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Coming Soon: The Power Vertical Podcast!

David Satter, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of several books on Russia, is the first guest on The Power Vertical's new podcast , which premiers this week.
David Satter, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of several books on Russia, is the first guest on The Power Vertical's new podcast , which premiers this week.
This week, the Power Vertical will debut its new podcast, which will feature interviews with Russia-watchers and discussions of the forces shaping Kremlin politics today.

In the first installment of the Power Vertical Podcast, which will be available online on March 2, I sat down with David Satter, a longtime observer of Russian affairs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. David is also the author of several books on Russia, including "Darkness At Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State" and the forthcoming "It Was A Long Time Ago And It Never Happened Anyway: Russia And The Communist Past," which is due out in November.

Below are some highlights from our chat.

Since it is a topic that is impossible to avoid, I asked David what his take was on the state of Russia's ruling tandem and whether he thought the occasional appearances of disagreement between President Dmitry Medvedev were real -- or if he saw them as simply pokazukha. Here is what he had to say:

Medvedev is a creature of Putin, he owes his position to Putin, he was promoted by Putin, he's younger than Putin, he seems to be a very weak personality. It's hard to see that there is anything about him that's independent. And even if there were, the many years of living in Putin's shadow and depending on him would have a tendency to convert him into a faithful lapdog, which is what I believe he is...

There is no basis for thinking that Medvedev says a single word that is not permitted by Putin. Of course he takes slightly different positions on some issues than Putin. But that is normal and from the point of view of Russian politics it is desirable, because it tends to convince people who are in the leadership who sees the problems. But making these statements is one thing. Acting on them is something else....

I think that Medvedev is a creature of Putin, that his statements in favor of a more democratic development in Russia have no meaning, and they shouldn't be taken seriously.

I noted that even if we accept that Putin and Medvedev were on the same page, there also appears to be visible conflict between the technocrats surrounding the president and the siloviki close to the premier. I noted Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin's recent calls for political reform as a prerequisite for economic progress, which reflected similar calls by officials like Igor Yurgens. Here is an excerpt from David's take on that:
This is the nature of bureaucracies. The people who end up in Medvedev's apparat begin to develop their own bureaucratic interests. And in a situation in which they have very little scope to express themselves, those bureaucratic conflicts -- which are seen from the outside as really trivial -- can become pretty bitter. But I wouldn't attribute much significance to that...

Great, [Finance Minister Aleksei] Kudrin says we need to have political reform in order for the economy to move forward. He said it, but nothing follows from that. Words in Russia are often divorced from any concrete action or any real meaning, so you have to be careful. What people say is one thing. What it means is often something completely different.

David was equally skeptical about the prospects for Medvedev's campaign to modernize the Russian economy to make it less dependent on commodities exports -- at least under the current political arrangements:

I think the present situation is becoming more and more intolerable for the independent and talented people of Russia. It's certainly not as oppressive as the Soviet system was, but this life of limited freedom and limited self expression and the domination of a kleptocratic elite in a society of really talented and creative people creates a lot of tension. It is not conducive to the kind of innovation that you are going to need if Russia is going to get away from a commodities-based economy. The depredation of the ruling circle and their money hunger does not bode well for them allowing the freedom, competition, and security that members of civil society are going to need if they are going to get behind such a dramatic change in the economic system.

They don't want to be held accountable. We saw what happened to Sergei Magnitsky. They want to operate with impunity, to steal without ever being held to account, to eliminae competitors as they see fit, to concentrate wealth, to fix elections. Under those circumstances, where is the force going to come for decentralization?

This past summer -- in the wake of the Khimki forest demonstrations, the blue bucket protests, and the emergence of musicians young rappers like Noize MC and veteran rockers like Yury Shevchuk as voices of opposition -- I blogged about an apparent awakening of Russian civil society. Here's David's view on that:

In don't see a great awakening. It is interesting that Russians are getting fed up and in certain situations are ready to manifest their unhappiness. There are occasional cases that touch people and motivate them. But Russian society is still pretty passive. There are signs that it may not be passive forever and these little ripples on the surface suggest that. But I wouldn't say we've got a great Russian awakening on our hands. Russians are products of their history. For so long they waited for change and when change came it was a disappointment.

And finally, here's David's view in what he calls Russia's "moral crisis":

In Russia the individual human being is not valued and his life is not valued. He is expendable in pursuit of various political goals. This is the deeper meaning of protests over things like the blue lights, because for government bureaucrats, the lives of the people who get in the way of their limousines are not viewed as that important. and they never have been. This is an old problem. Until Russia is a society in which individuals are valued, it is not going to make progress either politically or -- in the true sense -- economically.

Check back tomorrow for the full podcast!

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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