From, March 19, 2024, Condensed text:

Editors’ Note. – Vladimir Putin has declared himself the winner of the presidential election. The opposition used the election to stage a major protest event called Noon Against Putin, but it did not affect the outcome [see Vol. 76, No. 11, pp. 6‑9]. Can we say the protest was a success for the opposition? What will Putin do next? Does he feel threatened? Is he going to transfer power to his heirs? To discuss all these matters, Farida Kurbangaleyeva met with political analyst Yevgeny Roshchin, a research fellow at Princeton University and the Institute for Global Reconstitution.

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‘Apparently, the regime thinks the potential for protest is a bit higher than just people grumbling at the kitchen table.

Question. – Noon Against Putin was a very impressive and inspirational event. But will there be any real consequences for the regime? Or was it merely another symbolic get-together of opposition activists?

Answer. – In politics, nothing in inconsequential. Especially when you’re dealing with such a powerful authoritarian regime capable of suppressing any resistance by force. Just don’t expect any institutional consequences. I mean, don’t expect the dictator to get scared and resign, or agree to implement some “reforms,” like after the 2011-2012 protests [on Bolotnaya Square in December 2011 and February 2012; see, respectively, Vol. 63, No. 50, pp. 7‑11, and Vol. 64, No. 6, pp. 6‑9 – Trans.]. No, this time the effect will be different. But it is important nonetheless. This effect has to do with the development of solidarity awareness.

The thing is, regimes like the one we have in Russia today rely on two things – first, administrative mobilization, and second, the atomization of society. In other words, the idea of repression is to show the people: If you resist the regime, you’re on your own. There’s nobody else to support you. So, you should shut up and do as you’re told.

The protest last weekend demonstrated to people that they were not alone. There are many people like them, and this sends a powerful horizontal message. People see that the regime can’t suppress the voice of dissenters. It is not lost in the sea of all the other voices.

The history of resistance movements in other countries with similar regimes teaches us that this is very important.

Q. – Can you mention some specific examples where the situation was very similar to what we have in Russia today and people’s solidarity eventually made the regime collapse?

A. – . . . Authoritarian regimes in Latin America are perhaps a closer analogy [than the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe]. In some ways, the regime in Russia perhaps resembles Argentina. . . .

The Argentine regime made a fatal mistake by losing the Falklands War. The defeat was blamed on the military. All sorts of allegations were made about corruption in the military, which undermined its legitimacy. So, on the one hand, you had this discontent rising up, and on the other, there was this feeling of solidarity, or at least you knew that there were people with similar views around you. And when these two factors combined, people rallied around the forces resisting the regime.

It shouldn’t be too hard to draw a parallel with the situation in Russia today.

So, we can assume that one day we may see the effect of all the efforts by investigative journalists uncovering corruption among top-level Russian officials. This effect will manifest itself at a critical point when the regime, bedraggled by numerous problems, makes a fatal mistake.

And authoritarian regimes are prone to fatal mistakes. Sometimes they are fortunate and manage to stay afloat. For example, when Vladimir Putin made a mistake in 2022 by starting the war [in Ukraine], he managed to stay afloat, avoiding division within his inner circle. But this doesn’t mean he isn’t going to make more mistakes further down the road. Russia will remain under pressure. Nobody is going to lift any sanctions. So, one day we may see a random combination of economic factors coming together, perhaps some lucrative assets changing hands, and as a result we may see a conflict between various clans within the elite.

Actually, we saw something similar last summer with [Yevgeny] Prigozhin’s mutiny [see Vol. 75, No. 26, pp. 3‑9]. But that was a relatively small group of rebels with rather limited resources. And this happened, again, as a result of a typical mistake made by a personalist regime, when the regime seeks to rule by dividing and pitting establishment and nonestablishment forces against one another to strengthen control over the government elites. Confronted with pressure from internal and external factors, such a structure often spins out of control.

Q. – Do you think Putin’s regime feels threatened by quiet protests like flashmob voting at noon, large crowds at Navalny’s funeral, or people lining up to give their signatures in support of [Boris] Nadezhdin’s nomination [see Vol. 76, No. 5, pp. 8‑12]? Or does the regime think that these people are merely 1% of the population and can be easily ignored?

A. – I think the Kremlin will take this seriously. Otherwise, the regime would have allowed Nadezhdin to run [see Vol. 76, No. 7, pp. 11‑12]. The reason they decided against it is because they feared that Nadezhdin would turn out to be a dark horse, and a black swan could follow.

The authorities weren’t 100% sure that Nadezhdin’s name on the ballot wouldn’t attract a significant number of voters.

And that would force them to make a decision urgently on how to fix the election results – even though Nadezhdin doesn’t look like a strong, charismatic leader who can inspire people to take to the streets, who will insist on making the voting procedure transparent, who will fight for every stolen vote in court. And still, despite all that, the Kremlin decided to take his name off the ballot, just to be on the safe side. So, it seems to me, the Kremlin thinks that more than 1% [of people] are capable of dissent and resistance. And it thinks the potential for protest is a bit higher than just people grumbling at the kitchen table.

