Russia and Eurasia Programme Roundtable Summary
The Political Landscape in Russia One Year After Crimea Ilya Ponomarev Member of the State Duma, Russia
11 March 2015
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2 The Political Landscape in Russia One Year After Crimea
Introduction The Chatham House Russia and Eurasia Programme hosted a roundtable with Ilya Ponomarev on 11 March 2015. Ponomarev was the only member of the State Duma who did not vote in favour of the annexation of Crimea, justifying his decision as an attempt to represent a significant second opinion among the wider Russian population. At the roundtable, he offered an insight into the political environment and attitudes in Russia one year after the annexation, and expressed regret that current debate cannot focus on more positive themes, such as entrepreneurship. This document provides a summary of topics covered. Ponomarev emphasized that what he considers the dangerous nature of Russia’s foreign policy should not be underestimated. In his opinion, the threat of ISIS is potentially a lesser priority, with the increasing balance in terms of energy sources available to the US and the EU meaning that the Middle East is of decreasing geopolitical importance.
Nationalism A differentiation can be made between four strands of nationalism within Russia today: xenophobia; ethnic nationalism; imperialism; and ‘healthy nationalism’. Xenophobia is most rife in large cities affected by migration, and the rhetoric provoking unrest is similar to that found in the West. Ethnic nationalism can be summarized by the mantra ‘Russia for Russians’. Such nationalists can even be found in the ranks of Ukrainian soldiers, fighting so that neither nation is be diluted by the other. Figures such as Eduard Limonov are the legacy of Russia’s pre-Soviet imperialism. ‘Healthy nationalism’ is, however, possible, emergent, and even vital.
Attitudes towards the West Russian state propaganda portrays the West as greedy, weak, foolish, fickle and malleable, while Putin presents himself as more ‘European’ than leaders in Western Europe with respect to his conservative values. Putin claims that the West is being deluded by ‘non-European’ (in effect meaning LGBT and Arab) communities and lifestyles. Although state propaganda is pervasive, Ponomarev highlighted that Russian citizens do have access to alternative views if they choose to pursue them; the majority, however, do not so choose. One of the most effective ways that the West can counter this perception is through maintaining a consistent and long-term policy, and one that abandons an outdated world view in which two power blocks vie for two spheres of influence. International offers of financial and military aid could be deemed short-sighted. Ukraine will have to repay large parts of the IMF aid package, which might create a future economic relationship similar to the current relationship between the EU and Greece. Providing US weaponry to Ukraine would be expensive, and the Ukrainian forces might not have the expertise to use it easily. It would also reinforce negative attitudes towards the West. In contrast, Eastern European states such as Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have a lot of available military hardware that is cheap and compatible. The West also needs to confront Russia’s information campaign; the influence of Russia Today on extreme conservatives and liberals in the US and Europe should not be underestimated. Perhaps the West could work to publicize issues such as money-laundering by the Russian elite in the West.
3 The Political Landscape in Russia One Year After Crimea
In Ponomarev’s view, warmer relations with China are a bluff to wrong-foot the US; Russia fundamentally sees itself as European, not Asian. He highlighted China-friendly projects that Russia is undertaking, such as a pipeline from Eastern Siberia, development of oil fields in the Arctic, and Chinese production plants in Russia. He predicted that the South Stream pipelines will be constructed for use once sanctions are lifted.
Attitude towards the war in Ukraine For most Russians, the war in Ukraine is not aimed at conquering Kyiv, but rather at liberating Ukraine from the West. Ponomarev warned that Victory Day (9 May) might mark a fresh offensive. Russians initially reacted positively to Ukrainian refugees, but became more hostile over the summer. The Russian government continues to welcome refugees; thousands of Ukrainians have resettled in Siberia alone. Many Ukrainians in Russia support the war as a liberating mission.
The economy Sanctions have perpetuated existing economic problems and rising food prices, and have also given the government scope to blame the US. Economic problems have been reflected in decreases in capital expenditure, which began in the second half of December 2014. In Ponomarev’s view, the tax system should be reformed and decentralized. Regions should have responsibility for their tax income, and tax declarations should be made mandatory.
Potential tipping points Ponomarev outlined a number of potential developments over the next couple of years that might provide a stimulus for change in attitudes and prompt the current elite to propose an alternative candidate for the presidency by the end of 2017. This might be the case if the economy continues to deteriorate and influential Russians do not see their financial situation improving imminently. Economists predict that reserves will drop to critical levels in 2016. Furthermore, after the 2016 elections in the US, the Russian population may not be happy with renegotiated relations with the new president there.
Current and potential alternatives There is a big possibility that a post-Putin leadership might characterize itself as more ‘Putinist’ that Putin, and perpetuate the current political system while also criticizing their predecessor’s proEuropeanism. After the collapse of the USSR, the Russian elite was never fundamentally reconstructed, and that this must happen now. The West can influence this through careful selection of those whom it targets through sanctions. Spravedlivaia Rossiia (Fair Russia) is an attempt to create a leftist coalition, merging parties and NGOs and thus mobilizing the Russian middle class, many of whom tend to be liberal leftists. Levyi Front (Left Front) activist Leonid Razvozzhayev was kidnapped in Ukraine in October 2012. Ultra-leftists influence the liberal flank, as evidenced by the movement during the 2012 Bolotnaya protests. Ponomarev did not name a specific alternative candidate for leadership, but stated the need for the opposition to unite to the exclusion of extreme factions. He warned against a tendency to be elitist or to discriminate according to age. Ultimately, he concluded, ‘action is more dangerous than words’.