RD Interview: Prominent Russian political consultant Evgeny Minchenko sheds light on the thinking of the Kremlin's inner circles, the problems of Russian lobbyists in the U.S., the country’s 2016 parliamentary elections, and the impact of the current U.S. presidential campaign on Russia policy. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, talks with Federal Security Service chief Alexander Bortnikov, left, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Photo: AP

In November, 2014 and in March, 2015, Evgeny Minchenko, director of the Moscow-based International Institute for Political Expertise (IIPE) and ranked among the Top 10 political consultants in Russia, visited the United States to study the art and science of American political campaigns. He also presented his recent report about Russia’s political elites and the Kremlin’s inner circle, referred to as Politburo 2.0. As a result of his trips, he and his team came up with a report about the outcomes of congressional elections and upcoming presidential campaign in the U.S. 

Evgeny MinchenkoDuring his two recent trips, he met with American prominent political consultants, politicians and experts, including legendary American diplomat Henry Kissinger (in November, 2014) and Stuart Stevens (in March, 2015), a famous American political consultant who served as the top strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and worked for President George W. Bush’s media team in 2000 and 2004. In addition, he talked to the political consultants of current U.S. presidential candidates.

Russia Direct sat down with Minchenko to discuss his trips to the U.S., the impact of the 2016 American presidential race on Russia, the Russian political elites and Politburo 2.0, the Kremlin’s perception of the U.S. and Russia’s 2016 parliamentary elections. In addition, Minchenko shared his views on the problems of Russia’s lobbying efforts in America and why he doesn’t regard the current confrontation between Moscow and Washington as a new Cold War.   

Russia Direct: This week, Hillary Clinton announced her 2016 presidential bid from the Democratic Party. You’ve just come from the U.S. and witnessed the preparations for the U.S. presidential campaign. From your point of view, who is better for Russia – a Republican candidate or a Democratic one - as the next president? 

Evgeny Minchenko: It depends not on the affiliation of the party, but on the name of the candidate, because today there are “hawks” from both sides. Both Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, and Republicans, including neo-conservatives, agree on the core issues of U.S. foreign policy. So, if the next president will be a “hawk,” it will not be good for Russia.

Given the fact that Clinton is an obvious frontrunner of the race, I think that her victory will not bring big advantages for Russia: Her personal relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin are not ideal. In addition, Clinton has an image of a radical feminist and perceives Putin’s image and style as sexist. On top of that, she is accused of being too mild toward Russia because of the “reset” policy and, thus, she will try to prove that she is tough and intransigent with Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on her arrival at the APEC summit in Vladivostok, Russia, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. Photo: AP

If we talk about the Republican camp, there are likewise candidates close to the neo-conservatives such as Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, who are both “hawks.” However, the story is more complicated with the Bush family: I see Jeb Bush as a person who is ready for compromise and dialogue and who is easier to get along with.  He can listen and he is not ideology-driven. In addition, Jeb is more balanced and rational, unlike his brother and former U.S. president George W. Bush. That’s why, hypothetically, I find Jeb more suitable for Russia.

RD: What about other Republicans: Rand Paul and Scott Walker?

E.M.: The isolationism of Rand Paul would be comfortable for Russia, but I am very skeptical about his odds in the primaries and general election. He looks to be too radical for the current situation. Scott Walker has good odds, I guess, but he looks untested in foreign policy and his position will depend on the team of his advisers.

RD: It is not your first visit to the United States. Is it your personal initiative? Why did you decide to study political campaigns in the U. S.?

E.M.: Yes, it is my personal initiative. I also visited this country during the 2012 presidential campaign as well and spent about two weeks there. I met political consultants, spin-doctors and politicians and studied the political campaigns of Barack Obama and his main rival Mitt Romney. The U.S. is a huge market of “political technologies.”

In its size, it is comparable with the political consulting market of the rest of the world. Why? There are many elections in the U.S. on all possible levels: not only at the presidential and congressional levels, but also at the level of county, city and district elections and even local school councils. There is also a huge emphasis of what is placed on the boundary of lobbying and political technologies.  

RD: Regarding lobbying, some argue that Russia doesn’t have a lobby in the U.S. because of its negative image abroad: No one would dare to lobby the Kremlin’s interests in Washington to risk their career. From your point of view, what is the main problem of Russian lobbying efforts in the U.S.?

E.M.: Russia is an imperial nation. The problem of such nations is that their citizens are easily assimilated into other countries. And, unfortunately, the Russian Diaspora in the U.S. is not pro-Russian, but rather consists of dissidents [who relentlessly criticize Russia instead of promoting its interests].

