Protests Moscow August 2019
August 2019 protest in Moscow.

Timothy Colton on Political Succession in Russia

October 31, 2019
Ekaterina Karpenko and Mariam Dadashyan

Timothy Colton is a leading expert on Russian and Eurasian government and politics. He teaches at Harvard University, where he is the Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies, and formerly served as director of the university's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Dr. Colton is also a fellow of the prestigious American Academy for Arts and Sciences. You can find more of Dr. Colton’s views on Russia in our “Competing Views” series.

Interviewers: In your opinion, how have Russia’s elites changed since the days of Boris Yeltsin to today?

Timothy Colton: Well, it’s been a much more settled situation, and people have become socialized by or accustomed to a certain kind of stability, which was not present in the 1990s—or, for that matter, in the late Soviet period, when everyone knew that there had to be some kind of change. The change happened; it was partly good, partly, of course, catastrophic as well, and under [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, things have settled down. This is not necessarily his personal doing. To some extent it is, but I think it’s partly the passage of time, a successful transfer of power in 1999-2000, and you now have members of the business, political, cultural elite and others who have been more or less fully formed as individuals in post-Soviet days. And Putin himself is a product of a different historical time. Of course, he joined the Communist Party after all, apparently, in 1975; it might have been 1974, which was 45 years ago. But then he changed. The world changed and he adapted. But now these new people have not experienced all of that, so I think their expectations are different, and in certain ways they expect steady improvement for Russia; steady improvement for them, and I think that there’s a problem that’s going to be in that area, because the pace of progress has slowed down to such a degree.

I: Do you mean improvement in economic conditions or in the political area?

TC: Well, I think that initially it was mostly about economics. Since there had been so much political turmoil, people, I think, were prepared to set the politics aside and try and get significant economic growth, which occurred; again, it was partly just the passage of time, because the reforms of the 1990s, although they were very painful—more painful than they needed to be—nonetheless, they eventually did start to deliver good outcomes in terms of market coordination and private property and all of those incentives. However, you can’t put politics off forever. Russia is a modern country, a high middle-income country, and it has to be governed with the consent of the people, ultimately. And so Putin has managed to do this in his own way, and politics, it seems, is now moving closer to the center of people’s agendas—and not just the elite, also the mass of the population, I think, is now expecting change … for its own sake. So, I think the political situation has become quite stagnant, and it’s too centralized and all that, but also, in order to promote economic and social development. And I think it has become, to some extent, a block for progress in other areas.

I: Recently in Russia, there’s been discussion about the necessity of changing the constitution. Not its main provisions, but some other provisions, including in light of people’s requests for justice. In your opinion, does Russia need to move toward becoming a parliamentary republic?

TC: I’m aware of that discussion and it’s not entirely new, because this topic came up in the 1990s; we know that the presidential administration briefly investigated amending the constitution to make Russia a parliamentary republic in 2003-2004 before the end of Putin’s first term, when they rejected the idea. So there’s now some discussion of this; you see members of the establishment like [Valery] Zorkin from the Constitutional Court and [Vyacheslav] Volodin, the Speaker of the Duma, raising the issue for the first time. They end up coming to very cautious conclusions; that is, they don’t advocate changing the presidential system for a parliamentary one. But the fact that now people are talking about it in the open, I think, is rather new, and Putin himself is largely silent on the subject. [Russian Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev has more than once opposed any significant change. I myself doubt it’s going to happen. I think Russia has a monarchical tradition, and the idea that a strong president keeps things together, keeps the country together. Catherine the Great, remember, talked about how autocracy was needed to govern such a huge territory. So, I’m not saying that Russia’s president needs to be Catherine the Great or Ivan the Terrible or anything like that, but having a lot of powers, more than he might have in Western countries, is probably one that I think will prevail. But, of course, it’s possible. There’s always the possibility of a completely opportunistic change which would allow the current president, Mr. Putin, to remain the national leader for even longer by becoming Prime Minister—which happened before. This seems far-fetched to me; I just don’t believe that Putin would be prepared to do this. For one thing, I think he would be afraid he would look manipulative, and it would make him look like a power-seeker who has no respect for institutions. I don’t think that would be his style.

I: In light of the transition of power, there’s been discussion of different options, like the creation of a state council, Putin as a national leader, like Nazarbayev became in Kazakhstan. Do you have any fears that a transition of power, whatever it may look like, will be turbulent in Russia? Everyone is afraid of this. After the ‘90s, everyone is afraid of sudden changes.

