Igor Chubais: It’s naive to expect changes in Russia through elections

13 December 2012, 15:45

Philosopher Igor Chubais is the brother of Anatoly Chubais, the spin doctor behind Russian privatization who has held key positions in Russia over the last 20 years. In contrast to him, Igor Chubais chose scholarly activity, heading up the first Russian Studies faculty in Russia, at the Institute of Social Sciences. He feels that the experience of the rise and collapse of the totalitarian Soviet Union, calling it “a state doomed to destruction from the very start”, is the current problem, which has yet to be understood by society. In his interview with The Ukrainian Week, he talks about the direction in which Russia is moving, how many years the ruling regime has left and relations between official Kyiv and Moscow.

UW: Clearly, the falsifications in the last parliamentary election in Ukraine will complicate dialogue between Kyiv and the European Union as well as the USA even further, which could, in turn, thrust the Yanukovych regime into the arms of the Russian government. How likely is such a scenario?

I can only express my personal view on this: taking the current governments in Moscow and Kyiv into consideration, a significant improvement in relations is impossible. The entire 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union have proved that the Kremlin has been unable to create stable intergovernmental unions.

Until the internal administrative structure in Russia changes, it’s futile to count on any international support or influential international alliances.

Several years ago, when working on the radio, I glanced at the agenda of the United Russia Party, which stated that it sees one of its tasks as “the creation of a circle of friendly countries around the Russian Federation.” Over this period, Russia has not gained a single friend from among its neighbours, and has even lost those that were its friends.

However, the influence of the Russian political system on all neighbouring countries will continue. It will be ever more difficult for its government to save itself without having some kind of an “echo” from the Baltic States, Central Asia and Ukraine. But this system is artificial and ineffective.

UW: Is it possible to compare the current Russian propaganda machine to that of the Soviet Union?

In the last years of its existence, the Soviet propaganda machine was counter-productive: when it said on TV that the West was a jungle of capitalism and pure hell, many were convinced that it was actually paradise. Some people have the same view today, although in truth, there are also many problems in the West.

Today, the Russian mass media has transformed into a means of mass propaganda, a “zombie-maker”, which, unfortunately, has a very strong impact on public opinion. However even here, the effect is not always the one that is planned: many people have already developed a self-defence reaction to what they are told from the TV screen.

In a normal country, the government is responsible for everything going on. However in Russia, neither Putin, nor Medvedev is guilty: they blame everything on Yushchenko, Saakashvili, the State Department, etc. The Russian government constantly looks for a fall-guy, which does not sit well with many people though. In fact, the Russian mass media does not present any country as a friend, with the occasional exception of China. However this system is far too foreign to really affect the Russians. No sooner does something happen that is radically contrary to the Russian propaganda line, or vice-versa, ideally fits in with it, than it’s exaggerated to the maximum extent. This is the same method used by the entire propaganda machine when issues pertain to Ukraine or the Baltic States.

UW: You have often pointed out the lack of efficiency in the current state administration system of Russia. After the last presidential election, there was a popular cartoon of Putin portrayed as Leonid Brezhnev, entitled “2024” (meaning that Putin would rule until then). In your opinion, is it possible to prevent this?

Right now, all that the thinking part of our society is talking about, is when will this system, which is destroying Russia, be brought down. There is one more question – how. It’s very hard to make a forecast, because these processes are nonlinear and depend on several factors. Personally, I take the forecast made by a foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, economist Vladimir Kvint, very seriously. In his time, Henry Kissinger won this person over to the USA. Kvint asserts that the current regime will lead Russia to an economic collapse in 2017. In his view, 2017 will be the last year for the Russian economy in its current form, and will be followed by irreversible processes. The economy is currently entirely based on the export of fossil fuels, while the extraction of oil and gas will decrease in the coming years and prices will fall. In addition, the Americans are currently building plants for the liquefaction of shale gas, the output capacity of which will satisfy about 50% of West European demand for gas. This will be a mighty blow to the Russian economy.

UW: Do you believe in the possibility of the peaceful removal of Putin, via elections?

No, it’s impossible to remove him in this manner. And the issue is not Putin himself. Any authoritarian regime is set up in such a way, that it does not play games that do not guarantee victory. Today, the only point in participating in an election (for the opposition) – is to declare to the people: “Although you support us, we shall not win, because these are not elections, but imitations thereof.” So it’s naive to expect changes in Russia through the vote. What happened during the last election in Russia profoundly discredited this mechanism as such. As a result, during the recent local election, voter turn-out was 10–15%, and in essence, the winner from the United Russia had the support of 5% of the population.

UW: In other words, only the people can clean up the Russian regime?

None of the people I know would be prepared to take to the streets and shoot their neighbours. The acuteness of a conflict does not depend on what the citizens want, but on what the government is doing. It was possible to persuade Yeltsin that he was unable to normally govern the country, so he resigned. Why can’t this be done with Putin? By the way, I was told (although I cannot vouch for the absolute reliability of the information), that in the narrow circle of the government, they are looking at the option of the departure of the current head of state: he wants to remain until the Olympics, but he is being recommended not to delay and leave immediately.

Many see Sergey Shoygu, the former Minister of Emergencies, who was appointed Minister of Defence in autumn, as a candidate for the vacancy – he is the only politician from the pack in power who can be “sold” to the public and who does not evoke aggression on the part of the voters. In this context, the removal from office of Anatoli Serdiukov, the Minister of Defence, is interesting. The issue is not that he was dismissed, but that one of the president’s support pillars has fallen. It’s doubtful that Putin wanted this.

UW: Why is the wave of protest in Russia broken up and not grown into a revolution?

In the West, when there is a 3% tax increase, the streets are filled with protesters. Meanwhile, so much is happening here – and no reaction. But this is not because Russians are a kind of submissive nation. For 70 years, the Soviet government had been turning its people into homo sovieticus. Now, people don’t want to take to the streets; they don’t have faith in their ability to change anything. However, in recent times, this faith is emerging, so their turn will come.

UW: Has Russia changed since the Bolotnaya Square (the site of Russian protests in 2011) and Sakharov?

Of course. People came to the square and saw that they are not alone in their dissatisfaction with the government, when a hundred thousand people shouted: “Putin – thief!” This launched reflection and analysis – Russia truly became different in this aspect.

UW: After the meetings, there was considerable criticism of the so-called creative class, which was considered to be the main driving force of these protests, since many of the protesters simply saw it as a fashionable trend, and in effect, this class is not capable of leading the population on a massive scale …

I totally disagree. I was there and I saw the faces – completely different people from those simply wandering around town. And what is the “creative class”? Who defines the criteria and who meets them? This notion is an element of manipulation. When we went to a rally in January, into the freezing -20Co cold, people stood on their balconies and greeted us. This was a unity of the whole city. This is why the government began a defamation and information war against such demonstrations.


Igor Chubais (born in 1947) – PhD. In 1988–1990, he was one of the activists in the informal Moscow-based Perestroika and Perestroika-88 unions and a member of the Moscow People’s Front. In 1990, he was one of the founders of the Democratic Platform in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He was the Editor in Chief of the Noviye Vekhy (New Milestones) journal and presenter of a radio programme. In 2010, he signed the “Putin must go” open letter. The Russian government will find it more and more difficult to save itself without some kind of an “echo” from the Baltic States, Central Asia and Ukraine

He is also the author of From the Russian Idea – to the Idea of a New Russia (1996), Russia in Search of Itself  (1998) and Unraveling Russia (2005). 


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