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Kremlin Political Consultant Sees Medvedev As Best Choice For 2012

Gleb Pavlovsky
Gleb Pavlovsky
Gleb Pavlovsky is a former Soviet-era dissident who over the last 15 years has become a much-quoted publicist and a high-profile political consultant to the Russian presidential administration. He is the founder and head of the consulting firm Effective Politics Foundation and the editor in chief of the "Russky zhurnal" website.

RFE/RL Central Newsroom Director Jay Tolson and Russian Service correspondent Danila Galperovich sat down with Pavlovsky in his Moscow office this week to discuss the political landscape in Russia.

RFE/RL: You have been described as "Vladimir Putin's Karl Rove," in a reference to former U.S. President George W. Bush's main political strategist. What do you think of that title, and how do you think you got it?

Gleb Pavlovsky: I think the basis of this title is that for about 15 years, I have been an adviser to the presidential administration. Note -- an adviser to the presidential administration, not an adviser to the president. "Presidential adviser" is an official position, and I am not a bureaucrat. I am an adviser to the presidential administration. As far as the comparison with Karl Rove is concerned, it is somewhat flattering, but these days also somewhat disreputable.

RFE/RL: What were Vladimir Putin's greatest achievements during his presidency?

Pavlovsky: Putin achieved the recognition by the citizens of Russia of the country's state institutions. The first task for any country building a democracy is to ensure that citizens acknowledge the state. After this acknowledgement is achieved, you can move further.

Putin inherited a fragmented country, in terms of its own constitution and its own institutions. And when he left the presidency, he left behind a country that was consolidated in these regards. Russia is now acknowledged both by its own citizens and by the larger world.

RFE/RL: What were his greatest shortcomings or, even, failures?

Pavlovsky: The most serious lack of success Putin had was in his work with minorities, so to speak. I mean intellectuals, creative groups, innovators, and so on. He was interested in creating a majority and, to a considerable degree, he neglected these small spheres, neglected the dialogue with them. And this created a certain vacuum that began to be filled with, on the one hand, radical conceptions and radical activists and, on the other hand (which is even more dangerous), informal structures -- informal state structures, informal structures within the security and law enforcement organs. As a result, an atmosphere of triumphalism emerged that was held together to a significant degree by alarm. That is, the state has been acknowledged, but society hasn't. And this unacknowledged society has become a problem today.

RFE/RL: And what have been the successes and failures of President Dmitry Medvedev?

Pavlovsky: Well, Medvedev is still on the hook, so to speak. His, I hope, first presidential term is short -- four years and he is approaching the middle. What has he achieved in this time? He achieved recognition within the country -- most importantly, within the bureaucracy -- of himself as president, which was not a simple matter, because he came to the post in the form of a recommendation from Putin. And that is a dangerous situation.

He has earned an independent reputation. It didn't happen right away -- it began with the Georgia-Ossetia war and his recent initiatives. I think that at present he is well-positioned in the state apparatus, and that is important in the run-up to the 2012 election.

The main problem with him is his timidity, his caution. The expectations that he arouses are greater than his achievements, and he recognizes this himself. But this is a real problem and the bubble of expectation continues to grow and he continues to act in a very measured and restrained way.

Just as any living person is good enough for the cemetery, any politician is good enough for total failure. Putin might have failed, and Medvedev might fail. Medvedev has some time. During the course of this year, Medvedev must secure a sufficient standing in public opinion, in public support, and in the eyes of the elites through his results. He has tied himself to the policy of modernization, and during this year he must show some results, because toward the end of the year he and Putin are going to have to somehow decide who is going to defer to whom.

New Faces?

RFE/RL: Who do you think will be United Russia's candidate in the 2012 presidential election? And why?

Pavlovsky: The ideal scenario would be some third figure who was created by both of them in the intervening time and then they would, sort of like the old guard, make way for him. That would elevate the vertical dynamic that society needs now. But I think that is impossible, and I think a positive scenario would be something we might call the "successful-inertial" scenario. That is, Medvedev will continue to gain support among the elites, among the public, and among the chattering classes, and Putin will come to accept this as a fait accompli, as it should be. Because in the end, Putin will have to leave, but he can only leave if there are no catastrophes in the Kremlin, if Medvedev's policies don't collapse.

