INSOR Russia: Institute of Contemporary Development
Updated June 28, 2019

Igor Yurgens: The Lobby of Conservatives and Stabilizers Proved Stronger and Large

October 18, 2011

Igor Yurgens, chairman of the Management Board of the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR), talked with Kommersant’s commentator Viktor Khamrayev about why progressive forces lost to the conservatives. The interview was published in the newspaper on October 18.

— So then, the game has itself played out. The outcome of the elections, both the Duma and presidential, is quite obvious. The results are predetermined. We just have to wait until voting day so that Russians can add the finishing touches.

— The manageability of the model which has been created here still remains high. There is no doubt that Vladimir Putin will once again be elected president having decided to run for this position. But there no longer is assurance in the former consolidation of society or consolidation of the elite. It’s no coincidence that sociologists are predicting no more than 45% for United Russia in the December elections.

— If apart from this party only KPRF and LDPR make it into the Duma, then United Russia once again dominates, taking at minimum of 300 of the 450 seats.

— Optimism is in my genes. I hope Just Russia and Yabloko will have a chance as well.

— For the token seats? In order do that they have to get at least 5% of the vote to get one seat. Neither Just Russia nor Yabloko have done anything to achieve even such a result. Their opposition is too ‘constructive’ to attract the voters’ attention.

— I may be wrong. But all the same I would like to mention the de facto sabotaging of decisions. As you may recall, Dmitry Medvedev called for an expansion of the sphere of representation in the Duma and in the parliament on the whole. Ten steps were taken toward the liberalization of the system. And Vladimir Putin, when creating the People’s Front, challenged his party-mates not to rest on their laurels, to learn from the opposition, which United Russia will one day have to become, and to engage in dialogue with the current opposition. But those who implemented the directives of the president and prime minister, i.e., those people who oversee domestic politics, did just the opposite. They reduced the number of potential representatives in the Duma to three parties. This is short-sighted, as it undermines the foundation of the ruling party in precisely those strata of society that are educated and open, those who read the Internet and travel abroad. If your opportunities to vote for opposition parties are limited, then you are sure to vote against the ruling party. This is a normal reaction for an educated, intelligent person.

— But this is the minority.

— But it is upon this minority, I repeat – the educated, creative segment – that modernization of the country depends. They cannot, as the president noted in his remarks at the Yaroslavl forum, line up in one line and close ranks around a single party – those days are gone. And now it is this segment that is not included in the process, which does not give cause for optimism.

— But is seems that this result achieved by those ‘people overseeing domestic politics’ is quite satisfactory to both players of the ruling tandem, does it not?

— Yes, one does get the impression that the ruling tandem, and first and foremost the president, consented to the new distribution of duties under the influence of circumstances of some kind. I am not very convinced that the decision announced at the United Russia Congress was adopted long ago. Or that it was never in any doubt. All Dmitry Medvedev's speeches, the course he adopted, his conversations with the business community, with human rights activists, with Western leaders, with experts -- all of this made me think he was willing to take on the responsibility of president of Russia for a second term. But something did not work out.

— You said previously that there are two forces in the ruling circles. The cautious, conservative forces of stabilization, which have lined up behind Vladimir Putin, and the progressive forces of modernization, which have pinned their hopes on Dmitry Medvedev. A backstage struggle, concealed from society, has been going on between them throughout the last four years. Why did the progressives lose?

— The lobby of conservatives and stabilizers proved stronger and larger. And the resources controlled by them proved more significant. They are the military industrial complex, the state defense order, the agricultural and farming community, people in uniform, the oil and gas complex. I think it is not only in Russia that people engaged in these spheres support political forces that advocate conservative development and stability. An example is the US oil lobby, which traditionally supports the Republicans.

— On whose side were the bankers and financiers?

