“We Have a Surrogate Democracy”: An Interview with Ekaterina Schulman

Ekaterina Schulman. Photo courtesy of Andrei Stekachov and The Village

Political Scientist Ekaterina Schulman on Why You Should Vote
Anya Chesova and Natasha Fedorenko
The Village
September 16, 2016

This Sunday, September 18, the country will vote for a new State Duma, the seventh since the fall of the Soviet Union. The peculiarity of this vote is that it will take place under a mixed electoral system for the first time since 2003. 225 MPs will be elected to five-year tears from party lists, while the other 225 MPs will be elected from single-mandate districts. Several days before the elections, The Village met with Ekaterina Schulman, a political scientist and senior lecturer at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). We talked with her about why you should vote if United Russia is going to win in any case, as well as about the changes in store for the Russian political system in the coming years.

The Upcoming Elections

The Village: On Sunday, the country will hold the first elections to the State Duma since 2011. The social climate in the city and the country as a whole has changed completely since that time. Protests erupted in 2011, and the people who protested on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue believed they could impact the political situation. Nowadays, few people have held on to such hopes. What should we expect from the upcoming elections? And why should we bother with them?

Ekaterina Schulman: Everything happening now with the State Duma election is a consequence of the 2011–2012 protests, including changes in the laws, the introduction of the mixed system, the return of single-mandate MPs, the lowering of the threshold for parties to be seated in the Duma from seven to five percent, and the increased number of parties on the ballot. These are the political reforms outlined by then-president Dmitry Medvedev as a response to the events of December 2011. Later, we got a new head of state, but it was already impossible to take back these promises. The entire political reality we observe now has grown to one degree or another out of the 2011–2012 protest campaign, whether as rejection, reaction or consequence. It is the most important thing to happen in the Russian political arena in recent years.

The statements made by Vyacheslav Volodin, the president’s deputy chief of staff, on the need to hold honest elections, Vladimir Churov’s replacement by Ella Pamfilova as head of the Central Electoral Commission, the departure of someone more important than Churov from the CEC, deputy chair Leonid Ivlev, and the vigorous sacking of chairs of regional electoral commissions are all consequences of the protests. If they had not taken place, nothing would have changed. We would still have the same proportional voting system, the same seven-percent threshold, the same old Churov or Churov 2.0.

Maria Baronova and Yulia Galyamina have been permitted to run in the elections for the same reason?

They are being allowed to run because now there are 225 seats for single-mandate MPs. You can stop single-mandate candidates from running, of course, but it is fairly difficult.

And it is not that Volodin or someone like him made this decision Let’s be honest. The system has been forced to react this way because it is very afraid of a repetition of the events of 2011–2012. It reacts in its own way, through crackdowns and concessions. We see the crackdowns, but for some reason we put the concessions down to the leadership’s good will, although in itself the leadership’s good will has little significance.

Are these concessions easy for the regime to make?

On the one hand, they are easy: the system thus ensures its own survival. It adapts and becomes more flexible. It ceases to be rigid. The Soviet totalitarian system was an example of a rigid system. A rigid system cannot adapt and breaks up when it collides with reality. Our system is adaptive, which is simultaneously its virtue and its shortcoming. It is a virtue, because it makes the system more resilient. And that is also its shortcoming. The system is difficult to reform, and it is going nowhere.

On the other hand, authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian systems based on the party principle (meaning there is a ruling party that has been delegated a large number of powers) are the most long-lived. This hurdy-gurdy can last for decades. And it is not even a matter of having a ruling party (Russia has one, too), but that it should be endowed with powers. If our authorities had the presence of mind to transfer part of its powers to the parliament—for example, forming the government on the party principle—it would give the regime another ten years of life.

Why is it happening like this? It is a chance to implement a certain personnel boost so the regime does not look so old and boring. A democratization of sorts, but within reasonable limits. Autocracies like to imitate democratic institutions because their survival depends on it.

There is the old meme people often remember on the eve of elections. “I was standing on the road hitchhiking, but United Russia won anyway. [This is an untranslatable play on words. In Russia, the verb meaning “to hitchhike” and “to vote” is the same: golosovat‘—TRR.] Why go and vote in elections that United Russia will win anyway?

Depends on what you mean by the word “win.”

Getting the majority of votes.

And what of it? The term the “majority of votes” is quite insidious itself.

Half the Duma will be consist of people elected from the lists of the parties who crossed the five-percent threshold. It looks as if there will be four such parties, although it would be good from the standpoint of our common civic interests if there were at least five parties. Again, it does not matter which parties. If the fifth party ends up being Patriots of Russia, Motherland or the Party for a Militant Novorossiya [a nonexistent party — TRR], that is excellent. It is not ideology that matters to us, but variety.

The four parliamentary parties (United Russia, CPRF, A Just Russia, and LDPR) are indistinguishable in terms of their ideological content, and the people who inhabit them are not bound together by any coherent ideology, either, only by the unselfish desire to be MPs. Correspondingly, they will behave as the occasion demands. A good parliament is a parliament where there is room for compromise or, to put it more crudely, haggling. If one faction ends up with three hundred votes, there is no need to haggle with anyone. That was the situation with the Fifth Duma (not the Sixth Duma), which amended the Constitution and extended the president’s term in office. Even the Sixth Duma was a bit more flexible.

