November 7, 2016

PuPu (2)

One of the best-known names among political consultants in Russia is Evgeny Minchenko, creator of the “Politburo 2.0” model that tracks the shifting dynamics of Putin’s inner circle. CGI sat down with Minchenko during his recent visit to Washington to discuss the state of Russian politics, the recent reshuffles in the Kremlin, and Russian views on the U.S. presidential election. 

Interview by Olga Kuzmina

Russia’s parliamentary elections this September saw a significant victory for the ruling United Russia party amid widespread voter apathy. What did the elections reveal about the public mood in the run-up to the presidential election in 2018?

Minchenko croppedThe recent elections were directly connected to the presidential elections because Putin became the main topic of the vote: it was about trust for his government, as well as social issues, although not the economy. All the parties competed on a social populist platform, and unfortunately we didn’t see a liberal niche. The old liberal parties didn’t actually discuss liberal values, or the future of Russia, or democracy. They just criticized Putin. For example Yabloko, one of the oldest political parties in Russia, used personal attacks against Putin and promoted their leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, as a candidate for president, which I think was a big mistake.

There are many people in Russia with liberal values, including myself, but unfortunately I didn’t see any proposals that spoke to me as a liberal. There were two parties of personal Putin hatersParnas and Yablokoand the latter was highly personalized around its leader Yavlinsky.  I voted for Yavlinsky once in 1993, and that’s enough for me. In 2016, I would like to see some fresh faces. 

There are many liberals in Russia, but no parties that speak to their views.

The Party of Growth looked like a parody of the United Russia party. They suggested a plan for industrial growth, but the party of industry already existsit’s United Russia. If they had suggested a plan that involves new technologies, the Internet, biotech or high-tech industries, it would have been a different matter. Instead they used the old, industrial logic, and you can’t beat United Russia by using their own slogans.

The Communist party actually had a very good possibility to improve their results compared to 2011. But instead of trying to expand their base, they just targeted their traditional base of people nostalgic for the communist era. They could have promoted the idea that they are the biggest opposition party, and that if you are against United Russia you should vote for them. If you look at the results of the last election, the Communists made gains in big cities among young voters and highly-educated people, because the latter saw an alternative in the Communist partynot as a return to socialist orthodoxy, but just as a different pole in the political space. 

Do you see any plan among the non-systemic opposition to create a more cohesive platform for the 2018 elections?

For now I don’t see it. All of the so-called liberal parties received just a bit over 5 percent of the vote in total, and that was among five parties. Five percent for all of them. That is not enough to fight for the presidential vote. Alexei Navalny, who is trying to be the leader of the non-systemic opposition, won’t be able to run because he’s currently in the middle of a criminal case. And Mikhail Kasyanov is not popular and has shown himself to be a weak politician. So I don’t see any candidates on this non-systemic plank who could compete with Putin.

The Kremlin, for its part, needs there to be a competition, so it has to find a new leader for the opposition. They pulled a trick like that in 2012 when Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian tycoon, ran for president and won eight percent of the popular vote. But the latest elections didn’t show us any new parties, new ideas or new leaders. And that’s a problem for the opposition. 

There have been a lot of changes recently to Putin’s inner circle. Vyacheslav Volodin has become the new speaker of the State Duma (the lower house of parliament), and there is speculation that his growing influence could make him a potential successor to Putin. How do you see Volodin’s role, and will his leadership make the Duma more assertive?

Firstly, Volodin is very close to Putin and he’s not going to compete with him. Secondly, the Duma is indeed going to be more influential, for several reasons. First of all, we’re seeing the return of parliamentary deputies who were elected in single-member districts, and they are much more independent than those elected by party lists. This Duma is also much younger, and among the deputies from United Russia, around 70 percent of them are new. United Russia and the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDPR) are the leaders in terms of their number of new or young deputies.