If there are no major crises this year, then I think -- and I emphasize that I am leaving psychological issues aside because I think the psychology of politicians doesn't mean much in this situation -- if Medvedev doesn't experience any catastrophes in implementing his policies of modernization from the very beginning, then he will be the next candidate for president with a very good chance of winning.

RFE/RL: We are at the end of the first year of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. How have U.S.-Russian relations developed in the year of the much-discussed reset?

Pavlovsky: I'd say sort of 50-50. It isn't bad for a beginning, but we can't say anything about the coming year. In general, I'm really pleased about the new atmosphere in Russian-American relations. I like the style of those relations, both on the level of personal relations between Obama and Medvedev and in terms of the influence of that style on global politics. A new fashion has arisen, a fashion for different relations, more direct and more intellectual. More restrained and less emotional and without boasting. It is very important that there is no triumphalism, because I think the Bush-Putin style of relations had a bad influence on our domestic politics. Bush's style of triumphalism was very infectious, and it infected Putin, I think.
I like the style of [Russia-U.S.] relations, both on the level of personal relations between Obama and Medvedev and in terms of the influence of that style on global politics.

I get the feeling that the potential is forming in the world for a new type of leadership. I think that Obama is searching for a new strategy for America and hasn't found it yet. Some people even say he is the first American president to lack a grand strategy. I think he is still searching for it. Medvedev also, to some extent, is searching -- there is symmetry here. But the practical results so far are insignificant and Obama doesn't have a lot of time for relations with Russia, I understand that. He has a lot of other very serious problems and so he hasn't yet found time to think through a policy for the post-Soviet space. And that is potentially the most dangerous and most significant arena, much more difficult than reaching an agreement on arms reductions.

'Limiting Negative Effects'

RFE/RL: Why has the strengthening of the Russian federal state not led to an equal strengthening of the rule of law here? Was it necessary to eliminate the direct election of governors?

Pavlovsky: Russia's development over the last 20 years has proceeded extremely asymmetrically. The problem is that in the early years -- the first five or 10 years of Russia's existence -- there predominated the myth that political reforms come foremost for the resolution of all problems. There was a myth that we didn't need to concern ourselves with the real situation in society, that it would resolve itself after the political mechanisms set into action by the president began working and following economic liberalization. And during this time, a vacuum emerged in society that was filled by elements of force -- and this violent conversion of society happened from the bottom up. In fact, it took a while for it to be recognized on the state level. But then it also reached into the state security organs. And now we have to contend with a very solid system and it will be very difficult to reverse this transformation. The power of law has no field of action because the law itself has been turned into an instrument of informal politics -- it is applied selectively....

I think that the problem of electing governors runs perpendicular to this process. It is equally true to say that they weren't the source of the problem and they aren't the solution. Elected governors as an institution was not viable because, I think, the very concept of a subject of the federation wasn't viable as a unitary community. The authorities ran into this repeatedly. Beslan was just the straw that broke the camel's back. That is, the authorities could neither implement their decisions through the governors nor come to an agreement with them in the capacity of reliable entities. This paralyzed the state. The problem wasn't just a matter of constructing the power vertical but of coping with the limited viability of gubernatorial power. This is a very interesting topic -- I think that at present the level of the federation subjects is not sufficiently solid to form the real structure of the country. And this is going to be a problem for a long time, a problem that will eventually have to be solved. And this is because the Soviet-era oblasts are not genuine political communities.
I think that at present the level of the [Russian] federation subjects is not sufficiently solid to form the real structure of the country.

RFE/RL: Isn't it true that by cutting governors off from their electorates you might be increasing the problems of governance by creating an insufficiently flexible system?

Pavlovsky: Every model has its own lapses, serious ones. There are no perfect models here. Incidentally, among the federal states of the world, the minority have directly elected governors. Of course, our system has a great number of problems, whether it be the appointment or the selection of governors, and they have to be resolved in the future. But this was a system aimed at limiting negative effects -- that is, the negative problems were clear, but the positive prospects weren't. I think that's the way the decision was made to adopt the current system -- the appointment of governors.

'An Economy Of Killers For Hire'

RFE/RL: Why are so many journalists and human rights activists killed in Russia, seemingly with impunity, with so few arrests and so few convictions?

Pavlovsky: A lot of the attacks -- I'd say the majority of them -- happen not from the top but, in a manner of speaking, horizontally, on the part of authorities that are directly affected by [these activists] or some sort of clans -- usually unclear, invisible business clans whose interests are entangled with those of the authorities. Each attack has its perpetrators, its authors, its masterminds, and they must be found.