TC: Well, yes, and the 1990s itself has sort of been turned into a mythical period where everything was bad, even though not everything was bad in the 1990s, in my view. Putin himself was politically formed in the 1990s, and the 1990s made him a political figure. Before then, he was an officer in the KGB, as everyone knows. But still, I do accept the point that there is no great desire for the return to the level of disorganization you had in the 1990s. So, therefore, I think that it follows from that that there is every reason to be concerned about what’s going to happen, because it’s been put off, put off, put off. And the longer you wait to do something difficult, the more difficult it becomes. And we also have in this case the particular circumstance that there was this maneuver a decade ago which we all remember where Putin actually seemed to be giving a lot of thought to this question, just to judge from his public speech, but also at the Valdai Discussion Club: from the very beginning, these questions were asked, and he usually gave fairly thoughtful answers to the effect that if you want to have a strong system, a coherent system, it can’t all be on the shoulders of one person, because that person will—the implicit point is that that person will eventually have to change. And so, he started a certain process, but then it didn’t go that far, and he remained more or less in charge in this other role. So, whether that was a failed experiment we don’t really know; he hasn’t told us exactly what was going on. It’s certainly possible that he intended to leave and that he decided to remain in this other office for a little while to sort of watch over things, and then he would depart. But as we know, that didn’t happen. So, there’s either some personal reluctance on his part, which would perhaps eventually lead him to serve in office until the end of his life, or there’s an institutional defect that makes it hard to do this. But in any case, it is a problem. And he said in 2008—he gave a statement, I think at a press conference—that he was not someone who needed to hold office until he was put in his coffin, and I think he probably believed that. But here he is a decade later, and he’s no closer to actually leaving. But it’s not just a problem for one individual; it’s a problem for the country: you have to have an orderly succession: whether you have a move toward a more open and competitive democratic arrangement or, maybe, go in the opposite direction—that’s up to Russia in the end. But nonetheless, it has to be clear under what political arrangements things are going forward, and I think right now it’s very unclear. He’s got five years left, so that’s a long time, and he’s said that when asked about this. But five years is not that long, and between now and then a lot of other things are going to happen, including parliamentary elections, which are only two years from now. So, if those elections turn out not to go well for pro-Kremlin forces, then all of a sudden, two or three years before 2024, he’s got a really big problem on his hands, and if he’s not thinking about that, I guess he probably should be. To go back to the electorate after a fair amount of evidence that many Russians are getting impatient with the same government, the same program, the same everything. This seems to me not very wise. So, if he’s going to have a new look with which to face the country in 2021, then he has to be getting ready to do that. And so that could mean that next year is a year of some political change in Russia.

I: Well, in some regions there were gubernatorial elections, where members of opposition parties were elected and nothing happened. I mean, there was no revolution.

TC: Well, perhaps, and the governors, I think, were in most cases new people whom he had selected, and then they faced election. Yes, they actually managed these elections somewhat better than was the case a year or two years ago, when some United Russia candidates actually lost reelection. But nonetheless, I think it’s going to be somewhat of a challenge, and his own popularity remains very high, as you know. It’s not as high as it was in 2015-2016, but still, by anyone’s comparative standards, it’s very high. But we also know from many sociological surveys that Russians’ collective sense of whether the country is going in the right direction has really returned to pre-Crimea levels. So, the Crimea bounce is over, for sure, and we’re back to where we were before, in which case currently, just about the same number of Russians think that the country is going in the wrong direction as think it’s going in the right direction. Whereas two or three years ago, it was very different. And that’s normal, actually, for the Putin period, and it means you can’t just stand still and think time is on your side: actually, the trend is toward a more critical set of relations. We also have to think about who some of the other players are. The political party system is quite weak in Russia, even though most of the restrictions on entry into the electoral marketplace were done away with at the end of Medvedev’s term. So, they did change things, but there’s not much of a result. The parties that were involved in these regional elections were largely the same old set of parties from the 1990s, and they don’t inspire a lot of confidence in terms of change. So, over the next several years, I think it’s also important to watch what’s going on in terms of political organization.

I: Is the recent protest activity, including in Moscow, capable of somehow speeding up the transformation of the political system? Including on the lowest level.

TC: Well, this wave of protests has been very interesting to watch, and it was inspired in Moscow as you said, by political issues, not so much by economic ones. In so many ways, life in Moscow has improved since the Bolotnaya protests of 2011-12. Things have gotten so much better in terms of normal big city life. The improvements of transportation and housing and all the rest. It’s more and more like a very handsome European city. So, in a way, many Muscovites have benefitted from this period, but politically, they really aren’t included in much by way of decision-making, and the systematic denial of registration to opposition candidates was very obvious and didn’t occur only in Moscow. And it seems to me that is a sign of weakness rather than of strength: if the leaders are afraid of opposition candidates who in many cases had no chance of winning anyway, then you have to ask what they’re thinking. It’s not a way to strengthen the system, it seems to me.

I: In your opinion, on what grounds would a thaw in relations with the U.S. be possible and is it possible? Considering, for example, the presidential election in the U.S., which will take place next year.

