On Track For a Future Without Putin

November 27, 2018

Over the 23-25 November, the Russia vs. Putin conference took place in Prague. The conference is an initiative set up by Mikhail Khodorkovsky that provides a unique platform for uncensored discussions on a future Russia with the current regime out of the picture. The conference was attended by over 200 people, including journalists, policy experts and NGO representatives from Russia and beyond.

An important part of the conference was the third annual Journalism as a Profession Awards ceremony. The Journalism as a Profession Awards shed light on the work of independent Russian-language journalists, who publish objective and insightful work on issues that state-aligned media aovids. Mikhail Khodorkovsky gave some thoughtful opening remarks, speaking about the significance of independent, objective journalism in light of the death of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic.

Prague also played host to the annual Open Russia Movement conference, where activists from all of the Movement’s 35 regional HQs gathered to discuss and vote on the future direction of the Movement.

At the Russia vs. Putin conference participants were able to attend expert-led panel discussions on a wide range of topic, including Russia soft power in Europe, regionalism in Russia and civil activism.

Among speakers were Arkady Ostrovsky (The Economist), Kirill Rogov (Political expert and writer), John Lough (Chatham House), Dimitry Oreshkin (Committee for Civic Initiatives), Pavel Felgengauer (Euroasia Daily Mointor), Elena Lukyanova (prominent lawyer), Tatyana Felgengauer (journalist from Echo of Moscow) and others.

The panel-led discussions were held in Russian. However, there were many points made that may be of use to those trying to get a better understanding of how Russians can take on the Putin regime. We have summarised the best points from the some of the panels in English below.



Human Rights in Russia’s Prison: Action Today to Form Institutions of Tomorrow.Danila Galperovich (M), Andrei Babushkin, Andrei Barabanov, Karinna Moskalenko, Koreshyn Sagieva, Olga Romanova.
Civil Activism: Elections, Street Protests and the Media. Preparing for Life After Putin.Danila Galperovich (M), Alexander Solovyov, Evgenia Chirikova, Sergei Smirnov, Yuliya Galyamina.
Why Facts Are Becoming Powerless Against Propaganda.Tatiana Felgengauer (M), Andrei Arkhangelsky, Anna Narinskaya, Tikhon Dzyadko, Vasily Gatov.
Does the Putin Regime Have an Ideology?Kirill Rogov (M), Alexander Morozov, Arkady Ostrovsky, Nikolai Mitrokhin, Timur Olevsky, Vladimir Pastukhov.
Russia Is More Than Just Moscow: Expressing the concerns of citizens.Tatiana Felgengauer (M), Maria Eismont, Oleg Kashin, Sergei Smirnov, Yuliya Muzhnik.
Will the European Right-Wing Populism Sweep Through Russia?Vladimir Pastukhov (M), Emil Pain, John Laugh, Kirill Rogov, Pavel Felgengauer.
Economics, Stimuli and Human Capital: Has the Putin Formed the ‘New Russian Citizen’?Boris Grozovsky (M), Alexander Morozov, Dmitry Travin, Leonid Gozman, Vigaudas Ushatskas.
Russian Soft Power in Europe: Good or Evil?Maria Ordzhonikidze (M), Anton Shekhovtsov, Maria Snegovaya, Roman Matsa.


Human Rights in Russia’s Prison: Action Today to Form Institutions of Tomorrow.

Moderator: Danila Galperovich.

  • Within the current Russian Federal Penal System prisoners’ Human Rights are consistently violated.
  • Prisoners are often tortured if they ‘misbehave’ and they are regularly denied access to health care.
  • The use of torture serves to deter prisoners from ‘bad behaviour’ and to intimidate potential offenders.
  • Human Rights violations taking place in Putin’s Russia are primarily a product of the militarisation of penal and policing institutions.
  • Appointments to the highest-ranking positions in the Federal Penal Service (FSIN) and the police are based on applicants’ military credentials or their personal relationship with Putin.
  • Also, the Federal Security Service (FSB) consistently interferes in the running of penal and criminal procedures.
  • Therefore, it is the presence of special service agents (siloviki) in prisons, coupled with military leadership of non-military institutions, that have turned the police and prisons into instruments of state.
  • Participants consistently agreed that penal and policing institutions need to become civil institutions, not militarised state organs.
  • However, opinions were divided on whether gradual reform or complete system overhaul would be the most suitable approach.
  • Though corruption is extremely prevalent in the prison system, participants agreed that their focus should be on reform rather than fighting corruption directly.
  • Russia’s continued inclusion in European Court of Human Rights is crucial if Human Rights violations are to stop.
  • Currently, Human Rights activists in Russia are trying to supply prisoners with mobile phones as a means to record violations from prison officers.


