(Russian) Civilization and its Dissidents: An Interview with Graeme Robertson

Graeme Robertson is currently an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. He received his BA from Oxford University, his MA from Harvard in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies, and his Ph.D from Columbia University, with work focusing on political protest in Russian politics. His book is The Politics of Protest in Hybrid Regimes: Managing Dissent in Post-Communist Russia (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

SD: Much of your work has been focused on protest – that is the subject of your book that was released in 2011. How do you see the current demonstrations throughout Russia against the intervention in Ukraine? Will this necessarily have any repercussions on Russia’s current foreign policy – and have past opposition protests, like those in March of this year or after Putin’s re-election in 2012 actually had any effect on how foreign policy is conducted? What makes a protest, for lack of a better word, “take?” Do these protests necessarily reflect the views of a majority of Russian citizens or are they more demonstrative of the attitudes of a more rarefied elite?

Graeme: This is the second set of protests against the war in Ukraine that have occurred in Russia, there was one right at the beginning in February. It’s better understood in terms of Putin’s election protests back in 2011 and 2012, and that wave of opposition. The protests in 2011 and 2012 were very large, and initially, they caught the regime off guard. These protests had an instrumental role in changing the nature of the political system in Russia for the negative. Essentially what happened were these large protests in December and then Putin runs for re-election in May, winning comfortably, and then makes a decision to crack down. One of the largest protests during that time in central Moscow took place in Bolotnaya Square, situated on an island in the river. The authorities made a lot of arrests. They were systematically arresting not just activists, but also students who participated in them or individuals with no previous history of political action. They arrested businessmen, entrepreneurs – they arrested about twenty people who were like a survey researcher’s dream – almost like they were creating a focus group. They needed one person from a university, one person with business stature – basically creating a representative small sample that passed along the message that if the average Russian citizen were to get involved in protests, then there were consequences. Some of these people they arrested received quite long, multi-year prison sentences for charges like incitement to cause riots under new legislation that they passed just before the crackdown. They drastically changed laws to make protest much harder, and much more expensive. If people got arrested for participating in unsanctioned protests, the fines were increased substantially. And at the same time there was a turning to the right within the general population, essentially a return to conservative values that the regime used to crack down. It was during this time, to give an example, when the Pussy Riot trial was the focus in the West. There was a law passed to make it illegal to participate in euphemistically nontraditional sexual relations, there was a law passed to make it illegal to offend Orthodox believers, which was rather strange and not at all in keeping with Putin’s earlier stances on religious pluralism. Two terms before he was careful to reach out to Muslims and Jews and other non-Orthodox groups, and was very conscious of Russia as a multi-ethnic political entity. And after that election in 2012, he was towing a much more traditional Russian nationalist line in addition to what seemed like an Orthodox Church line. It’s within this much more conservative environment that the Ukrainian events take place. The opposition is currently very cowed by the repression, and thus there are no big demonstrations after Bolotnaya in 2012 until now. These protests against the Ukrainian intervention are the first revival, the first reflickering of that opposition movement, at least in the streets. In that sense, it is very significant for younger people to be involved because they are trying to rebuild connections amongst the opposition, which is still quite small. However, in terms of any effect on foreign or domestic policy, in the short run, there is very no effect. There’s no question about that at all. Are these protests likely to get bigger? In the short run, I do not think so. But I have been doing a lot of survey work amongst educated, middle class, internet using people in big cities like Moscow, as well as in other cities that have more than a million citizens. We had a survey before the Ukrainian events occurred and a survey afterwards in order to ask the same sample the same questions to identify whose opinion changed and why. We chose this group because it had many opposition individuals in it. Thus we could try to understand some things about the opposition because usually in a national sample, the opposition is so small that their opinions don’t really show up in the numbers as opposed to using a specific sample. What we found was that there was a massive increase in support for Putin among this group as a result of the Ukrainian events.

