Quarterly Concerns

Mar 30, 2021

The Invisible Battle for Russia’s Future

There are homegrown democrats in Russia who do not automatically sympathize with the West. They rarely make the headlines, but they could be instrumental in leading the country to change from the top. 

An illustration of a bear (= Russia) reading a newspaper called True Democracy
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If asked to name the most important political protests that took place in Russia during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, most people would likely mention the Navalny protests of early 2021 and the demonstrations in Khabarovsk that lasted for the whole second half of 2020. Few would think of—or even remember—the small, mostly one-person demonstrations from July 2020, when a handful of people turned up to protest against the arrest of journalist Ivan Safronov, accused of betraying state secrets. Yet, as a phenomenon, these smallest of protests were in some ways the most curious ones—and this has to do with who turned up and why.

The Navalny protests showed the impressive geographical reach of a semi-organized opposition—boosted on this occasion by a general sense of dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the country, and moral outrage over Navalny’s arrest, the glaring unfairness of which went beyond many people’s threshold of indifference. The Khabarovsk protests may have testified of the Kremlin’s inability to understand the thinking and emotions in far-away corners of the country, or to address their concerns.

The “Kremlin Pool” Protests

But the few people who turned up to defend Safronov were not die-hard opposition supporters, nor alienated souls from the provinces. Instead, they came from the Kremlin—or, well, almost. The bulk of those who turned up were Moscow-based journalists, often former colleagues of Safronov—people who work not just for opposition media, but also and mostly for state-approved or state-owned media channels. And yes, among them were journalists from what is called the “Kremlin pool,” i.e., those who have been cleared to cover the work of and travel with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In other words, they are quite unlikely to be subversives or revolutionaries.

One of those who got arrested after her single-person protest was Elena Chernenko, the diplomatic correspondent of the Kommersant daily newspaper, and as such a regular presence at the Russian Foreign Ministry. This is how she described her motivation to protest in an e-mail to me:

“I worked with Ivan for many years. We wrote a few hundred stories together and I know him as a sincere person who would give his last bit to help others. I would not in my wildest dreams believe him to be cooperating with foreign intelligence. So when I heard what happened I decided that I needed to do something. I painted a poster calling for openness and fairness and chose the first place that looked close enough to the FSB’s (Russia‘s counter-intelligence service) main building to me. That was the first time I had to go to a police station and the first time that I found myself in a court afterwards.”

A New Phenomenon

In principle, one could probably dismiss the whole episode as a small private matter of no consequence or wider significance: colleagues defending a colleague, so far without success (Safronov remains in jail) and no wider resonance in Russian society. Except this is not the first such occasion: in 2019, the journalist Ivan Golunov was arrested, with drugs planted on him by police officers. His arrest prompted similar, if somewhat bigger, demonstrations of solidarity, which resulted in his release, and also, highly unusually, in the trial of the police officers who had tried to frame him.

Even more importantly, it is not actually the protest itself that matters here. By the parameters of protests these one-person demonstrations by (semi-)insiders will always be small and may now stop altogether as the screws are being tightened once again and the Kremlin’s tolerance for dissent is diminishing even further. But what is important, and unlikely to disappear, is the wider phenomenon that made these protests possible, the iceberg of what the protests were but a small fleetingly visible tip: namely, the emergence in Russia of a growing and influential social layer of people who wish to have rules, laws, and ethical standards; who, furthermore, apply the same standards to themselves, but who are not revolutionaries; who often (professionally) collaborate with the powers that be; and who do not necessarily have a positive view of the West or Western democracy.

These people are most often to be found in professional circles; they are often of prime working age; and their demand for rules and laws has grown out of professional standards and personal ethics. There is hardly any sociological research about them, but an interested Russia-watcher is likely to spot them in many walks of life.

Reporting Facts

Journalists are maybe the least surprising representatives of this breed. Russian laws are harsh as well as vague, which means that the simple reporting of publicly determinable facts can under some circumstances get one arrested on charges that are secret, ostensibly for the sake of state security. That leaves journalists—quite regardless of their personal political views—with an unenviable choice: to change profession, to redefine their profession, or to try to find a way to demand a more lawful environment. The latter may but does not have to include participation in public protests.

But the same can be observed in many other walks of life, for instance, among foreign policy professionals who can be most astutely critical of Russia’s domestic politics, but for whom this does not automatically translate into sympathy or even respect toward the West. “There are many policies I disagree with—the idea of a sovereign Internet, the arrest of [theater director Kirill] Serebryannikov, and so forth—but I do not want to emigrate, and I do not think that Russia is [part of the] West,” one foreign policy expert described their position to me.

Maybe most astonishingly, the tendency can be observed even among the law enforcement services and security forces. London-based Russia expert Mark Galeotti, who keeps an eye on those circles, has repeatedly described cases of people in uniform choosing to serve the letter of the law, as opposed to the political order of the day. “Members of the security forces are increasingly willing to express criticisms of the government and their own conditions,” he writes, noting that in the future the government may have to fight for “the hearts and minds of his praetorians.”