— The private banking sector and its bright representatives, among who I would mention Peter Aven for his absolutely accurate and realistic forecasts, without a doubt are in the progressive camp. These people and these forces during the fat years provided serious support for the modernization agenda. But today, as far as I understand it, following the very serious difficulties in the Western banking sector, liquidity is falling here as well. Private financing is once again losing its ground, just as it did during the first wave of the crisis. The dominating positions have been taken up by Sberbank, VTB, VEB and Russian Agricultural Bank. Here there is no private support to speak of. This of course is a subordinate sector, and let’s hope that it can survive a second wave of the crisis.

— So then who among us are progressives?

— They are young entrepreneurs, scientists, professors, the intelligentsia, skilled workers, people in artistic professions. In general, it is the burgeoning middle class, which in our country according to various estimates is from 15% to 25% of the population. They have less capital, and they have sway in the various structures of the White House and Kremlin. In our case, the regime is larger made up of the conservatives, and this unfortunately is just a fact. This is where the GDP is concentrated – there are public figures among them, the so-called speakers, and also influential figures among them. But if Russia wants to be in the G-8 and in the G-20, if we want to get through all these difficulties that the world is going through together, and not with our own ‘endogenous’ model, then we need to place our faith in the modernizers. But in such a situation the progressives turned out to be in the minority, although they should have received support.

— What kind of support? Order everyone to line up behind this minority view?

— There is no reason to line up, if we apparently want to live in such a way as countries with classical democracy. The minority should have levers for influencing things. And in fat times we could have given the country a chance to structure its political space in such a way that both the conservatives and the progressives could have their own base while remaining non-antagonistic. But we didn’t do this. We went down this path of consciously allowing the more influential forces of the conservatives to run the show, and they have led us to what we have today. The external situation factored in on the side of these forces. The volatility on world markets, uncertainty over the future of the euro zone and very serious difficulties in the United States. All of this played in the hands of the conservatives’ analysts, who said that in such a situation Western countries are no example for us, they are not allies and so there is absolutely no reason for Russia to get caught up in their difficulties. The conservatives have their own vision of the future: re-creation of the tradition zone of Russia’s influence. Starting next year, as Vladimir Putin explained in a special publication, we will create a common Eurasian economic space, expand the scope of our presence, language and influence and perhaps we will use autocratic methods. The preservers have a better grasp of how to act under such a regime and in such a space. After all, Alexander Lukashenko, Nursultan Nazarbaev and Vladimir Putin are all people of the same culture, same history – with nuances but the same behavioral pattern. So we will strengthen our position here, the conservatives think, and once the West sorts out its own problems then Russia will become a sort of bridge between the great civilizations of China and the Europe. And we won’t have to implore the West to use our bridge. They will do the asking.

— All these things are rather the objective reasons for the modernizers' failure. But did the progressives themselves not make any mistakes? Surely there must have been some blunders on their side?

— Blunder number one is that they abandoned the "project from below." Looking at the behavior of the SPS, Yabloko and the other democratic parties, they decided: We ourselves will never come to an agreement. And some of the most influential progressives, realizing that consolidation on the basis of consensus is impossible, began to pin their hopes on the "project from above" that was the Right Cause party. The attempt to set up this party under a triple chairmanship failed. And nothing came of the desperate efforts to become leader of this party by a person who is undoubtedly both right-wing by conviction and very intelligently right-wing, a person whom the governors would have listened to, so that the party could have gone into the elections with a comprehensible organizational base. I am talking about Alexei Kudrin. But first they did not let him, and then they did what they did to him.

— Why did it not work out for Mikhail Prokhorov, whom they would apparently have let into the party?

— The attempt failed thanks to the deliberate activity of the spin doctors who were tasked with consolidating the regime. But even if Right Cause were still taking part in the elections with Mikhail Prokhorov I do not think the attempt would be productive. He joined the project too late to be able to turn it, before voting day, into a party capable of meeting the aspirations of the right – that very stratum of society that I have already talked about. We have arrived at a situation where there is neither party nor leader on that flank. I give Grigory Yavlinsky enormous credit for championing his ideology all these years and keeping his name unblemished. But he alone is not enough, because Yabloko is still, in my view, the left-center alternative. This outcome is not only to the credit of pro-regime spin doctors. It is also because of our own inability to organize, to waive even a few of our principles for the sake of consensus-based unification in view of the massive, monopolist activity launched by the ruling conservatives. That is the problem and no doubt the tragedy of our liberals.

