The curious art of questions

In political science, there are some questions not worth asking. These typically begin with “what if”, or take the form of “what does [insert name] really think about [insert issue]”. When Yevgeny Primakov, Russia’s former Prime Minister and Boris Yeltsin’s first anointed successor passed away this week, many asked the question what would have happened if he, rather than Vladimir Putin had ended up succeeding Yeltsin. Leonid Bershidsky even claimed to have known the answer: under Primakov, Russia would have taken an anti-Western course earlier than with Putin. Do you see my point? And there are so many other such questions coming to mind, it is difficult to ask the right one. 

Considering Russia’s present situation, several such questions jump to mind. What if Leonid Brezhnev had not died before the end of the Afghanistan war? Would he have survived defeat? Will Vladimir Putin? What does Putin actually think about Russian-Chinese relations? Does he believe that Russia and China can be equal players in this game?

But these are all the wrong type of questions. Primakov was never the president of Russia. Brezhnev died long before the end of the Afghanistan war. There is no way of knowing whether analyses and feedbacks in the Russian Presidential Administration have become distorted enough for Putin to believe that China and Russia can be equals in their newfound alliance.

The right question came from an unlikely place. It was suggested by Alexey Kudrin, former finance minister, presidential advisor (and, possibly, friend), at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. Kudrin suggested calling early presidential elections (elections to the State Duma next year are suggested to be held three months earlier to move the campaign period to the summer months), so that Putin can get a fresh mandate for reforms.

The benefits of the doubt

Kudrin has, for the past couple of years, faithfully played the role of the ruthlessly clever man in Putin’s entourage. For investors, he (together the few ideas that Putin accepted) has been the assurance that the Russian President does not only listen to the often ridiculous and terrifying ideas flowing around in the State Duma and in his administration, while to Russian voters, he was the “bad cop”, the man who knew what should be done, but who lacked the heart which Putin had. He has been very critical of Dmitry Medvedev’s government, but this was the consequence of the personal conflict of the two men: Kudrin has long since laid claim to the Prime Minister’s position. Quite probably this was the main reason of his raising the issue of a “fresh mandate for reforms”: to be appointed to head the government, possibly even as Putin’s heir apparent. Now let us be clear: Kudrin’s acceding to the presidency, even in 7 years (when Putin’s fourth term would end, should he be reelected in an early vote next year), let alone next year, is very unlikely. Even if as a technocrat and a Putin confidant he may be one of the perfect candidates to signal a turnaround to the Russia’s partners and seal a gentlemen’s agreement with the Russian political elite about things not to be touched. Including Putin himself.

However, more than just strengthening his position, Kudrin was probably also seeking to change the political discourse in Russia, away from the war against Ukraine and the Kulturkampf against the West that most of the political elite knows are a dead-end, towards something else. Anything. He used an event where he was relatively free to speak to measure up support among the Russian elite. The response was very cautious or even outright cool. Both the United Russia party and Sergey Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff – and another contender for Putin’s succession – rejected the idea. But it has been thrown into the public realm and it is there. Now it is up for the large majority of the Russian political elite – who supposedly would not mind mending fences with the West – to convince Putin that it is in his best interest to change the narrative. Good luck with that.

Kudrin’s suggestion raised two inconvenient suspicions about Putin.

First, that in three years he may not be able to pull off a straight electoral victory. This can be due to the economic turmoil that Russia seems to have entered, the consequences of supporting callous nationalism in Russia and criminals right next to border regions, but also due to a simmering conflict with regional leaders who have a key role in ensuring that campaigns are carried out and elections are duly rigged. This conflict is around the corner: regional elites have held grudges against the central government for driving many regions to the edge of bankruptcy by centralizing revenues and decentralizing social spending. Putin’s recent purge in the ranks of governors is not surprising at all. But then there are regional leaders like the almost openly rebellious but undismissable Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya. Whatever it is suggesting that Putin’s popularity will soon go downhill, the more this is accepted is a fact, the weaker the president will look.

The second issue is even more inconvenient. Kudrin’s suggestion raised the one right question: the question of whether, based on what he thinks about reforms and institutions, Putin is the proper or, at least, a capable person to oversee these reforms. It is inconvenient because the answer is, apparently, no.