Volodin is also different from his predecessor [former Duma speaker Sergey Naryshkin]. He shaped the current Duma and has more influence over individual members of the new parliament. The deputies, on their end, have a new attitude towards parliamentary discipline. Based on new rules in the Duma, deputies have to vote in-person and can get fined if they’re not at their workplace during voting sessions. For some businessmen, who entered the Duma purely to defend their business interests, these more strict rules will make them reconsider their political careers.

Another important appointment was that of Sergey Kiriyenko, one of the “young reformists” of the 1990s, as Putin’s new deputy chief of staff. Does this suggest a desire on Putin’s part to reinvigorate his team?

There are a few things that are important to know about Kiriyenko. He was one of the people who lobbied for Putin’s appointment as director of the FSB [in 1998]. Secondly, he was always seen as a technocrat loyal to Yeltsin, and to Putin after that. The third thing is that he was part of the victorious pro-Putin coalition in the 1999 presidential election. It was a center-right coalition between the Unity party and Union of Right Forces, which Kiriyenko headed. And that was the only time in Putin’s era when a liberal party came to the parliament.

When Kiriyenko was Putin’s representative in the Volga federal district, he was tasked with the big job of working with the heads of the national republics to force them to change their laws in line with the federal constitution. Later, Kiriyenko was the the head of Rosatoman energy corporation but not of carbon energy, unlike oil or gas. It’s nuclear energy, which looks like “green” energy, comparatively speaking.

Putin’s most successful presidential term was his first one, and his next presidential term could become a repeat of that.

Overall, Putin has traced a big path from 1999. He’s had three presidential terms and one term as prime minister. His most successful term was the first one, when he enacted very successive liberal economic reforms during the time that a center-right coalition was ruling the country. He was also an ally of the United States in the war against terror and was the first world leader to call George W. Bush after 9/11 and offer his help.

Putin’s next presidential term could be like his first onethat’s why he’s called on Kiriyenko, and why he suggested to former liberal finance minister Alexei Kudrin to create a new economic program. He’s trying to watch for new political leaders, including successful governors, in order to find a new quality of government. For this, he needs new people in authority. That’s why his old Politburo is not as stable as it was before. We’ve lost a lot of members, like [Putin’s former chief of staff] Sergey Ivanov, and I’m guessing that Putin will try to promote new people step-by-step. 

You’re here to observe the U.S. elections. As you know, a widely held view is that Russia’s leadership wants to see Donald Trump elected. To what extent is that view shared among political experts in Russia, and which candidate do you see as having the better chance of improving bilateral ties?

I would say there is absolutely no consensus in Russia about the U.S. presidential election. After Putin recently called the United States “the only superpower in the world,” how could we influence the outcome of elections in this country? And it’s truewe can’t.

In terms of the two candidates, the disputes we’re observing in the U.S. deal not with the question of who is the best, but who is the worst candidate. And Russian disputes about the American elections are the same way. Hillary Clinton has a bad history with the Russian leadership and with Putin personally. She has certainly said a lot of unpleasant words about Russia, and she’s much more proactive in foreign affairs than President Obama, who is quite a moderate president. But at the same time, Clinton is understandable, and there are a lot of people in the Russian leadership who have experience with the Clinton team from the 1990s. I know for certain that some people in Russia are happy at the idea of a Clinton presidency because they feel they have some connections to her people and can make a deal with her. 

Many people in Russia have experience with the Clintons from the 1990s and would welcome her victory.

Donald Trump, by contrast, says a lot of pleasant things about Russia, but the record shows that he’s said a lot of contradictory things in the past. How stable is his sympathy towards Russia? We don’t know. In Russia we also understand that U.S. foreign policy is a big machine, and it’s not subject to the will of one person. And this big machine is currently anti-Russian. If you look at Trump’s running mate, he’s quite anti-Russian, and he said so during the vice presidential debates. If you look at the GOP, the sentiment is not friendly there either. 

So when the Russian elites look at Clinton, they see an “understandable evil.” When they look at Trump, they see an “unpredictable something.” Some Russian politicians say informally that despite Hillary’s dislike for Russia, they understand her reasons and her way of thinking. But they have absolutely no idea how to handle Donald Trump.