As the war in Ukraine rages on, and the West dithers over how to confront Russia, Putin often appears a leader of formidable power. He may be increasingly resented in Western capitals for pursuing what was recently unthinkable: unilateral annexation of another country’s territory, and fomentation of armed separatism in Europe’s second largest state. Yet he also appears outwardly to be firmly in control of Russia’s polity, and determined to press forward with securing his vision of a Russian sphere of influence, oblivious to international opinion. He apparently enjoys such huge approval among his own citizenry that he can afford to appear “dictatorial,” even if he cannot actually exercise absolute dictatorial power in the age of the Internet. Whatever anyone thinks of Putin as a person, he seems – for the time being – a “decisive leader.”
But, within limits, Putin is not immune to domestic criticism. Analysts and commentators inside Russia do express opinions critical of the Russian leader, as long as they are “constructive” and do not lay blame for the country’s current crisis entirely at his feet. One such analyst is Gleb Pavlovsky, the former Soviet dissident who was dismissed as an advisor to the Kremlin in 2012 for criticizing the presidential election that returned Putin to Russia’s highest state post. Yet Pavlovsky loyally approves of the Russian annexation of Crimea (which he describes as ‘more Russian than Moscow’), and his past comments indicate an affinity with Putin’s own view of Ukraine as “not a real country.” As such, his views on the integrity of the Putin regime are illuminating, expressed as they are in the same breath with compliments toward the man who fired him. Reading between the lines for greater objectivity, we can interpret the Russian leadership as perhaps less solid and stable than most Western commentators might suggest. It is, at least, cause for hope that the policy of “Novorossiya” may – with greater Western resolve – be stoppable.
The following are comments of Pavlovsky in an interview with the Russkii Yevrei (‘Russian Jew’) publication:
Russian political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, a well-known Ukrainophobe, has been evaluating Putin’s actions. The editorial board of Russkii Yevrei (‘Russian Jew’) has decided to release a significant fragment of his interview, because it believes an assessment of the Russian regime’s current state is interesting and fit for discussion.
“At the heart of the system that has emerged in the last 15 years is the resolution of a general problem: how to create a consensus on the new state, a consensus Yeltsin failed to achieve. Yeltsin left office because this hadn’t been achieved, and because no one supported him except for small groups in his immediate circle. Putin solved this problem, and in fact he solved it a long time ago. But after he solved it, when people stopped living in some sort of eternally destroyed Soviet Union and recognized the new state, the Kremlin team wanted to go on ruling by the same old means. There is nothing to boast about here, because I was certainly among those who were partly self-deceived – and who partly deceived others – and none of us believed that we were going where we’ve now arrived. And now Putin really is riding a wave, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to describe all this in comic-book form, where dark villains or conspirators lurk behind Putin’s back.
Everything is much simpler. This is a strategic crisis, a loss of control. And in fact we have just seen the consequences of this, in connection with the ruble (the rate collapse – Ed.). This was a crisis of the system and demonstrated that it couldn’t work any more. In particular, this is a system in which there is simply no government. Calls by the Kremlin to the White House and the Central Bank cannot be a substitute for government. I think this is one of the first tasks that should be addressed in the next year: the creation of a functioning government. It is not a question of personalities. By the way, I think the main problem of Russian policy now is its extreme person-centrism. Everyone talks about one man – as if he were a god and had a solution, or at least a set of goals. He doesn’t have any solutions or even a formulation of the problems. He’s just a man who’s lost his head. He’s a talented man, capable, and he actually still has a choice: to conduct an audit of reality – to realize what is happening with the country – or to sink further into a fantasy world, whereby somehow he’ll disappear before he leaves the Kremlin, because he’ll simply cease to mean anything. It is the most sad and most likely prospect, more so than any upheavals.
Our crisis is this, and it consists of the fact that we recognize neither any real structure in this very complex country, nor the actual state of the people who both hope and fear, and who need assurances of their security. And Putin is the only one who offers them a guarantee. The opposition does not offer any guarantees, therefore it does not exist politically, because it has no real agenda for the people. This is a very complex country. New groups have grown up in it in all areas – new bureaucrats – and a very interesting life is going on now in the regions. The problem is that all this is not projected onto the national screen, which is occupied by a picture of reality even more falsified than the Soviet picture. It looks as if someone has been continuously shouting at some person. It is very difficult to think, and nothing can be done if we are constantly in a state of collapse of government. It is a very dangerous situation. And I would like it if Putin pulled himself together soon.
Now, our censorship is stunning the ruling class itself, stunning the elites. And lately, Putin also looks – if you look at his performance – like a man who’s stunned, like someone repeating after his own leaders (propagandists – Ed.), whom he could fire in one call. This is some kind of nonsense. I think it’s really been going on for months. If it had not been for sanctions, primarily American, I think a new consensus would already have begun to take shape among the ruling elites about the fact that a serious revision of policy is needed. But while we’re still in an atmosphere of sanctions, which look like a war against Russia, Putin can’t even twitch, because the population won’t understand this. Well, and here there are competitions over who’s who: objective processes in the economy, in the world, the country, or you have these neuroses of the ruling elite. I think the next year (2015 – Ed.) will be a more dynamic year than this one, and there will be more conflict within the country.
Putin cannot compensate for the lack of his own system. He is alone, the symbolic center of the system, but he cannot be a substitute even for simple government. I think a run of some kind of internal conflicts awaits us. Here, unfortunately, no one can help us, an “offensive of clarity” is needed, and the media for the most part – electronic, anyway – are switched off to significantly relevant information. In the worst case, they’re conducting a vicious campaign to deepen the split in the country, to inflate distrust between citizens of Russia. And all this, ultimately, is working on flipping over the iceberg, on the conflict within society. 84 per cent to 16 – this is a sign of instability, this iceberg, which is ready to turn over…
… Putin is capable of change. He has done this several times, including in my eyes. Putin is in no way similar to Putin 15 years ago. And 15 years ago, Putin was not like Putin 10 years ago. He has been changing, powerfully changing, and he knows how to learn. The problem, of course, is in the error that he does not want to reconsider, error of 2011, when he – in the form in which it was done – went for a third term.
But now society’s internal mobility is enhanced. After all, in fact, volunteers in the east of Ukraine – this is also a sign of social mobility, and this was impossible to imagine five years ago. Here, too, it is necessary to distinguish some malicious propaganda from people who genuinely went, as they believe, “to help their brothers in the east of Ukraine.” As for the West (which certainly is not helping Russia now), it is a factor aggravating the situation. But I am not a conspiratorialist, and I don’t think this was specifically intended. This has led to the fact that Russia is now the world’s whipping boy, and this complicates our situation, amplified by various black scenarios, and they are possible. But, I repeat, all this will be the result of the internal social and political development of the country.
If our citizens prove unable to pull themselves together – and here Putin is only a part of the problem – then they will have to pay a lot for this. We will all have to pay dearly for this.