We noticed there has been this massive rallying around the flag in Russia amongst these previously skeptical groups, and that is even among non-voters and Communists as well as people who voted for the liberal opposition. The group that is adamantly opposed to the current regime. So it may be that this effect is temporary, and that protests against the regime will start again and “take,” to use your term, but I don’t think it will be about Ukraine, it will instead focus on the economy.

SD: Thus the food ban and the sanctions are all the more relevant?

Robertson: Right. And we’ve seen that trend a lot in the overall Russian opinion polls, as well as in my smaller sample. Economics is the single most important determinant of people’s approval or disapproval of a regime.

SD: Their disapproval is not necessarily a function of Russian foreign policy?

Robertson: No, not typically. But they don’t necessarily see Ukraine as a foreign policy issue in the traditional sense. The borders of the Russian state, whether it’s the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, or Old Rus have moved around a lot, the most labile on Earth. One day it includes Alaska, another the border even extends as far as Belarus. The Western European model of nation-states where there’s an ethnic group that calls itself a nation that sets borders that it believes as being “natural,” or at least that were decided by hundreds of years of wars with their neighbors – that is not a relevant way of thinking about Russia. Russia today exists in borders that it has never had before and that was preceding the annexation of Crimea [laughs]. The land that we now know as Ukraine used to be part of the Russian Empire and some of it was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. There never really was an independent Ukrainian state except during brief moments in the Civil War. Consequently, in the former USSR that sort of way of thinking about politics where you have a clear dividing line over what constitutes “domestic” or “foreign” doesn’t really apply quite so clearly. And if you look at opinion samples, lots of different ones show the same thing – you ask people – are Russians and Ukrainians the same people? Large numbers of people will say “yes.” So it’s an interesting question – to say for protest and domestic agitation that foreign policy doesn’t matter. But is this foreign policy? It’s not that clear.

SD: Pivoting from that, if a lot of Russians feel that Ukraine is part of the empire, that’s not what a lot of Americans are saying about it, especially in the media. What does that mean for how the West views Russia? Is that a correct view? Are there misconceptions? Does the media focus on Russia a little too narrowly, like instead of focusing on more serious dissidents like Navalny or Khodorkovsky, they are focusing on Pussy Riot instead?

Robertson: It’s a perennial problem with foreign policy in the United States – that the foreigners are paper caricature of what foreigners are really like. With Russia there is a very particular problem and I see it with my students and I see it with the newspapers. I’ve noticed there is a residual anti-Russian impetus in the United States that is a Cold War hangover. There is a knee-jerk response – what are those Ruskis up to? Further, there is a very strong tendency to think that Putin is Russia, which I think is a mistake. The Russian state is enormous, it has many different bureaucracies and agencies – there are troops of the army, the interior ministry – there are many different oligarchic interests and groups of ministries fighting each other and people outside of the ministries competing for influence and the idea that Putin just gets up in the morning and just does whatever he wants and the whole apparatus seamlessly follows him is not a good model for understanding the Russian state at all. Putin may have an agenda, but there’s a lot of disagreement over what that is – whether he is very short term or very long term in his beliefs – he is very clearly balancing off other interests and balancing factions all the time. And that’s how Putin functions, that’s what Stalin did, that’s what the supposedly all-powerful czars did, and that is generally the nature of authoritarian rule. Contrary to popular thinking, dictators don’t generally have a free hand. To think of the Russian state as an extension of Putin’s will is wrong. The Russian establishment more broadly really sees the expansion of NATO as being based on a trick, because they think that we promised them on the eve of German reunification that we wouldn’t expand NATO, although there’s not a whole lot of evidence to support that it was even a tacit agreement. But that is the perception, and that’s what the vast majority of politically minded people believe. Also, they also do think that it’s a threat to their national interest. And you can see it from their perspective – NATO is expanding – who is it against? It must be against somebody from their perspective. They must be trying to keep somebody out. They do feel encircled and they feel that if Georgia were to join NATO, then that would constitute a worst-case, nightmare scenario for them.

