Sergei Lukashevsky answers our 10 questions

29 March 2023

by Sergei Lukashevsky

1) Was there a real opportunity in the 1990s to create a democratic state based on the rule of law and the protection of human rights in Russia? If so, what went wrong?

As defined by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, democracy-building is successful when the political life of a society is within a ‘narrow corridor’ that prevents that society from deviating into either authoritarianism or civil war. The emergence of this ‘narrow corridor’ depends on many factors: the political will of citizens and elites, the social, political and economic structure of society, historical tradition, identity, religion, the political and economic geography of the country, the strength of the political, cultural and economic pull of democratic or – on the contrary – authoritarian neighbouring countries, and foreign and domestic political conflicts. In Russia, this corridor did not take shape. It would take a separate book to analyze all the reasons for this.

In a short answer, it in only possible to outline the main political trends and tipping points that have led to the failure of democracy in Russia.

Major sociological surveys (for example, the World Value Survey) show there is every reason to say the post-Soviet societies of Central and Eastern Europe share a similar range of values and culture. Today we see how some countries have successfully built quite stable democracies (the Czech Republic, the Baltic countries) or weak democracies, but democracies nevertheless (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine). So, it was possible.

The problem of a lack of democratic traditions, of the historical experience of democracy, is real. However, it is not determinative in nature. Belarus, it would seem, could rely (like Ukraine) on the historical experience of the Rzeczpospolita. But the political regime in Belarus lost the last elements of democracy before Russia did, and even now Belarus is still slightly ahead of Russia in terms of the lack of freedom.

In the second half of the 1980s, there was a huge upsurge in the public demand for democracy in Russia. The moral foundation of this movement was a reassessment of the Soviet system and its history based on humanist values. This was a huge resource within civil society, opening up an opportunity to build a democratic society. But as soon as society had the chance to move towards reforms, just about everything went ‘wrong.’

A presidential republic was the chosen institutional form for organizing power. The civil society movement for democracy was not able to transform into a full-fledged political party. Power ended up in the hands of that part of the party-economic nomenklatura, which for various reasons decided to oppose the central government of the USSR. At the same time, this same group was far from wanting a full-fledged revision of the Soviet past. As a result, there was no trial of the Soviet regime. No clear legal line was drawn between the totalitarian past and the new Russia. Economic reforms were prioritized, while the construction of democratic institutions (adoption of a new constitution) was delayed. The goal of the economic reforms became not the building of a just society, but the creation of opportunities for the enrichment of the most successful people (many of whom were not so much talented business entrepreneurs as people who from the start had a background in the Soviet nomenklatura or connections among its members, or even came from criminal circles). This position was characteristic not only of the narrow circle of reformers, but was widespread among the most progressively minded part of society. For some reason it was believed that the transition to a market economy and the creation of a layer of rich people would lead the country to democracy. (To be fair, this was not a specifically Russian delusion, but one of the mainstream ideas of the time.) Their opponents were people who espoused revanchist and nationalist views. (Roughly what the Kremlin proclaims today.) The polarization of society led to a local civil war in Moscow in October 1993. On the surface, the ‘democrats’ won against the ‘revanchists,’ but the real outcome was the collapse of the weak Russian parliamentarianism and the beginning of the formation of an authoritarian regime, which to many even sincerely convinced democrats initially seemed like a defence against a return to the past. That would be as brief as possible a description of the mistakes made in the few short years of an historical period that was decisive for the fate of democracy in Russia, 1989-1993. The sad list could be continued.

At the same time, I am convinced that the principle factor that played a decisive role in the fate of the democratic transition in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe was the roadmap to EU accession. Semi-authoritarian regimes existed in the 1990s, for example in Slovakia and Croatia, but the real possibility of becoming part of Europe allowed these countries to eventually choose the democratic path. In addition, the nationalist component played a huge role. The peoples of Central and Eastern Europe wanted to put an end once and for all to their past as part of the Russian Empire/Soviet Union or their satellites; accession to the EU and NATO required the construction of real democratic institutions. Russia could not give birth to its own non-imperial national-democratic idea. Nationalism in any form was unacceptable to the liberal-minded part of society. This was entirely justified, since, in fact, it only existed in neo-imperial, Nazi, or ultra-conservative forms. As a result, the liberals could not offer their fellow citizens the idea of solidarity either in the name of social justice or in the name of the nation-state. Universal values, taken separately from the former and the latter, proved attractive to only a narrow stratum of educated Russians who had found their place in the new post-Soviet world.

