Kasparov – Farewell to Illusions

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Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov discusses the myths of the state created by Vladimir Putin, as well as myths about the opposition.   The article originally appeared in the New Times magazine on February 23, 2009.

Farewell to illusions
Garry Kasparov
The New Times magazine

For several years now, the American Discovery channel has had a popular science program named “MythBusters.”  Special effects specialists host the show, using their know-how to experimentally test various yarns, rumors and urban legends.  What is happening today in our country can be compared with one of these experiments, aimed at busting the myths created by [Vladimir] Putin’s agitprop, not without the use of special effects.

In the role of lead myth buster – the economic crisis, which dramatically shows that the fireplace Russians warmed themselves by in recent years was painted on a TV screen.  That the island of stability was merely a frail ship in the storming ocean of the world economy.  And that the mighty walls of our sovereignty were made of cardboard.

The mythology the Vladimir Putin era

Before all else, the myth of stable economic growth, as shown by the Putin economic model, has crashed.  High oil prices merely masked the actual inefficacy of a system of bureaucratic monopolism.  The unsteadiness of the system became readily apparent as soon as external conditions became more complicated.  For proof, it’s enough to turn to data from Rosstat, [the Russian statistical agency]: if in November the decline in manufacturing output amounted to what then seemed a record 8.7 percent, then the statistics for January (as compared to the same period of 2008) showed 16 percent.  This is no longer a decline.  This is a collapse.  Hundreds of billions of dollars, thrown on to extinguish the fire, didn’t save the economy, as is now clear: in January, the fall of production in machinery manufacturing comprised 35 percent.  Cumulatively over 8 months, it was 63 percent, according to data from [independent economist] Andrei Illarionov.  We have returned to the lowest point of the 1998 default – as if these 10 fertile years never happened.

Putin’s administration started with 10 percent economic growth in the GDP (even taking the 1998 default into account, this is fairly high), a 12 percent growth in manufacturing output and a significant investment appeal in Russia.  In spite of an exceptionally fortunate business climate in the foreign economy and foreign policy, it is ending in 2009 with negative economic growth, a deficit in the state budget of more than 100 billion dollars, and an unceasing outflow of capital.

And now a new myth is surfacing: that everything is linked to hydrocarbon prices, and that the crisis will end as soon as oil prices climb upward.

In its root, this idea is mistaken: Russia’s fall into economic crisis happened amid the highest historical prices for oil –94.6 dollars per barrel.  By itself, a decline in oil prices could not lead to such a serious crisis –take another look at the Rosstat data on the falling manufacturing output: What does oil have to do with it?  The reason is an uncompetitive, monopolized and corrupt economy, with too many great risks for investors.  This stems from the government bureaucracy, low job rotation in the elites, the illegitimacy of authorities, and the opacity of decisions taken by the executive branch.

Clearly, these problems don’t have an economic, but rather a political character.  No economic measures are capable of dramatically changing the situation.  As the hero of [Yevgeny] Shvarts’ fairy tale once said, no manner of petrodollars “won’t help make the leg small, the soul big, or the heart just.”  And the issue here is not only and not just the figure of Vladimir Putin himself.  Even if he is sacrificed on the altar of the crisis, the situation cannot fundamentally improve while Putin’s principles remain as the framework for how the authorities works.  It is another matter that Putin is in essence the product of a compromise of different bureaucratic, regional, power and business-elites, and that his disappearance will clearly hasten the dissolution of the regime.

Scenarios for tomorrow

If we want to avoid emerging unrest with an unpredictable outcome, the intellectual elite needs to start a sensible evaluation of the near future, instead of hysterical mantras about the “senseless and ruthless.”  The first thing that needs to be done is admit that without a drastic political restructuring of Russian society and the Russian state, we cannot preserve the country.  Precisely this thesis is laid out in the package of anti-crisis measures proposed by the Solidarity movement.

A state that is legitimate, transparent and publicly accountable is necessary to enact effective anti-crisis measures.

This is why free and fair parliamentary elections must be conducted as the foremost step in the transitional political period.

Only a regime that holds a people’s mandate can count on their support when conducting decisive reforms.  A freely elected parliament cannot be homogenous.  Herein lies its fundamental difference from the current State Duma, which is “frightfully far from the public,” and therefore commands minimal trust.  The new deputies will necessarily need to reach compromises.  There is already an experience with this kind of cooperation between ideologically different forces in the National Assembly.  It is evident, however, that the sooner that inter-ideological discussion enters the public life, the more effective the transitional parliament will be.

While it is unlikely that supporters of Russia’s development into a “democracy without adjectives” will have objections regarding the necessity of holding legitimate elections, many other aspects of the post-Putin future beg thoughtful public discussion:  Should these elections be elections to the State Duma in line with the acting Constitution, or is it necessary to hold elections to a Constitutional convention;  What kind of balance will there be between the legislative and executive branches;  Should Russia’s future political structure be Parliamentary or Presidential, what rules must govern the work of the transitional government; Is the nationalization of illegally obtained oligarchic structures necessary; Is lustration [openly dealing with the past] necessary and on what scale;  What should the national-territorial structure of the Russian Federation be.


An oft encountered argument on preserving the status quo says that there is no strong opposition in Russia.  That even if authority falls out of the hands of today’s elites, broken by the crisis, there will be no one to catch it, except radicals, extremists and the blind mob they lead.  Proponents of this theory consider the existing opposition in the country to be insignificant in number, disparate, isolated from the public, and as not having a positive program.  It is evident that we are dealing with another widely sown myth.  The political process is a two way street.

The current opposition have structural and intellectual resources to answer the social demand for renewal, which is taking shape and spreading more and more widely.  The gradual politicization of society will bring new leaders to opposition [forces] of all ideological directions, as well as a large number of supporters and a pool of talent.

But the opposition already has a skeleton to grow muscle on.

The sooner that sensible and responsible Russian citizens start to discuss these and other questions connected with our near future, the easier we will manage to live through the complex times of political reform.  Reform, which is the only alternative to Russia disappearing off the world map.

translation by theotherrussia.org.