Expert View: Problems with Putin?


John Berryman teaches international relations and Russian foreign policy at the University of London and has travelled extensively within Russia over the last 30 years. He was in Moscow during the 2012 March elections and talks to OxStu’s Anna Friedler about his observations and Russia’s struggle to find its own identity in a new global order.


Controversial Elections and Media Fabrications?

Russia’s Parliamentary elections took place in December 2011, and were subject to media outrage for alleged rigging of the vote. What was the reality behind this hysteria? “There’s certainly evidence that efforts were made to influence the results. As a consequence there was a lot of agitation from December through to March, which had an impact on the path to the presidential elections. I think the reaction was sharpened by the fact that Putin’s announcement at the United Russia party meeting that he would replace Medvedev was taken as somewhat insulting by people who had become accustomed to more involvement.  However, the consequence of the rigging allegations were about 4%, so even had the riggings not taken place, the analysis that I’ve read suggests that United Russia would still have won.”

“I think the presumption in much of the western press was that there might be some big challenge here to Putin and the United Russia establishment, which in the event did not materialise. The demonstrations in March were not as large as people had expected and they didn’t last for very long. In the build up to March, as a consequence of the popular reaction in December, Putin and his colleagues were smart enough to take actions which helped to allay some of the concerns in March. Exasperated and irritated by the heavy criticism of the western press, Putin authorised the purchase of two webcams per polling station to be positioned so that they would have a clear view of the actual count (the count in the Russian Federation takes place in the polling stations). Additionally there were a lot of independent observers involved in the count as well as the polling station staff. So both from what I understood to be the general picture and from my own observations, it was a pretty well run affair. Obviously there were going to be certain irregularities, as is the case in every election wherever in the world, including the UK and United States. The Nevada Centre, a long-established Moscow-based polling organisation, consistently suggested that Putin’s popularity ran between 50% and about 65-70%, which is at least double that of any western leader, whether it be Cameron, Sarkozy, or Merkel. So in that sense the result was not a shock.”

“Nobody would suggest that Russia is a perfect model of good governance and transparent western-style democracy. I would say, however, that I think there was a tendency for the West to write the script in advance – The Economist had a ‘goodbye Putin’ cover and has been trying to write Putin’s obituary since autumn of last year. The agenda in every area of the media is very quickly set, and once that narrative seems to have an ability to capture what’s going on, then most journalists will sign up to it. There were some very robust debates on Russian television in the two weeks or more leading up to the March elections and the suggestion by some commentators that this could be compared to China is a fantasy.“

“The over-riding focus of the western media in Moscow during the elections was on where was there evidence of corruption, where was there evidence of ballot rigging – there was very little if any interest in the programs, the policies of the six candidates. The original news agency reports on the Bolotnaya and Poklonnaya demonstrations in Moscow suggested that Bolotnaya was huge and Poklonnaya was very small. I know from friends of mine that were actually at both of them that the exact opposite was the case and this is disturbing, because there are fewer representatives of the individual newspapers of the West in other parts of the world than there used to be and they are much more dependent on the news agencies. It is therefore worrying that these distorted reports were widely used by the quality press in both the UK and the US.”

“If Putin’s so terrible, as the West often suggest, why is he so popular?”

“First, I think a significant level of the support for Putin comes from first of all pensioners, who have had regular increases in pensions since he’s been in power. Second, sections of the state bureaucracy, which was often not paid in the ten years of Yeltsin, and which has grown rather than shrunk, is a big source of support. Third, workers – I think it was fairly clear that although within Moscow and St Petersburg there were  significant levels of opposition to Putin, out in the grimier, industrial towns and smaller centres of the Russian Federation, there were fairly strong levels of support. You’ve only got to look at the alternatives that were available and none of them articulated a really credible political alternative. The only new element was Prokhorov, who had no party backup, no clear program. However, he secured the support of the rich and the new bourgeoisie which is quite important in both Moscow and St Petersburg. They were the people on the streets in Bolotnaya [in Moscow] and other demonstrations that got a lot of attention from the press, but they don’t constitute a significant block. Clearly in the future, because there’s now a possibility of even more parties being able to participate (as they’ve subsequently amended the legislation) there will have to be serious thought given to trying to aggregate some of these smaller parties into more coherent blocks, because until they’ve got some substantial alternative programmes and policies, then United Russia will continue to be this one leg on which the Russian system operates.”

“For educated, westernised Russians – the professional middle classes who are able to travel freely and buy services outside Russia like Amazon books, or schools for their children in the UK or elsewhere – it’s infuriating for them that they have to deal with the Russian bureaucracy, which is so corrupt. Corruption is a massive problem in Russia. Both Putin and Medvedev have tried ineffectually to reduce it. I don’t think its specific to Putin, it was something that came out of the rotten elements of the structure of the state in the Soviet period, mixed with oligarchic rampant capitalism in the Yeltsin years [the first Russian President], and so its generated a very unhealthy mix.”

“[Putin] has provided stability, a substantial stabilisation fund that helped Russia through the rough seas of 2008, and he’s been lucky of course that the energy sales have been buoyant. I don’t recognise the picture of Putin sometimes portrayed in the West – I see somebody who is a very engaged political figure. I don’t think he’s got much idea about how to modernise Russia or how to get rid of corruption, but he’s committed to the task within the framework that he’s got. So I wouldn’t suggest for a second that Putin’s a visionary that’s got an idea of how to get Russia into the next stage, I think that will have to come from other people, but I don’t regard him as a sort of Genghis Khan in drag or something; he’s a normal politician. However, he doesn’t take too kindly to being lectured to – Russia remains a proud power with its own traditions, its own civilisations and identity, which doesn’t require lectures from the West as to how to conduct its affairs in every area.”