RD: Ok, Russians living in the U.S. criticize their country, yet they might criticize it for a reason. How can you account for their criticism?

E.M.: Initially, such a critical approach was set by the waves of emigration. The emigration from the Soviet Union has an effect on the current sentiments among the Russian community in the U.S. Soviet expatriates shift their negative attitude from the Soviet Union to modern Russia.

In addition, those people who earned money in Russia and then left it are also critical toward the country. Finally, there are people who emigrated from Russia to the U.S. for the quest for a better life. They just try to assimilate and show that they are Americans, not Russians: They speak good English and pretend to understand American culture.

RD: Partly, this problem stems from the domestic policy of the authorities, from their inability to be attractive for those people who are leaving the country. So, how should authorities resolve the problem?          

E.M.: You know the problem is that there is a lack of interest in lobbying Russian interests in the U.S. The problem of Russian lobbying is that Russian officials don’t understand what they are selling and promoting. Every time we change our strategy. They can’t clearly say what we want from America and what we can offer to them to be attractive. We should send other messages.

But the challenge is whether the Russian authorities are ready for a subtle game. The game should be very subtle, not the heavy trolling of Russia’s Foreign Ministry. Today, we have to expand our contacts with Americans and seek more dialogue and exchanges. In this regard, it was a mistake to close the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) educational program last year. We need more such contacts.

Tourists hold a poster symbolically showing a Russian flag riddled with bullet holes as they pose for a photo at the place where Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition leader, was gunned down on Feb. 27, 2015 near the Kremlin, in Moscow. Photo: AP

RD: Let’s return to your trip to the U.S. Where did you take the floor in America?

E.M.: I had three public appearances during the recent visit: I took the floor at John Hopkins University, Georgetown University and at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). The audience comprised students, professors and journalists.

The meeting in John Hopkins University was organized with the support of the Center on Global Interests, headed by Nikolai Zlobin, while the lecture at Georgetown took place thanks to Gary Nordlinger, a well-known U.S. political consultant [who contributed to political campaigns in about 30 countries].  In addition, the discussion at CEIP was closed and it brought together experts and representatives of American governmental agencies and big corporations.

RD: How did the audience react to your speeches?

E.M.: The most positive meeting was with students from Georgetown University. All questions were interesting, professional and relevant. Some expressed interested toward our recent report about Russia’s political elites, “Politburo 2.0.” Moreover, in November, Thane Gustafson, a professor from Georgetown, recognized me (even though we hadn’t met before) and said that he would discuss this report with students at his next seminar, which indicates there is an interest in Russia’s expertise in the U.S. and the potential for dialogue.    

In contrast, John Hopkins brought together a very politicized audience: many, instead of asking questions, tried to express alternative political statements. And this was despite the fact that I warned everybody in advance that I was not going to promote any political agenda; instead, I told them that, as a political expert, I would just tell what is going on in Russia’s political circles.       

Although my speech contained a series of critical statements toward the Kremlin and the political situation in Russia, there were still some people who believe that if you don’t lambast Russian President Vladimir Putin, you are by definition engaging in propaganda. In other words, during my trip I witnessed the inability of some people to listen to another position and talk about subtle nuances.

Based on this experience, I can say that there is a big radicalization, even bigger than the one that took place six months ago. Half a year ago I took the floor at CEIP before the same audience and it was a very positive and substantive communication. Yet this time, the questions that came from the audience were ideological. But, what brought about the controversial polemic is my thesis that political competition increased after Putin’s return in comparison with the presidential tenure of Dmitry Medvedev. However, [my opponents] insisted that there were no political competition at all.

Even though I said that some Russian regions had opposition candidates and parties elected [during the 2013 regional elections in Russia], the audience remained skeptical; it doesn’t see this opposition as real one. Following such logic, if the opposition doesn’t seek regime change, it can’t be considered a real opposition.    

RD: And does Russia really have a real political rivalry today?

E.M.: There are objective factors. Finally, parties started registration on a larger scale. After all, previously, there wasn’t any opportunity to register a party. Under different pretexts, authorities denied parties the right of registration [This year more than 100 parties were registered, while in 2014 there were 77 registered parties, according to Russia’s Justice Ministry – editor’s note]. Then, there was the return of gubernatorial elections. All this led to an increase in the market for political consulting in Russia. According to my estimates, the size of the political consulting market in Russian increased 15-20 times.  

RD: Yet the big number of parties could be very confusing and misleading for voters. After all, a great deal of parties might be just spoilers to distract voters and it could lead to low turnout. Right?