Paradoxically, I can adduce the notorious Yarovaya package as an example of how such haggling is useful. When it was tabled, it contained a number of bone-chilling provisions, including a five-year ban on travel abroad. What saved us from this? Someone’s good will? No, it was inter-agency rivalry: the FSB versus the Security Council, the Interior Ministry versus the FSB, one group of people itching to get their paws on the data cables versus other such comers. They all gnawed on each other a bit, and the outcome of all this furor over the package was a fairly small list of requirements, which in practice will boil down to the fact that Rostec will get a certain sum of money.

None of this justifies legislators who table harmful, senseless law bills. Such law bills should not exist at all. But my idea is that even inter-agency rivalry improves legislation to a certain extent. It would be perfect if there were more factions and all of them were smaller. You need to go and vote to make this happen.

What about the single-mandate MPs?

We have been talking about the party-affiliated half of the Duma. The second half will consist of single-mandate MPs. They come in three categories: winners from the parliamentary parties, winners from parties that did not make it into the Duma themselves, and independents. For example, the Greens Party has, according to my calculations, two candidates who have a real chance of getting into the Duma, but the party itself will not make the cut. Yabloko and PARNAS could face the same situation.

The party-affiliated single-mandate candidates have a more tenuous relationship to their parties than members on the party lists. The parties need to get a lock on the voting precincts by running candidates who are both loyal and electable. These two qualities are nearly mutually exclusive, so if a party finds such a precious candidate, it is more dependent on him or her than they are dependent on it. Besides, this mandate will be worth a little more than a mandate won via a party list.

Why is this happening? As the curtain closed on the Sixth Duma, it passed a law making it possible to strip MPs of their seats for absenteeism and failure to perform their duties. This brings us close to the so-called imperative mandate, something found only in totalitarian systems such as China, Cuba, and North Korea. It is a very bad law, because one group of MPs cannot strip another MP of their status as MPs. They are not each other’s bosses. They got their status the same way: through popular vote. Stripping an MP of their mandate against the will of voters is a violation of civic rights.

If an MP who was elected to the Duma on a party list loses their seat, they are simply replaced by the next person on the list. But if a single-mandate district MP loses their seat, another election has to be held in the same district the very same way: by looking for a unique candidate and getting them into parliament via an election campaign. This campaign will not be hidden, so to speak, amid the woods of the overall federal election campaign, but will stick out like a sore thumb. Nobody wants this to happen, so the single-mandate MPs know it will be hard to get at them.

You can certainly threaten people with criminal charges, but no one is going open endless criminal cases within their own faction. It looks bad. So the parties and the presidential administration prefer haggling. Many single-mandate candidates are civil servants, meaning school principals and hospital directors. Basically, they can be bought off easily, but it is money nevertheless. Compared with them, the party-list MPs resemble serfs: no one asks them what they think. But things will be a bit different in the new Duma. Their votes will have to be bought, too.

None of this smacks of parliamentary democracy, certainly, but it is a little better than the picture we had before the current elections.

Will the turnout be low, a record low or, will it increase after all compared with 2011, which is certainly unlikely?

It is official policy in Russia to keep the turnout low. This is facilitated by restrictions on voting, by moving the date of the elections, and by the lack of an interesting campaign and debates. There are various methods in this case, including the fact that sometimes it is hard to find out where your polling station is located. They like to move around.

The [nominally ethnic] republics come to the rescue when it is a matter of rounding the nationwide figures up. They produce super-high turnouts, so we are ensured a fairly decent average room temperature. But the turnout will be low in the central Russian regions and major cities. This is bad, because it will be easier to engage in vote fixing and increase the share of votes for the victorious party, and a large faction in the Duma only degrades the quality of lawmaking.

Why is a low turnout good for the regime?

When the turnout is low, the outcome of the elections is determined by how organized groups vote, and by that I don’t mean carousel voting. By organized groups, I mean civil servants, military personnel, law enforcement officers, employees of state-subsidized workplaces, and housing maintenance and utilities workers. These are people who show up at their polling stations in organized fashion, people whose votes are predictable. If the turnout is high, their votes dissolve amid the bulk of votes. If the turnout is low, they are the people who determine the outcome.

We have touched on the topic of electoral fraud. Should we expect to see it in the flagrant form in which it was observed earlier, including the famous carousels and ballot stuffing?

After the 2011–2012 protests, we have an officially declared policy of clean elections. Its goal is to prevent high-profile scandals that might set off protests. If you recall, the 2011 campaign itself was not very vivid and exciting. All the interesting things happened after the vote, things no one anticipated before the elections. It is another matter that the 2011 campaign took place in different circumstances, so maybe our political managers are needlessly fearing a repetition of what cannot happen again. But don’t tell them I said that. Let them be afraid. It is good for them and the quality of the process.