— But we do have liberals within the governing structures. Have they been looking for at least some kind of support from below, in society, all these years? Or did they their pin hopes on the fact that Medvedev exists, and with him maybe something can be achieved?

— Rather the latter. They are continuing to do a very correct job, each in his own place, although of course they suffered a very serious blow, in my opinion, with the departure of Alexei Kudrin. But a certain arrogance characteristic of people in power can be observed even in this category. While occupying, in a number of cases, very important posts, including ministerial posts, they outwardly use the words that have become fashionable under Dmitry Medvedev: dialogue with the civil society, the involvement of the expert community, and so forth. They have supposedly even opened up their ministries and departments for dialogue with the civil society and the experts. But in reality they have listened to at most 10% of what the experts proposed or the citizens said to them.

— ‘They ordered us to listen to you – and we listened’?

— Something like that. Their arrogance seemed to say: ‘Thank you, dear experts and esteemed civil society, you sometimes say intelligent things, but in principle this is high-sounding nonsense and is not applicable to our policy. We ourselves know best what is applicable, plus we have instructions from our leadership.’ Therefore the widening of their base did not happen, and now even the best of them are not in the best condition.

— What, in the end, was – and we have to say ‘was’ – the figure of President Medvedev in our politics? After all, the progressives seriously pinned their hopes on him, thinking that all his statements about modernization and liberalization were the impetus of a ‘revolution from above.’ But it ended with the solemn and almost gallant phrase to the effect that, as it turns out, everything was agreed with Vladimir Putin long ago, several years back. In the days of turbulent political battles, such figures in Russia would usually be given an extremely harsh description – ‘provocateur’.

— I firmly reject that description. But I admit that one day, historically speaking, it will be necessary to answer for what was said. And that goes for Dmitry Anatolyevich himself. But I can say this about the work of our Institute: In the four years of our work, there has been no interference, still less peremptory objections. On the contrary, all the work on creating the program for modernization, and liberal modernization at that, was welcomed. Indeed, the improvement in relations with the Americans, with Europe, with NATO, and with Poland and the rapid and relatively painless exit from the Caucasus war now appear to us to be self-evident. But what about the 10 steps to democratize the political system, what about the creation of the Council on Human Rights, where there are people like Lyudmila Alekseyeva now. What about the very important law on the decriminalization of business, which business itself scarcely valued and for which it did not say a coherent ‘thank you’, although businessmen can no longer be jailed ahead of the court's verdict and the population of businessmen in the GUIN (Main Penal Administration) has now fallen by hundreds of thousands.

— These are half-measures that did not affect the essence of the system established during Vladimir Putin's first two terms.

— Not as much has been done as one would have wished. But even what has been done was enough to change the atmosphere in society. If Medvedev's intentions and actions really did not threaten the system, they would have solemnly informed us that he is running for a second term. But here you have all the above, here you have 200 generals dismissed, heavyweight governors dismissed, including Yuri Luzhkov. At a certain point the conservatives, I think, got together somewhere, summed things up, and said: No, this is becoming dangerous. I believe that a conversation like that must without fail have taken place somewhere, and we got what we got. Therefore I am not prepared to pin everything on Medvedev alone.

— If a politician is really a reformer, society can tell in the first 100 days. After that, for a maximum of 18 months he is formulating his program of reforms and beginning to implement them. You did not observe any of that during the past three and a half years. And you think President Medvedev is a reformer?

