICH: Is he taking an active role in this process?

GOROKHOVSKAIA: It’s not—I’m sure he’s onboard with this, but it’s been—it’s been—it’s part of the party congress, the United Russia party congress that’s happening. It’s been kind of wrapped up in that as party development, which I think signals that there’s also going to be some effort to renew the space of political parties in Russia, which has also been, you know, quite stagnant, partly because the Kremlin uses this other set of mechanisms, you know, controlling how parties register and who’s allowed to register for a party.

SESTANOVICH: Leonid, I want to turn to you with a question about how, in this environment that suddenly seems more fluid, the opposition reads their opportunities. What is it that they see and what are the—what are the ways in which they are trying to build support, strengthen their base, prepare for the next round of elections, and indicate that they represent a viable alternative to Putin? You can also talk about their divisions if you want. (Chuckles.)

VOLKOV: Well, thank you. Well, first of all, they’re not preparing for the next round of elections. So we don’t think that, I mean, at the end of the day, Putin will be ousted in the election. This rarely happens to, like, dictators of that kind.

Our strategy has been, like, always the same for the last seven years. We’ve worked together with Alexei to identify, like, problem zones, like, pains, and to press hard to cause as much political damage to Kremlin, to President Putin as possible using different types of outreach campaigns.

Electoral campaigns are good as a tool because, well, they allow us, like, legally to reach out to a lot of people. And Moscow mayoral campaign in 2013 has been a brilliant chance to, like, build up our support bases, as well as the presidential, the attempt to register Alexei as a presidential candidate, also had never been registered as a presidential candidate. We had enjoyed a year-and-a-half campaign which brought us to, like, increasing our support bases around fourfold. Like, we had around a million people in our daily reach, now we have around four million people by all means of communications and all of our databases, and it’s an important step forward.

But we are not restricting ourselves to elections only, like the retirement age reform campaign, the other campaigns of the last seven years, I mean, elections are just two of them. And they’re things that would increase pressure, increase internal struggle, like, among the elite, affect the cost-benefit relation for the people around Putin to, like, increase their downsides of staying Putin allies, like, from sanctions to anticorruption investigations, from whatever. That all is good, that decreases their stability, right?

On the very practical side, though, given what happened in the last rounds of three general elections when the candidates of United Russia managed to lose even to the technical candidates they appointed themselves, which even they managed to lose to the candidates that don’t want to be in at all, so we, of course, also consider this as an opportunity for us to launch a new campaign. And what happened today proves that we were absolutely correct.

So a week ago, we launched a website for consolidated voting. Like, people would register, give their, like, ZIP code, and when an election is upcoming for you, it gives them a recommendation how to vote to cause maximum damage, maximum pain to United Russia. In 99 percent of those regional elections, no real opposition candidate would be admitted, like, there will be the United Russia candidate and several others, it still would identify zero of those others who has the larger chance to win, to upset the United Russia candidates, and endorse him or her in order, yeah, to create turbulence.

This website has been blocked today by an unlawful decision of Roskomnadzor, the Russian internet censorship body, and it’s the fastest blocking that’s ever happened. So never before they brought down a website just a week after its launch and after we actually, like, registered the first, like, sixty thousand people there. And now, well, of course, we are now, like, quite technically savvy to overcome this blocking. But it’s a very good sign they consider it to be an issue in the nearest future.

SESTANOVICH: Let me ask you the question that I said you also could touch on and you said you wouldn’t. (Chuckles.) And that is, one of the perceptions that people in the West have of the Russian opposition is that it’s too divided to make a difference. What’s your sense of how the new uncertainty about Russian politics and public opinion affects that? Does it make the divisions greater or less?

VOLKOV: I don’t know. It doesn’t—it doesn’t matter for me because I don’t care about those divisions. I don’t think and value, like, unifying the opposition. When there is a cause, when there is a reason, when we have a campaign, when we have, like, achievable targets that we could set, unification happens by itself. Like, the 2013 mayoral campaign, everyone started to consider, like, Navalny a real candidate, so everyone sees there is a competition so the incumbent mayor could be defeated. And we had all the types, like opposition-minded people, coming to our office. I had—like, I was managing the campaign and I had, like, LGBT activists sitting next to nationalists, who would otherwise, like, beat each other probably, but they had the, like, clear, common goal and they were trying to do their best to help.

When there is no campaign, when the, like—when there is nothing on the table right now, what’s the—what’s the value of the, like, unification for unification itself? It don’t see it really because, OK, every unification still involves, like, a lot of compromise, you trade off here and there, and if it’s not for real reasons, then why would we need it?

