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Russian election results reflect a crisis of liberal opposition

Interview with Yevgeny Minchenko, a political strategist, founder and chairman of Minchenko Consulting. Interviewer: Paulina Siegień.

March 21, 2018 - Paulina Siegień - Analysis

PAULINA SIEGIEŃ: Has anything surprised you in last week’s presidential election in Russia?

YEVGEN MINCHENKO: No. The results were not surprising. Vladimir Putin’s victory in the first round, with a high margin, was expected. Probably somewhat unexpected was the scale of support Putin received, around 76-76.5 per cent of the vote, rather than the anticipated 70-72 per cent. I think that in this case emotions prevailed. While emotions regarding Crimea are gone and the Crimean issue is now part of everyday politics, emotions related to a confrontation with the West continue. Russians constantly feel humiliated. At the Winter Olympics we were humiliated because we were not allowed to participate under our flag and anthem, now in the Skripal case they insult and slander us again. Any such action is perceived by the society as an insult as an undeserved offense. Moreover, there is a feeling that the West is doing it deliberately, that this is a big conspiracy involving many western countries, the western elite, world media, etc. And since it is a conspiracy, this means that we must somehow respond to it. Putin’s higher than expected score was probably connected with this resentment. Sometimes the emotional factor is underestimated and while it does not decide about the overall result, it can affect several percentage points.

The first commentaries after the election suggest that the results demonstrate the people’s approval of Putin’s foreign policy. Some commentators went even further and claimed that people voted in favour of war…

The results indeed reflect an approval of the current foreign policy, but people certainly did not vote for war. Russians do not want war, they are afraid of it. It is interesting that while in the West many see Russia as an aggressor, in Russia, on the contrary, the public think that we are defending ourselves. That all our wars, not only in the 20th century but in general throughout our entire history, have been defensive in nature. We never attacked anyone, we never seized foreign territories. And even if we did, we either reclaimed our own lands – there is even an expression “primordial lands” which refers to territories once inhabited by Slavs – or we did what was necessary from the national perspective, for example, by gaining access to the Baltic Sea. It is not viewed as aggression but a necessity. For example, in 1610-12 Poles took over Moscow for two years, so we then captured Warsaw in revenge. All our wars are thus presented as fair and either aimed at regaining control of our lands or portrayed as a solution to a national issue. The society, therefore, does not want war but the West does and if we had a different – weaker – president, the West would surely attack us. The society gave its support to a defender who will not allow the West to harm us.

However, I would not say this was a critical issue. In fact, I would say that society has given the president and his foreign policy a carte blanche to allow him to resolve any pressing issues outside of the country. The Russian society is ready to accept different options such as the president’s tough position towards the West, the new cold war which, in my opinion, is already taking place. Society is only awaiting arguments to justify this position.

The fate of the opposition after the election is another question mark. There are two strong personalities: Alexei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak, who represented two different strategies. On the one hand we saw Navalny boycotting the election, on the other, there was Sobchak with her strategy of being “against all”. Which strategy was better?

I think that they lost in both cases. The thing is that in such situation, a common response would be to unite around the strongest figure. But in the case of Russia everyone is weak and has low support. If at least someone had five per cent support something could have been achieved. But no one did. Therefore, there was an internal competition between people and projects. As a result, everyone has lost. Now, what we are seeing are mutual accusations. The statements by Sobchak and Yavlinsky suggest that they are not going to step down and none of them consider the result as a sign that that they should leave the scene. Even Yavlinsky, who received only one per cent, says that it was a very useful campaign and that many people supported him.

I think that after the election campaign, we can expect new conflicts and alliances. It is clear that there is no leader who could unite the opposition, but this is also due to the fact that in this situation, when society wants self-affirmation, greatness and a strong leader, wants us to be respected, etc., some arguments of the opposition simply do not appeal to anyone. The opposition seems to be in a similar position as the Soviet dissident movement of the early 1980s. Back then, during the Cold War, troops entered Afghanistan, Yuri Andropov toughened his course towards the West, withdrew from negotiations with the US and the overwhelming majority of Soviet society considered the dissidents to be traitors. There were several per cent who sympathised with them to various degrees, although mostly quietly, but the absolute majority believed that they should be punished and that they were enemies. Currently, the opposition is in a similar position.

In one of the speeches after the election, Ksenia Sobchak said that her result indicates that there are very few liberals in the country…

It is true. In the 1990s there were also few liberals, but they managed to inspire society with their ideas and most people followed them. Therefore, the fact that there are few liberals in the country is only one part of the picture, and clearly not a decisive one. Yet, at the same time, while there are few liberals in any society, they have the intellectual resources, in the sense of activeness, in terms of access to the media, and people often accept their arguments. In this case, their arguments were not accepted. Therefore, the main thing is not the numbers, but the fact that today Russians want to live in a great country. They refer back to history, to the Soviet Union, when Russia was strong and big, and they associate defeat with the liberals. When liberals dominated the ideological sphere in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, their rule coincided with a great retreat. The Warsaw Treaty broke down and then the Soviet Union collapsed. The influence of the country in the world dropped and the economy was in shambles. The responsibility for all this is laid on the liberals, not only people who were then ministers, but the whole liberal generation of the time.

Yesterday I spoke to several of my Russian friends who did not vote, not because Navalny called for a boycott, but because they do not support Putin and believe that both Navalny and Sobchak are Kremlin projects.

This is not a constructive approach. Due to such thinking people become cut off, they turn themselves into a sect. In fact, this is one of the biggest problems of the Russian liberal elite. They are unpopular, lose elections and then isolate themselves even further. From a rational point of view, the idea that everyone works for the Kremlin is completely counterproductive.

What can Navalny do now?

I think he will continue to expose the officials’ lifestyle, further develop his blog and appeal to his supporters. And he will probably wait for a better time. His rhetoric is rather populist, as it includes many nationalist and anti-immigrant elements characteristic for the European right. On the one hand, he supports political freedom, but on the other when it comes to migration, he is closer to Viktor Orbán. He does not want immigration, which he sees as risky.

Navalny will also look for a way to target the Kremlin and he will have many occasions to do so, since all unpopular solutions have been scheduled for the period after the election. In 2017-18, the state budget was artificially maintained partially thanks to Saudi Arabia which allowed for the increase of oil prices. Now this agreement will be broken and will affect economic growth. Under the new conditions problems will resurface – such as the retirement age. It is not a question of whether to increase it, but when and by how many years. We can talk about liberalism or patriotism, but people who are 50-55 today constitute a vast majority of the president’s support base. And they want the great state that they learnt about in school about and which many have been missing. Many of them had to change jobs; they used to work in defence, they were representatives of technical intelligentsia and now they have to work in the service industry. These people will be told that from now on men will retire at the age of 63 or even 65, instead of 60. How will they react to that?

So instead of expecting the rebellion of the youth, we may see a rebellion of the older generation?

Anything is possible. That was already the case in 2012. And now the state has even lower resources.

Yevgeny Minchenko is a political strategist, founder and chairman of Minchenko Consulting.

Paulina Siegień is a journalist specialising in Russia.

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