Interview with Gleb Pavlovsky, Russian political consultant, academic, and journalist.
KAMIL CAŁUS & MARTA BARTKOWIAK: How do you select the leader in Russia?
A rather peculiar cycle of leadership is operating in Russia. The leader is not selected from a group of candidates competing for power. There is no alternative for the leader assuming power. I remember around 1986 the slogan “There is no alternative for Gorbachev!” appeared in our country. As early as 1990 it was said that there would be no alternative for Yeltsin! And then the same thing was said about Putin.
This is how the cycle of leadership functions. First there is a demand for a man who will solve all problems. Then this man is given huge prerogatives and it is expected that no one will hinder him in his actions and he deals with everything on his own. But usually the social confidence in the leader does not last long. It usually is only a couple of years but it is enough for government institutions to become significantly damaged. Such systemic deformations last longer than the leader’s term. None of the leaders I remember managed to preserve this “eternal” social trust. Putin definitely maintained it for the longest time, which may be explained by the influence of the mass media and the whole infrastructure of propaganda, which “filters out” alternative opinions.
Who in contemporary Russia knows how to achieve power? Is there a specific leader besides Putin who possesses such knowledge?
We may now speak about possible circles where potential new leaders may emerge. This is witnessed by the interest of the public in political figures which were previously ignored. This strengthens the position of certain people. It was so with, for example, Mikhail Prokhorov, whose electoral campaign I managed. At first his ratings were around one percent and the common view was that this millionaire and scandal-monger stood no chance whatsoever of achieving a good result. But unexpectedly he was supported by millions of people, placing him third in the country and second in Moscow in the race for the Kremlin.
This shows that there is a demand for a new type of leadership. In various communities people are emerging towards whom there are certain expectations. Among the opposition this would be Alexei Navalny, while the nationalists are gravitating towards deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin. These are examples of groups which may generate a leader but he may also arrive unexpectedly from a completely different direction.
You abandoned the work for Putin and his team. Would you come back if a new leader appeared?
No, I don’t want to go back. This was all kind of an experiment for me. I wanted to test in practice the philosophy of my teacher Mikhail Gefter, who died more than fifteen years ago, a historian and philosopher and in fact a political philosopher. I thought that his ideas were right and that they also can find a practical application in the world of politics. This is why I entered this world and spent fifteen years in it.
Gefter’s ideas included a theory which stated that instead of becoming genuine social leaders, Russian politicians are forced to assume the role of rulers. They do it out of fear that in the future, society would no longer need them. This fear results in distrust towards society and generates a shift from leading society to “managing” it. Did these theories prove correct?
Yes. But I don’t like to be always solving problems of other people. A consultant’s job implies the duty of actually thinking for other people. At first it is exciting but then it stops to be pleasant for you and you no longer think about yourself.
You said recently that Vladimir Putin has found himself in a situation Boris Yeltsin was in in 1996, that is he was forced to make an enormous effort to gain the majority of votes in the elections. So do you think that Putin will manage to win future elections? Will he be able to invent something novel enough to stay in power?
Well, in Russia almost no one is even thinking about the new campaign. The few who do reflect on it believe that there will be early elections. Therefore our perspective does not reach any future elections but only the next year. In my opinion Putin will be forced to make enormous efforts to create some completely novel concept of politics in order to keep his post for the entire six-year term. It is not so simple. Putin was chosen for the president but he is no longer seen as a leader. He is rather treated as a president lacking full legitimacy for exercising power and this is a very dangerous situation for him.
In your lectures you mention informal restrictions that every Russian leader is subjected to. What are these restrictions?
When I said this, of course I meant the post-Soviet period and the post-Soviet leaders. When the previous epoch ended, we reached a certain consensus regarding the form of practicing leadership. This consensus does not include, for example, the possibility of ideological and political mobilisation of the voters in contrast to the Stalinist model, entirely built on regular mobilisation of the citizens. But Putin’s voters are very difficult to mobilise. Frankly speaking, Putin made a quite risky move during the last campaign, asking his voters to go and vote for him. Today we really don’t know whether Putin will be able to mobilise his electorate one more time when he will again need its support.
How did the voters change since the Soviet times?
I think that the voters now reject the possibility of the government directly controlling their actions and behaviour. This element of the Soviet system has already been removed. People don’t want to see the state in their homes. Imposing one official ideology is also impossible. You can’t forbid people to move around and to travel abroad. All these issues are regulated by the informal consensus. But there is also another side to this contract. People don’t see anything particularly wrong in the fact that the regime does not respect the constitution and doesn’t make a point of respecting the law. People are often indifferent to such behaviour of the authorities.
You said that your work in President Putin’s administration involved constant inventing and recreating things…
Yes. For example, when I was managing Prokhorov’s campaign, the most effective but very simple idea was adopting the slogan, “I am not Putin”. It would seem that the reaction could have been, “So what?” But it turned out that thanks to this slogan the people who remained loyal to the system but didn’t want to keep voting for Putin cast their vote for Prokhorov. I also invented various scenarios and stories about how our hero-candidate had been born.
In contrast, it was much more difficult to make a hero out of Boris Yeltsin during the 1996 elections. He was old and diseased, awaiting a heart operation. So we adopted a scenario where Yeltsin was a heroic defender of the country against the communists, who were approaching with the intention of robbing the citizens of their homes, food and other things.
And what were your experiences with the media during your work for the administration?
My role was rather peculiar. I was working both as a consultant of the President’s administration and the “voice of the regime”. For a long time I was one of the few voices of the regime or perhaps the only one. When Putin became president, he immediately introduced a new television show called “Real Politics”. It was a channel for transmitting crude but credible propaganda. Today I am appalled when I recall it. Therefore as soon as Dmitry Medvedev came to power, I asked him to let me quit from the television job as a reward for my help in the victory. And Medvedev agreed. What I liked most about this job was political planning.
You never wanted to become a politician?
No, no, never. What was always most interesting for me was conceptual power, the power of concepts and ideas. I treated it as a wonderful challenge when I heard that Yeltsin was unelectable, that he couldn’t win. I was very eager to prove that he could, although the situation seemed hopeless.
It was exactly the same with Putin.
Gleb Pavlovsky is a Russian political consultant, academic and journalist. Until April 2011 he was a consultant in the administration of the President of the Russian Federation. He was one of the authors and main ideologist of the electoral campaigns of Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. He is a Professor of the Economic University and Director of the Effective Policy Foundation.
Translated by Tomasz Bieroń