Another thing, as I mentioned, like, our support bases, we measure and keep quite carefully, so we know perfectly that now every word we say, every leader we broadcast on YouTube, like, reaches, like, at least four million people if it’s—if it’s good, like the Medvedev (Gradislava ?) story. If it’s viral, it could go beyond this number, but four million is kind of the minimum threshold.

There is no other political group in the country, but Kremlin, of course, that could reach the comparable amount of people. That’s why, I mean, we control the message now. And that’s why the moment will come and there will be a competitive election because of this or that kind of political change, when Putin goes for this or that reason. And if we manage to achieve, like, political change, I think it will be a very natural point of, like, crystallization of unification of all kinds of opposition ideas.

GOROKHOVSKAIA: If I could just add to this. The website that was just blocked that Leonid is talking about, this Unnalgulsavana (ph), one of the great kind of strategic things behind it is that it didn’t require the political parties to organize among themselves. It required the people to organize among themselves, voters to trade votes, right? And so this is a very, I think, intelligent step away from trying to unite political forces.

VOLKOV: Exactly, and thank you so much for highlighting this. We weren’t asking for a consent of the candidates that we are going to support—


VOLKOV: —because of these candidates don’t want to win. But we don’t need their consent.


SESTANOVICH: Nina, you’ve just come back from Moscow. And I want to get your impressions about public opinion, the sort of elite sentiments, and the media. What do you see different in this new environment, if anything?

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, I think, sort of to follow up on previous comments, I think when the system is ossified and now Putinism is quite ossified and that’s why it’s losing its momentum of greatness, it’s very difficult to convince people that it continues to be a great country.

As you know, there was this incident in the Kerch Strait when three Ukrainian military ships were taken by the Russians. It was supposed to be this kind of little victorious war that would bring—that would bring approval level back to its post-Crimea annexation height to 86 percent. And it didn’t happen, none of it happened. I mean, the Russians do think that it was—Russia had to respond to Ukraine. They do believe that Petro Poroshenko, who is very unpopular in Ukraine, was baiting Putin and Putin is easily baitable, which, by the way, by now he should have learned, but not really. I think Jim Mattis said he’s a very slow learner, so indeed he is. So he got baited.

But the point is, and I just looked at the numbers, it’s 68 percent of the Russians believe that Putin has to work to better relationship with Ukraine, which is a really very big percentage, especially since what we hear is that Russians are seeing Ukraine with great animosity. So I think it is—it is—it is an ossified regime. And therefore, I think opposition doesn’t need to be consolidated because opposition is what happens against the Kremlin, regardless whether it’s social, political. And I think that’s its power, is that those kind of dot oppositions elsewhere—either it’s as in Novosibirsk, for example; in Siberia there were great opposition leaders who are fighting against cutting out the research forest and building luxury condos, so that’s also an opposition. It may not be political, but it’s an important one.

And so to add to this, what I find interesting with an ossified regime, it gets very Sovietized. We’ve been talking for, I don’t know, since Putin came in, since 2000, how Soviet he is. And in some ways, what is happening now is very Sovietized, in a sense it becomes incredibly—the system becomes technocratic. I mean, it wants—not technocratic in a way we understand it, that it sort of has certain formulas of behavior—it does—but a lot of it is about measurement and a lot of it is about false measurement. For example, when you’re in Moscow and you’re in a subway, you immediately get information how many square miles have been turned into parks or how many new subway stations have been arranged, and so that is all supposed to pacify people, but it no longer really works.

And it’s also very Soviet because the communist statistics was we, you know, we achieved the five-year plan in three years and, yea, how wonderful for us. We’re going to build communism, as Nikita Khrushchev famously said, by 1980; we’re still waiting. So this kind of—the systemic—the systemic ossification is very—is very visible.

And kind of to conclude this, it’s very important to say that the Kremlin is concentrated on politics, the Kremlin is concentrated on anti-Westernism, continues with Ukraine as an enemy, of course. But what they really stopped paying attention to or they pay attention to, but not doing anything about it, is exactly about these oppositions in social issues. And therefore, you have all the state-related channels on TV screaming that, oh, my God, another old people’s home has been blown up, another train got off the rails. And that really creates a very strange kind of split personality disorder. The Kremlin and politics and, oh, Putin is great is on one side, and on the other side, suddenly people see that that is, in social matters, it is a colossus on clay feet. And so that, I believe, unless the Kremlin shapes up and starts paying attention to that kind of reporting, because so far they’re only interested in either politics or patriotism, then that can bring—that can bring splintering and problems and kind of get this opposition moving.