I think efforts will be made to ensure we do not see flagrant outrages. But there is a complication here. Much of what we identify as electoral outrages occur in areas controlled by local leaders and a consequence of the stances they adopt. It is very difficult to persuade a governor he will be judged by how honest the elections came off in his region rather than by the terrific numbers he turned in, that he will not be compared with the governor of the neighboring region, who produced better figures.

The second difficulty are the ethnic republics. Who is going to tell them not to engage in vote rigging? No one. They live according to their own rules, and they don’t particularly listen to anyone. Maybe there will not be any scandals there, just because no one sees what goes on there.

I think that, in the central Russian regions and major cities, attempts to run the elections more or less decently will be successful. Our system is so closed at the point of entry, and the electoral process is so controlled during the campaign (I am talking about leafletting and advertising, access to the media, and financing) that, after all this, playing funny with the numbers at the very end is simply a sign of managerial idiocy. If you have already set up everything as you see fit, built yourself a stadium, bought off a judge, and jog on а separate track, you can get by without putting up the “right” numbers on the display panel.

What is the point of the spoiler parties, then?

New parties arise every election cycle. It is a consequence of our immature party system. I wouldn’t call them spoilers. Their function is more to entertain voters and show them something new is happening.

The political arena is so controlled that, consequently, it has become totally moribund. It is hard to interest anyone in the dances of people who have been dancing the same jig for twenty-five years. So something new pops up every new election cycle. They say, look, we have something funny, something shocking, something provocative, although I doubt whether any of this is really capable of shocking or provoking anyone. New parties must flash before the eyes of voters so there is some kind of novelty. Moreover, they are not spoilers, but also work as warm-up acts for the major parties. Of course, they are also meant to disintegrate our unhappy urban electorate, so that people do not vote for someone who would make it into parliament and become a voice of the people in government.

What are ordinary people supposed to do at this wild party?

In these circumstances, it is in the interests of ordinary people to go where they are not wanted. Comrade voters, no is waiting for you—go and surprise them! Your presence will make vote rigging harder. If you don’t sign your name in the ledger at the polling station, it is quite likely someone else will do it for you. Although the trend now is for clean elections, you can never trust the members of the Territorial Electoral Commissions (TECs). They are from the old school. They find it hard to believe what is expected of them is honesty, not the “right” numbers. It is in the interests of ordinary people to facilitate the onset of variety in the Duma, and the best way to achieve that is by slipping another faction into the Duma, no matter who they are.

I would say that a good tactic is voting for any party other than the parliamentary parties. But this is a fairly risky game. If the four parliamentary parties make it into the Duma, but a fifth does not, your votes will be divvied up among the winners.

Our system of divvying up votes gives the big prize to the party that comes in first, which is supremely unfair. You have to follow the ratings, but that is hard to do because people in our country are not much inclined to talk to pollsters and give them honest answers. The most rational approach would be to choose the party whose rating is closest to five percent and vote for it.

If you are afraid of making a mistake, vote for the candidates and parties who cannot win without your help, because the ones who will win anyway do not need your votes. Vote for your local single-mandate candidates, not because local candidates will necessarily be better, more honest, and nobler, but because they have more ties to your area and its voters.

A new roster is a good thing. A high percentage of new MPs ensures a new atmosphere in the chamber, especially considering that half of them will be single-seat MPs. It would be really great if half of the single-mandate MPs consisted of people who were not in the last Duma, even if they claim they are from United Russia. After all, calling all the single-mandate MPs party members is like calling all the passengers on a bus the “Bus No. 8 Party.” The only thing they have in common is their desire to ride: that is their ideology and faith. But when they arrive and get off the bus, they will behave as the occasion demands. They have no genotype and phenotype in common.

Does it make any sense to read the election platforms of the parties and candidates?

Read the platforms of the parties and candidates from 2011. They don’t bear the slightest resemblance to the future political agenda, even in the broadest terms such as “We will defend Mother Russia from the common enemy.” There is nothing of the sort.

In 2011, everyone wrote fairly liberal, modernizing things. A Just Russia was for something cultural and tender. The CPRF was for labor rights (which makes sense), while United Russia was purely for modernization, restructuring the economy along non-extractive lines, innovation, assistance to producers going on the export market—basically, for total openness and beauty. Read it and weep.

So you can put off reading the platforms now. You can pick them up five years from now and they will make for wonderful, nostalgic reading. It makes sense to look at credit ratings: what this person or party have owned, how they behaved before. It can be quite interesting: it is good to know their background. But party platforms are fantasy literature, of course.

The New Duma

How will the Seventh Duma differ from the current Duma?

This Duma will sit during a continuing and even deepening economic crisis. It will pass budgets that contain cuts not only to social spending but also to defense spending.  For the first time in fourteen years, the Finance Ministry has been saying the economy cannot sustain our country’s military expenditures.

The government will go to the Duma to ask for amendments to the budget, a new freeze on pensions, a tax increase, and new levies and excise duties. Remember that the State Duma was effectively excluded from participation in the budget process when three-year budget planning was introduced. That happened during the budgetary process reforms of 2006–2008. They are not well known, but to a great extent they broke our immature parliamentary system’s back. But for the second consecutive year, the Finance Ministry has done away with three-year budget planning because, in the current circumstances, no one is able to make such long-range forecasts. The 2016 budget was adopted as a one-year budget, and the budget for 2017 will be adopted in the same way.