Civil Activism: Elections, Street Protests and the Media. Preparing for Life After Putin.

Moderator: Danila Galperovich.

  • Civil activists in today’s Russia must exercise those civil rights today that they will have in a Russia without Putin.
  • However, civil activism must target the weaknesses of current authorities, if civil activism is to have the maximum desired effect.
  • This means civil activist leaders should focus of local issues and organise localised demonstrations and rallies.
  • Operating on a local scale means that apolitical citizens may over time become politicised, thus increasing the pool of activists.
  • All efforts should be made to promote local activists’ demonstrations and movements on social media.
  • Russian (pro-Kremlin) mainstream media gives no coverage to these movements. Therefore it is imperative that independent press covers local civil activities.



Why Facts Are Becoming Powerless Against Propaganda.

Moderator: Tatiana Felgengauer

  • Quintessential to the construction of propaganda is its emotive aspect. Be they positive or negative, propaganda targets sensitive issues to which readers will react emotionally.
  • Similarly, propaganda is emotionally divisive, pushing ideas of apocalypse and war between the reader and desired social group.
  • Panelists stressed that the public must engage critically propaganda, considering who created it and what their motivations may be.
  • In Russia money often serves as a motivational factor for propagandists. However, a significant portion of propaganda plays on the post-Soviet ‘trauma’ that many Russians, in particular those of older generations, may harbour.
  • It is extremely hard to compete with or even defeat propaganda. Propaganda is not restrained by the framework of objective and truthful reporting.
  • The growth of disinformation/propaganda in recent years has been driven by the Internet, as well as the saturated media market.
  • Rather than driving up the quality journalism through competition, social media networks have turned journalism into a clickbait contest. Social media is constitutive to this phenomenon.
  • An additional problem is that traditional media often fails to build a personalised relationship with the reader, whereas propaganda is completely dependent on its personal relationships with its readers.


Does the Putin Regime Have an Ideology?

Moderator: Kirill Rogov

  • Identifying the characteristics of the Putin regime will help activists to better organise demonstrations and structure campaigns.
  • Though the regime fosters a form of hybrid authoritarianism, an overriding characteristic is militarism.
  • This form of hybridism is dependent on partial societal support through elections, the existence and pre-determined failure of sanction opposition forces, the repression of genuine opposition, and the dismantling of free press.
  • The Putin regime combines broad patriotism with militarism for its general ideological basis.
  • This builds on previous values of the Soviet era and stabilises the longevity of the current regime.
  • Stabilisation takes places through appointing of military officials to the highest positions in the government, which seeks to guarantee a continuation of this broad militaristic ideology.
  • No single individual may be bigger or more important than the state.
  • Another suggestion was the so-called flickering ideology. Three aspects form the basis of the flickering ideology: (1) an inner circle that has full control over who holds power; (2) powerful foreign policy, which is (3) designed to be consumed by citizens.
  • Putin has sought to create an national idea. Most nation-states need a national idea. Therefore, this is not a new phenomenon.
  • But Putin was able to identify the need for a new national before Western leaders. The election of Donald Trump can be interpreted as the absence of a national idea.
  • The transfer of power will be crucial in understanding what ideology is currently being formed.
  • It is likely that if Putin is able to transfer power smoothly that the characteristics of his ideology will become clearer.


Russia Is More Than Just Moscow. Articulating the concerns of citizens.

Moderator: Tatiana Felgengauer

  • The political structure of Putin’s Russia has pushed many regions outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg to the sidelines of political discourse.
  • However, recent election results in Khakassia and Primorye, as well as the unrest in Ingushetia, have shown that citizens in these marginalised regions are starting to stand up to the imperialistically orientated Kremlin.
  • Despite some devolution in a few regions, domestic policy-making remains unquestionably within jurisdiction of Moscow politicians.
  • This has caused feelings of political impotence amongst citizens outside of Moscow.
  • Also, local activism has been extremely successful in fighting decisions made in the State Duma; these decisions often have negative consequences for local residents.
  • Of primary concern is the little media attention paid to local issues by state-aligned, federal media.
  • Sentiments that may be felt simultaneously across multiple regions are not presented on a unified platform, leaving individual regions isolated.
  • However, regional newspapers are struggling to survive in the current economic and political climate. Local journalists and newspapers are forced to closed due to economic difficulties and, in some cases, threats from state authorities or state-sponsored thugs.
  • The panelists reached the conclusion that without local journalism many of the real issues that Russians face will be neither discussed, nor resolved.


Will the European Right-Wing Populism Sweep Through Russia?