SESTANOVICH: Nina, you’ve all convinced me that the opposition doesn’t have to be consolidated. But how about unity within the elite? Because I think you could say that it is important for a kind of soft authoritarian regime to maintain some kind of unity.

I want—sort of to wind up before we turn to members for questions, I’d like the three of you to give me your sense—and maybe we can do it in reverse order—of what signs there are of disunity within the—within the elite, whether you mean Putin’s inner circle, the major institutions of the Putinist system, nationally. You know, what are—are there signs that with succession looming—and there are plenty of Russians who will tell you that’s the only important question now—what are the signs of disunity?

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, and it has been a very important question for eighteen years. So we’ve been looking for succession and things are going to happen and Putin is going to be taken out any minute. But this Kremlin thinks like as any ever the Kremlin ever was, so we can read tealeaves and kind of make predictions.

I think, from my point of view, what—I mean, as I said, they don’t follow social concerns, I think to their peril, so it could be some sort of a public revolution in that regard and smaller. I was hoping for a palace coup because I thought that’s how it’s going to happen and that’s how it often happens out there. But I think Putin cleverly—and he, KGB man, he knows his—he knows how to protect himself—I think he very cleverly took out anybody who seemed a possible opposition to him, that told people, the people with military background, unless they really owe him. And some of them, for example, Igor Sechin, who is the head of Rosneft, is considered to be the second-powerful man, it’s questionable now because he was actually under—he was called to court a few times last year and Putin never reacted to this and it was really a sign that maybe Putin just showing his people close to him that nobody is close enough to him for him to protect them if they need to.

And so to kind of finish up to give others the opportunity to speak about this, too, the two very visible people who seem to possibly maybe replacing him, one is the minister of defense, Sergey Shoygu, and another one is a very dramatic minister—not minister, mayor Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, who, if you haven’t been in Moscow in a long time, please go because it is a Disneyland of comfort and Russians have never had Moscow as comfortable and wonderful as it is now. A lot of it thanks to the World Cup this summer, but generally, it’s Moscow needs to be happy. That’s one of the reasons.

And so those two possible, I mean, people with enough visibility and power, they’re not really viable candidates. They’re not ethnically Russian and it is important that they are not. And I think they’re chosen for those positions precisely because they do not—they’re not—do not present—they don’t present any threats.

So it is a possibility. I don’t see it. I actually—my bet is on people’s uprising and opposition forces that will unite one day.


VOLKOV: Well, yeah, before I talk about—

SESTANOVICH: Not about a palace coup, I mean—I mean divisions within an anxious elite.

VOLKOV: Yeah, yeah. Sure. I have to comment on Moscow. I mean, what Sergei Sobyanin did to Moscow relates only to inside the garden ring, which is approximately the area of Central Park in New York.


VOLKOV: And it cost the budget larger—the Moscow budget is larger than the budget of New York City. So they really consolidated the money from the whole country, put it in the very center of Moscow, made it a Disneyland, and I don’t think it’s such a smart move.

But for the elite, I completely second on what you told right now, that the succession issue is the main issue now, it’s on the table. The elite was very consolidated before Putin’s reelection because it gave them, like, another six years to resolve this problem. And there are still no solutions. So they are now trying to resolve it, they are conflicting against each other. And, A, I don’t think they have a success; B, I don’t think there is a possible solution. Because while what Putin built as a system and he is the only, like, supreme referee and very other of his lieutenants is, like, they are very balanced, they are all above, like, the same level, and he doesn’t want any of them to step forward and to be, like, the clear second man.

And now, so the elite was perfectly happy with this before March 2018. And now they are not so happy because, actually, they need this question to be resolved and they’re struggling, they’re conflicting more and more.

Actually, I would say that Sechin and Ulyukayev conflict, that Sechin going to court and some, was probably the first sign. I couldn’t imagine this happening in Putin’s Russia, like, ten years ago or even five years ago, like, two—like, high-level lieutenants of President Putin resolves their conflict not in his office behind closed doors, but for some reason, using some very, like—

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, and he refused to resolve it in his office.

VOLKOV: Yeah, yeah, using some very strange mechanisms to go to the public court, to damage the, like, political image of the power of the Kremlin, like, to openly pronounce that, like, a minister of federal government was trying to bribe the head of the oil company. That was—I mean, this was severe, so unexpected actually.