Will the Duma feature colorful, controversial figures?

There will fewer of them just because you don’t run clowns in single-mandate districts. They will entertain everyone, but then people won’t vote for him. Just look how many TV stars lost in United Russia’s primaries. However, Irina Yarovaya, Elena Yampolskaya, and Natalia Poklonskaya will certainly be seated in the new Duma.

It should be understood that the louder the talk about idiotic bills, the less real action there will be later. The “more bark than bite” principle operates here. This is generally one of the principles observed by regimes of our type, which takes advantage of stunning rhetorical license. Which is a good thing, basically, because it lowers the level of violence while increasing the quantity of nasty chatter that fills our entire noosphere.

What about Volodin? They say he might head the Duma.

If that is true, it would be good.


Because at this stage of the regime transformation we are undergoing, the parliament is doomed to play a more considerable role than it played earlier. It is a collective body and, as such, it possesses sustained legitimacy. And it will be elected at a time when the rest of the machine will only be creeping into a tunnel from which it will emerge renewed. But these people have shot it out and are sitting steady.

The Sixth Duma was a venue for the battle among the clans. Now it will function as such to an even greater extent and in a more public way. If a politically ambitious person, familiar with the machinery of parliament, becomes the speaker, this will speed up the process. The process will take off anyway, not because someone decided so: it is just intrinsic to its logic. But if there is a speaker who has a stake in making the Duma mean more, the process will accelerate. That’s a good thing.


Let’s look at the non-systemic liberals. What are PARNAS and Yablokov’s prospects in the coming elections? Why can’t they unite, set up a single decision-making center, and present a united front?

Our electoral system’s main limitation is restricted access. The system allows for the participation of only those it considers harmless. In these circumstances, do you think establishing a unified liberal entity increases the chances of access? Don’t you think it makes sense to have a staggered line rather than form up a single column and march on the machine-gun nest with flags flying? When you are weak and the balance of forces is uneven, guerrilla tactics are better than battle column tactics.

Liberals do not exist at all as a political unit. The logic of the political process is such they have to little to gain from uniting. The opposition unites when the ruling regime has already begun to collapse—then a united front suddenly takes shape. It usually doesn’t consist of liberals, but of everyone who is fed up. Either nationalists or leftists must play a big role in it as a destructive force.  This is not the situation in Russia, maybe for the best.

Frankly, the prospects of one party or another concern me least of all. But if several single-mandate MPs from the liberal-right forces get into the Duma that would be good, because it would add a little turbulence. Because being in the Duma means you have a platform, access to the media, and the right to file official inquiries.

If we talk about basic things rather than situational aspects, political representation is quite heavily skewed in Russia. Parliament does not represent society. Its representativeness is inadequate because the political system is closed, and there are very big filters at the point of access. Forces that could represent various social groups are not allowed to participate. The most disadvantaged group is the wage-earning educated urban populace, which is around twenty percent. They are not necessarily westernizers or liberals. They live in cities and earn a living themselves, meaning they are not state employees. They work in the service and creative sectors, in business. They are not represented at all in an way at any level of government.

The powers that be in Russia fear the urban populace and cities in general: this is clearly observable. Abolishing mayoral elections was a direct crackdown on cities. S0-called petal cutting [gerrymandering of sorts—TRR], in which a bit of countryside is pasted on to each urban electoral district, is a crackdown on cities. The unfair stacking, to put it delicately, of the parliaments with representatives from the primarily rural ethnic republics also diminishes the urban populace’s clout in the political arena.

The cities are not represented, but they are the cradle of democracy: the city’s atmosphere liberates individuals. Politics are the affairs of the polis; politics is what happens in the city. It certainly doesn’t follow from this that second-class people live in rural areas. But there is a bias, an inequality. It is not necessary to give all power to twenty percent of citizens, but they should be represented somehow.

Another question about cities. In Moscow, an appreciable segment of the economically active population does not have a Moscow residence permit and thus cannot vote in elections. Legally, of course, they can vote, by getting a notarized power of attorney, but in fact the procedure is quite complicated and many people don’t want to bother with it. Is there any hope that someday this situation will be fixed legislatively?

This is a very great injustice, and it is absolutely deliberate. In the state of New York, for example, you can vote if you fill out a form, where you indicate your driver’s license number or social security number, as well as the address where you get your mail and where you actually live. Meaning that tenants vote in the place where they rent a house or apartment. If there were something similar in Moscow, it would completely overturn the outcome of all elections.

If tenants in Russia could vote, they would support candidates like themselves. They would support other parties. But here, unfortunately, we observe a vicious circle. Since the interests of this segment of city dwellers are not represented in the halls of power, there is no one who could table the relevant amendment and stand up for them. One snag leads to another, and only gradual transformation of the regime, as well as natural generational change, can alter the situation.

But that will take years.

