Russian political scientist Natalia Shavshukova: Luck turned its back on Putin. Post-quarantine Russia will be poorer and angrier
Russian political scientist Natalia Shavshukova sat down with UNIAN to speak about the potential consequences of Vladimir Putin zeroing his presidential terms, why does the government no longer control the situation in the country, what are the attitudes toward Donbas and Crimea, and will the Kremlin's policy change once the quarantine is lifted.
Natalia Shavshukova has co-founded the School of Local Government (http://mundepschool.ru/). The goal of the project is to enable local activists and simply citizens willing to bring change to express themselves in politics and become deputies.
Natalia is one of the few in modern Russia who spoke up on national television, calling Putin's will to restart the count of his presidential terms as a coup d'état. The Constitutional Court ruled otherwise and, in fact, the operation with a code name "Eternal Putin" has practically been completed. A mere formality remains – a popular vote, which should crown the triumph of the Russian ruler. However, Shavshukova is convinced, it's this very stage that the "zeroing" process could face certain challenges.
How do you think will the coronavirus affect Russian politics?
The farther, the worse for Putin – but better for us. After the coronavirus is gone, sociology will be even worse. Even as of April 22, the date the referendum was initially set to be held, the situation wasn't as rosy as the authorities had planned. I think we can even count on a roll-out vote. This feeling is based on reviews coming from regions, as well as opinion polls. We see that Putin has lost Moscow, Petersburg, and a few other big cities. And all this opposition thing is seeping even further, toward more distant regions. I've got this feeling that it's 86%, but on the opposite side – that is, against Putin.
What will the authorities do in such a situation? After all, they no longer can just call off the vote, can they?
They are already introducing some tricky procedures for collecting signatures online. I don't rule out that now they will go for the following types of manipulation: they will introduce online voting beyond Moscow – across other regions. We already had a precedent in Moscow City Duma (Council) elections where an opposition candidate lost precisely in the district where people voted via the internet. Moreover, when the results were appealed in court, the authorities presented data that cast doubt on whether there had been any vote at all. That is, they seem to have just made everything up on their computer. Most likely, they'll go for it again.
Now the authorities are expanding the powers of the police, the Russian Guard, and security agencies. This is all in preparation for mass protests. Experience they gained with QR codes during a pandemic outbreak in Moscow, Moscow region and other areas, will of course be useful to them. In other words, they can't win in a nice way. They could only win either through manipulation at the polls or the use of force against descendants in city streets.
How will Putin reign for another 16 years if his people are no longer enthusiastic about him?
There's a version that he actually wanted to step down, seeking to once again hand over power to someone from his entourage, like Medvedev, as it happened in 2008. Then something went wrong, and suddenly they decided not to make him chief of a newly-created body, the State Council. They have opted for that "zeroing" of presidential terms.
Obviously, the decision was made behind the scenes by a small group of people, literally. It hasn't been seriously worked out so it's more of an emotional step in response to plunging popular rating. We can only guess. See, our politics sort of resembles the times of the late Soviet era, when everyone had to guess the next Secretary General, based on who carried the coffin of the late leader or stood really close. Now, the "Death of Stalin" saga is repeating itself. We can only judge by some echoes of the Kremlin battles, by some leaks, but no one can say anything for certain.
The only thing that can be said for sure, based on all I said, is that the Kremlin folks are seriously panicking. They understand that the regional elites are turning away from them. They understand they're losing control of the country because now they have appointed non-adapted governors who are Moscow natives. They have absolutely no clue about working with the people or negotiating with local businesses – all they can do is report to their bosses in Moscow.
So what could be Kremlin's next steps?
Now it's difficult to predict what they'll come up with next time. This is like trying to predict the trajectory of the chickens' movements across their coop once a fox breaks in. Those "Kremlinoids" are now running around erratically just like those chickens. What are those chickens thinking? Only chickens know…
What will post-quarantine Russia be like?
Russia will get angrier. Russia will get poorer. Russia will be seeking some new leaders, but here people choose not among the best, but among the worst. That is, they will seek lesser evil. As for the economy, we shouldn't underestimate previous years with high oil prices and a reserve fund. There's quite a lot of money still in stock.
What made people especially upset against the background of the situation in other countries was that no money was paid directly to anyone. That's the problem. We do have some kind of payments in place. Suppose you worked in tourism and now you can get RUB 12,130 per employee if you behaved well. But at the same time you must collect a ton of paperwork of all ridiculous kinds just to apply, to prove that you're the right kind of guy to receive aid. And then maybe – just maybe – they'll give you money. Some 10 million people live in Moscow and only 4,000 have applied for stabilization payments as those who've lost their jobs...