2) How would you characterise the different roles of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin in these years?

Perestroika was a typical ‘democratization out of necessity.’ Gorbachev was a true idealist. He was a sincere reformer, but he remained true to the concept of reform from above. In his own modus operandi, Gorbachev remained more of an authoritarian politician. He decided to rely on society in his confrontation with the conservative part of the nomenklatura bureaucracy. But until his last day in power he was incapable of abandoning his reliance on nomenklatura methods of governance. That is what ruined him. He was afraid to stand in direct democratic elections. And, as a result, he lost legitimacy. He lost real levers of power and this made the collapse of the Soviet Union inevitable. In my opinion, the question remains open as to what would have been better for the post-Soviet space: the dissolution of the USSR or its transformation into a confederation (this certainly does not apply to the Baltic states). On the one hand, the USSR was a political formation created by the bayonets of the Red Army and the Red Terror, and in many ways was a reincarnation of the Russian Empire. And in this sense, its collapse corresponded to the logic of history and justice. On the other hand, a confederation as a political system would have been more likely to enable the creation of a system of political checks and balances, which possibly would have prevented a slide toward authoritarianism not only in Russia, but also in the countries of Central Asia and would have made possible the avoidance of bloody conflicts, including today’s war in Ukraine. At the same time Gorbachev’s name is associated with one of the most negative decisions in terms of its consequences – the introduction of the post of President. The republics of the USSR began to follow this matrix. Wherever a strong presidential republic was established, authoritarianism took hold. Wherever the political system was closer to a parliamentary republic, democracy emerged to a greater or lesser extent.

Yeltsin, although he went through the same nomenklatura school as Gorbachev, proved to be a natural-born populist politician and charismatic leader. He played an outstanding role in defeating the putschists in 1991. Perhaps this is where Yeltsin’s unquestionably positive role ends. Yeltsin launched economic reforms, but failed to balance economic policy so as to keep the public’s faith in social justice. He defeated the revanchists in 1993, but at the cost of destroying Russian parliamentarism and creating a super-presidential republic, which opened the road to authoritarianism. He defeated the Communists in the 1996 elections, but at the cost of degrading elections through rigging and manipulative propaganda. Yeltsin quickly began co-opting members of the Soviet nomenklatura back into power, and the few democratic activists of the perestroika era, as well as Soviet dissidents, were forced out of the political elite. It was under him that the cult of victory in the Great Patriotic War began to serve as the main unifying national idea. It was also under Yeltsin that the Russian president as a political figure began to acquire imperial symbols (the aesthetics of the renovated Kremlin and the new Kremlin ceremonials), transforming himself into an ‘elective tsar.’ Whether he wanted to or not, Yeltsin created a political system the essence of which was the struggle between oligarchic clans, the strongest of which was the so-called ‘family,’ which was in fact the presidential ‘court.’ By the end of the 1990s, this system entered a period of deep crisis, the outcome of which was, finally, the creation of an authoritarian regime.

At the same time, Yeltsin did not want to destroy democracy. I think that until his last hour as president, he was sure that, on the contrary, he was defending Russia’s democratic future. His decisions were spontaneous, dictated by a desire to resolve the latest crisis, although in many ways they were motivated by a desire to maintain himself in power.

Putin, on the contrary, from the very beginning pursued a policy deliberately designed to destroy or hollow out democratic institutions. Elections came to be wholly decided by fraud, the mass media became a propaganda machine, and political pluralism was excluded from the public space. It is clear from 2023 that Putin’s truly sinister role is the turn to revanchism and chauvinism, to the cultivation of hatred and militarism. On the whole, his role in Russian history is as negative as it is obvious.

3) What has been the role of the FSB in post-Soviet Russia?