The first instinct of a superficial Western observer might be to applaud the phenomenon and interpret it as a sign that Russia is finally ready to “shake off Putin’s dictatorship,” and return to the path of democracy that was taken by Central Europe, but that Russia abandoned at some point during the 1990s. That, however, would be misleading. The demand for rules and standards is in many important ways quite different from the pro-democracy movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Anti-Western Democrats

The Soviet democrats did not know the West, but admired it unconditionally. Today’s agents of democracy are the opposite—they know the West better, but take a bleaker view of it. Today’s striving for rules and standards is not rooted in an admiration of the Western model, but in real-life needs at home. Its agents are less likely to be from among the intelligentsia and more likely to be from among the professional class or medium-sized business owners. They are driven not by liberal ideology, but by their personal conscience and professional ethics. When it comes to expressing their position, public protest is not their first choice for doing so, but last. They are suspicious of ideology and organized movements, suspecting hidden beneficiaries behind both; but they want to be able to look at themselves in the mirror, and to make the world—or at least Russia—a better place, if in small ways.

At times, some anti-Western statements by pro-democracy Russians may also include a dose of political positioning. “It is disillusionment with the West as well as an attempt to accommodate oneself in Russia’s domestic political system,” the Paris-based analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, who coined the term “anti-Western liberals” in reference to the recent statements by the theater director Konstantin Bogomolov and politician Grigory Yavlinsky, explained to me in recent e-mails. “The problem is that to think liberally, in Russia that automatically means to be in favor of the West. But that is dangerous—you identify with the enemy and share his values.”

That way, for some people, expressing liberal views in an anti-Western fashion becomes a means of legitimizing them; they sacrifice the “Western” aspect in order to hang on to the “liberal” aspect that is more important to them personally. But it would be wrong to assume that such opportunistic use of anti-Western rhetoric automatically makes it less genuine. “It is a means of adaptation as well as a natural process that is linked to growing alienation from the West, mutual incomprehension,” stresses Stanovaya. “People want to preserve their identity, progressiveness, initiative, freedom … but the West for them is not an example of liberalism, but an example of its death.”

Interestingly, in its attempt to secure its future, the Putinist system is also trying to bind in the professional class, rather than just loyalists or children of today’s cluster of power holders. But in that vision, the future Russia will be administered by technocrats whose professionalism is brilliant, their loyalty unquestionable, but their positions adjustable according to the orders of the day. “The defining characteristic of a member of Putin’s successor generation is a resemblance to Austrian writer Robert Musil’s ‘man without qualities,’” is how Ivan Krastev and Gleb Pavlovsky have described the emerging administrative class. “He or she is best described as an expert in logistics with no identifiable political convictions or loyalty to a constituency. Under its emerging system, Russia would be a country governed by McKinsey consultants who are loyal to Putin and will preserve his policies once he is gone.” Thus, according to this counter-theory, people’s professional standards will not translate into politically meaningful demands, but rather, political loyalty will be the key for professional fulfillment; the first condition that gives access to professional jobs to start with.

Keeping an Open Mind

Which way it goes may be one of the big questions for Russia’s future: will people’s personal and professional standards end up pressuring the regime to reform, or will the regime manage to recruit enough loyalists to fill the ranks and ignore such demands? And if we assume that the more suppressive the regime gets, the more it needs to rely on loyalists, the thinner and poorer its professional base becomes, and the more fragile its future looks—then where is the point of no return or the tipping point? What does it look like?

These questions are being debated in Russia itself, and the West cannot refrain from pondering them either. However, the actual takeaway for Western policymakers should be a different and a simpler one. We should accept that it is hard for us to democratize Russia; and if Russia one day democratizes, then it will not be along the lines of the political processes that took place in Central Europe in the 1990s.

It will be something different: homegrown democratization that does not necessarily take the West as an unconditional model. This means that the West should give up its (sometimes subconscious) hopes of seeing Russia set the clock back to 1991 and starting it all over, with “proper democrats” in charge. It should stop using the words “pro-Western,” “democrat,” and “liberal” as synonyms in the Russia context, as not all Russian democrats are necessarily liberal, and not all liberals or democrats are inevitably pro-Western. Instead, it should keep an open mind to those curious indigenous sprouts of democracy that spring from the ugly political soil of today’s Russia.

Also, Russia is a top-down country. Any meaningful attempts for democratization or liberalization have always started from above and then made use of the pressure from below. For Andrey Sakharov to transform from a moral icon into a political figure needed a Mikhail Gorbachev who released him from his exile in Gorky and allowed him to be elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies. Likewise, to truly unlock his potential as a policy-maker (not just a regime-breaker), Alexey Navalny might need a change in the Kremlin that comes from inside the system. In making Russia change, both the “systemic” and “non-systemic” liberals will have a role. The role for the West is to offer respectful but politely distant support to both—as opposed to assuming that micromanaging democratic change in Russia is the West’s duty that it failed to discharge in the 1990s, and hence needs to try again.

Kadri Liik is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), focusing on Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Baltic region.