This is what must be borne in mind when we talk about Putin's vertical and bureaucracy. At the same time, everyone's watching Donald Trump handing out $1,200 payments to Americans or Merkel giving out more than anyone actually expected. Meanwhile, we're bragging about being such a rich oil power, that we're sustainable, that we've got our Reserve Fund, and that we're able to deal with challenges. And so the bad thing happens. So everybody's asking: "Where's the money?" "This isn't your money, this is our money, get out of here," the government's telling them.
Maybe Putin is trying to stretch the National Welfare Fund throughout all these 16 years of his reign?
He will need the Fund to feed Russian Guards and security agencies to suppress those taking to the streets. Plus, they will "put out fire" in certain hotspots, for example, somewhere in Chechnya or North Ossetia. Moscow could quietly give them some money, and they'll shut up. This is how they'll be acting. They will buy loyalty in exchange for resources. In fact, the government has been doing this for 20 years.
You've already mentioned several times that the Russians would take to the streets to protest. Protest what?
The degree of discontent is rising. That's because of the wage gap between Moscow and other regions, as well as because of an industrial decline. Businesses are upset because they got cheated of their money. Remember how the Revolution began in Russia in the early 20th century? Warship crew spotted worms in their soup during lunch. No one knows for sure how the situation with this modern-day "worm soup" develops. Maybe there'll be something about the popular vote for the "zeroing".
Can such discontent lead to political change in the country?
Why not? This has already happened in Moscow where opposition deputies already occupy a third of the Moscow City Duma. Radical change has already taken place at the municipal level. For example, chief of the Tverskoy district where the Kremlin is located, was nominated by the Yabloko party, which, incidentally, opposed the annexation of Crimea.
What are the chances that the Putin-Medvedev's "United Russia" party will win next year's elections to the State Duma (Russia's Parliament)?
Let's first survive this year. In our country, the State Duma is being formed by a mixed system – candidates running in constituencies and those put on party lists. Authorities control all parties in the country, and all lists are approved by the presidential administration. No matter what they say, no matter the loud talk of opposition parties, they will quickly have their heads torn off, figuratively speaking, if they cease to coordinate things.
What we have left is single-mandate constituencies, huge ones. If we take Moscow and the entire region, it's 250,000 voters. It takes you a day to drive across my constituency. Here the opposition is ready to act, so all they need is funding. But businesses are being intimidated. If someone supports opposition, the authorities could try to take their license or they force CEOs to emigrate to London or elsewhere. There's also an issue with crowdfunding. Russian opposition has learned to raise significant funds online. But what happened to [Russian opposition figure and anti-corruption activist] Alexei Navalny? His accounts are being blocked, including those of his relatives and people whose accounts were used to raise money.
It’s like a virus. The government is that virus, while we're inventing a vaccine. The virus is very complex, very mean, but our team of researchers is on it.
Don't you think that Putin, when making statements from his secret bunker, seems confused or even lost, especially when he compared the coronavirus with wild ancient hordes trying to invade Russia?
I used to work at the press service of one of the political parties, so I had my speakers there, for whom I drafted talking points in their speeches. Now there's a feeling that Putin simply threw such kind of people out of his closest circle. He believes he'll outsmart anyone, that he is some major historian, virologist, or whatever. Previously, his perception of reality was compensated by some smart people around him. Well, now he doesn't need smart people – he needs loyal ones.
So did Putin begin to change amid the coronavirus and plunging oil prices?
I don't know if he was self-confident in the early 2000s. Then, it seems to me, he was leaning precisely on quite competent economists. Kasyanov was his prime minister, while Gaidar drafted laws in the State Duma, and Gref was engaged in strategic planning... Back in the day, he used to listen to smart people. Now the feeling is that he got carried away. He just stops listening to anyone. The way they are building public policy and their dialogue with voters is a just a long series of mistakes.
When preparing for our interview, I found a YouTube video where you say that Putin has become a lame duck. Why's that?
First of all, Russian regions has become destabilized. Now they are appointing to top regional posts under the "Leaders of Russia" program the so-called effective managers. They are being trained in many weird ways, like jumping from rocks, and then they're assigned to lead regions and republics. But public policy is is about something else. Now what they've got is discontent of regional elites, who will inevitably try to devour those guys as soon as they get such an opportunity.
Second, competent people and experts are disappearing from his entourage. He used to have so many great minds around him: Illarionov, Kasyanov, or Ulyukaev. Some got locked up, some got shot, some – poisoned, while some were forced to flee from Russia. In fact, the entire Russian economic school was destroyed. Nothing's left of it. What we got is Sechin who's sitting there, showing off before the Arabs. We got, Maria Zakharova – Lord, have mercy... I don't even know how she holds negotiations.