TC: Well, right now, the American political system is simply paralyzed by the turmoil surrounding President [Donald] Trump, and there’s now also, as your audience knows, going to be an impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives, and it could very well end up in a trial in the Senate. So, this will be a period of great uncertainty, and I don’t think that anything significant is going to change in American foreign policy for the moment, unless Trump can do it personally. So it’s possible, for example, that he will continue to move towards an exit from Afghanistan, which is something that he wants. He can do that himself. But if it requires Congress to cooperate, then I would not expect anything much to improve. Eventually, we’ll get over this period. What are the prospects for improvements in relations with the United States? I think probably that relations with Europe are going to respond more quickly, and a lot of it depends on finding some kind of compromise, some kind of way out of the Ukraine crisis—by which I mean not so much Crimea, which I think will end up, as we say, on the back burner, but the Donbas. If something can be found to implement the Minsk Agreements or find some other formula, then I think the Europeans would be eager to improve relations. Very quickly, I would think, because they have their own problems as well. And I think the president of France, Macron, has been very clear on this point. We’re going to have a new government in Germany, and I think that the easing of the sanctions—and maybe even eventually their elimination—would be quite feasible, and fairly quickly. I think that it would be slower in the United States, because Congress is involved.

I: And Washington is enacting new sanctions.

TC: They’re mostly related to small numbers of individuals. In this case, the latest ones were something about Syria. But I think that the big issue is really not Syria, as far as the relationship goes—it’s Ukraine. And there’s a new Ukrainian leader who seems interested, at least, in exploring a new approach. So, I think a lot of it hinges on that over the next couple of years.

I: We see, for example, that Russian television peddles of an image of an external enemy. Is this connected, in your opinion, with efforts to distract [Russians] from internal problems? Or perhaps that things really aren’t as bad here as our Western colleagues describe?

TC: Before 2012 that, we did have the famous “reset” between [Barack] Obama and Medvedev, which had its limits, but nonetheless it was a period of hope, and some good things were accomplished: a new arms control treaty, many more channels were opened up for communication, the presidential commissions and things like that. So, all this was an improvement, and then comes a series of events, including the political events here in 2011-12, Putin’s return to office, the position of sanctions related to Russian internal events, and then it sort of went from there.

Although I must say, I do remember that since the Valdai meeting occurs once a year, and you’re here for a whole week talking to people, I remember the Valdai meeting in 2013. So, Putin is already back, and there’d been a political tightening of the screws a little bit here, but relations with the West at that point seemed to be at a moment of easing. But it was before the Ukraine crisis. We met in the Valdai Club in October 2013; in November 2013, the process starts that leads to the overthrow of Yanukovych. And then things really got dramatically worse, and this image of the enemy and so forth sinks in, I would say, on both sides. If you look at sociological polling, you see roughly the same trend in both countries. Americans now consider Russia to be the most hostile foreign country. This may actually change in favor of China, if it hasn’t already. But Russia was held in relatively high regard by ordinary Americans for a number of years. Certainly in the ‘90s, right through Putin’s first couple of terms, and then the enemy image returns.

So it reflects people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world, but it’s also to some extent the effect of propaganda of various kinds. I don’t know if there’s any denying that. And in your country, perhaps, more than in our country, because our media are not as centrally directed as your traditional media are. And the Internet also plays a certain role in this. But … yes, the image of the enemy is there.

On the other hand, relations at the human level are not bad at all. I don’t think that when Russians and Americans meet that they can’t communicate. I think they can communicate. And then we have the Internet that crosses all of these boundaries and which presents people with things that are much more complex than simply “there’s a bad enemy out there.” Even if you agree that the United States has bad intentions vis-à-vis Russia right now—and that’s at least partly true, as far as our government is concerned—there’s a lot more to America than that. And in so many ways, Russia has become integrated into international systems of every kind. Just as one example, the citizens of Russia, at one point in the 1990s, I think the total number of foreign tourist trips that Russians took was something like 10 million a year. That’s all. By 2015 or ‘16, it was more than 34 million. It went down because of the devaluation of the ruble in 2014-15, but now it’s back up again. So, Russians are experiencing the world directly; when one third of the population is traveling, whether it’s to Western Europe or Turkey or Egypt or all the places that Russians go now, it’s a different age in many ways than what your parents and grandparents lived with.

I: In your university, have you noticed increased interest in Russian studies? Or the opposite, a decrease?

TC: I would say right now there is an increase in interest. There was a decline for quite a number of years, but I would say right now, the lecture course that I teach on Russia has a larger enrollment than it had last year and a considerably larger enrollment than it might have had five years ago. So, I think interest actually has increased.

This interview originally appeared in Russian on on Oct. 14, 2019. retains exclusive rights to the interview. The headline and lead text is written by Russia Matters.

Photo by Sergey Leschina shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.