And now I see also some other signs for things that are not very good and not very solid. For instance, it’s interesting to compare the reaction for the pension age reform and the monetization of 2005. So you can, like, Google and double check, Putin never said anything on the monetization in 2005. It was—it was, like, comparably unpopular. It was pretty much the same as the pension age reform. Also caused a lot of—caused a lot of protests, people also running out to the street. Putin was just silent. I mean, he blamed the—(inaudible)—government, like, maybe local governments. He was all doing good.

So now, for some reason, he decided to step out, to say it’s my decision, it’s very complicated, you have to take it. It cost him, like, at least thirty points of approval rating. Why? It didn’t ever happen before. My guess is that, like, because the, like, political elite doesn’t need anymore, like, to pump his approval rating first thing, above all. That’s interesting.

SESTANOVICH: Yana, I’ve gotten very Kremlin-centered answers here and I want to get your brief comments on signs of division within the elite.

GOROKHOVSKAIA: Well, I’ll say two things. One is that I don’t want to give the Kremlin any ideas, but I’m going to disagree and say that I don’t expect a palace coup and I don’t expect a popular uprising either.

I do think it’s significant that, you know, as Leonid was saying, in the most recent survey data, we see that people’s propensity for protests, people’s willingness to personally participate in protests is about 30 percent. That’s about the same level it was in 2008 and 2005 when the benefits reforms were happening. So that’s significant.

It’s also significant that the Kremlin is, you know, the government is going to keep making socioeconomic policy changes because it has to, because it sat on them for a while while election cycles were happening. So they’re sort of—their hand was forced, they have to keep going. I think that it is a significant development that Putin is taking personal responsibility in a new way.

In terms of the elite splits, I think regionally lots of interesting things are happening. We see a lot of rotation of regional-level elites, local-level elites. And more than that, what we see is not that they’re—not only that they’re being shuffled around, but they’re also coming under repression, so they’re being arrested and that’s a new thing. And the conflicts being played out on the public stage is also—is also new.

In terms of—I mean, I know most people who come to these sorts of events always want kind of a prognosis about what’s going to happen next. So the question of succession, what I see is institutional change, institutional reform. I don’t see, honestly—and I’m sorry, this might disappoint a lot of people—I don’t see Putin moving off the stage. What I see him doing is developing a different institution apart from the presidency, apart from the executive to occupy, and then over the next five years, lessening the powers of the president and transferring some of that to this new institutional post. So what that means is that we’re in for a period of a lot of institutional uncertainty and kind of reform.

VOLKOV: That’s not the solution, though. I mean, when you talk about succession, we talk about, like—


VOLKOV: —what happens when Putin, like, biologically goes away, right? (Laughter.)

GOROKHOVSKAIA: Right. Right. But I don’t think he needs to make that particular decision right now.

VOLKOV: Does he have to make the decision at some point?

SESTANOVICH: All right. No one needs to predict whether or not Putin is mortal. I think we’ve got this one.

I want to turn to members present, for your questions and comments. Two quick things to say about this. A reminder, this is an on-the-record event. And when you get up, just give your name and affiliation before your brief and succinct question.

Yeah, at the back?

Q: Thank you very much indeed.

We didn’t hear much about the—

SESTANOVICH: Your name and affiliation?

Q: Sorry. I’m Manik Mehta. I’m a journalist. I’ve been writing also about the Soviet Union and now Russia.

We didn’t hear much about the economy and the impact of the sanctions, not only on the Russian government, but also on the ordinary Russians. Would you like to comment on that?

And secondly, what do you think about the recent meeting between Putin and the Saudi crown prince at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires? Thank you.

SESTANOVICH: I’ll just add one factoid into this before letting our panelists comment. Alexei Kudrin, who was, for many years, the finance minister and treated as the most respected finance minister in the world, has now come back after a long period outside the government as the head of the accounting chamber, kind of watchdog outfit, and he pointed out just this week, disposable income for Russian households is down 11 percent in the past four years. So we’re talking about a real economic underpinning to this kind of political uncertainty that we’ve been describing here.

Would any of the others like to talk about the impact of that, and if you want to throw in the crown prince of Saudi Arabia?

VOLKOV: No, it was—it was Russian domestic policy and internal things.


VOLKOV: I can’t say (it right ?). So I’m more interested to comment, if someone wants to add on Saudi Arabia I would be happy.