SD: Wasn’t Georgia rejected recently from consideration to join NATO recently?

Robertson: Russian behavior in Ukraine made it very difficult for Georgia to get into NATO. Georgia still has two breakaway provinces – Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia cannot be placed under NATO’s nuclear umbrella with those two issues still outstanding. It’s just not feasible. And this is part and parcel of Russia’s strategy in Ukraine – manipulate conflicts to keep them from being able to join economic or security alliances like the EU or NATO. The Russians just need a frozen conflict – they need an Abkhazia or in this case a Donetsk or Luhansk. They clearly had operational plans for when they would want to take over Crimea. But honestly, that is what general staffs have to do, is make plans. Even the United States has similar operational plans – in my youth it was Limited Strategic Nuclear Engagement in Western Europe. So there’s their thinking right there – if Ukraine joins the West and Ukraine joins NATO then Sevastapol would be a NATO port. And to the Russians, that will never happen on their watch. That is unacceptable, similar to if Pearl Harbor became a Japanese port. I think that was a pretty important rationale for their actions in Crimea. But I do not think they intended to get drawn into the fighting in eastern Ukraine, and now that they have, I think they have been trying to make sure the rebels don’t get defeated.

SD: What is the play on Ukraine? Why is Putin risking so much on what seems to be so little, risking economic relations with the EU, for instance? Is it to gain more territory than Crimea, or is he trying to break even? What is the longer term strategy?

Robertson: I do not think they are interested in more territory. I’m sure there are many voices in the military establishment – and most of the time we try to psychoanalyze Vladimir Putin like to see what he really wants, and think of his mood as a gauge for the direction of Russian foreign policy. There are many different groups of people who want many different kinds of things and figuring out which factions are which is better than figuring out what Putin’s mood is. He plays a role in who wins in that discussion obviously but his is not the only voice, by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t think that they wanted to incorporate Novorossiya into Russia proper – but I do think they wanted to make it impossible for Ukraine to join NATO and one way you do that is introduce a constitution into Ukraine whereby all the regions have to agree on international treaties and you make sure those eastern provinces are not going to agree. I think that would be the preferred outcome since that would tend to normalize relations with the EU fairly quickly. Plan B would be an Abkhazia kind of situation where a breakaway government will survive basically on Moscow’s largesse but is not fully incorporated into Russia. It may be recognized by Russia the way Abkhazia is, but it will remain what we call a frozen conflict. Many of the generals do not want to send boys to die in Ukraine, as many of them came to power after the Afghanistan debacle. That’s where the real political risk is for them – getting coffins coming back and having to deal with casualty sensitivity. It is pretty clear, at least based on the survey work that I did in 2013 in Ukraine, that there was not a strong affiliation with the Ukrainian state in Crimea. Within the east and south of Ukraine – people were divided among their loyalties. Many saw their primary partners during the Maidan protests last year as Russia rather than the EU, but that didn’t mean they didn’t want to be Ukrainians. And with opinions that divided, anyone who sends in their own military will end up shooting their own brothers and sisters, and that’s not a situation that even more belligerent Russian military types would be interested in creating.

Consequently, the Russians have tried very hard to keep their own active military involvement as limited as possible, while making sure the rebels are not routed. Russia has sent soldiers at various points and they have sent militias and irregulars across the border to fight, but they are very ambivalent and cagey about their level of military involvement.

SD: Would you say there is a lot of disagreement in the higher echelons about what to do in Ukraine?

Robertson: I imagine there is. There are potentially many different objectives for their Ukraine strategy. Some people might want the big military victory and the territory, and of course there are the Russian nationalist politicians who think the entire situation is great. And then you’ve got generals who don’t want to go anywhere near the place, who are wary of creating another Ukraine. And of course there are business interests as well.

SD: Probably Alexei Miller at Gazprom is concerned in his own way about this?