— I am not a psychoanalyst. But I can say that we were given a chance. Those who say that Vladimir Putin, when he was choosing his successor four years ago, did not "flirt" with the idea of reform at all are lying. I remember how the election platforms of Sergey Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev were formatted. And I remember what a surprise it was to hear of Medvedev's candidacy, when the majority of political experts, together with Nikita Mikhalkov, were already rushing to join Sergey Ivanov's council of experts.

— Dmitry Medvedev turned out to be a more suitable successor, most likely because Sergey Ivanov, if he had become president, would certainly not have renounced a second term.

— Even with that theory, it would have been more logical for President Putin to name Ivanov as candidate, if he had been motivated exclusively by maintaining the status quo. But I think there was an attempt by Vladimir Putin in 2008 to see where the potential of democracy lies and what it can offer us. Now, apparently, he thinks that the attempt is over, and the conservatives and their analysts have led him to the decision that we now know about.

— If Medvedev the politician really intends to reform the country and needs another presidential term to do so, should he simply have waited for his tandem partner to allow him to do this? A real politician does not wait; he finds his own support in the elite, in business, in society.

— Dmitry Anatolyevich did indeed turn to the major businessmen at one of these meetings with them and almost appealed to them – make up your minds. They did not make up their minds. I do not blame them for that. Maybe in such a position there is some kind of inner wisdom among those who work with labor collectives, with regulators, with ministers.

— How could the businesspeople have made up their minds, when Medvedev himself had not done so at that point? At the beginning of 2011 Gennady Gudkov, one of the leaders of Just Russia, founded the ‘Go, Russia!’ movement in support of modernization and even enlisted some businesspeople. But then it emerged that the United Russians had already registered such a movement and Dmitry Medvedev had even thanked them for it. Those who were most delighted at this were the businesspeople enlisted by Gudkov, because they had managed ‘not to give themselves away as being against Putin.’

— I repeat, I do not in the least categorize this situation as ‘provocation.’ I might characterize certain steps as halfhearted. But it is best to evaluate it on the basis of whether Putin and his supporters could have supported the modernizers. It was extremely clear to what extent the coalition of conservatives was firmly established and to what extent the progressives were disunited. These disunited people would not have gotten anywhere if the conservatives' leader and his supporters had not had an understanding that the country must move in a modernizing direction. I know this cohort of people, and I hoped for a long time that their rationalism would lead to a choice in favor of modernization. It did not work out. The rationalism of that camp either suffered a defeat as a result of their own analytical considerations, or else the entire camp perceived the present situation in the West as a real threat to themselves. But if, beginning with the re-creation of the post-Soviet space, this line of consolidation against the West is logically continued, it could go a very long way. Economic, budget, and other achievements show that we could echo the fate of the Russian Empire and the USSR.

— All these years that your Institute has been working ‘for Medvedev’ you have constantly repeated that you do not want his relationship with Vladimir Putin to become like it was for Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Maybe you were wrong to repeat that? It would be better for today's people to have a standoff like their predecessors. At any rate, the country would be in motion, which means it would be developing.

— I was not wrong. A path like that of Gorbachev and Yeltsin would have led not to the country's development but to its disintegration. But a second path was possible, which I spoke about as long ago as the beginning of 2009. The fact that conservatives and progressives exist in the country should have been legitimized. To that end: Putin as head of United Russia, Medvedev as head of another party, which could still have been created and equipped with campaign staffs, people, propagandists, a network in the provinces. And go into the elections in 2012 with two candidates who would remain friends, like-minded people in terms of the way of preserving the country, but representing two totally different political/economic paradigms: the progressive and the conservative-stabilizing. In 2010, this path was no longer possible. Both the time and the party space had shrunk: The parties that could have become a base for Dmitry Medvedev had been subjected to increasing pressure.

— How is that path better than the one we eventually embarked on? Now we know even without elections that United Russia will win, and then Putin. In just the same way, we would have known without elections that United Russia and Putin would win, even if Medvedev had acquired his own party and had not renounced the presidential elections.