We should also remember that all the people we saw in those lines – they are just the tip of the iceberg for Russia’s society. We can’t rule out that some accidental factor turns things around when the regime faces a critical moment. For example, let’s say a charismatic leader appears who manages to mobilize this potential for protest. That would be a window of opportunity for such people, and the Kremlin has to make sure that window stays shut at all times.

‘At this point, it would be acceptable to Putin to set up a hereditary form of government.

Q. – Some people, including certain opposition-minded Russians, say that long lines of people waiting to cast their votes at Russian embassies overseas helped legitimize the regime by giving Putin a higher turnout rate.

A. – I have heard such claims, but they don’t make sense to me. Basically, this would mean that we are buying into the propaganda narrative, which said the turnout rate should be 80% and Vladimir Putin should get 80% of the vote. This would indicate that the whole country has rallied around the war effort and supports the war. I don’t agree with such an interpretation. I think that the anti-Putin protest worked. We all saw those lines of “protesters” in front of polling stations in major Russian cities and in other countries, where Russian nationals formed huge lines outside Russian embassies and consulates. On the other hand, of course, I am fully aware that this protest was quite limited in scale. There were places in Russia, especially in small remote towns, where there were only a handful of people at polling stations at noon – or none at all.

Be that as it may, we saw an alternative picture, and it sent a powerful message. First of all, those people sent a message to each other, and second, they sent a message to the rest of the world. They showed the world that not all people in Russia support the militarist policy of the authoritarian regime’s leader.

Third, when people wait in a line, it is different from a regular political rally. At a rally, you just stand and listen to people on the stage saying all the right words, but you don’t know what the purpose of it all is. When you’re in a line, on the other hand, you have a specific goal in mind. There is a specific political action involved. And this is a pretty powerful picture. It undermines the propaganda narrative that says high turnout is an indicator of the regime’s legitimacy. On the contrary, the fact that people showed up at the polling stations at the same time sends the opposite message.

In addition, this was an investment in Russia’s future. This will help build civil society in Russia and educate people about taking responsibility for their country. All this will be very important if and when changes start happening in Russia.

Q. – What has to happen in order for the masses to take the next step, from this newly found sense of solidarity to specific action? Is it even possible, considering that people prefer to wait for a black swan? You can spend years and years waiting for that swan to come, while the regime remains strong and stable.

A. – You’re right, it’s not an easy task. This is precisely what the entire political opposition is thinking about today. They are looking for possibilities, but, unfortunately, there are no obvious options available at this point. This is because every regime falls into its own trap; every regime makes its own mistake. And all the circumstances have to be right for that to happen. But the situation in Russia today is such that even if people who attended Navalny’s funeral or came to give their signatures for Nadezhdin were to stage a huge rally against the Kremlin, they wouldn’t be likely to achieve anything. The regime has enough power to quash dissent.

Having a certain number of disgruntled people is just one variable in a large formula that can result in profound transformations within the regime. What we’re lacking at this point is apparent or hidden division within the elites.

We have to have a certain conflict between one group within the elite and another one. It doesn’t even have to be a conflict with the president. We saw this in the case of Prigozhin; his conflict was supposedly only with the Defense Ministry. But it is very easy for any such conflict to escalate so the president gets involved in it. This is just because any conflict within the elite undermines the president’s legitimacy, and the outcome of this conflict, as negotiated between various groups, may involve replacing the president. At this point, we don’t see any particular divisions within the elite. But that doesn’t mean that this will continue forever.

The economic situation in Russia is frozen, static. On the one hand, things look quite positive for Russia. Macroeconomic indicators look stable, and Russia has successfully rerouted its trade toward Asia. On the other hand, there are signs of economic stagnation due to increased costs in international trade. As Russia converts to a wartime economy, certain groups within the elite or certain industries may feel that the new redistribution system threatens their interests. And then, as things get worse, the regime, like I said, may make another mistake – like the mistake they made by allowing private military contractors. And when this mistake happens, a lot will depend on whether protesting masses can mobilize quickly.

Q. – Will Putin run again in 2030? Or do you think he will use the time between 2024 and 2030 to arrange for a power transfer?

A. – I don’t want to speculate. But the nature of the Russian regime is such that Putin should stay in power for as long as his health allows. . . .

Besides, Putin saw how the authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan attempted a power transfer and the fiasco that ensued [see Vol. 71, No. 24, p. 14]. [Former Kazakh president Nursultan] Nazarbayev decided to handle the power transfer issue by making [Kasym-Zhomart] Tokayev a new president while Nazarbayev took up the position of Security Council chairman. That was supposed to keep the system stable, allowing the Nazarbayev family to keep its grip on the country. But the plan went awry. After a series of protests [see for example, Vol. 74, No. 1‑2, pp. 10‑15 – Trans.], the new leader reformed the system in such a way that Nazarbayev lost his status as the leader of the nation and his relatives lost their positions. I think this made Putin realize that such a transition model involves major risks. He doesn’t know when someone might decide to remove him and the people close to him from power – and if that ever happens, he and his entourage may have to face extremely unpleasant consequences.