Yes, our regime is like that: sluggish.

The Nationalists

Where did the nationalists go? The entire vector of the country’s evolution seemingly facilitates the growth of nationalism and pride in the country. However, there is not a single more or less legal right-wing party in Russia. Why not?

The pride in the country that is now being vigorously inculcated in Russia is not nationalism, but patriotism, that is, statism. If we talk about nationalism, there are two reasons why nationalist parties don’t emerge. First, there is no money for them, meaning there is not actually any public demand for them. As, for example, the events of 2014 demonstrated, ethnic nationalism as such is not popular among the ethnic Russian populace. Statism, idolizing the machinery of power and force, militarism, and external aggression are encouraged, but ethnic nationalism as such does not excite people. If there had been such a demand, the events of 2014 would have opened the floodgates through which a political force like this would have rushed in, and no one would have been able to stop it.

The second major reason is a government crackdown, meaning a deliberate policy of hacking away at this segment of the political arena. We often speak of crackdowns against liberals, because we are liberals ourselves, but there are special FSB units that work strictly with the nationalist sector. Moreover, this sector is in an extremely ambiguous position. Since the days of Pamyat, Russian nationalists have had a peculiar symbiosis with the secret services, who have nourished them and cultivated them, and then put them in jail. This has gone on for the past twenty-five years. Nationalists have been in a semi-underground. The powers that be promise them things, wink at them, and say that now we are going to build Novorossiya with you lot, but then they always put them in jail. It is an old tale that is always new, and there is no end in sight.

However, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if Russia had a legitimate nationalist party. Generally speaking, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have more legal parties representing social groups. It is the best medicine against extremism. Everyone who wants to be legalized should be legalized, while everyone else is isolated by the law enforcement machine. But the Russian law enforcement machine isolates everyone and does not let anyone legalize. This sends everyone into the underground and very ugly forms of quasi-politics. Not all of this is horrible fascism, but things we can talk about and discuss. But the fact that people are discussing them in the corner, nervously glancing at the door and waiting for the police to come and get them, is a disaster and a disgrace. In such circumstances, everyone turns into a freak.

As for patriotic sentiments, this statist chatter, glorifying the state and its sovereignty, will be with us for a long time. You have to get used to it. First, it is the vernacular for the generation now in power—cozy words from their childhood, the gentle theme song to the Soviet TV program International Panorama. They shape the discourse of people higher up in the hierarchy and people a little younger and more shameless who have embedded themselves in it. And it is all mixed up with a dash of vague Russian Orthodoxy.

The Elections in Crimea

Residents of Crimea will also take part in the upcoming elections. Let’s talk about them.

Russia has a new territory, brimming with enthusiasm. We can expect more of a pro-government vote from them than in Moscow, and a higher turnout. In addition, one function of the upcoming elections, of course, is legitimation of the Russian Federation’s two new constituent entities. Since these are the first elections in which they are involved, they will have representatives in the Duma. Consequently, international recognition of the election results is de facto recognition that Crimea and Sevastopol are part of Russia. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

International organizations that send observers are caught in this trap. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), for example, is not sending observers, not because we have had a row with them, but because, I think, they do not want to get mixed up in this. But the OSCE is sending observers.

International organizations have no room to maneuver. They cannot opt out entirely, so they get involved, but they won’t go to Crimea. However, they will probably recognize the overall outcome, part of which consists of the Crimean vote.

The Levada Center

The Levada Center was recently added to the list of “foreign agents.” How, on the one hand, does this correlate with the political concessions we have been talking about it? On the other, how will it impact the upcoming elections?

This supports the argument I constantly make: there is no single decision-making center in the government. We constantly ask ourselves, Why did they do that? We imagine that “they” is a unified entity, a social actor that sits there and thinks about what crappy trick to pull in the morning or what else it can do to make its beloved citizens happy. It is nothing like that. In reality, we are dealing with a huge bureaucratic machine. Russia has over three million civil servants, excluding the countless law enforcement officers. In terms of numbers of police per every 100,000 people, we are number one in the world. Each section of the machine has its own interests, and they consist in wanting everything to stay the same, eating well, and working less.

The pursuit of “foreign agents” is the Justice Ministry’s bread and butter, their job and source of happiness. In the past three years, they have essentially turned into a law enforcement agency by working this case. They have become a prosecutor’s office for non-profits. The Justice Ministry will never let go of this piece of meat. For them, it means funding, salaries, and a media presence. Who knew what they were up to before this? Yeah, they maintained some kind of registries, but now they are on the front pages. The new chair of the Central Electoral Commission, Ella Pamfilova, has her own agenda, and the Justice Ministry has its agenda, and they could basically care less about each other. The Justice Ministry’s machine is locked and loaded for carrying out inspections, and the more “foreign agents” it exposes, the better.

As for Levada itself, you cannot be the only professional in your field. You can be a professional only in a professional environment. If you are surrounded by people who adhere to much lower professional standards, and you are the one and only good egg, you will inevitably skid off in the other direction; you have no one to whom you can compare yourself. You cannot be the country’s only honest political scientist, just as it is impossible to be the only independent sociological center.

