FRONTLINE/World . Russia: Putin's Plan . Maria Lipman Interview | PBS
Russia: Putin's Plan


Maria Lipman

Maria Lipman

A political analyst and editor in chief of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Pro et Contra Journal, Maria Lipman writes frequently about the state of Russian politics. She has contributed a monthly op-ed column to The Washington Post since 2001 and is co-editor of the book Pathways of Russian Post-Communism. Here, she talks with FRONTLINE/World correspondent Victoria Gamburg about the futile fight of Russian political opposition, the “soft authoritarianism" of today’s Russia and President Vladimir Putin’s dilemma over how to step down while still retaining power.

VICTORIA GAMBURG: Do you think Putin has a dictatorial instinct?

MARIA LIPMAN: Well, “dictatorial” is too strong a word about today’s Russian political system. It is authoritarian, but this is soft authoritarianism. This is an authoritarianism that is not based on repression -- it is based on a variety of very sophisticated means the Kremlin uses to ensure what I would describe as passive compliance. This is a regime that is based much more on the carrot than on stick. And because of very high oil prices, the Kremlin may rely on a lot of carrot. This “carrot” is used to co-opt everyone who would be co-opted and simply marginalizing everybody else, so that Putin and the pro-Kremlin forces stay uncontested and have full control over the political life in Russia. I would call this more of a contract, accepted by the elites, than a dictatorial role in which everyone runs the risk of ending up in jail.       

Q: What about the unsolved murders of Anna Politkovskaya and other Russian journalists, and the message that these murders send to journalists in Russia?

A: Frankly, I don’t think the whole chain of command, from the president down, was involved in these assassinations of journalists. In fact, the situation in Russia today is that, due to a virtual absence of the rule of law, there is an atmosphere of lawlessness in which scores are settled by resorting to barbaric means such as contracting assassins. People get rid of their adversaries in local politics, in business, in banking … actually, every which way you look, we have reports of contract assassinations on a routine basis. 

When Putin was first responding to the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, he said with his trademark rudeness that she did less harm to Russia when she was alive and writing than when [she was] dead. And, in a cynical way, he was right. The Kremlin did not suffer because of what Anna Politkovskaya was writing, and the Kremlin, I don’t think, was in any way interested in her assassination. 

Anna Politkovskaya was a highly committed, indefatigable and fearless journalist -- an advocacy journalist, I think, would be the best way to describe her. And she had many enemies: people who went to jail because of her, people who had every reason to hate her for what she wrote about them, people in Chechnya. She wrote about corruption, and, given how cheap human life has become in Putin’s Russia, I think lots of suspects may be considered in this case.

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about Kasparov. What do you think of him as a politician? 

A: Kasparov, in his struggle against the Kremlin and against Putin, has picked a rival he cannot beat. Kasparov -- who was number one, who had an unparalleled record and rating in chess, who defeated many powerful adversaries -- in this case cannot win. This is not about him. He probably could be a good politician someplace else. He is honest. He is eloquent. He is indefatigable. He’s even changed his personality, his chess personality, which had an intimidating quality that many of his rivals complained about. 

As a politician he’s patient, and he knows how to compromise -- because he brought together around him a very motley group of allies. Some people are difficult to deal with. 

But it is not about him. It is not his fault that he’s picked a fight that he’s bound to lose. This has to do with a political situation in Russia in which the Kremlin holds full sway. The Kremlin has absolute control over the political life. The Kremlin has full capacity to bar any force from running, any figure from even appearing in the political realm. And the Kremlin has done this, not so much through repression, but through very sophisticated, manipulative politics. The Kremlin is lucky to be able to draw on tremendous resources -- financial, organizational, administrative and even human. With so much money, the Kremlin can lure to its side a lot of human talent in Russia.

Q: How have the Russian people reacted to the Kremlin’s marginalization of the opposition?

A: People in Russia may be aware of the manipulative nature of the Kremlin policies, but they accept the pact. They accept what I would call the nonparticipation pact. The government pushes them farther and farther away from policy making, from decision making, and the people accept this because their living standards have improved and because this traditional pattern of nonparticipation is familiar. It is a habitual pattern in Russia, which was interrupted during the time of Yeltsin, but people were so tired of the Yeltsin era that they gladly accepted the paternalistic formula that Putin was offering: omnipotent state and very weak society.

This way, the Kremlin may actually boost any figure or downplay any figure, and may marginalize or discredit anyone. And the Kremlin’s efforts in this respect have always been successful and effective. The advantage of the state over the society, of the pro-Kremlin politics and the pro-Kremlin elites over anyone who’s an outsider, is basically unlimited. 

Q: Do you think Kasparov was aware of the extent of the challenges he would face?

A: Kasparov is, of course, a fighter, a warrior, and a very good warrior for that matter. His whole chess career is excellent evidence for it. I think he probably overestimated his own ability. He probably underestimated the extent of the Kremlin’s power. I think he’s honestly committed to his cause, and I think that, as a person, he’s admirable for his courage and for his commitment. And once he opted for this odd career as an opposition politician in today’s Russia, I think it is not in his nature as warrior to give up. 

