Lilia Shevtsova on the development in Russia

January 27th, 2015   Countries and Regions | Foreign Policy | News | Russia

When the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, hosted a seminar on the development in Russia, held by famous Russian expert, Lilia Shevtsova, the hall was packed.

– I see Russia as a phenomenon. In that sense I agree with Putin, she started.

Lilia Shevtsova is one of the most prominent experts on Russia and its neighbors. She has written several books on Russian politics and she contributes regularly to foreign affairs debates. Last week, she visited Sweden to share her view on Putin, the occupation of Crimea and the Russian people’s attitude towards the worrying development.

The road to democracy has been more complicated and taken more time than we thought, Shevtsova introduced. Russia is struggling with both domestic and foreign policy problems. Traditionalism, nationalism and personalized leadership dominate together with imperial ambitions.

Shevtsova described the so called Russian paradigm as a system that is constantly changing, both in content and in terms of rhetoric. In Putin’s Russia we see how Boris Jeltsin’s soft pluralism has been combined with greater freedom for oligarchs. The soft authoritarian has become more authoritarian, Shevtsova said.

Before, the paradigm rested on the idea that Russia is part of Europe; it took after Western European norms and Russian elites were well integrated in the West. But in 2012, things began to change. Putin now tried to convince his people that the civilized Western hegemony was about to erode. Instead, the goal was to expand the Eastern cooperation within the so called Eurasia Union.

During 2012, 2013, Russia’s foreign politics was used as a tool to strengthen the Russian self-image as independent of the West, Shevtsova explained. The need for popular unification, a Russian identity, seemed almost desperate culminating in the Crimean crisis.

Expert on Russia, Lilia Shevtsova in the middle.

Well-known expert on Russia, Lilia Shevtsova in the middle.

According to Shevtsova, Crimea became something that the Russian population in the beginning could unite around. In March 2014, 88 percent of the Russians supported Putin’s actions. But in a poll made in December 2014, 40 percent of the Russians did no longer want to pay for Crimea. In a slightly longer perspective, the occupation seemed negative for Putin’s popularity.

But for Putin, Russia is a unique nation with Ukraine as its main project, Shevtsova continued. There has been a lot of money and intelligence service offered on Ukraine and the destabilization began already in 2012 when the threat that the neigbor would approach EU appeared. After the political collapse of Ukraine, what happened in Crimea was not surprising.

Opinion polls have showed that the support for Putin is still high. But in December 2014, when people were asked if they could accept a decline in living standard as a result of the economic sanctions, between 62 and 68 percent said no. Shevtsova’s analysis is that people are starting to feel frustrated, but that they are afraid that the regime will fight back if they would go out and protest. Moreover, the problems are that all media channels are controlled by Putin and that there is no real opposition.

The question is also if the Russians are ready for a new political system based on democratic principles?

30 percent of the Russians wants a traditionalist, imperialistic state, Shevtsova explained. The rest, about 70 percent wants a normally functioning state without corruption and injustice. The latter cannot be offered at the moment, but maybe it is just a matter of time before we start seeing people in the streets.

What will then happen to Russia?

The worst case scenario, according to Shevtsova, would be if Russia would implode. The best would be if there was a smooth and peaceful political transition.

– But without the West’s knowledge of, for example, the rule of law, Russia cannot get anywhere. And Russia has to leave Ukraine, she added.

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