Unfortunately, even before the Justice Ministry got on their case, we had no good way of understanding what voters were really thinking based on polling figures. The respondents are not free, the pollsters are not free, the questions are ambiguous, and the expectations respondents have in terms of the answers they think they are expected to give are largely shaped by propaganda. This does not mean that people are afraid in in the literal sense, in the way it is usually conceived: that they have one answer in mind, but they give another answer out of fear. People just say what they are, allegedly, expected to say. There is the well-known term “spiral of silence.” People imagine a certain majority. In all likelihood, it is a phantom constructed by the propaganda machine, but still it lives in the people’s inner world. One of our qualities as human beings is manifested in this case: we tend to join the majority. It is not cowardice, immorality or meanness, but a psychological norm. People must be conformists to get along with each other in the world.  A person imagines a majority that, she thinks, is right. She joins it to be a good person. Then the next person joins it. That is how the spiral picks up steam. But maybe the original majority never existed at all? Maybe it was an illusion? But now it is too late. The spiral has generated it, and this majority has become a part of reality.

Meaning, in your opinion, the electoral process has not lost anything because the Levada Center has been excluded from it?

Putting an organization on the list of “foreign agents” is a bad signal, and it looks awful because it contradicts the trend towards hypothetically clean elections. And it burdens Levada with a lot of unnecessary work it will have to do instead of doing polls. Three polling organizations in a country like Russia is an incredibly small number, but having two is like having none at all.

We were already in bad straits in terms of polling data. We cannot say we had this beacon of light, which now has been snuffed out. If you pay close attention to the numbers, you will see that Levada’s figures were not that different from VTsIOM’s. This is yet another argument to the effect that the authorities went after them, not because on the eve of the elections they had to quickly to shut down a source of terribly destructive information, but simply because they were planning to do it. That is how a bureaucracy functions: slowly and following an agenda that it sometimes outdates, but it is impossible to change direction. It is like a paving machine. It can get rolling, but it cannot be maneuvered.

The Siloviki and New Personnel

Putin has been recruiting new personnel. For example, he appointed Anton Vaino his new chief of staff and replaced the head of the Federal Protective Service (FSO) with Dmitry Kochnev. What do you think about this?

It is also an attempt to adapt to new circumstances. The old administrators and policy makers were fine in the previous economic setup, when oil cost a hundred dollars a barrel, but at forty-five dollars a barrel they had become too expensive. In this situation, old friendship, common interests, and neighboring dachas suddenly become meaningless. But the system cannot replace an old friend who does nothing and whose appetite is too big with the man in the street. So it attempts to replace these old people with new but familiar faces: your security guard, your chief of protocol, the old director of the railways with his deputy, an elderly general with a younger general. The system’s arms are as stubby as a crocodile’s paws: it cannot paddle very far. But the media interprets this as follows: the president has been removing his old friends, who took independent stances, and has replaced them with mutes who get things done. Where was the independent stance of these friends visible? What did they do independently over the last twenty years? How were they insufficiently loyal? Go figure.

We are talking about a system in a state of stress and faced with the question of survival. So it is willing sacrifice habits, old friendships, neighbors, the Orthodox faith, and anything whatsoever in pursuit of its ends.

You are always talking about the fight among clans? What are these clans?

Functionally, we could call them interest groups. Moreover, the boundaries of these groups may not match the boundaries of government agencies, so when people say one agency is fighting another, it is a kind of convention.

Besides, the boundaries of the groups are mobile. Russian government administrative culture is such that, despite the numerous conversations on this topic, no teams under the guidance of single leader are capable of forming. The country’s bureaucracy, including the military and security services, are not inclined to do this. Loyalism, meaning affiliating oneself with a strongman, is inherent to the bureaucracy, but not devotion to a foreman or commander. So clans take shape around certain interests, often a chunk of resources. While they are consuming this chunk, they are extremely stable. They defend their borders, ward off interlopers, and do not let newcomers in. But when everything has been consumed or their chunk has been confiscated, they dissolve and regroup in some other way.

In the Duma, this is well illustrated by almost any bill involving resources. For example, every discussion of excise dutes, which are adopted along with each new budget, forms a “beer party” and a “vodka party” in the Duma, meaning a group that favors raising excise duties on light alcoholic beverages, and a group that favors increasing them on hard alcohol. The “vodka party” usually consists of the Communists and lobbyists from the central regions, because the governors are involved in this business, while earlier the liberals were in the “beer party,” because breweries were run by foreign investors. There are people who constantly defend the same set of interests. It is clear who in the Duma works for the Central Bank or the Savings Bank (Sberbank), and who represents Gazprom and Rosneft, although the issues discussed nowadays in the Duma are not so meaningful to them.

It is about the same in the law enforcement agencies. I suspect they also have units that patronize and cover certain things. As long as things are good, they stick together, but when their resource base is depleted, they move to other pastures. This makes them hard to analyze, because within an agency there is a director and a deputy director who do not represent the agency but each his or her own group. The director has to take his deputies into account. It sometimes happens that a deputy is more important, wealthier or has more access to resources than the director. Every law enforcement agency has a internal security directorate or department, usually staffed by FSB personnel. The FSB itself also has a security directorate, which has now begun to play a vigorous political role. There is an economic security service, which also conducts a number of important criminal cases. It is a can of worms, so it is vital not to simplify.