Robertson: Exactly, he probably wants this situation to go away. I imagine there are some pretty vigorous discussions going on behind closed doors.

SD: Recently there was talk of the reset policy, which has been an unequivocal failure, given the current state of Russia-US relations, where do you see the relationship progressing? Will sanctions remain in place indefinitely, more or less? Or is one side more to blame than the other? Can blame be given more to an American insistence on projecting its power through NATO, as you were saying? Or is the more traditional Western narrative of an over-aggressive Russia correct?

Robertson: Just as a thought experiment, what would be the reception in Congress if the President were to say that the time has come to loosen the sanctions on Russia? It’s difficult to imagine any American politician supporting that. As a general rule, it’s much easier to place sanctions than it is to lift them. There has to be a new act to take the initiative, and that’s just very hard to imagine at this point, short of substantial regime change in Moscow. My sense is that these sanctions will be in place for a long time. The US and Russia certainly do not have much of a relationship anymore – they’ve been extremely antagonistic for a long time now. There was a bit of a honeymoon during the Yeltsin days, and even into the early Putin days. He [Putin] was seen as a liberal and as a free market proponent, so he initially came in without any Western opposition. But there’s really not much of an economic relationship at stake between Russia and the United States. Russia has very deep connections with Western Europe, which is why the US has been so quick to slap on very strict sanctions and the Europeans have been much more reluctant, because there is a serious set of consequences. But there is little cost to us. And there is not much that Russians can do to get rid of the sanctions, short of getting down on their knees and begging forgiveness, which they are not going to do.

SD: Do you see the nonproliferation movement suffering as a result of this, or rearmament becoming a more prevalent topic in policy circles?

Robertson: Non-proliferation is something that’s of interest to both the Russians and the Americans, and when it comes to real interests, there’s more of an instinct to cooperate. Take for example the talks on Syria, both sides continue to participate. Non-proliferation is probably also something that they will continue to do. The vast majority of it is mostly technical work anyway. The Russians have been trying to be a broker with Iran, and will probably carry on doing so. So, where’s there is a really clear common interest, I believe there are things that both sides will be able to work together on, but in terms of deepening the relationship, broadening economic cooperation and finding new areas of (mutual) interest, it’s not very likely.

SD: It seems as though the sanctions are mostly just theater, a sort of political kabuki that distracts from real areas of interest?

Robertson: Well, attitudes have hardened quite a bit, especially on the US side. The American administration would really like to see some other form of government in Russia other than the one in power today. They are very serious about that, and the Russians know that they are. But again, where there are external, really important interests, like non-proliferation or Iran – that is always something that they’ll continue to work on together, regardless of who is in power. But, the idea that there’s going to be more treaties to reduce nuclear weapons on both sides after the current state of affairs is ridiculous. There will not be any new treaties for some time. Dividing up the Arctic, for example, which is one of the next big things on the agenda in the years to come is going to be a major cause of dispute. Overfly rights over the Arctic, for American airliners are probably not going to come back for a while.

SD: Does the Russian political establishment have any type of unified vision with regards to how the post-Soviet Russia should be? Is the Eurasian Economic Union a step towards this vision?

Robertson: They think of the EEU as a fringe alliance. There is not much appetite for actually reconstructing the Soviet state, certainly not ideologically, and not even as a single state, whether federal or otherwise. For example, re-integrating Kazakhstan as part of the Russian state is not a priority. They could have done that with Belarus in the 90’s, and thought better of it. However, what there is, I think, is a desire to see Russia return to its position as being a really big player on the global scene and the dominant player in their neighborhood, what they call the near abroad, namely the former Soviet states. A big part of that is economic cooperation through the Eurasian Union, there’s been a real desire, I think, in the Kremlin to try and turn to the former Soviet states and China to look for deeper economic partnership, and make Russia less dependent on cooperation with Western Europe. There is a general goal in that, but it is misleading to think of it as pan-Slavism or as rebuilding the Soviet Union. It’s not rebuilding the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union – they are attempting something new. And that’s really more about influence and economics and less about expanding the borders of the state. My guess is that there’s not much desire to expand the borders. Russia has turned around their population decline quite significantly and they do have real security issues in Siberia, where there’s a spillover migration of Han Chinese. Russia is using Siberia as a sort of internal colony for natural resource extraction. It’s a return of Russian influence, and to their proper stature in the world, in their eyes, but this is not accompanied by an expansion of the state.