So, yeah, 11 percent is a good estimate. The poverty is growing and also because the inequality grows, so actually, like, the average of 11 percent means that the poor are, I think, much poorer. So we—once we were all encountering 2017 when building our original network of original campaign offices, I visited sixty-two cities. And I was—I was—I was, like, deeply impressed. Like, (now ?) Moscow is a Disneyland. (All others ?) seems to buy tickets. And, I mean, if you—if you go to a typical regional city in Russia, you see only two types of, like, posters and billboards in the streets, the first one being, like, short-term loans, like, to persons so they, like, repay when you—repay when you get your salary, and the second one, like, these anti-loan lawyers, those who help you to, like, file personal bankruptcy or something like this. Nothing else. I mean, if you—if you—

KHRUSHCHEVA: That’s not true, not true. Learn English and you can immigrate to the United States and Canada in five weeks. (Laughter.)

VOLKOV: This adds to the picture.

SESTANOVICH: That seems to be consistent with the same theme.

VOLKOV: It is consistent, but you apparently go to the larger cities. So I went to smaller ones, they don’t suggest this. So the impact on the economy was dramatic. It’s doing, like, really very bad. And I don’t know what parts of—what part of it belongs to the sanctions themselves. The other part, probably just because they, like, didn’t invest in the—in anything but, like, pumping oil and exporting gas and other raw natural resources. So they didn’t really manage to create, like, new sectors of economy. That’s why.

SESTANOVICH: I’d add one thing by way of slight correction to this. Agriculture is booming.

VOLKOV: Agriculture is doing good. That’s true. That’s true.

SESTANOVICH: But the world’s largest grain exporter—Nikita Khrushchev would never have dreamed this, Nina. (Laughter.) The world’s largest grain exporter is Russia, second followed by Ukraine.

KHRUSHCHEVA: He would be so proud.


KHRUSHCHEVA: Can I actually add about sanctions, too?


KHRUSHCHEVA: So one of the things about sanctions, is it’s, of course, Russians also because we just can never leave it to the West, so we sanctioned the Western agricultural products. And it seemed like a horrible thing in the beginning, but actually what it did, which is always often in Russia an unintended consequence, which is a good one, actually it boosted finally the agriculture and farming. So those cheeses that Russians were missing, actually now they can make better cheeses. But one of the things—

GOROKHOVSKAIA: They’re not—they’re not as—they’re not as good. (Laughter.)

KHRUSHCHEVA: Oh, they’re pretty good.

Q: (Off mic.)

KHRUSHCHEVA: No, no. Yes, I did. Yes, I did. No, no, no, no.

SESTANOVICH: OK. OK. All right. (Laughter.)

KHRUSHCHEVA: OK. Anyway, but—

SESTANOVICH: This is not a cheese-tasting contest. (Laughter.)

KHRUSHCHEVA: It’s not a cheese day. But what I—what also happened with the sanctions is that now when not just the sectors of economy, but, I mean, actually all whole sectors of economy are being sanctioned. But it also plays actually into Putin’s hand, into the Kremlin’s hand, just because a lot of businessmen, a lot of people with big money have to rely on the Russian state to help them make economic segues. Of course, they have to pay for it, they pay for big, big projects. But in some ways, something—it goes back to what I mentioned before, that as an ossified system it becomes more and more reminiscent of the Soviet one, even if it doesn’t mean to be. Because remember that great Stalin slogan that we’re going to build communism in one separately taken country? And kind of it’s closed in closer because we’re going to build great market economy in one separately taken country, which, of course, contradicts the whole idea of great-market economy.


Q: Hi. Stephen Schlesinger from The Century Foundation.

I want to ask all panelists, explain the mysterious relationship between Donald Trump and—(laughter)—Mr. Putin.

KHRUSHCHEVA: It would take forever.

SESTANOVICH: In twenty-five words or less.

VOLKOV: Well, personally, I don’t believe there is a mysterious relationship. I mean, I follow the Occam Razor principle. Putin was very clearly interested in trying to intervene. I mean, why should he be interested in Secretary Clinton to win? She definitely, like, arranged a lot for this, like the hacked DNC email, gave them to Assange, arranged the publications, did a lot of other things.

I don’t understand why the facts that we are observing need to involve, like, any conspiracy between them, though, to explain the facts that we are observing. Scientific approach demands me to suppose there was no relation.

GOROKHOVSKAIA: I would say—so I also—I don’t—I don’t have any access to any secret documents or anything like that. I think, yeah, clearly, that Putin was not even so much interested in Trump winning as Clinton losing. And I also think that we are, sometimes in this issue, conflating two things.