— Ideally, the field should not have been trampled from the outset. Because of fear of an ‘Orange Revolution’, because of inexplicable suspicions that the Russian people is capable of protesting exclusively with CIA or Mossad money, they trampled everyone: the Kasyanovs, the Milovs, the Ryzhkovs, the Nemtsovs. And before that, Irina Khakamada; and before that, Grigory Yavlinsky. And now Sergey Mironov, too. Why should these people, these parties not exist in the political field? Why not give them opportunities? True, at the moment not one of them would get anywhere. But in time, with the free development of events, they and their mini-parties might perhaps have become larger associations. And that ‘perhaps’ frightens the conservatives, who therefore chose the path that we have already trodden two or three times in the last 150 years. It has led to nothing good.

— So gloom lies ahead?

— If you see nothing but gloom, gloom is what you will get. The task of modernization of the country still cannot be avoided by its present leaders, no matter how much the political sphere may be ‘stabilized’. The implementation of the modernization plan that INSOR set forth in its work ‘Attaining the Future’ does not require any preliminary ‘deconstruction of stability’. These steps should also be stimulated by the growing ferment at the top level, which Mikhail Prokhorov spoke about so well: We are on the brink of a deconsolidation of the elites and a rather interesting turn of events, because it is impossible to hold on to everyone as purely human material for long.

— The elite is a minority. When it comes to consolidating the majority, oil prices remain very suitable.

— At the moment, there is much that still suits the majority of citizens. A person can live: I raise my children, I send them to school, I buy a little car, I acquire a little parcel of land – all is well and good. But the elite should understand that when disaster happens in the country, there should be a reserve team for that occasion. And also, society’s institutions should be such that a person can withstand the shock when he has sold his car and his little piece of land and has no way to feed the children. Such things have happened in our history, in which there have been enough revolutions. A normal evolutionary system is needed, in which the power would be transferred, for instance, from the socialists to the conservatives. In the fat years we could have designed such a system. But ‘sovereign democracy’ and government by clan proved more precious than the creation of such an institution.

— So there is still no ray of light? Or will the victorious conservatives, should the need arise, be capable of modernization?

— I was recently accused of romanticism because of my calls for Dmitry Medvedev to become president. Now I will yield to romanticism yet again and will call on these conservatives to observe a few rules of decency. Then their hands will later be free to grasp the modernization paradigm when the world comes to that. These people could go too far, as was demonstrated by those generals whom Medvedev removed, who owned palaces built for tens of millions of dollars. If they own riches that were illegally acquired or inexplicably acquired, they will not subsequently be able to reveal themselves either to society or to the wider world. Then they will be left facing an impasse: to defend those things to the end. And that will be a great tragedy for them and for us.

— And have they really not gone too far already?

— If you proceed from the assumption that 70% of conservatives are bad people who have stolen and are continuing to steal, you may as well wrap yourself in your shroud and stay put, facing the corresponding prospects. Or just get out of here. I do not believe it. I know many good people who took that course to serve the Motherland, who are dissatisfied with many things, who are trying to sort out certain things and who see the red lines that they must not cross. Therefore I am not prepared to assert that we are already a totally rotten society with no way back.

— And what should the progressives do?

— It is necessary to begin some consultations unconnected with the elections. To begin with, a consensus must be reached on the question of the agenda that currently faces the country. And then consider how to act.

— Will Dmitry Medvedev be able to embark on modernization, in practice, in the post of prime minister?

— There is no alternative to modernization. We are stuck in a kind of a rut. We are no longer a self-sufficient economic unit in the world. What happens on the foreign markets will have an influence here at home. The capital flight that has happened, among other things, as a result of announcements about the future at the United Russia congress, is a fact. The devaluation of the ruble is a fact. Support for the ruble by means of massive interventions by the Central Bank is a fact. The limited nature of the resources that can be used to maintain the status quo is also a fact. The relative reduction in budget spending on education, culture, and health care and the growth in spending on defense and the law enforcement system – that is a worrying fact. And something must be done about this.