SD: The US media often attributes a quote to Putin in which, in some form, he says that he views what happened in the 1990s as a great tragedy. There’s a snippet of a quote in which he says that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy and disaster in recent memory. What is the legacy of the 1990s and the events that occurred then – the German reunification, break up of Soviet states, etc., and does it vary from political elite to middle class, or urban vs. rural, in terms of attitudes?

Robertson: There are different perspectives on the ‘90s. If you read Masha Gessen’s writing, for example, she will tell you that the ‘90s were great, that there was a lot of freedom and that all of her friends got their apartments done up with new refrigerators, and essentially tries to debunk the idea that the 90’s were a tough time. There definitely were echelons, groups of society that did pretty well in the ‘90s, but they were small, and limited to Moscow and a few other places, but really not especially widespread, which had consequences on Russian politics. The ‘90s are much more broadly seen as being an economic disaster, as they had a 50% contraction in their GDP. Some people argue that those numbers are an exaggeration because the data are not great, etc., Even if we said it was exaggerated by 100%, and it was “only” a 25% reduction in their GDP. Well, that’s still the Great Depression. There’s no doubt that the economic crisis of the 1990s really affected the majority of the population.

This crisis occurred at the same time that the government introduced a new political system they were calling “democracy,” and one of the legacies of that is, for example when we do surveys in Russia, such as when we did surveys in Russia on the 2011-2012 election cycle, we asked questions that everyone always asks, like “how do you evaluate democracy in your country?,” “good, bad, indifferent?,” “do you think your country should be a democracy?,” etc. Our Russian partners suggested we ask “have you heard of the term ‘democracy?’” first, and if the respondent say yes, ask them if they know what it means. So we asked them, “have you heard of democracy?” and most everyone had heard of democracy. When we asked “do you know what it means?” most said they did not know what it meant. However, this is not because they’re dumb, but because they have been told they have a democracy, and what did they have? They had an enormous economic crisis, a huge increase in violence in their society, they had a small civil war in Chechnya, they had the emergence of a “gangster” class and then elections, which were rigged, both on the ballot box and on the TV and in the media. They were told that was democracy, which they also hear about from the West. Why would you expect people to have any idea of what democracy is or was?

SD: Do they blame the West for the problems of the 90s, for importing these cultural ideas that perhaps Russia wasn’t ready for?

Robertson: My sense is the answer is “no, not really.” There are pretty substantial constituencies who buy the Putin administration’s line that the West is the sponsor of revolutions around the former Soviet Union that the West was a sponsor of protests in Russia in 2011 and 2012 that the West bought and paid for the revolution in Ukraine, which we just saw. That’s a popular opinion. I would not say that it’s a majority opinion, but it’s a pretty common opinion, and certainly is among supporters of the administration. Buy I don’t know that they really blame the West for the 1990s. There are certainly people that think that from Gorbachev until now has been some elaborate Western plot, but there are always some people who will believe all sorts of things.

SD: In the West we make the assumption that the rest of the world shares the same, classically liberal background. And in culturally different areas such as Afghanistan we see populations scratch their heads over issues like election oversight committees and wonder “why should we have these things?.” They institute them, but there are cultural gaps. Do you think that there are other issues in play that make a liberal democracy unattractive or is it just the manner in which democracy is understood and practiced that complicates things, particularly in Russia?