One is any kind of, you know, questions of collusion, of actual kind of—the contact between those two parties and Russia’s use of cyber disinformation and just disinformation in general and this new kind of what they’re calling hybrid warfare, because it’s very cheap, it’s easy to use, it’s easy to set up bots, it’s easy to have, you know, guys on the internet writing in pretty good English. But that—I think it’s hard to say whether or not that causes something to happen in the politics of another country. But it does tap into maybe divisions that are already there and it certainly aggravates those divisions. And I think it’s to Putin’s benefit to aggravate divisions in countries that are not friendly.

SESTANOVICH: I don’t think there’s anything mysterious about the relationship right now. The Russians are rather critical of Trump. They’re very disappointed.

You know, one of the interesting moments in the Helsinki press conference was when Putin was trying to coach Trump to say something tougher about the meeting than he was willing to say. He was—he said to him, well, we have both vigorously defended our national interests, as though to say, well, of course, we disagreed about many things, and then Trump didn’t take the cue. And that’s the theme of Russian commentary on Trump today is that he’s not a good politician.

Nina, do you want to say a word about this? Or I know it was a comment to all, a question to all panelists, but you don’t have to if you—

KHRUSHCHEVA: Right. No, I’ve written so much about Putin-Trump, so it’s—


KHRUSHCHEVA: But I do want to say to Saudi Arabia is that if we want to know something about Trump, here it is. He’s creating his own kind of “autocrats of the world unite club.” (Laughter.)



Q: Esther Dyson, longtime Russia hand. This is primarily for Leonid, but you may have some thoughts as well.

We’re still talking as if, you know, it matters, Putin, who else, what happens, all this stuff. But if there were to be a fundamental regime change, my concern is, just as in Egypt or Ukraine or anywhere else, it’s one thing to change the politicians, how do you actually build a government that will deliver to the people what it is that will deservedly satisfy them?

VOLKOV: Yeah. Well, that’s where—thank you so much, well, first of all, for arranging this actually.

Well, yeah, it’s a large and complicated question. Of course, we don’t know what will happen, like, after the regime change. We know, like, what are our targets, we know what’s our political platform, like, one, two, three, like, the court reform first thing, the independent courts, of course, is the basic step on the way to, like, better Russia, and anticorruption regulations, reform, and then fair elections, independent press, so on we could name. The reality is we don’t know.

We’re quite sure he is not immortal, so he will go one day, so there will be some new government, probably a very, like, coalition government, very, very complicated one, which will involve a lot of compromise. Also, probably, unfortunately, a lot of compromise with those now being parts of the regime. And it will be, yeah, a very complicated way to—but Russia, at the end of the day, wants—we, they, already tried, like, thirty years ago and failed.

I remain quite optimistic, though, because, like, when comparing this with the Ukraine or the situation of some other, like, Eastern European countries, like Hungary or Poland, the problems they face now, one very important factor that will not be present and this factor is Putin. So, I mean, Ukraine would do much better if not the war and the—(inaudible)—is the all—now, I mean, Putin heavily financing Tymoshenko campaign, Putin trying to do everything, like, to disrupt Ukraine politics because it’s such an important talking point for him on the internal market. You don’t want things to be as in the Ukraine. It’s a—it’s a main slogan for all the Russian TV channels. And, I mean, you know, if you live inside Russia and follow the news on the state television, you feel you live in a very small country surrounded by Ukraine from all sides. (Laughter.)

And he, as Yana told very correctly, he learned that it’s so cheap, like, to intervene, like, using social media or whatever, just using some pocket money. Like, he gave Marine Le Pen eight million euros, like, nothing for him. But it creates, of course, a lot of disruption and he learned how to use these very small resources to create a lot of disruption in domestic politics for, like, all European countries mostly. This will not be a factor when he goes. So our task to, like, reform Russia and to bring it, like, to reasonable governance will be, in this extent, easier.

SESTANOVICH: There is no doubt about the scale of the challenge, given the way in which the Russian state has sort of revived itself. And, you know, if Russians describe their system, it’s as a kind of state bureaucratic, depending on their perspective, you know, authoritarian system.

Over there, yeah?

Q: Hi. I’m Craig Charney, a pollster.