Russia’s View on the West

“The US, the UK and most other developed democracies, share with Russia a problem of corporations getting preferential access to decision-makers. So I’m somewhat pessimistic about the prospects for the development of democracy in Russia. In some respects I think in the UK we’ve seen a regression of democratic procedures and much greater access by corporations to affect and shape both the policies and the powers of the state.”

“Russia’s attempts to maintain its own identity have been difficult. There are a number of analyses that argue that even had the Soviet Union been not been a Marxist- Leninist state driven by a radical ideology, that the United States would still have sought to contain the Soviet Union in 1945 as the only remaining and contending power-political peer competitor. This helps to explain why, even with the end of the Cold War, Russia still remains quite an important target. The collapse of the ideological challenge of the USSR has not removed the normal dynamics of power politics and to that extent, the United States’ view of Russia as a potential great power challenge is entirely rational.”

“There is a great deal of double talk from Washington about the impermissibility of not allowing states complete freedom of choice in which way they might wish to align. Since the 1840s the United States has not been indifferent to the need to monitor which way the states of the entire hemisphere of the Americas might be oriented. On those rare occasions when it looked as though there might be a real challenge, as for example Cuba in the 60s, the United States reacted very strongly indeed. So I think the sharp condemnatory comments of Susan Rice, who’s a rather vociferous and undiplomatic spokesperson for the US in the UN at the moment and the sort of lectures that Hilary Clinton is given to deliver don’t go down very well in Moscow. They are seen as prime examples of hypocrisy on stilts.”

“We’re now getting a much more diffuse global system and in those terms the US will have its work cut out, both to keep its eye on the Russian Federation as a potential source of oppositions, as well as keeping an eye on China, and on some other potential great powers which I think are much further down the road but I think are certainly there. Central to Russia’s self-perception of itself as a great power is the need to maintain an effective nuclear deterrent force. Medvedev’s reactions over missile defence were at least as sharp, if not sharper, than Putin’s. Medvedev was not just a pussy cat. The [USA’s proposed] missile defence system will be quite an extensive one, it will be in part aimed at both Iran and China. Most recent evidence suggest that there’s been a recognition in Washington that it would not be helpful to push ahead fast on this issue while Obama’s coming up for election. “My impression is that both Medvedev and Putin see Obama as a cool rational centre operating in a storm of more irrational and more self-interested pressure groups.”

Thorny Issues: Syria and Iran

“However, there is a general unease, not just in Moscow, that the UN is being used to drive through certain geopolitical agendas. There is concern about the way in which humanitarian issues can perhaps be used as a screen for implementing regime change. Over Syria I see two or three things which maybe make it different from Libya [where Russia abstained from the UN intervention vote in 2011]. First the regime clearly has much more support from the armed forces and from some sections of Syrian society, so it’s not as fragile and open to destabilisation as Libya was. Libya is a very weak of country of about 10 million, whereas Syria is a much more powerful actor, with much bigger geopolitical implications of its position. Secondly, the lessons drawn by Moscow from the Libyan episode mean that events in Syria are being looked at through different eyes. The US is withdrawing from Afghanistan and from Iraq and it doesn’t have the position that it occupied once in Saudi Arabia, so a better position for the US in Syria in the future would not be unhelpful. I’m not seeking to suggest that there’s a game plan in Washington that explains everything – just that it’s not possible to look at these things as purely humanitarian issues, they have big geopolitical and strategic implications.”

“What was striking in the initial western commentary on the Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council [over the Syria issue], was how little attention was given in the West to China’s response. In part it reflects the fact that a large proportion of the policy-making generation in power at the moment have come through the Cold War and therefore haven’t yet adjusted to the fact that China might be a more significant challenge in the future than Russia.”

“Russia is not keen to see Iran get nuclear weapons – geostrategically it makes no sense whatsoever for Russia to have another nuclear state on its border, what with Pakistan and India. On the other hand, I think it feels there are other agendas running here. There’s an agenda, firstly in Tel Aviv, that the Israelis may be itching go for a pre-emptive strike which they’ve undertaken twice in the past against Syria and Iraq. Secondly, there is a worry that Obama may come under great pressure to align himself with that position. Third, there is the worry that the pre-emptive war that was waged by Blair and Bush in 2003 did jump the gun, since it was based on a presumption that there was evidence of Iraq’s development of weapons of mass destruction sufficient to justify the action. The evidence wasn’t there.”

“Russia has huge resources, but that precisely means that it has been the target for those in Washington, who take the view that the job has not yet been completed: that the Soviet Union has been shattered but that the Russian Federation might be due for further treatment. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeleine Albright and others have publicly stated that Russia controls too much of the world’s resources, that it’s not appropriate and there should be at least three Russias. Historically Russia has been seen as the ‘Other’ to the East. For 300 years, Russia has been a huge state, so it’s not surprising that there is this level of apprehension about the intentions of what is still a giant country.”

PHOTO/ Mitya Aleshkovsky