In this regard, what should we ordinary people know? The ongoing struggle of the clans, on the one hand, is a substitute for the lack of political competition. On the other, it supplies the system with greater flexibility and openness. It would be a bad thing if a single victor, a super silovik who demolishes everyone else, emerged. That would be a hallmark that the regime is transforming according to the authoritarian scenario. I don’t think this will happen. The system fears it. It prevents the emergence of a single winner and is constantly building a system of checks and balances which, in turn, are a parody of the system of checks and balances in a democracy. In a democracy, one crocodile does not restrain another crocodile. Rather, society restrains the state, and one branch of power, another.

Can the National Guard of Russia be reckoned as the latest attempt to balance the entire system?

When the National Guard was established, everyone was terribly frightened. Good God, here they are, the super siloviki! What has happened subsequently? The FSB has been strengthened. What is more, when the National Guard was still being established, its current director occupied the post of Deputy Interior Minister, and it was assumed he would become minister. He was grabbed from the ministry right then and there, and the minister breathed a sigh of relief. The structure of the Interior Ministry, which had been weakened when nearly all its armed units had been removed from it (they were made part of the National Guard) was simultaneously beefed up when the Federal Migrant Service (FMS) and Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN), well-staffed, resource-rich agencies, were merged into it. The Interior Ministry did not get all their personnel (some people were simply not offered new jobs), but their powers and tools were transferred to the ministry.

Here, as elsewhere, we see a desire to maintain balance. Maintaining the balance becomes ever more complicated as resources are depleted. This is what occupies Russia’s top leadership the most.

The 2018 Presidential Election

A question about 2018. You have said the regime is adaptive. Will it undertake a massive restructuring? Or will we re-elect Vladimir Putin president in 2018?

We still don’t know the limits of the regime’s adaptivity, but it is willing to go to extremes. Over the past sixteen years, we have seen dramatic changes: Putin’s first term, which was reformist; his conservative second term; Operation Successor; the end of Operation Successor; and Putin’s third term, which jas been isolationist. And we might yet see many more interesting things. What I can say is the powers that be are operating under the assumption the current president will seek re-election. But this doesn’t mean other options are not being discussed. They are being discussed, and the discussions have been spilling over into the public space.

Thanks to the realities of the information age, the new glasnost is already with us. Government officials blab quite a lot. What is contemptuously called a leak in Russia is actually the competing clans using the press and public opinion in their interests. Don’t judge the media: there is nothing bad about it—it is a good thing. When two groups of police investigators leak information about each other, when one FSB department exposes another in the newspaper, it is wonderful. Certainly, it is a bit scummy, but at least it is some kind of political process. Any publicity is in the interests of ordinary people.

In 2018, all options are acceptable, and none of them is fantastic. We could witness a new Operation Successor. We could even see an early election. Although I don’t see any particular reason for this, because one trait of the Russian political regime is that it fears states of emergency. It is bureaucratic in its nature and tends to act (or, at least, pretends to act) by the books, to abide by written norms. Even extraordinary things like the annexation of Crimea were not implemented by the president’s going to the people and saying, Now we will have a new earth, a new heaven, and a new constitution. No, everything in Russia happens in the proper order as it were: a referendum, amendments to the Constitution, the lower house of parliament votes them in, and the upper house ratifies the decision. Everything is legit, everything is legal. Putin’s third term is not really his third term. There was a break, so it’s like his first term mark two.

Who could the successor be? The name of the current Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has come up several times.

Hard to say. But in any case it will be a man of the system, who will be tasked with ensuring the system’s survivability for yet another term. That’s all. What is his last name? Maybe it will be the current president (this is most likely the case for the time being). Or maybe it will be someone else.

Let us assume Putin is re-elected in 2019. What will he fear most of all, the opposition and spontaneous protest movements or collapse from within?

The system, rather than Putin, will be afraid of things. It is worried about them even now and has been really scared of them since 2014. This fear explains nearly all its actions. The two things are external isolation and the shrinkage of its resources.

Regimes like Russia’s function by purchasing loyalty. They distribute rents to elites, buying their loyalty, and they pass out crumbs of this loyalty to ordinary people, buying their passivity and non-involvement in politics. Regimes of this sort are demobilizing. They have no tools for transforming political opinion into political action, so they preach passivity: watching television, relatively speaking. Unlike totalitarian models, in our case, even aggressive propaganda is not meant to mobilize people.

So the first thing is the fear of external isolation. It is utterly rational: the Russian system is not an autarky, meaning it is not self-sustaining and self-sufficient. It is plugged into international commercial, financial, information and political networks. Moreover, it sees this as its reason for being and takes very many steps, including ones that appear aggressive, to avoid isolation. It is quite ironic. Why do they behave like this? So that attention is paid to them. Talk to me, don’t ignore me; otherwise, I will smash your chandelier with a stick right now. Anything is better than isolation. The regime will continue to act in the future on the basis of these two considerations, these two phobias. Avoid isolation any way possible, provoke dialogue, be involved in all processes as a trickster, a spoiler, the pebble in someone’s shoe—any way at all as long as you are involved.