I’m curious about the process of elections themselves in Russia. A few years ago, we worked in Azerbaijan, the former Soviet republic, where we discovered that Homo Sovieticus was alive and well and working in election administration. When we did an exit poll there, we found that some candidates who got 74 percent in the official results got 3 percent in the exit poll. I discovered I didn’t have to worry about the margin of error. (Laughter.)

Anyway, I know that they actually operate the same sort of electoral system as in the Russian Federation with mobile ballot boxes and all those other wonderful aspects. How do you—I understand that your principal goal is not electoral change, but I’m wondering, to what extent do you feel you can clean up or have been able to clean up election administration so that you can get some kind of usable results out of elections or unseat some officials?

VOLKOV: May I take this as well? Yeah, I’m an election observer since 2007, so that’s how, like, my political engagement started. So I just came as an election observer volunteer to a polling station and I just discovered what actually happens. Like, eleven years ago, it was a disaster, it was a disaster. And, of course, it is a disaster since.

Well, yes, it’s more complicated than Azerbaijan as there are at least, like, three different zones. There are regions, whole regions, like Moscow or Yekaterinburg or Novosibirsk, where basically the elections are not rigged. So they do a lot of, like, manipulation, like, as Yana also mentioned, like, administrative pressure on the, like, workers, citizens, but what is the number of ballots cast actually corresponds to the results.

Then there is a second Russia and it’s about a third of the country where there is some correlation between, like, the actually voting and the—and the official results. They would, like, rig it by 10 percent, 15 percent, dependent on the task.

And then there is a third Russia, like Dagestan, Tatarstan, Kemerovo, Krasnodar, you name it, Chechnya, there was just no correlation. They just made up the—make up the results. Like, they don’t care at all about, like, counting the votes.

So the—so the challenge will be different for these three parts. But, well, as we have to stay optimistic as regards to what we’re doing—what we are doing, right, we think it’s, like, it’s achievable by changing the rules of the game.

So at the end of the day, in 2011 in Moscow, they also rigged the election, like, completely. It led to this impressive turnout of angry observers exactly seven years these days to those famous riots, and they stopped doing this. Never anymore they, like, rigged the election in Moscow because they realized it’s a huge risk. So I’m quite optimistic that change could be brought there by observers, by their momentum.

SESTANOVICH: Yana, Nina, quick?

GOROKHOVSKAIA: Yeah. I’ll say that—so, you know, Russia is a—is a huge country, so these regional—some of these regions are difficult for observers to reach. So I think you can battle—you know, there is a difference between outright fraud and then manipulation of voters. Manipulation of voters is harder to address because it’s not—it’s spread over the election cycle, it’s not focused on election day. But there are still things that you can do.

For instance, we saw, you know, an uptick in at-home voting. So in Russia, people who are unable to get to the polls, someone will come to your house and you can cast a vote. And you can imagine who those people are. They happen to mostly be pensioners, right, and pensioners are susceptible to pressure from the social workers that they’re in contact with, who also happen to be the people who come to their house to get their vote. So that’s hard to control.

But other things, like everyone having a cell phone and being able to take a photo inside a precinct of something kind of funny happening, that contributes to illuminating fraud. And also, sometimes the Kremlin does sort of not very smart things, like in response to previous claims of fraud or concerns about fraud, they put cameras in the polling station that are livestreaming and then people can actually see how someone blocks a camera for a period of time and moves a box and then people play that, like, that clip and that clip spreads. So I think there are ways of tackling this problem.

But the strategies for fraud and for manipulation are different. And my worry is that in Russia it’s more and more reliance on manipulation rather than fraud.

SESTANOVICH: Yeah, in the back?

Q: Thank you. Thank you. My name is Jacob Worenklein and I am with U.S. Grid Company.

I’d like to talk for a moment on and get your reaction to demographic trends. As I understand it, we have an aging population, dramatically aging, and we have a population that will be declining according to many demographers and I wonder about the implications of that for, number one, income, declining income within the Soviet—within Russia, and number two, for the potential for instability, adventurism, et cetera in a situation where we have a declining population, older population, a poorer population, and potentially the leadership seeking to keep itself in power by potentially more adventurism without a situation where the United States might be able to be productive or the West helpful, as we may have been in the Gorchenmirren (ph) days, et cetera, when we sought to support Russia.

KHRUSHCHEVA: Yes. The population indeed is a problem. I mean, it’s declining. But also, part of this decline is, I think, in the last year or last two years, a 50 percent uptick in people trying to immigrate or leave the country. So that is—

GOROKHOVSKAIA: That’s crossed over, the immigration and emigration. One is bigger than the other for the first time.

