RD Interview: Carnegie Moscow Center’s Andrei Kolesnikov explains why the re-emergence of nationalism and conservatism in post-Crimea Russia is a long-term trend and why the Kremlin is shying away from strategic thinking.

The Kremlin guards change at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier outside the Kremlin wall in downtown Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. Photo: AP

On Sept. 17, Russia’s leading economists, including the dean of Lomonosov Moscow State University, Alexander Auzan, will discuss the Kremlin’s new long-term strategy document, known as Strategy 2030. Since this document is an attempt to describe the Kremlin’s long-term priorities for the next decade and beyond, it could provide significant insights into how the Russian government views the current economic, political and social situation within the country, as well as important milestones on the road from 2015 to 2030.

Russia Direct recently sat down with Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center in an effort to understand better the Kremlin’s current strategic priorities, as well as how the Kremlin may attempt to manage current perceptions within society in order to achieve those priorities.

Russia Direct: Given that the Russian authorities are often accused of lacking strategic thinking, how do you assess attempts such as Strategy 2030 to come up with a comparably long-term strategy?

Andrei Kolesnikov: As many experts joke, it is easier to develop Strategy 2030, 2040, 2050 than Strategy 2016, because it is absolutely unclear what is to be done in the framework of the current political situation. But, on the other hand, long-term thinking is highly important, because government and society should understand the goals set for the future. Even discussion on this topic is crucial. Sooner or later, we will need to understand how to live in the future.

But this strategic thinking is foreign to the current authorities and they don’t need it at all for several reasons. One could illustrate this trend with the example of Strategy 2020, which, in fact, wasn’t very strategic. It contained neither political nor social components. It deals with just economic aspects and budget policy.

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But in the end it failed to come to fruition. Instead of low military spending we have seen high spending on [army and defense]; instead of high level of spending on human capital, we see low spending on health and education. So, all these initiatives remained on paper and had lost their relevance by the end of the presidential tenure of Dmitry Medvedev.

So, the Russian authorities do not take the modernization vector seriously. What they take seriously is the vector to resolving current, day-to-day tasks. This results from the assumption of the Russian political elites that Russia has already reached a new level of development.

RD: And this is one of the reasons why you think the Kremlin lacks strategic thinking?

A.K.: Yes, they believe that there are no strategic tasks and, instead, they should maintain a certain level of income and expand the middle class, develop the economy in its current condition, all while overcoming the economic crisis. They just believe that the downturn will go away.

RD: Where does such confidence come from?

A.K.:  It is related to a very important trait of Russia’s political elites and, particularly, its president:  There is no strategic vision of the future, no adequate assessment of reality. It might stem from the fact that people [at the helm] are not rotated for a long time and their perception of reality has been changed.

Or it is because the president looks through primarily three folders that come from the FSB (Federal Security Service), SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) and FSO (Federal Protective Service) and, thus, has an absolutely distorted picture of the world.

Or it might be related to the anti-Western — half-nationalistic and half-imperialistic — outlook, which hampers the ability to perceive reality adequately.

Probably, all these factors are working, but what is important is that people [at the helm] do sincerely not understand where they are now, while assessing the current crisis as only a temporary trouble.

However, the understanding that everything is very bad is penetrating their minds. And the indirect sign of this understanding is the President’s recognition that it is impossible to plan the three-year budget and so far it is necessary to focus on the one-year budget.

RD: Some argue that Putin should step down and they see it as the only condition to improve the situation in the country economically and politically. Do you agree? Is it really possible that Putin will leave and promote his successor while leading from behind, like it was in 2008, when Medvedev was elected as president?

A.K.: In 2018 it is impossible. It is rather a question of the next political cycle, when Putin will physiologically become very old and when it will be physically difficult to rule the country. So, this political swap is impossible now. Looking for the successor will be relevant for him approximately in the 2020s, when we will see a huge reshuffle of everything. Currently, there is no eligible figure to replace Putin as successor.

RD: One puzzling argument that even some opponents of Putin admit or worry about is the assumption that today there is no alternative to Putin among the current political elites. Is it really the case?

A.K.: First, all 15 years [of Putin’s presidential term] have been spent narrowing down alternative political candidates to only one figure, because this figure is politically encompassing and many-sided — he is the main communist, the main liberal or the main nationalist, the rest of the political forces are like supporting blocks.

Let’s imagine a simple situation in which Putin is no longer the president: Let’s imagine that he steps down, observes the law and doesn’t announce a presidential bid in 2018. In the beginning it won’t be easy to elect someone. The election is always not an easy process. But in this situation an alternative figure might emerge very fast. In such case, there will be just another picture [of the political landscape].

RD: But there is another argument used by some intellectuals that Russia is historically a very paternalistic country, with the origins of this paternalism coming from the time of the Tatar-Mongol invasion of Russia in the 13th century. And this sounds like an attempt to justify the authoritarian nature of Russian political elites.

A.K.: This problem does exist and is related to the so-called “path-dependence problem,”  when modern people think in the same way as they did in the times of Ivan the Terrible. But as the experience of the Russian people indicates, they can successfully adjust to new [political] conditions and be creative. After all, Russia is a very urbanized and well-educated society and I believe that this society can produce everything in terms of political freedom — from political democracy to economic efficiency.    

RD: Nevertheless, a number of pundits warn that radically minded groups like nationalists might come to power and bring more instability in Russia, like it was in 1917. Do they really pose a threat to Putin in long-run as some fear?