Robertson: There is this term, “sovereign democracy,” that the administration uses and promoted for a while as a kind of “alternative” to a Western conception of democracy. I think there is a substantial proportion of the population who thinks Western democracy is not the right way, that Russia should find its own way.  What they understand as their own way I believe to be quite incoherent and vague. On the other hand, a majority of Russians think that a democracy is the best way to run the country, and a majority of them think that having free and fair elections is really important. Fewer of them think that democracy implies protection of minority rights. A lot of them think that democracy implies full employment and freer distribution of economic resources. Just as an aside, we did this thing in Kyrgyzstan, where we asked people what they think democracy should have, and the number one answer was “jobs for everyone,” that’s what democracy is. We asked people in Kyrgyzstan if Soviet communism was a bad idea, a good idea poorly implemented, or a good idea well implemented. 5% said they didn’t know, 5% said it was a bad idea, and the remaining 90% were divided between “good idea, not well done” and “good idea, well done,” which is explicable if you think about Kyrgyz history, what Kyrgyzstan was before the Soviet period and what it became afterwards, with the development, urbanization and modernization that took place. We were kind of surprised by what we heard.

SD: So, there’s a shared Soviet legacy, and it’s not viewed negatively?

Robertson: Not entirely negatively. Certainly, if you ask people in Russia to compare conditions from now and then, they’ll tell you the housing was better, the healthcare was better, that access to information was worse, and so on. People have a fairly sophisticated sense of what is actually better and what is actually worse, and what we tend to call nostalgia, which is a term that we use to dismiss a valid opinion, is in some cases the product of reasonably grown views of pluses and minuses in people’s lives. Though of course, sometimes, it is nostalgia – the “I was 20 then, now I’ m 40” kind of thing.”

SD: Will Western sanctions have the effect of tying Central Asia closer to Russia, and China as well, given the two are competing in a type of new Great Game for the energy resources currently up for grab? Will Russia’s foreign policy towards Central Asia change over the next several years?

Robertson: Closer relations between Russia and Central Asia seems to be what is happening right now, definitely with regards to the contracts Russia has signed with China. China, right now, is absolutely becoming more important in Kyrgyzstan than it ever was, and the same is true in Kazakhstan. My guess is that the tendency now – can Russia replace its relationship with Western Europe with one that is based on the Central Asia and China? The answer is no. There are not enough people, not enough money, nor enough market, so it doesn’t concern a replacement at all, but one would expect ties between Russia, China and Central Asia to get tighter as opportunities in the West get more and more narrow.

SD: Sino-Russian cooperation was never particularly good in the Soviet era, but now Beijing and Moscow are agreeing to energy deals – seemingly another one every other week – (laughter), but aside from being an opportunity for Moscow to diversify its customer base, is this a new chapter in their relationship?

Robertson: China and Russia share many interests. They are both non-democratic states that have seats on the UN Security Council. They are against having the US dictate domestic political developments in their countries, or in other countries. Both vote for similar causes in the UN Security Council, and their statements on issues like Syria and Libya are in essence identical, so they are clearly coordinating at least to some degree. It is also clear that they share some real common interests right now. China is incredibly energy hungry, and Russia has loads of energy, so that relationship is obvious. To that extent they are cooperating closely and well, but I do not think they take each other particularly seriously. China in particular believes itself to be the larger influence. While common interests do exist, I don’t think we’re going to enter into a new Sino-Russo golden age.

SD: Are there any good books or texts that you would recommend, for students and/or pundits?

Robertson: It always pays to be very broad and very skeptical in a context like this – take a lot of different views and don’t fully trust anyone in everything that you read. For serious followers of Russia, Johnson’s Russia List (JRL) is very valuable – gives transcripts in English of lots of Russian media, which is helpful when taken in moderation. Forbes Russia can sometimes be good. Gazeta.ru is also pretty balanced. Books are hard since a lot are sensationalist or full of stereotypes. Dan Treisman’s “The Return” is one of the best.

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