But the problem is that during the 1990s the media did not form its own independent position, its economic independence. We talked about this at the time, but we didn't show too much interest in these problems, because there was that same old dogma that the president, [Boris] Yeltsin at that time, is the patron of the media, the person who will defend us. But even back then the president was always able to protect journalists. And in principle that is a bad scheme. The media must have their own foundation, particularly an economic foundation. In the 1990s there developed a completely backward media economy, and this made the media dependent on sponsors. In the end, this produced a short of shadow world of sponsors connected with the shadow political struggle and shadow attacks.
A lot of the attacks happen not from the top but, in a manner of speaking, horizontally, on the part of authorities that are directly affected by [these activists] or some sort of clans -- usually unclear, invisible business clans whose interests are entangled with those of the authorities.

Now, I think, it is a problem for the authorities to find a way to hinder these attacks because there is already a sort of economy or industry of killers for hire, of ordered murders, which is completely beyond the government's control, but often uses the government's own structures and functionaries. This is a very dangerous situation, fraught with the danger of fascism and the degradation of the political context. I think the authorities have noticed this problem -- it recognized this problem very slowly, just within the last year.

Russia's Neurosis

RFE/RL: Is Russia's current leadership content with the country being a strong nation-state, or does it want it to be an empire or a nation-state with a well-defined sphere of influence?

Pavlovsky: The answer to that question is simple semantically but difficult politically. Russia -- and I'm talking about the majority of the population and most representatives of the political class -- wants to be a nation-state, but with an imperial culture, imperial breadth, an imperial style. I don't know of any significant group in Russia that would like to create a real empire and would be ready to pay for that or to risk for that. Certainly they wouldn't risk themselves. There are no groups like that. But they all want some sort of space, imperial space within the country.

This is a very difficult issue, more difficult than getting yourself acknowledged as a great power. This is a neurotic point for us. But Russia -- and I wrote about this many times -- doesn't want to move beyond its limits and simply doesn't know what to do with other countries.

RFE/RL: Do you mean that Russia does not insist on a "sphere of interests" beyond its borders?

Pavlovsky: Sphere of interests -- that is our favorite mantra. We are always talking about our sphere of influence, even a sphere of privileged interests. But this is rarely explained in detail. These interests are very rarely made clear and made known to those who are affected. For this reason it is very hard for our partners to establish relations with us on the basis of our interests -- they often simply don't know what they are.

I think this is a sort of super-ideologized sphere that needs to be critically reworked: what precisely are Russia's interests in Ukraine, for example? If we are talking about gas transit, this is a very concrete issue and can be discussed concretely. If we are talking about the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine -- this is a noble cause, of course, from our point of view, to defend the interests of Ukrainians; but we have to realize that we aren't going to get anything in return for this. It is purely a humanitarian activity. In fact, we are strengthening our competitor, Ukraine, if we influence them to finally adopt a sensible policy of uniform development for Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers. This would only make Ukraine stronger, including on the labor market. So I think we have huge problems with the formulation of our interests, and I am certain that as long as those interests are not formulated and made clear to the majority of Russians, no one will be willing to pay a high price for them.

'Normal' Democratic Doubt

RFE/RL: First deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov is heading to Washington as part of a joint commission on the development of civil society. Many members of Congress and members of the Russian opposition have urged Obama not to meet with him because they say he is the architect of the deconstruction of an open society in Russia. What do you think the Kremlin would say if President Obama did not meet with Mr. Surkov?

Pavlovsky: I think that diplomats have to work with those people who are presented to them. We are talking about official relations. The architect of the system in Russia is Putin, not Surkov -- that has to be understood clearly. Surkov is a high-level bureaucrat. Some conspiracy theorists ascribe everything Bush did to Karl Rove and others ascribe everything Putin did -- and now Medvedev -- to Surkov. But I can say this just isn't so. People who work in the administration are simply implementers, implementers of directives that they receive from above. That's one thing.

Second, the political opposition doesn't object to Surkov. You are speaking about the nonparliamentary opposition and about some groups of human rights advocates or radical groups that are not represented in parliament. We don't consider them to be sufficiently representative, but they usually have pretty good coverage in the media and that's why their views are well known in the U.S. Congress. I think this is normal, even natural, doubt that accompanies the democratic process.

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