Marie Mendras: “Orange Revolutions Are Possible Anywhere”
A renowned French researcher of the post-Soviet political space shares her ideas about the probability of repressions in Russia, prospects of new revolutions, and the causes of future misunderstandings between Kyiv and Moscow.
Marie Mendras is one of the most conspicuous figures of French political science today. A professor at two European institutions, the Paris Institute of Political Studies and the London School of Economics, Mendras is one of the few influential French scholars who can afford to make an open and sharp criticism of the Kremlin. Marie Mendras is the author of many books, among them "Russian politic: paradox of a weak state", "Russia and Ukraine on crossroad of democracy", "The hidden side of power", "How Russia is functionning" and others. An expert on Russian foreign policy, Mendras is known for her benevolent interest in the events of the Orange Revolution.
“PUTIN IS DOING HIS BEST TO PREVENT DEMOCRATIC DEVELOPMENTS IN NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES”
U.W.: Marie Mendras, do you think Russia’s foreign policy towards its closest neighbours is going to change?
Russia has its own policy towards each of the former Soviet states. Putin’s attitudes towards Lukashenka, Saakashvili, Yanukovych, or Aliev are incomparable. They have different contexts and different goals. However, there is a certain obvious tendency. For years, Putin has been doing his best to prevent democratic developments in neighbouring countries. The reason is still the same one that we observed during the Revolution of Roses in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine: an authoritarian regime is well aware of the danger posed by the truly democratic, open, pluralistic governance models established in countries like Ukraine and Georgia, where efforts are made to fight corruption and consolidate relationships with the EU. It is not a matter of security. It is a threat to the very nature of Russia’s regime. It would be very hard to maintain a non-democratic system in the Russian Federation if its neighbours followed a different path. However, today Putin need not fluster. The evolution of Ukraine and Belarus suits his tastes perfectly well.
U.W.: The incumbent Ukrainian government had hoped to get concessions from Moscow in the form of reduced gas prices. However, multiple displays of reverence seem to have had little effect on the Kremlin, if any.
The problems of economic and commercial conflicts are a different story. But I agree with your analysis: Putin has never had a liking for Yanukovych, and he has never considered him nor Lukashenka to be allies. Relations are bound to remain complicated.
U.W.: We frequently hear that repressions against opposition leaders in Russia are just a matter of time. Putin is hardly likely to forgive anyone who campaigns against him. Do you agree with such forecasts?
No, I see the situation differently. I visited Russia before, during, and after the presidential election. It was very important to stay there long enough to feel the real sentiment. On Putin’s part there was strong competitiveness and a craving for revenge. This man had made a lot of mistakes, but he had not expected anything like the events of December. Putin felt humiliated, so he told himself to save his strength and come to power in March at any cost. He broke through by force, without making any scruples about the methods. This victory has brought both a feeling of great relief and anxiety, since the situation is obviously graver than in previous years. In my view, if the Russian president longed for revenge against certain people, this is enough to stop him from running the risk. Putin is a man who does not like unnecessary risks. He is a calculating man. Of course, he has his own emotions. We know his ability to hate from the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But when he finds himself in a vulnerable position, he can hold himself at bay. That is why I do not see rapid repressions coming. Of course, if the context changes, policy can change, too. Still, I would say that today Putin is not looking for a new war.
“THE KREMLIN CHALLENGED PROKHOROV TO A BOWLING MATCH”
U.W.: What is your opinion of Russia’s new opposition? Those rather unexpected leaders who became popular during the winter protest actions?
Your question is both interesting and difficult. We saw completely different individuals in city squares. Some of them have spent years in opposition, censuring authoritarianism and corruption, and trying every trick in the book to open the doors to Russian government institutions, locked and sealed by Putins’s team. Suffice it to recollect how Nemtsov ran for mayor of Sochi a few years ago. Thus, on the one hand, there are oppositionists who come from the heart of Russia’s political system. They are former government ministers and MPs who were elected or appointed at the end of the 1990s or in early 2000s. For instance, Mikhail Kasianov, former Prime Minister in Putin’s government until 2003. Today he is in stark opposition to the president. For many reasons—one of them a total lack of access to TV air time—these politicians have failed to gain broad popularity in society.
On the other hand, we have a mixed new opposition, made from people like Navalny, Udaltsov, or Chirikova. All of them come from very different walks of life, yet all began to build their struggle on social themes. Aleksei Navalny, for one, is a lawyer. He acts mostly through his blog, using new communication technologies. Yevgenia Chirikova is an ecologist and leader of the Khimki Forest defenders. Sergei Udaltsov is attempting to promote left-wing ideas without following in the footsteps of the communist party, which collaborates with the Russian regime. That is, both systemic and non-systemic opposition has arisen.
U.W.: What do you think of Prokhorov? Does he have a political future?