Q: How risky is it for Kasparov to run this campaign?

A: I think there is clearly risk to his safety. So far, the Kremlin has harassed him personally on several occasions -- not in a very tough manner -- but he was detained, and he was personally harassed. But I think the risk of Kasparov having really bad trouble with the Kremlin is not very high because the Kremlin tries to avoid that. It’s not just Kasparov and his being a champion and being a world celebrity. Other people in and around Kasparov also may be harassed, may be beaten during street rallies, but the Kremlin refrains mostly from the harshest methods.

We did have a very unpleasant development (last spring) in Moscow, when about 5,000 Kasparov supporters were facing 9,000 riot police in Moscow, and they were treated really badly. But the Kremlin since has refrained from such harsh methods. I don’t think there is anything preventing the Kremlin from doing this except their own policy. Everyone in Russia who dares to be in opposition, or who dares criticize, is at the Kremlin’s mercy. But, to Putin’s credit, the Kremlin has refrained from using harsh repression. 

Q: Why has the opposition struggled to unify?

A: There has been a lot of talk in Russia for years that all the opposition should come together regardless of how different they may be ideologically or otherwise. This is sort of a vicious circle, because their chances are so slim that there is no incentive to come together. We saw the opposition coming together in Ukraine because the chance to win was very real. They saw it as a real chance, and they came together because the reward was really realistic. So they came together and they won; they won over the incumbent. This was the Orange Revolution. After this victory, they began to have all the old bickering and all the old fights, and we see how difficult it is for them to come to terms. But at the time, when they saw the incumbent force getting weaker, they came together because they saw the public support, and they saw that it made real sense for them. 

In Russia today there is no sense whatsoever. The government has so much advantage over the opposition. The opposition is entirely at their mercy, so the incentive to come together … the reward of coming together … is actually nonexistent.

It is also difficult for them to muster public forces because of how people view the ’90s -- the time when the political struggle was real, the time that, in Russia, has been almost universally referred to as “Curse of the ’90s.”  People do not want it back. People cherish the stability that Putin delivered, even if this is stability at a cost of sacrificing their political freedoms.

Q: Can you talk about the slogan “Putin’s Plan” that we hear all over Russia?

A: The slogan that we have seen in Moscow for weeks says, “Putin’s plan is Russia’s victory.” But it's never been specified who the enemy is that we are supposed to be victorious over in this struggle. Or what Putin’s plan actually implies. 

When asked about it, Putin spoke very vaguely about the plan, saying, “This, the plan of the whole nation, this is what we’ve been doing together, with me as president and the Russian people as a whole, over all these almost eight years now.” The actual Putin’s plan as it is described in the little brochure of the main pro-Kremlin force is also just well-intentioned generalities. It's a tiny brochure, and it doesn’t talk about important issues.

So Putin’s plan is something of a myth. It's something of a line without much substance to it. The phrase is meant to focus the attention of the potential voters on the fact that we want Putin to stay on, and unless we stay the course, and only Putin can stay the course, we’re all in big trouble. Actually, Putin himself spoke about this recently, saying, “If other people come to the Kremlin, they may actually destroy all the achievements that we can boast of during the years of my rule.”

Q: Do you have any idea what Putin’s real plan is?

A: There is Putin’s immediate plan and Putin’s plan for Russia’s future. Putin’s immediate plan has to do with what is referred to in Russia as “The Challenge of 2008.” During his tenure, Putin built up tremendous authority. The constitution provides tremendous authority for the president of Russia, but Putin’s authority goes way beyond his formal authority as president. This is an informal authority based on his tremendous popularity, which is around 80 percent.

It is also based on his role as the ultimate arbiter of all the infighting of the powerful groups in Russia. Putin has also presided over a major redistribution of property.
And in the absence of effective institutions, in the virtual absence of a rule of law, there actually isn’t any [authority] to predict this redistribution of property except for Putin himself. He stands as the sole safeguard of the current redistribution of property in Russia, and, should he somehow disappear or somehow step down for real, there would be no one to safeguard the property holdings in Russia, which could create the risk of destabilization.

The problem for Putin is that in March 2008 he has to step down because this is what the constitution requires after two terms. And he has pledged repeatedly that he will, but, at the same time, he needs to stay on because he has dramatically emasculated all institutions of power in Russia throughout his tenure.

So his immediate plan is to somehow stay on and step down at the same time. (Editor’s note: Since this interview was conducted, Putin announced that he would become prime minister and would support Dmitri Medvedev as his presidential successor. Polls in Russia currently show Medvedev winning 80 percent of the popular vote.)

Q: What about his broader plan for the future of Russia?

As far as Putin’s plan in a broader sense -- Putin’s vision for Russia -- it is really hard to tell what that is. It's become notoriously difficult to predict in Russia. We don’t yet know how Putin will overcome the tremendous challenge that he himself created: how to convey power, how to orchestrate a transfer of top-most authority in Russia. And it remains to be seen whether things will remain stable, whether Russia will stay the course that Putin has in mind. And even so, there are so many challenges to Russia’s development that it is hard to say what the vision is and whether it [could be implemented].