Moderator: Vladimir Pastukhov

  • Right-wing populism is a recent phenomenon that explains political events/upsets that have happened across Western countries.
  • This phenomenon stems primarily from the disappearance of national borders which enabled mass migration, growing economic dissatisfaction due to stagnating wages, and austerity imposed by Western governments after the banking crisis.
  • This has led people not only to question democracy, but also to favour a nation-state over globalised structures (for example, the EU).
  • Russia experienced such sentiments in the 2000s due to the aggressive marketisation of the 90s.
  • Therefore, it is unlikely that a populist movement based these aspects of discontent will appear in Russia.
  • However, there was a lot of xenophobia towards migrants in 2013. Russia has the third-largest annual intake of migrants after the USA and Germany.
  • The annexation of Crimea in 2014 quelled disdain towards migrants as the Kremlin undertook its own propaganda campaign against Ukraine.
  • The issues associated with globalisation will affect western societies more greatly so long as Russia remains under the control of the Kremlin.


Economics, Stimuli and Human Capital: Has the Putin Formed the ‘New Russian Citizen’?

Moderator: Boris Grozovsky

  • When a national ideology changes it is imperative for the new government to ‘inspire’ citizens through creating a new national identity.
  • Under Stalin this was achieved through drastic economic reforms that led to widespread urbanisation.
  • Urbanisation created an array of ‘stimuli’ for Soviet citizens. Also, widespread career opportunities – brought about in part by the Great Purges of 1930s – established a strong sense of identity for citizens.
  • This can be termed ‘the citizen reborn’ as the fundamental roles citizens played in society had changed.
  • Putin and Yeltsin were born at the end of this period.
  • However, the economic stagnation of the 70s saw the number of ‘stimuli’ and job opportunities for Soviet citizens decrease.
  • Thus the citizen reborn became the superfluous citizen: there were too many citizens for the stagnant economy.
  • The increasing presence of Western culture and knowledge of the West in the Soviet Union also contributed to the failure of the Soviet Citizen.
  • Despite initial economic success under Putin, the Russian economic has remained stagnant and dependent on oil prices over the last few years.
  • The weak economy means that most Russians, in particular young people, have limited career opportunities and thus little motivation or ‘stimuli’ to help them create a new civil identity.
  • Though one has witnessed a rallying behind Putin in recent years, this was fuelled by state-driven aggressive foreign policy as a means to conceal the economic failures the Putin regime.
  • Only through regime change can Russians expect efficient identity changes to take place.


Russian Soft Power in Europe: Good or Evil?

Moderator: Maria Ordzhonikidze

  • There has been a spike in the number of Czech-language disinformation websites since 2014.
  • The origins of the funding for these sites is unclear, however the narratives produced are adherent to Kremlin disinformation.
  • The sites use official-sounding names to increase the authority of their publications: one is named Parliament Listy, for example.
  • Similarly, these websites draw on quotes from ‘experts’. Upon further examination, it becomes evident their ‘expert credentials’ are self-proclaimed and that these individuals have close financial ties to the Kremlin.
  • The narratives that commonly appear are divisive, presenting Western Europe and the US as ‘failing and morally deficient’. In contrast, Russia and Putin are prevented as the only viable protection from Western failures.
  • Panellists confirmed that Western anti-disinformation organisations are extremely underfunded in comparison to Russia ‘troll factories’. Therefore, more money must be made available to mount a serious challenge to Kremlin disinformation.
  • Others panellists presented global events from the perspective of the Kremlin: an extremely useful exercise for policy makers.
  • The Kremlin take on events is reactionary and contains a pick-and-choose logic when viewing history.
  • In effect, the Kremlin response to global affairs is derived from the substantial changes in the distribution of global power between the Old and New World Order.
  • The former order refers to the post-War period in which the Order was by and large bipolar.
  • The latter is an expression of the current, comparatively lower standing of Russia in the global pecking order, in which the USA is perceived as the sole global power.
  • Panellists argued that the Kremlin responses to global affairs claim that any current US-led action is done in spite of Russia’s lower position in the New World Order.
  • However, many Kremlin political theorists recognise that the country is not in a position to compete with the US, and that the multipolar World Order it advocates would be unstable.
  • Currently, the Kremlin is able to react to global affairs anticipating a more-a-less pre-determined response from the West.
  • In a multipolar system, the Kremlin would not be able to predict the responses to its actions.
  • Currently, no institutions in Russia operate independently of the Kremlin.
  • Therefore, panellists suggested that more efforts be made to integrate Russian institutions into democratic, transnational structures. This would actually empower Russia on the global stage and provide much needed legitimacy to the institutions themselves.