Leon Aron is a member of the foreign policy team of presumptive U.S. presidential candidate for the Republican Party Mitt Romney. At the same time, Dr. Aron is Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of several books, including the first full-scale scholarly biography of Boris Yeltsin. He also writes for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, The New Republic and Weekly Standard, among other publications. Tabula interviewed Leon Aron about political processes in Russia and the foreign political course of the Putin regime. Before starting the interview, Dr. Aron made a point of asking us to note that he is expressing his views as an independent expert on Russian politics and is not speaking as a member of the Romney team.
That the Russian government is obsessed with the mania of revisionism is clear. Vladimir Putin’s regime regards the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the Twentieth Century, calls Russia’s neighbors its “backyard” and does not shy away from occupying their territories. Some scholars in the West, however, are dismissive about Russia’s “global” ambitions, believing that its ambitions are confined only to the region. What threat does Russia pose today in the hands of Putin?
I may disappoint you on this: I don’t particularly feel threatened by Russia. Russia is what is known as “a spoiler.” I am a firm believer of foreign policy defined by domestic politics, not in routine foreign policy and with states that don’t really matter. Take U.S.-Russia relations – they go through ups and downs, as you know. We had “reset.” Now we are clearly on a downward slope. Why? Because it is clearly in the interest of this regime, which has lost a great deal of legitimacy. Putin does now what authoritarian regimes in trouble always do – create a sense of external danger, create a sense of an external enemy.
Now, about the so-called “backyard” or former Soviet Union: A truly democratic regime would be able to solve the problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; the Putin regime does not feel like it is in its interests. It’s kind of a slow-burning fire that helps to fuel certain parts of the Russian population that this regime considers its constituency. Obviously, its constituency is not those who came to protest in Moscow and St. Petersburg and a hundred other Russian cities.
The regime is facing such huge social, political and economic problems that I don’t think it will be able to afford real aggravation of the situation on the foreign front. But, it is not going in any way to make the situation easier. Neither war nor peace, as Trotsky used to say, plays well with the population which they rely on to keep the power inside the country.
As you have mentioned Abkhazia and South Ossetia, why do you think Russia needs to occupy those lands? Clearly, it is not because of concerns about the welfare of ethnic Abkhazians or ethnic Ossetians. How can a huge country such as Russia benefit from such tiny territories, which are not recognized as independent except by Russia itself, Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega?
Georgia is a problem for Russia because it is a struggling democracy – struggling, but it is a democracy – and it is resented by the Putin regime for the same reasons that Middle Eastern countries resent Israel. I don’t believe it is ethnic resentment. It is because, if you are an authoritarian corrupt regime, you don’t want a flourishing democracy on your border. You really don’t! Or, if you have [a flourishing democracy on your border], you try to minimize it, damage it because you know deep down that the appeal is there. Georgia is the Kremlin’s challenge and Russia cannot have a normal relationship with Georgia and let Russian citizens know the truth about that state, rather than propaganda. So I think that’s part of it. There are many threads to this, but one of them is clearly an idea of isolating, if you can, direct propaganda warfare, and if you could militarily tweak it, because otherwise your people start wondering, “They have it, why can’t we?”
So, would it be right to conclude from what you just said that that is the reason why Russia is opposing expansion of NATO?
If I am right, this is a continuation of the same line. It’s like, “It’s not bad enough that we have this struggling democracy on the border. This democracy wants to be linked in the most significant way, meaning militarily, to the stable democratic West.” I don’t think Russia is concerned about NATO staging an attack from Georgian territory. States live and die by values. They live and die by their political morals. If your political morality is legitimate, if people “buy it,” as we say in the U.S., you exist. If your political morality is for some reason damaged – and that happened to the Soviet Union, by the way – eventually you collapse. So anything that challenges the current political morality of the regime, it needs to be minimized; it needs to be sent off. As I said, like it was not enough that we have this struggling democracy and then have it connect what is for the state the most intimate tie, security tie, to be to the West – that is a challenge to the political regime and its moral core.
The official return of Putin did not come as a surprise to anyone. However, unlike previous times when Russians were somehow putting up with the regime, this time they started protesting against election violations and, in general, against the regime. What has changed? Can we call this an awakening of Russian civil society? How relevant are parallels with the Arab Spring?
Several months before that protest movement, I traveled to Russia, almost across the whole of Russia, and met with the leaders and members of six grassroots movements, some of them environmental, some of them dealing with other issues. And I was struck with this new moral sensibility, this new sense of citizenship and dignity, although at that time it appeared to me that it was local stuff and it would take time for it to express itself politically. But, in like five months, we have seen all this in slogans of protestors. I think it was almost historically inevitable - there is no other way for a country to become modern but by going through democratization. This is also what [outgoing Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev has been saying. You don’t have to be member of the opposition to believe in this. [Former Russian Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Alexei] Kudrin said this all the time. Establishment political scientists, economists, analysts have been saying this for a year.
The only thing that we did not know was how flexible the government would be in these reforms, which, of course, would include democratization of the political regime, the end of corruption and protecting human rights. Today, it has become clear that the regime is incapable of undertaking these reforms because they mortally threaten its power and the regime is too used to – and too intoxicated and addicted to – almost unlimited amounts of petro dollars that are coming in and dividing [that money] among a small group of people. That’s too much of a barrier for a regime to overcome.