KHRUSHCHEVA: Exactly. So it is something of a problem. And it’s not just the population issue, but it’s also issue of sort of that social issue that Russians don’t see themselves as having future in Russia, in that Russia that is there, and they don’t see the outcome.

I would not recommend this time around the West to get involved because, you know, it really didn’t work out well before and upset everybody, in fact brought Putin, somebody we discussed so passionately for the last eighteen years, so that is probably not an issue.

And go back to Esther’s point and question, which I thought was really very important, is that we look at Poland, we look at Hungary, we look at other conservative governments, and, essentially, they’re getting today to what Russia has been for eighteen years. So we’re trying to save Russia while other countries becoming what Russia is.

So I think for Russia it’s a bigger question what its future holds generally, because so far, given the size of it, there’s really not one democracy that Russia can have, so that is more of an institutional issue, more of a systemic issue, more of a leadership issue. So we are looking at Alexei Navalny and others, something that can change the mind of the nation. And I know it’s sort of almost ridiculous after all this Sovietology we’ve been discussing for decades, but it is the mind of the nation that continues needing to be changed.

SESTANOVICH: Quick comments?

You know, one thing that certainly matters in voting is that, although Putin has actually shown some strength among younger voters, still it’s older voters who are the source of the strongest support. And, you know, that’s a weakening demographic, that’s a—that’s a long-term electoral problem, too.

Yeah, there on the aisle?

Q: Richard Sobel, Altai Capital.

I heard a former U.S. ambassador to Russia say that, in his opinion, all solutions to U.S.-Russian relations go through Kiev, meaning until there’s a solution, that both sides are satisfied in Ukraine, we’re not going to see much in the way of improvement. So my question is first to Professor Khrushcheva and others, how do you see this developing? And how do you feel about Crimea becoming not part of Ukraine on a sustained basis?

KHRUSHCHEVA: OK. Crimea, big question. I don’t see Crimea—I don’t see the Russians giving up Crimea anytime soon, unless the United States decides to announce that they agree with Putin—not the United States, sorry, United Nations say agree with—we have a new ambassador now of the United States—agree with Putin that there would be another referendum backed by the United Nations and, whatever the results would be, then Russians would have to agree with that. That’s not going to happen. It’s a very rosy scenario. So that’s going to be a moment of contention or a place of contention for decades to come and probably way long after we are gone.

It is true that Ukraine is that kind of—I mean, essentially, what Ukraine, that crisis in Ukraine has shown is that what Poland used to be in the Soviet Union during the Soviet era, the last line of defense, Ukraine has become that last line of defense. I am very heartened that the Russians want to have better relationship with Ukraine. I don’t see any viable solutions for that because the Minsk Agreement is still not being implemented and both sides really are not interested in having this solution because both sides do need this small, victorious war because both have issues, political, social, and whatnot. And for them, you know, the country is at war; and therefore, it kind of keeps going.

So I think we probably—we have two minutes left—so we need a much larger conversation about this to really come up with some sort of scenarios and outcomes.

VOLKOV: I completely agree. I could only add that I, like, don’t agree that, like, solution for everything in Moscow comes from Kiev or elsewhere. So the only way how the situation could be done better is from inside since there is no way to, like, pressure on Russia and Putin from outside to force a change. So things have to happen inside.

GOROKHOVSKAIA: Yeah. I don’t think—so I think for the—for the foreseeable future, Crimea sort of is not going to reunify or rejoin Ukraine. But I also think that it strikes me as too much to say that solutions for the U.S.-Russia relationship lie in Kiev partly because I just don’t see Kiev or Ukraine being a priority for the—for the U.S. government. There is some talk about it, but, you know, not—I don’t think it reflects that Ukraine has the central position in kind of foreign policy concerns for the U.S.

SESTANOVICH: My only addition to this would be it’s a mistake to treat the Crimea question as the whole or even an essential part of the standoff between the West and Russia over Ukraine. If Putin wanted to try to call the West’s bluff, it would be to resolve, wind down, wind up the war in eastern Ukraine and then see what Western governments were prepared to make of it. And my prediction would be you could take an awful lot of the fever out of relations between Russia and the West if you put that war aside, which is why it’s kind of surprising that Putin hasn’t done more in that—along those lines. There are various explanations for that, but we don’t have time to explore them.

I want to thank our panelists. I want to thank our members. (Applause.) And my continued refrain after events of this sort is this issue is not going to let us forget about it, so we will be back to you.


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