E.M.: Sure, the Kremlin is using this strategy as well. It calls this “party diffusion.” It’s not new. But what stops opposition to use it in their interests?

RD: What are your predictions about the 2016 parliamentary elections? What are the chances of Russia’s systemic and non-systemic opposition to get into Russia’s State Duma?

E.M.: First, the elections will be very competitive, especially in the regions. According to my estimates, there will be a close rivalry in a minimum of half of the single-mandate constituencies. Regarding the liberal opposition, I see its chances as very low, because, in my view, these people are constantly quarreling, they can’t come up with a compromise and a good agenda.

However, the murder [of opposition leader Boris] Nemtsov created the chance to bring together liberal and nationalistic protests. Yet I don’t see that they try to use this chance in their favor and continue to stick their typical rhetoric: We, the 14 percent, are up against the 86 percent [of Putin’s majority voters]. I don’t understand how they are going to win in the elections with such slogans. So, I am very skeptical about their chances.


Activists held rally to mark the anniversary of the mass protests on May 6, 2013. Photo: ITAR-TASS

RD: Some American experts and journalists complain that their knowledge about Russia is based primarily on guesses because of the lack of access to Russian political elites, whom they see as very suspicious and out-of-touch. How can you account for such suspiciousness among the elites and their high level of secrecy?

E.M.: Yes, Russian officials are suspicious, especially toward those who work in embassies, because there is an opinion among Russia’s political elites that all these “color revolutions” were orchestrated by American ambassadors. And the recruiting of representatives of local elites took place during meetings with U.S. ambassadors. That’s why Russian political elites try to avoid meetings with American ambassadors, in order not to be accused of betraying their country.    

RD: Some experts and academics complain that their expertise doesn’t reach the political elites. Could you explain why?

E.M.: You know any expertise should be practical in its character. And this is the problem for Russia’s expert community: They are not able to come up with practical recommendation that would work. In contrast, in the U.S. there are interconnected links between university circles, business and politics. Today, you are a professor, tomorrow – an ambassador. After working in a corporation one can switch to politics. It is not the case with Russia. In Russia, there are few people who came in into politics from academia.

RD: And what are the roots of this trend?    

E.M.:  It results from the Soviet legacy that viewed academics as secondary and political appointees (or those with a practical mentality) as primary.

RD: Could you tell about your concept of Politburo 2.0 and the orbits of power in Russia?

E.M.: The idea of that concept came from the fact that the standard scheme of making decisions [in Russia] doesn’t work well because of a more significant factor. We try to measure this factor and came to conclusion that the informal process of decision making in Russia is much more important than the formal one. And we described this informal structure as Politburo 2.0.

Unlike the previous Politburo, the new one is a sort of network structure and its members never come together for sessions in one place. There are no protocols and officials statements, just informal or tacit agreements. They communicate in the framework of their sectors (energy, military-industrial, law enforcement structures and so on). This is what I call the orbits of power.       

RD: In the context of the Politburo 2.0 concept, what changes in Russia’s political elites can the Ukrainian crisis and the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov bring about?

E.M.: Actually, it [Ukraine and the Nemtsov murder] led to the growth of the influence of the elite in national security, law enforcement agencies and the military-industrial complex and to the weakening of the liberal clan in the orbit of power. This is the key.     

Collage by Andrei Zaitsev. Photo: AP

RD: After coming back from the U.S. and talking to your American counterparts, can you say that there is a new Cold War between Russia and the U.S., as some experts argue?

E.M.: The current state of U.S.-Russia relations is far from a new Cold War. A friend of mine told me how he and his classmates trained in the 1970s during school drills to prepare for a potential nuclear strike from the Soviet Union.

Today there is no such hysteria and anger toward Russia, because Russia is not perceived in the U.S. as an alternative to America. Now Washington sees Russia as a country with spoiled capitalism and unpredictable dictatorial regime. Unpredictability of this regime is the major problem that preoccupies the U.S. In this regard, the Soviet authorities were predictable for them. They believed that they understood the mentality of the Soviets.

Today, the idea that Putin is irrational, unpredictable and impossible to explain is prevailing in Washington’s political discourse. Previously, American experts saw him as an authoritarian leader, but a predictable one, who is possible to get along with and whose interests are understandable. But now, it is not the case. And this is a bad sign. The dictator who lost control over the situation is currently the mainstream narrative around Putin in the U.S. They chalk up the problem [of U.S.-Russia relations] to one person, to Putin, and believe that democracy will come to Russia after he steps down. But this is not the case. It’s overly simplistic.