It became clear that the change will not come from above; it will have to come from below. Those who say “This is the middle class; they don’t represent the people,” well, the middle class has led all the modern revolutions. It led all the color revolutions in post-Soviet states. Starting from the French Revolution or the American Revolution, it was middle-class intellectuals that led the change of the regime. The regime never changes by the majority of people – they have too many things to do to support themselves and their families; they have jobs. So it’s always the middle class.
Secondly, we have to look at the history of post-authoritarian transitions: Spain, Portugal, Greece in the 1970s; Taiwan, South Korea in the 1980s; Mexico in the 1990s. The middle class always led the way. And it always happened the same way: The middle class became unprecedentedly free and prosperous, just like in Russia, but wanted to participate in the affairs of the state.
Some people have been talking about discontent within elite surrounding Putin, not only the middle class. What is your take on that? Does it seem to you that elite are happy?
I am not one of those American analysts who is popular among the regime, so I am not really allowed in the presence of real insiders. But just look at Kudrin, a personal friend of Putin. He said publicly, “I did not vote in these elections.” He was talking about election of the Duma. The group that he organized, they are all top-establishment intellectuals. Of course, they don’t call themselves “opposition,” but in a sense they are loyal opposition. And if you look at their program, it is almost indistinguishable from some of the key demands of the protestors: honest elections; end of corruption; fairness and justice in courts, and etcetera. And this was clear when [Kudrin] was fired or resigned. Things don’t happen spontaneously at this level. It’s not like he woke up one day and decided he hated Medvedev. Things are much more involved.
And even more so with [once-powerful Kremlin political strategist Vladislav] Surkov. Yes, he was presumably fired because of the lousy results of United Russia, but, again, it does not just happen. In this regime, very few people are ever fired for incompetence. It’s not that they are moving toward the opposition. But, I think there is clearly a movement within the elite who want to put a distance between themselves and some of the most hated parts of the present regime, which is, I think, corruption. So, I think there is some sort of movement within the elite. Of course, they are looking at what the regime does and what the opposition does, and that is something they will base their actions on.
Some analysts are skeptical about the Russian opposition, mainly because of its weakness. How would you evaluate the opposition?
This is a very good question. I think it is a common mistake that is made by outsiders when they say “Look at the opposition, they don’t have leaders, they don’t have organization.” Well, they don’t, because it is a civil rights movement, it’s not a political movement. In fact, this is a civil movement. In other words, it is a movement about civil rights, about dignity, equality before the law, movement for justice, fairness, against disenfranchisement because people’s votes don’t count. That is not different in essence from what happened under Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Because it is a morally anchored movement, there is very little that the regime can do with it. In other words, you cannot bribe them, you cannot scare them, you cannot promise the leaders positions in government because there are no leaders – there are simply popular figures. Now, that’s the bad news for the regime. This movement is not going away, just as the movement for civil rights in the U.S. did not go away, just as Gandhi’s movement did not go away.
But, let me also mention that thirty-five percent of Russians – not protestors, but according to the Levada Center poll conducted before the elections – said that these elections would not be fair and honest and would be dirty, in fact. That’s thirty-to-forty-million people, and I am talking just about adults. Corruption – go and look at the public opinion polls, how many Russians resent this, how many Russians think government works in their favor? In other words, yes, they don’t politically represent the majority of people; but, in terms of their moral sensibility, they are spearheading sentiments of millions of Russians. So, we have to be very careful here. We cannot dismiss them just because they are in the very early stage of political crystallization.
There was a wonderful interview by Grigory Chkhartishvili [aka Boris Akunin] with Deutsche Welle – magnificent interview; he is one of my favorite writers. To a journalist’s question, “Who is the alternative of Putin?” he said, “Why are you asking me who is the alternative of Putin? You should ask me ‘What is the alternative?’ Let us have honest elections; let us have honest competition of ideas; let us have freely elected leaders – and then we will see.”
The most outstanding leader of the “civil rights movement,” as you have described it, is Aleksey Navalny. One can hear chauvinistic notes against Caucasians, against minorities. How would you evaluate him?
I am working on this long analytical article, which I think is the first one in the U.S. which is like an objective look at this movement, and for that I have looked at a massive amount of material, including a wonderful dialogue on Boris Akunin’s blog, a very long conversation with Navalny, and also a very long interview by Yevgenia Albats with Navalny. It is true that Navalny marched with so-called nationalists. Obviously, he is a very young leader; he is a developing leader; he is a very smart man. If the Russians were allowed to run an election campaign like we have in the U.S., there is no doubt that he would probably be elected as president. And he may be elected in a couple years. So, he is an evolving political figure. We cannot really label him as a “nationalist,” but the responses that he gave to Chkhartishvili and to Albats seem persuasive to me. For example, he described the national state of Russians; he precisely described Russia as political scientists describe the evolvement of the nation state in Europe, like in France where citizenship and patriotism and democracy were all one – and there is nothing wrong with this.
Again, whether this is a cover up for something, or whether it’s the truth, what he feels, obviously we don’t know, because a politician is known only when he is power, when he can actually act based on his convictions. For that, we will have to obviously wait. Knowing all this, I was rather persuaded by what he said. Again, on the rhetorical level, I don’t think he is a scary figure.
Deriving from what you said, can I say that you are not expecting Putin to stay in office another twelve years?
Absolutely not. I don’t think Putin will be able to start his second term at all. I am not sure he will be able to serve out his first term.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 98, published 30 April 2012.