So, it seems at this point that establishing some hereditary form of government would be a more acceptable option to him. Putin may appoint his daughters and the sons of his closest allies to key positions and then integrate them into Russia’s system of electoral authoritarianism. . . .

‘The authorities will continue signaling to everybody that their grip will remain tight.

Q. – Let’s talk about shorter-term prospects. What “nice surprises” could the regime have in store for us now that the election is over? Mobilization and harsher repression are the two things that are mentioned by experts more often than others. How likely are they?

A. – I think both scenarios are possible. In fact, if you consider the logic behind the current reprisals, there is nothing there to imply that their intensity will decrease with Putin’s reelection or that they will cease altogether. The purpose of reprisals was not to help Putin get reelected. Reprisals started because the regime went through a major transformation on Feb. 24, 2022 [i.e., when Russian invaded Ukraine; see Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 9‑13] and became a dictatorship. This transformation involves much harsher suppression of any dissent, the destruction – in a very literal sense – of the domestic opposition, greater corporatism in politics and an aggressive push for ideological indoctrination at all public events. So, in all likelihood, repression will continue.

I’m afraid that the recent displays of solidarity – protest votes, support for Nadezhdin and [crowds at] Navalny’s funeral – will convince the regime that it has to continue tightening the screws.

The authorities realize that dissent is quite widespread among the people – at least by their standards. We can’t tell exactly how many people are discontented in Russia. But it seems that the number is great enough for the Kremlin to feel nervous. The authorities will continue signaling to everybody – both ordinary folks and, perhaps, disgruntled members of the elite – that their grip will remain tight. So, my forecast is rather pessimistic in this regard. . . .

Q. – Considering that Putin wants to stay in power for as long as possible, what would be better for him – to let this war drag on or to work out some kind of deal to end it?

A. – It’s a tricky question. In my opinion, the regime changed in 2022, and in its new form, it should be interested in letting this war drag on, one way or another. This war is the regime’s raison d’être, a way to mobilize people. Also, the war shapes the ideology behind the Russian state. It is no accident that people like [Russian Security Council deputy chairman Dmitry] Medvedev keep saying that they will push forward “until all the goals are achieved” – even though nobody knows what those goals are. These people think they are going to “liberate” Ukraine, all the way to its western borders. Naturally, this is an unrealistic scenario, but it shows what the regime thinks about its prospects. The regime thinks this conflict will go on for a pretty long time.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be intense military action all the time. It is possible that the line of contact will stay in the same place for a long time. But some war-related activities will continue, and they will be used for political purposes.

Putin will position himself as a wartime national leader who always protects the Fatherland against the evil West seeking to dismember Russia and impose its values on it.

But, like I said, it’s a tricky question, because the war obviously has negative effects – primarily economic ones. Despite all the claims to the contrary, the Russian regime would love to see sanctions lifted. The regime doesn’t like it that the West is discussing how to make sanctions smarter. The West is thinking about broader sanctions, which would involve other countries. And it wants to persuade the countries that have close ties with Russia to abide by these sanctions. So, Western countries will continue putting pressure on the regime, and this scenario does not look too good for it.

Another point we should keep in mind is that people are getting restless because of the war. I don’t particularly trust the polls conducted in Russia over the past couple of years, but there was one survey that produced some interesting results. People were asked what they would like the newly elected president to do first. The most popular response was, “To end the hostilities.” If you ask people a straightforward question, they usually say, “We support the president. Please don’t think we are disloyal or anything like that.” But if you ask them a less direct question, it turns out that people want to go back to peace.

So, I think the regime keeps looking for a position where it would be most stable. The more the regime feels fragile, the more radical it will become, including in its military policy. Wartime needs can be conveniently used as a pretext for further reprisals. This always happens in authoritarian countries at war. . . .

All the people who want Russia to become a democracy should keep focusing on these solidarity signals among Russian people and consider how to channel this solidarity into something specific.

It is important to continue the conversation about converting this feeling of solidarity into specific action – or, if we can’t take action here and now, we should at least discuss in general terms what Russia should look like in the future, how its political and civil aspects should be organized.

People who are scattered around the world today would like to know what lessons they should learn from the current situation. Are these lessons limited to what happened on Feb. 24, 2022? Or do we need to realize that we are dealing with more fundamental problems here, stemming from Russia’s political system that was shaped back in the 1990s? We should ask ourselves whether we ever had true democracy in Russia – and what kind of democracy we would like to have when the situation changes. It is extremely important to have such a discussion today.

Of course, there will be some people making plans to stage a revolution, but that’s up to them. What’s important for a broader number of people is to have a discussion on what was wrong with our sociopolitical theory and practice, and whether we can do something differently next time. What kind of ideas would appeal to people both within Russia and abroad, and win them over? What government system would be acceptable to a large number of Russian citizens? How do we interest the people – or the peoples – of Russia in having this conversation, so it is not limited to a small group of liberal-minded intellectuals? So, instead of just offering my vision of the situation, I would end this interview by raising all these questions.