The Putin era: an interview with sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya

The Westernizers argue for freedom of the individual, private enterprise, separation of powers, elections. For Slavophiles, all this means alien ideologies and chaos that casts doubt on the very existence of the Russian state.

Dr. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Elite Studies Center at the Sociology Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, looks at Vladimir Putin’s seven years as president and concludes that the “siloviki” (security and law enforcement people) may remain in power for the next 40 years.

Question: How would you describe the outcomes of Vladimir Putin’s presidency? Has Russia moved forward or backward?

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: In order to understand this, we have to accept one fundamental proposition that was formulated 200 years ago, when the phenomenon of the West first arose. Democratic countries declared a mission: liberty and the free market are the requirements for prosperity, and consequently an example to be emulated. The reaction to this was a split within the ruling elites in many non-Western countries. Westernizers promoted European values, democracy, and the free market; traditionalists argued for their countries’ unique cultures. This happened in India and China. It happened in our country as well, as Westernizers and Slavophiles emerged. In fact, these have been the only two “parties” in Russia ever since. No others have emerged, no matter how many parties Russia has seen over the decades. The Westernizers argue for freedom of the individual, private enterprise, separation of powers, elections. For Slavophiles, all this means alien ideologies and chaos that casts doubt on the very existence of the Russian state.

Question: Is the Putin regime a modern version of the Slavophiles?

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: Yes. The distinguishing feature of Russian history is that our state has grown strong only when all power is accumulated in a pyramid and the spirit of autocracy unites our vast sparsely-populated lands. In Russia, Westernizer ideas have always meant a weakened state and the destruction of the entire system. The elite has always assumed that weakening the state will inevitably lead to the whole country falling apart. Consequently, Slavophiles have always remained in power a lot longer than Westernizers. When Westernizers are in power, private enterprise and the economy flourish – but the state grows weaker and border problems arise. Then the traditionalists take over to restore the old order, and this eventually leads to economic stagnation.

Question: And then the Westernizers come to power again, to save the economy and thus save the country from collapsing?

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: Exactly. One group restores order, but can’t create an effective economic system. The other group can develop the economy, but it never has enough time to establish a new democratic order.

Question: So the past seven years have been the most successful phase of Slavophile government – restoring order?

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: Yes, in some sense. But that doesn’t mean order at the ground level. Petty corruption in daily life, police officers taking bribes – all this remains unchanged. The checkists don’t care about the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. But order is certainly being restored in the hierarchical machinery of the state. These days, it’s called the hierarchy of governance.

Question: If the strength of the Russian state lies in rejecting democracy, then why do the people who are currently at the helm keep saying that Russia needs democracy? They could just change the Constitution, after all.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: But why act so crudely? It was the liberals who publicly betrayed the autocratic machine and openly attacked its load-bearing components: the pyramid of power, the command economy, secrecy. But today’s authorities have an entirely different background. In the secret services, they were trained in undercover operations – working behind a mask, concealing their true intentions. No need to wreck the system openly; instead, you need to infiltrate it and go on to preserve its facade while altering the contents to suit yourself, step by step. But these steps toward changing the system should always be done from different directions, and always unexpectedly for those within the system and outside observers alike. So that no one will be able to trace a logical connection between various steps or figure out the purpose of the whole operation.

Rumor has it that soon after Vladimir Putin came to power, he made a revealing remark: “Wherever you look, it’s all like Chechnya.” What he meant was disorder. But what is “disorder” to someone from a military or state security background? It’s the absence of control. If there’s no control, there are opportunities for independent influence. And the presence of alternative centers of power is perceived by the siloviki as a threat to Russia’s integrity. Does the Duma refuse to take orders from the presidential administration? That’s disorder. Is Gazprom run by Rem Vyakhirev rather than the Kremlin? Disorder. Are some parties making demands, are the media talking about something or other? It’s all disorder – it needs to be eliminated. And they have eliminated it. Over the past seven years, the chekists have changed Russia’s political system entirely – without changing a single letter of the Constitution.

Question: But the economy is developing, including the private sector.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: Yet the private sector is now clearly aware of what the consequences will be if it tries to get involved in politics. Besides, the bloc of state-controlled companies is expanding, after contracting during the privatization era. More and more companies are 100% state-owned, or with the state holding a controlling interest.

Question: But most citizens are content with present-day conditions – judging by President Putin’s popularity.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: For the people, democracy still remains something foreign, incomprehensible, and suspicious. But the present regime’s autocratic style is familiar – they understand where President Putin is leading Russia. We still retain our traditional faith in a Good Tsar. Besides, the position of the chekists is incredibly stable these days. That’s mostly because the present system relies on age-old traditions of autocratic statehood. The siloviki aren’t being resisted by any other force. Not even Yuri Andropov enjoyed such freedom of action: he always had to consult the Politburo, where he had only one vote. But now the chekists are their own “Politburo.” Essentially, all the major decisions in Russia are made by five people: Vladimir Putin, Viktor Ivanov, Sergei Ivanov, Igor Sechin, and Nikolai Patrushev.

Question: But Vladimir Putin will drop out of that quintet in 2008.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: Even if he steps down as president, he won’t leave the “Politburo.” The corporation known as the Federal Security Service (FSB) and its ruling group will remain unchanged. It’s only Boris Berezovsky who claims that he “made” Putin. Putin was made president by the corporation that came to power in 2000. And it didn’t go to all that effort just to surrender power after a mere eight years.

Question: A great deal will depend on the successor, right?

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: The chekist “Politburo” will remain in power anyway. If they prefer a “strong” president, they will choose Sergei Ivanov. If they prefer a “weak” president, it will be Dmitri Medvedev. Or Vladimir Putin might remain the leading figure after all.

Question: In what capacity?

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: As prime minister, for example, nominated by the party that wins the Duma election of 2007.

Question: The Constitution makes the prime minister entirely dependent on the president. And Putin has promised on many occasions that he will not amend the Constitution.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: I pay close attention to his statements. Actually, he has promised not to amend the Constitution in the immediate future – that is, before 2008. So in principle, that does allow for the possibility of amending the Constitution. And this certainly will be done – perhaps after the Duma election of 2007. The presidency will be weakened, while the prime minister’s office will be strengthened. And if the previous regime of this nature lasted 80 years, the new version – given the faster pace of life – should last at least 40 years.