Bad education

One of the most important moments in the Russian president’s life was when he, as a KGB officer, had to face off protesters in Dresden. The full horror of a system thought to be stable suddenly falling apart, coupled with the twisted logic of intelligence agencies surely made an impression on the future head of state. Later, one of the first events that he had to preside over was the fall of a staunch ally of Russia, Slobodan Milosevic, in Yugoslavia. Putin then had to watch as protests hit closer to home: Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. He found himself, yet again, in a KGB headquarters soon to be besieged.

In belief system formed by a chain of such events and circumstances, everything that can happen spontaneously can be (and is) used by enemy powers. A revolution in Kiev. A government change in Moldova. Most recently, protests in Armenia over corruption clearly imported from Russia. To the Russian president and his followers, these are all part of a conspiracy.

I am not going to elaborate on this. Ivan Krastev did a much better job than I could, explaining why the West and the Russian government cannot seem to find the common language over protests. It is quite simple, really: for Vladimir Putin, protesters marching in neighbouring capitals bear an uncanny resemblance to protesters in Dresden. The perception of protests, of democratic freedoms is different. For the West, civil society is a largely independent, albeit somewhat messy, but basic element of democratic power; for Putin, it is a source of instability.

But it is not just about civil society. It is about all nominally independent institutions: courts, the central bank, the prosecution or state-owned enterprises. And just like the Russian president has trouble imagining a civil society without ulterior motives at home or abroad, he cannot imagine independent institutions abroad, or at home.

This could not have been made clearer than by the answers that the Russian government gave to Belgian and French courts’ move to freeze assets owned by the Russian state in relation to Russia’s denouncing the ruling in the Yukos case. After furious protests and vows to “retaliate”, Russia asked the French embassy to “relay the contents of its diplomatic note to the relevant French court”. This is not just geopolitical posturing. This is a complete misinterpretation of how judiciaries in democratic states work. And it was not the first time. A couple of months ago when Gazprom was reminded by the European Commission that it could not bypass the rules of the EU’s third energy package, Russian authorities reacted in a similar manner. It is not surprising that Vladimir Putin sees a conspiracy everywhere, if he cannot get his head around the existence of an independent judiciary or rules that cannot be bent.

Theoretically, sanctions should work the same way. They undoubtedly have a political purpose and it did take Europe time to summon up its courage to introduce sanctions that really hurt the Russian economy – most of all, it took a Malaysian airliner – but now that sanctions are in force, they should remain so until Russia continues violating international law. The European Union’s decision in June not to have a political debate about sanctions but have them extended by the ministers of foreign affairs reflected this approach.

And there is more bad news for the Russian president: this will most likely remain so. The further the EU sends signals that independent institutions and the rule of law do exist in the globalized world that enables Russia to function, the sooner Putin’s narrative that everything is politicking and bargaining chips and that he can read Europe’s mind will be shattered.

Reforming Russia’s economy is difficult: when Gorbachev tried, he failed. Reforming its politics is difficult as well. When Yeltsin tried, he failed. Both stumbled over the sistema, Russia’s real, hidden power vertical. Reforming Russia is also not impossible. Another corrupt, oil-dependent country, Nigeria has made important steps in the past years towards diversifying its economy, even if from a much lower base. This, however, required a soaring services sector and increasing openness, the kind that made a removal of an inefficient government possible in an election this year. Russia lacks both. The services sector has been shrinking – not only because of Western sanctions and low oil prices, but because the atmosphere is anything but welcoming – and fair elections have become inconceivable.

Russia even refuses to learn lessons from its newest ally, China about the need to crack down on corruption and have a long-term economic strategy. Russia is in survival mode, without any long-term economic plan whatsoever, other than trusting that rising oil prices will lure back investors and establishing firmer presidential control over state-owned enterprises. And instead of a vision, all Vladimir Putin could offer in St. Petersburg was an incoherent list of cosmetic measures and protection – a word that in today’s Russia is taken about as seriously when it comes from the president as it would be coming from a mafia leader.

Putin did not convince many. Even those who attended the forum – and remember, attendance in this case already signals a degree of affinity for Russia – overwhelmingly rejected the thought that structural reforms could be carried out in Russia under the present political leadership.

And this carries significance, because the inability to reform is rooted in the same paranoia as the inability to stop the war in Ukraine, the inability to accept rules, laws and sentences as anything else than tradeable goods in a political game, and ultimately, the inability to integrate into globalization, which would enable Russia to survive and prosper, instead of letting China outplay Russia in its own game.

The sooner the Russian political elite establishes this logical chain and the sooner Europe understands what it needs to do to help this process, the better chances they have to turn Russia around.

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