Are you speaking of wars?

Wars, conflicts, potential wars. In our information age, war is less important than a video on YouTube. Fighting is not obligatory, but talking about it is.

Fear number two is the depletion of resources. This is the threat that there will be nothing to buy off the elites with and gag the rank-and-file. The situation is a bit more complicated in this case. In the ordinary sense, resources will steadily diminish whatever the regime does. I think the age of expensive hydrocarbons is over. The system has been trying for two years, at least, to find alternate sources of income. The only alternate source of income is ordinary citizens: there are no other sources. Moreover, people in different capacities: as people who pay utilitie and housing maintenance and capital renovation bills; as taxpayers and mortgage holders; as truck drivers who have to pay for the Plato system; as property owners whose taxes are going to be raised. Taxes will be raised. New levies, tariffs, and excise duties will be introduced. All methods of parting people from their money will be tried. In fact, everything we call restrictions on the freedom of information boils down to making the user pay more.

You are talking, in particular, about the Yarovaya package?

The Yarovaya package will boil down to Rostec’s getting money, anв each of us, each Internet and mobile communications user, will ultimately pay a little. That шы a given.

People are slowly realizing that a paternalist regime is no gift to them. On the contrary, they are paying the regime all the time; moreover, they are paying a lot for low-quality services—for shabby housing, poor roads, and bad governance. In theory, this should encourage the growth of civic self-consciousness. Civic self-consciousness is the taxpayer’s mindset: there is no other kind. The citizen does not emerge from so-called legal culture or spiritual nobility. The citizen arises from the awareness that I am paying, so give me something for my money, do a song and dance for me. Hold a jam and jelly festival, say. Although a jam and jelly festival will not be much comfort to someone who comes home to find yet another utilities bill in their mailbox.

What will become of Dmitry Medvedev? Alexei Kudrin has again been mentioned as a future prime minister.

Changes in the cabinet lineup are quite likely after parliamentary elections. It is the customary time for such personnel changes. But it is unlikely the changes will affect the head of government. I think the Russian bureaucratic ethos includes an inviolable obligation that the current prime minister stays in power until the presidential election. I imagine this is the most realistic option right now.

What to Do

There is no place for citizens in the system you have described.

It’s true. There is not much space for citizens. What we have is largely a surrogate democracy.

What should people do, then? Accept a situation in which every few years they vote in fake elections, and that their only worry is to get five parties into the Duma, rather than four, so there is at least the appearance of pluralism? Reconcile themselves with the fact that, possibly, their children, but not they themselves, will have a genuine impact on politics in their own country?

It is still possible to do something. When it comes to the elections, then of course you should go work as an observer.  This is now belated advice, because it is no longer possible to sign up, but at least help out the observers who are working the elections. They are the finest people in the country. They are advancing a righteous cause: preventing the system from consuming itself in an orgy of vote rigging. They give our voices more weight. Voters come in second place in terms of usefulness to society among those involved in the elections, while the candidates come in third.

As for life after the elections, an abrupt increase in grassroots activism has been underway in Russia. Although they are subject to considerable pressure from the authorities, grassroots organizations have not stopped their work. Even amidst the battle with “foreign agents,” organizations have been re-registering, changing what they do, and operating unregistered. This horizontal civic activism is the best thing happening in Russia.

If you want to have an impact you need to get together with people who want the same thing you do, and it does not have to be a political party. I would say a political party is the least interesting vehicle for making this impact. But there are grassroots organizations that protect the rights of tenants and defend neighborhoods from the destruction of parks, redevelopment, and building demolitions. There are associations of environmentalists, patients, and parents. These are all people who work with the authorities and are capable of advancing their own agenda, which the authorities later adopt. Such examples are out there, and they are very significant and impressive.

All the good that has been done in past five or six years in terms of child custody and guardianship, the treatment of complex diseases and cancer, pain management, working with the disabled, public accessibility for the handicapped, and inclusive education has been done by grassroots organizations. From my perspective, this is politics, since it is a process of interacting with the authorities in order to force them to take your interests into account.

Translated by the Russian Reader

I had planned to translate and publish this interview before last Sunday’s election as a companion piece to Grigorii Golosov’s much briefer essay on the same topic, “A Voter’s Guide,” which I published before the elections. So, although I would be putting Professor Schulman in the unenviable position of making predictions about an election that has already happened, I decided to go ahead with the translation anyway. First, because I had heard so much about her from people I admire a great deal, the grassroots activists that Schulman herself discusses at the end of the interview. Second, the interview touches on so many things besides the elections, especially the structure and mindset of the current Russian regime, that it serves as a kind of primer on Russian politics today. I may disagree with certain points that Professor Schulman makes from her decidedly liberal but distinct, thoughtful perspective, but I have decided this perspective is very much worth sharing with my readers. TRR

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