A.K.: They can influence more on Putin’s agenda, so that he can become even more aggressive, anti-Western and more repressive. But they can’t replace him. They are not so popular among ordinary people.

RD: How can you account for the high approval ratings of Putin despite Russia’s current economic woes?

A.K.: Actually, the crisis is contributing to Putin’s high approval ratings: People look for a person to find support. And the figure of Putin or his brand is becoming the symbol of their only hope that they will be fed by somebody at the helm. And this is the very manifestation of the paternalistic mentality.

RD: To what extent is Putin’s approval rating real?

A.K.: It is real. It just reflects the desire of people to live their day-to-day life, not to bother the authorities and not to be bothered by the authorities. It is not an active support, it is a passive conformism; it is the support not of the person, but of the symbol.

RD: Yet is the Kremlin ready to put up with the decline in Putin’s ratings?

A.K.: Psychologically, the authorities are absolutely not ready to tolerate a drop in the ratings because of the habit of getting high results. The decline is perceived as a serious signal of a catastrophe. They are addicted to the high rankings and this is the problem: It means that they will step up tightening the screws only to maintain the ratings above 80 percent.

RD: Due to Russia’s economic challenges many, including you, talk about social protests. But generally there is a great deal of doubt that social protests will turn into political ones in the current political situation. What are the reasons of this trend and what should happen to transform social unrest into political unrest?

A.K.: Social protest is not turning into political protest because people are waiting for different perks from the president and nobody is protesting. After all, nobody bites the hand that feeds it. Putin in this case is the hand that feeds.

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Converting social protests into political ones might take place when a serious economic catastrophe happens that significantly affects the entirety of Russia; when social thinking turns into political protests in Moscow; when the situation of 2011-2012 repeats (Russians took to the streets to express their indignation about what they saw as the manipulated nature of parliamentary and presidential elections — Editor’s note).

Clearly, it is impossible now, but it should take time to happen.

RD: 2018 is seen as a sort of a crossroads, when the presidential elections take place. Given the skyrocketing increase in conservatism in Russia now, what should we expect and when will the pendulum sway in the opposite direction?

A.K.: I assume that the inertia for maintaining stability will be enough until 2018, but afterwards [the Kremlin] will need strategic decisions, which it doesn’t have. After 2018, given a great deal of uncertainty, the political and economic collapse might happen.

RD: So, you mean that the re-emergence of conservatism is going to be a long-term trend.

A.K.: Yes, it won’t be necessarily abrupt and catastrophic, but it will be very long and gradual like the economic crisis.  

RD: Well, let’s imagine the situation that the West is going to ease the sanctions. Can this move reverse the trend of increasing anti-Western and conservative sentiments and change Russia’s political situation?

A.K.: When sanctions were toughened, this helped to mobilize people around the governor of the besieged fortress [Putin]. But when the sanctions weaken, there is no guarantee that this mobilization will become weaker. The authorities could be intransigent as well as the population. I don’t believe in a fast restoration.

RD: There are a lot of talks about the so-called inertia scenario of development of Russian in the current situation. Could you specify what does it really mean?

A.K.: It means there won’t be democratic freedoms - a slow and gradual tightening of the screws, economic depression accompanied by mental depression. But there won’t be any catastrophes and political protests. This is the inertia model, a sort of frozen condition, which the current authorities are seeking to prolong until 2018.

RD: What about the scenario of the besieged fortress: Is it still relevant today and how has it been evolved since last year? What place does it take in the priorities of the Kremlin?

A.K.: This metaphor is still working as well as the other metaphor “Stockholm syndrome,” felt by the inhabitants of the besieged fortress toward its governor, Putin [the Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which victims express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward those who oppress or neglect them — Editor’s note].

As long as the authorities are maintaining a half-cold and half-hot hybrid war and sanctions exist, people will feel that they are living inside of this fortress. And it is important for the mobilization of the people around the authorities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the tenth annual press conference at the World Trade Centre in Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

RD: But there are claims that Putin is just responding to the demand of the people to be more nationalistic and patriotic and that’s why he fuels anti-American and conservative sentiments. Meanwhile, some counter that the rise of nationalism and conservatism is a result of a large-scale information campaign. In fact, it is the chicken or the egg problem, a matter of demand and supply. What emerged first? Did Russian’s inherent conservatism and patriotism lead to the increase of propaganda or vice versa?

A.K.: Looking at social polls, one can assume that there is a balance between demand and supply. Demand for patriotism has always existed in its dormant condition. But only a very, very big supply in such aggressive and extreme forms could “wake up” or fuel this demand. That’s why supply is primary in this situation, as indicated by the abrupt changes in public opinion.

RD: Such trend may stem from the inferiority complex that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet empire. Some even argue that it lead to the problem of an identity crisis for Russians. Do you think it is really the case?

A.K.: In general, the problem of self-identification is artificial. And it is used by those who offer this supply [through informational campaigns]. The post-Soviet man hasn’t had the problem of self-identification: The collapse of the Soviet Union was actually a victory for him.

He stopped being Soviet and became a man who lived according to the terms of the market economy, felt free, had certain problems, but nevertheless he was a typical European man. And now he is persuaded that he is not European, that he is unique and exceptional. And this is the reverse movement from progress and modernization, the so-called archaization of conscience.