Prokhorov is no oppositionist. Unlike all the rest, he is not a politician who confronts Putin. Mikhail Prokhorov is a young and very successful businessman. Frankly, I do not know how and in what ways he has come by his fortune. He owes his image as a pseudo-reformer and pseudo-intellectual to his sister Irina, who is well known in Moscow. She is a publisher and a true intellectual. But Mikhail is somewhat different. And even if his sister supports and advises him, there are a lot of questions concerning this candidate’s personality. It is difficult to understand why he joined the political game last summer, why he needs all these problems, and the Right Cause party. It is totally unclear why he made the last-minute decision to lead this petty party, founded on permission from the Kremlin in order to create the appearance of pluralism. And suddenly he gets expelled from the party, during the congress… What unbelievable humiliation! Everyone turns their back on him, but in a couple of weeks he gets an opportunity to run for president. In Russia, it is impossible to become a candidate without the consent of the regime. Thus, the regime gave him a gift, then took it away, then another – and let him glean less than 8%. Although, according to voters’ associations, such as Golos, The Voters’ League, and others, he might easily have gained a total of 12-13%, and as much as 20% in bigger cities.
We are witnessing a curious phenomenon: a person from business circles, rather than an oppositionist, decides to take up politics – apparently, in line with some personal, private motives. For me it is very hard to understand. Why would a man like Prokhorov, after what happened to Khodorkovsky (who had never been engaged in politics, but was accused of a mere wish to become engaged in it), become interested in politics, and even dare contend with the likes of Putin? I spoke with many people in Moscow who know him personally, but I failed to find an answer. In Russia you cannot become an opposition politician and still remain part of Putin’s establishment. You cannot simultaneously be within and outside the system. Ryzhkov and Nemtsov gave it a try, but did not succeed. We saw Yavlinsky fail to even get registered as a presidential candidate. Because Putin and his men feared the appeal of Yavlinsky’s ‘social-democratic’ candidacy, they apparently replaced him with Prokhorov. I can only observe facts. I have my doubts. I was watching Prokhorov and his sister when the results were announced: both looked upset about the unexpectedly humble result. In moments like these, it is clear to see: these people are hostages of the government machine.
U.W. : Do you think that his candidacy was an imitation of pluralism organised by the Kremlin ?
He was not the only one doing so. Prokhorov did not have a political party of his own—he was nominated without any party’s support. Mironov was a nominee from A Just Russia, but no one can take this seriously. Zhirinovsky is a hackneyed story. And Ziuganov, he is a special case. His new Communist party, after the temporary ban of 1991-92, keeps offering the same leader, who has no hopes of being elected, yet consolidates the powerful potential of the protest electorate. Ziuganov has always come in handy for Putin’s regime. He officially won 17%, although it was probably more like 20%.
I am worried that publicinstitutions have been hollowed out by Vladimir Putin, who will continue to rule with his own clan, as I analyse in my latest book, “Russian politics, the paradox of a weak state”. Even if half of the Russians who came to the polls did support him on their own accord, this does not change the essence of the criticism concerning both the partisanship and foulness of the election campaign and the vote count. When people say that if Putin had not gained the official 64%, he would surely have gleaned 53%, which is enough to make him president, this is not the right question. The right question is why Putin preferred a dishonest victory with 63,6% to an honest victory with perhaps 52% in the first round. I think this is the most important lesson of the Russian elections.
“THERE IS NO COUNTRY WHOSE PEOPLE IS TOTALLY INCAPABLE OF RESISTANCE.”
U.W.: What do you think about Aleksei Navalny’s political prospects? His courage is impressive, but the radical, aggressive nationalism with which he calls to “stop feeding the Caucasus” is repulsive, isn’t it?
Navalny is doubtlessly a brave man, really indispensable for Russia’s true political life. Today it is difficult for me to understand what he really thinks. But I can state that Navalny has managed to lead a movement, a political and social resistance. Together with others very different from him, he was able to gather more than 100,000 protesters in Moscow’s squares several times in a row. This is quite an accomplishment in an authoritarian regime where the police can repress demonstrators. “Now, as far as nationalism is concerned – yes, this is a problem, indeed. In particular, it is also a problem for us Western Europeans. We already know that you cannot learn the rules of a peaceful, democratic, tolerant social life via radical, nationalistic ideology and slogans.
Rebuilding public institutions (Parliament, courts, accountable government) is the most urgent task. This is what makes parliamentary and presidential elections so important: elections lie at the foundation of any law-governed state and any democratic regime. The fact that people were able to take to the streets and tried to fight for their right to free, democratic elections is a huge step forward. Secondly, on 4 March Russians realized that free elections are still unattainable. This is like an unassailable fortress, with the people outside, and Putin’s clan defending the citadel from the inside. But no country whose people yearn for freedom and democracy is totally incapable of resistance. Everything depends on the degree of media control and repression in the hands of the leadership.
The December events in Russia happened because the police were not ordered to repress the protest massively. People said out loud that Putin and his team are dishonest, corrupt individuals stealing their votes. Incidentally, this why Kuchma fell in 2004. The symptoms are the same, and the systemic causes are similar. The leaders are stealing not only money, but also voters’ voices. Suddenly, people came to realize that politics is important, and that you cannot blindly trust government. In order to overcome economic corruption, you must fight for your rights by political action.