Third, and most important, they make terrible mistakes, because they have absolutely no idea how to work with the people. They don't even understand their own country anymore. They greatly overestimate public support. The fact is that sociological numbers they see is something that's been doctored to their pleasure. Here's a small example. Last year, I led the campaign of an opposition candidate, and this candidate won. Then someone from the rival's team asked me, how was this even possible. I said that we saw the poll a week and a half prior to the vote, and I realized that we were winning. In response, I heard this: "We also saw the polls and we thought that we were winning by a wide margin." It turned out that someone simply drew some numbers for them, while scolding people if poll figures are poor.
Could it be that the guiding star is turning its back on the incumbent?
Putin used to be incredibly lucky with oil. There's a saying in Russia: the higher the oil price, the lower the IQ of the government. Now, of course, if in this situation Putin doesn't take technocrats back on his team, everything will be getting worse. Smart people are needed, but they might be too scared to go work for him.
I've always had doubts about whether there is an opposition force in Russia that not only aspires to gain power, but is also ready to really manage the country by changing the current regime?
There are groups of people who are ready to claim power. They are quite scattered, but they are out there. There is a group led by Alexei Navalny, there is a group of systemic parties. There's the Communist Party, Fair Russia, and the LDPR – semi-loyal parties already going rogue in certain regions. There are groups of municipal deputies who win local elections and candidates who intend to run. I'm working with such people.
And we must understand that inside the Russian government there are people who sympathize with the opposition. These are experts at the middle and low levels in the power vertical, they have remained there since the early 2000s.
Let's talk about Ukraine now. Is it of any interest to ordinary Russians today?
For the most part, the Russian electorate is still convinced that Russian speakers are being persecuted in Ukraine and urgently need to be rescued "from evil fascists", that "we must help our fraternal Ukraine by any means." This is an attitude of masses. Plus, of course, there is certain nostalgia for the Soviet Union – these sentiments haven't gone anywhere. As for Crimea, most of them think that everything should be left as it is. As for Donbas – give it back and let Ukraine deal with it. The consensus is pretty much something like this.
Do you expect any changes in Kremlin's approaches to the Ukraine issues?
There may be several options. First, Putin could hold his grip and not let go. The second way is that the Ukrainian issue will become a bargaining chip, as it was in the late Soviet era.
Gorbachev was releasing the Warsaw bloc gradually, in exchange for political loans. Then oil prices fell, just like they did now. The Soviet Union was actually bankrupt, and there was nowhere to borrow. They bowed to the then Western leaders, gradually loosening their grip on Eastern Europe, in exchange for tranches to save the economy. I can't rule out that the Ukrainian issue could become such a bargaining chip.
How long should we wait for this miracle to happen?
The Soviet Union lasted for six years in this mode. The fall in oil prices was in 1984. In 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Something like that. But, once again, who knows? Various options are always on the table.
Can you explain where Russians get this nostalgia for the Soviet Union, especially the youths who don't know what it is?
Well, you had your health care reform, and many praise it. Meanwhile, in our country, the optimization of health care in Moscow was, to put it mildly, inadequate, so people remember how things were in the Soviet Union. There were a lot of free medical services. And people remember that. The same with education - a lot of things for free. But this is not some serious talk like "let's return everything." People might fly Soviet flags on their expensive mansions outside Moscow on May 1. But this doesn't mean that they are ready to give up their mansion or their business. This doesn't mean that they are ready to sacrifice the opportunity to travel overseas. Naturally, everyone understands that nothing can be brought back. They might get nostalgic sometimes, drink a couple of shots, and that's it.
Russian society is like this: they could hang a St. George’s ribbon [in commemoration of victory in WW2] on a BMW, which was bought at a nice dealership or brought from abroad, but no one wants to opt for a Russian-made Lada. People have grown pragmatic, which shouldn't be underestimated.
You mentioned Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. She recently said that traveling abroad is, in fact, the right of the privileged and wealthy. Do you think this was an unfortunate slip or the first step towards creating an "Iron Curtain" and introducing exit visas?
Naturally, they would love both exit visas and the Iron Curtain. Then it will be possible to control that those traveling overseas knew the Charter of "United Russia" by heart. Naturally, they want to revive all this. But no one will allow them. Everyone wants to travel.
As for Zakharova's statement, this was, in fact, a slip about the way of thinking of the Russian elite. She has voiced stereotypes of the Soviet elite and let loose on how they see us. They see us as serfs, taxable folk. They seriously think of themselves as "boyars", the ruling class.
So how do you think, could this luck again help Putin out, or has it been zeroed along with his presidential terms and global oil prices?
Perhaps oil prices could rebound. But he'll still lack the other success factors. He scared away everyone around him.