I think that’s changed. Putin was concerned about undesired Western influence on Russian domestic affairs. But he moved slowly and cautiously at the beginning. He did kick out the Peace Corps from Russia. He did kick out the Open Society Foundation from Russia. There were new regulations that encroached on non-governmental organizations that were funded by the West. However, in general, he was strongly interested in attracting investment to Russia. He just tried to balance the two. He wanted the benefits of lucrative coöperation with the West, but tried to limit the ability of the West to influence Russian domestic affairs. So, again, he was able to balance that up until the same turning points, first 2011 and 2012, and then 2014.
Was he anti-liberal? Well, as far as the economy was concerned, during his first term, and I would say his second term, no. Was he anti-Western? Partly so, but Russia still remained quite open. And, if we talk about the media, Putin moved very early in his first Presidential term to take the national television channels under his control. He did this with by far the largest media outlets with the largest audience, but he wouldn’t interfere with niche media or liberal media, allowing them to preach to the converted, and operate reasonably freely, to the extent that they did not stir unwanted passions among the broader public. Following the protests in 2011 and 2012, niche liberal media for the first time came under pressure. I would not say this was horrible pressure. People who worked there were not terribly harassed. But they were manipulated. There were a variety of ways Putin was acting, mostly through the owners of those media outlets rather than persecuting or prosecuting individual editors or journalists.
There was one more turning point. The Putin of 2013 or Putin of 2012, when he started his third term after a four-year break, when Dmitry Medvedev had been President, was a different leader from the one that he was at the beginning of his Presidential career, in the two-thousands.
Do you view that as him personally changing in some way? Or do you think the changes in the way he governs were more due to the different circumstances Russia faced?
It’s really hard for me to say. Anybody who’s been in power for twenty years changes. So think of the experience that he has gained over time. During the twenty years that he has been in power, Russia went through terrorist attacks, the war in Chechnya, natural calamities, technological catastrophes, mass protests, and he coped with all those. And, of course, he’s a different man. And I would say even somebody who does not approve of his policies cannot help marvelling at how he’s been in power for twenty years and enjoys an approval rating of about seventy per cent, and this without keeping his nation at large in fear.
Not wanting to keep the vast majority of people in fear would certainly be another thing that distinguishes him from many other strongmen.
Yeah, there’s certainly a difference. If we look, for instance, at the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the way he treats the press is very well known. Turkey holds a very alarming record of keeping a lot of journalists in jail. This is not Russia’s case at all. There has been an emergence of new communication methods, of online communications of various sorts, and, of course, we have a lot of those in Russia. The media scene in Russia today has become even more vibrant. I’m talking about those media that are not the Kremlin’s voices. They are still engaged in investigative reporting and are working quite professionally. Working for these outlets is a bit risky, but the risk is not that the government will put you in jail. And actually, for anybody who’s interested, there’s a great deal to read on a daily basis in Russia of stuff that provides alternative information. And, by alternative, I mean alternative to the government point of view.
Obviously journalists have been killed in Russia, but do you think there’s a strategy behind the fact that Putin hasn’t gone the Erdoğan route of imprisoning them en masse?
Of course, sadly, journalists have been killed in Russia. But this is not the government’s policy. What happens in Russia, and unfortunately has happened quite a few times, is people with big clout—with big money, big power—settling scores with journalists whom they see as their adversaries. Putin is responsible for creating an atmosphere in the country in which such people can settle scores with their adversaries and get away with it. But it’s not that the government is after journalists. And there’s this huge difference in this respect between Turkey and Russia.
To the question of why that is, I think Putin is more sophisticated, and I think Putin’s regime is more sophisticated. And he prefers it to be that way. Many years ago, one of his trusted journalists reported that he said he wanted it to be so that there will be less freedom, but not much fear, either. Whether he indeed said that, because the journalist who reported this quote may have embellished it a little bit, I think that actually renders the gist of it.
Sadly, there’s been a great deal less freedom in Russia in the past few years and, recently, zero tolerance of his political opposition. The government has become more repressive. However, this has not turned Russia into a country where everyone lives in fear. I would say that, actually, compared to the Soviet period—and as a person of a certain age, I can compare it easily with the way it felt in the seventies and early eighties in Russia—I would say Russian people have a great deal more capacity for private pursuits of various sorts, as long as they are not political, in academics, in art, in literature. Politics, of course, is understood rather broadly in Russia. But I think there are more opportunities for consumption, for making money, for engaging in leisure, and favorite pastimes, etc. Foreign travel, of course, as well. So, in this sense, even critics of the regime would admit that the capacity for private pursuits remains fairly broad.
You mentioned that Putin’s approval rating is still around seventy per cent. In the West, we read about scattered protests, mostly in cities. How has the protest movement changed over the last couple of years as Putin has continued to entrench his role and his popularity?
I wouldn’t say the protest movement is not there. It is. And we had major protests in the past summer, in Moscow. That protest was strictly political, was public outrage about the egregious manipulation of the elections to the Moscow City Council. Because that protest was strictly political in nature, it was very brutally suppressed. Actually, the extent of brutality was unprecedented. And that in itself for a while fuelled the protesters even further. [At one protest, in July, 2019, police wielded nightsticks against protesters and arrested more than a thousand of them, including the opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who was sentenced to thirty days in prison.] However, the way it is in Russia—and I think this is what probably makes Russia different from some other countries where the regime is tough—the protests come in waves. And after the wave subsides, there is not much left there in terms of organization, in terms of an identification with a party, a movement, a leader. People rise and then they go back home and there is nothing for a long time.
On the other hand, socioeconomic protests have become fairly frequent and quite tenacious at times. The government is, I would say, much more tolerant toward a protest that has socioeconomic demands, and not infrequently they make some concessions so people won’t get enraged even further. These protests are not infrequent and are not limited to Moscow or St. Petersburg. There’s an ongoing protest, quite tenacious, in the Russian North, against the construction of a new landfill. People are really, really adamant on not allowing this new landfill to be built near their locality. But these protests are always limited to a locality and to a particular cause. Those protesting in one city would not reach out to other groups.
There’s reluctance to organize, as I mentioned earlier, around a political cause, a political leader, or form a political party or a movement. And this protest being limited to a particular cause or a locality is beneficial for the government. It is not true that the government doesn’t care what people feel or think. But the government certainly does not regard the people as a force to reckon with. A factor, yes, but not a force.