The FSB is part of the bureaucratic system of the state agencies of coercion, and of that part of the business world that this bureaucracy controls. The FSB’s plays a major role in maintaining the authoritarian regime – as has always been the case with ‘secret police.’ Among the top managerial class there are many people who had roots in the KGB and the FSB. However, it is not the FSB that puts them in key positions, but President Putin who selects people close to him in spirit and background. The FSB does not run Russia. It really is a service, i.e. a part of the bureaucracy that services the regime. It is the most powerful, but one of a number of others. It is not a political actor in its own right and has no independent political role.

4) To what extent does Russia’s ‘imperial’ past explain its failure to become a democracy?

Contrary to popular belief today, the imperial experience itself does not contradict the establishment of democracy. In Britain, democracy continued to develop while the country was being transformed into an empire; in France, the process of empire-building went simultaneously with the establishment of democracy. Portugal simultaneously with the collapse of its empire became a normal democratic country. Some researchers today call the US a pointillist empire. You can argue about whether this is true or not, but the fate of democracy in the U.S. is not particularly affected.

The post-imperial syndrome is another matter. Resentment and the ‘loser complex’ have become a breeding ground for revanchism and chauvinism. The spread of these sentiments among Russians initially convinced the liberal public that there was no alternative to Yeltsin as a leader, protecting the country from the rise of the supporters of Zhirinovsky and Ziuganov, which justified the reduction in the powers and role of parliament and the manipulation of elections in 1996. Putin then consistently used resentment to consolidate his own power, until it became the determining factor in Russian politics. This political logic eventually led to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

5) What is the main reason Russia invaded Ukraine again on 24 February 2022?

Putin’s authoritarian regime has been in conflict with the natural development of the country at least since the end of his first decade in power. The economy stopped growing. Russia’s big cities had changed markedly compared to the first 15 post-Soviet years. People began to live noticeably better, and they had new demands on the authorities. They wanted to see the elimination of arbitrariness, the uprooting of corruption, good policies with regard to the environment and urban development, social justice, tolerance and humanism. Legitimation of the regime through the ‘war on terror’ ceased to be effective since the threat had disappeared. (What methods Putin used to achieve this, and how this affected the political system is another question.) In response, Putin and his entourage began ever more clearly to incite revanchism, militarism, and chauvinism, basing themselves on the more conservative and simultaneously archaic strata of society – including, literally, the older generation of those who had lived through the collapse of the Soviet system and never recovered from this trauma.

The first noticeable decline in the popularity of the regime after the first triumphant years of Putin’s rule began in 2008. The invasion of Georgia brought the ratings back to their previous level. The next fall in popularity came in 2013. The beginning of 2014 saw the seizure of Crimea and the war in south-eastern Ukraine. There was a massive surge in popularity, with ratings breaking records. Finally, in 2020-2021, there came another decline amid the COVID-19 epidemic. In the upshot, war turns out to be the only explanation for why Putin should continue to be in power. And the 2022 invasion of Ukraine was supposed to be a lightning ‘special operation,’ and not a protracted war, that was to repeat the ‘Crimean effect.’ This is what the intra-systemic reason for the invasion appears to be.

However, a no less important role has been played by developments in the geopolitical situation. First, the flight-like evacuation of U.S. troops from Afghanistan was clearly perceived by Putin as a weakness of the West and the U.S. in particular. Second, Putin’s strategy toward Ukraine, which aimed to use a combination of hybrid warfare in the Donbas and soft power (Medvedchuk’s party) to bring the country under Moscow’s control, had reached a dead end. President Zelensky, relying on his popularity, began to consistently eliminate instruments of Russian influence, the Ukrainian army grew stronger with the help of the West, and the mindset of the Ukrainian people moved farther and farther from the shared Soviet past. For Putin, therefore, the question was likely to be: now or never.

6) What do you predict will be the outcome of the war? What will be the consequences if Russia is able to make further territorial gains as a result of the war? What will be the consequences for the Putin regime if Russia is defeated in the war? What are the chances of bringing those responsible for war crimes to justice?

Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict the outcome of the war. Both sides experience a lack of military forces and resources. Therefore, a major military defeat could lead to a collapse of either the Russian or Ukrainian armies. Today’s media gives the impression that the war is being broadcast live and we know everything. In reality, however, we do not know what forces are at the disposal of Russia and Ukraine. That said, it seems a protracted war gives the advantage to Putin. Therefore, in 2023 Ukraine will try to turn the tide of war in its favour.

If the extreme options are dismissed as less likely (which does not make them impossible), either the fighting will cease along the current line of confrontation, or Ukraine will succeed in making partial gains.

A stabilisation of the situation on the current front lines would be presented by Putin as a victory. His regime would be strengthened. De facto martial law would continue until the end of his rule, which would most likely come about with his natural death or loss of capacity. The war will be presented as having been a new war for the ‘fatherland.’ Any dissent, not only political but also cultural, would be suppressed.

In the event of Russia’s military defeat, even a partial one, it is impossible to predict the regime’s future. Putin will either use brutal repression to crush any signs of even latent discontent and disappointment, or he will be overthrown, or the regime will collapse. The latter two options could open a window of opportunity for democratization. Although political science shows there is a low probability of a transition from a personalist dictatorship to a democracy, as mentioned above, a low probability does not mean impossibility.

7) Why has the Putin regime closed down Memorial, the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Sakharov Centre? What is left of civil society in Russia today?

Civil society in Russia is losing its institutions. All independent organizations will be liquidated sooner or later. However, civil society remains. Assistance to victims of political repression continues, and information about arbitrary actions by the authorities continues to be collected. The surviving organizations committed to providing assistance to vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities, will have to adapt to the new conditions of censorship and the need for demonstrative loyalty to the regime, or close down. Civic activism will shift underground or manifest itself as grass roots initiatives. It will take many more years of consistent suppression, or relatively short but large-scale campaigns of brutal repression, to completely destroy society’s capacity for independent action (a great deal of experience in terms of civil society activities has been accumulated over thirty years).

8) What do you think will happen to Aleksei Navalny in the future? And other political prisoners and prisoners of conscience such as Ilya Yashin and Dmitry Talantov?

Judging by the degree of pressure Navalny is under in prison, the authorities aim to undermine his health to such an extent that he will no longer be a threat to them. The best variant for Putin would be if Navalny, seriously ill, agreed to emigrate in exchange for some valuable prisoner from a U.S. prison. The same applies, to a greater or lesser extent, to all promient political prisoners.

If the regime collapses, they will go free as heroes and become leaders of the movement for the renewal of the country.

9) Russia has left the Council of Europe. Is there a chance Russia will return to this international body in the future?

Russia has been expelled from the Council of Europe. The likelihood of Russia’s return to this international organization is equal to the likelihood of the country’s democratization. Russia is now a peripheral country in terms of European culture. This is not an immutable constant and may change after several decades of life under a neo-totalitarian regime oriented toward China or Iran. But for the time being, that is how it is. And if, in the near future, Russian becomes a democratic country, the logic of history and culture will bring Russia back to Europe.

10) In terms of human rights, how much worse can things get in Russia? How do you see the future of Russia?

The destruction of the remnants of civil society institutions, the de facto introduction of martial law and military censorship, the ever-increasing impunity of the law enforcement agencies, and the return from the front of thousands of people with experience of violence, will lead to an increase in arbitrary actions by the authorities and human rights violations. The very concept of respect for human dignity will be under suspicion as something ‘Western’ and not in line with ‘traditional values.’ A good scenario might be a shift in civil society activities towards social and labour rights. And perhaps, despite the overall dire situation, we shall see progress in this area.

No matter how the war ends, Russia will finally cease to be a country that can claim to be at the forefront of the modern world. The continuation of the current regime under Putin and his successors will mean stagnation, turning Russia into a backward society, continuing to drag out its existence on the back of its arsenal of nuclear weapons and its natural resources. The next crisis will come about as a consequence of a change in the structure of global energy consumption, but that will take decades. The collapse of the regime will give Russia a chance for slow development, but opportunities to actively participate in technological progress will be lost for a long time, if not forever. Russia will become an ordinary second-rate country with a difficult history, but a tolerable present.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

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