Lucian Kim

Conversation with a Contrarian

These days it’s uncool in Moscow to support Vladimir Putin, especially among the young, educated and politically active. According to a poll published by the state-owned VTsIOM agency at the beginning of February, Putin can count on only 43 percent of the vote in the capital in tomorrow’s presidential election, with billionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov coming in second with 12 percent. I was curious about who still supports Putin besides pensioners or workers in state-owned tank factories. So I friended Robert Shlegel on Facebook, sent him an introductory e-mail and agreed on a meeting place by text message.

Shlegel, a 27-year-old Duma deputy from Putin’s United Russia party, is both the total outsider and the consummate insider. His un-Russian name is testimony to his ethnic German ancestors who were deported to Central Asia during World War II. Born in Turkmenistan, the oil-and-gas rich Soviet republic that won independence in 1991, Shlegel’s family immigrated to Russia when he was 13. In Moscow, the trained TV journalist has had a meteoric political career, first as an activist in the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement, now as one of the youngest members of parliament.

We met yesterday at Cafe Akademiya, an Italian restaurant near the Duma where everybody from plotting oppositionists to establishment dames comes to gossip and gawk. In January, a video taken by clandestine camera surfaced showing dissident Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov and opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov in a conspiratorial huddle over a table in Akademiya.

I’m guessing no secret tape of my two-hour interview with Shlegel will turn up. Neither of us used swear words, and I didn’t offer my help to turn United Russia into a European-style conservative party. Although I mostly disagreed with him, I found Shlegel engaging, smart and sincere. For lack of a video, I’ve written up the main points of our conversation below.

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On change in Russia

Moscow’s street protesters are angry about Putin, giddy with success and impatient for change. Shlegel takes the view that Putin plays a stabilizing role in bridging the chaos of the post-communist collapse to a more democratic form of government. Current-day Russia shouldn’t be compared to an advanced democracy like Germany, but to where it was 20 years ago when the Soviet Union came crashing down.

“We’re all part of the old system – products of the Cold War, perestroika, the fall of the Soviet Union. The new world isn’t here yet.”

“I don’t see a new world. I see a decaying old world. That doesn’t apply just to Russia but the whole world,” Shlegel said. “We’re all part of the old system – products of the Cold War, perestroika, the fall of the Soviet Union. The new world isn’t here yet.”

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Moscow is moving at a completely different speed than the rest of the country is, Shlegel said. He has just returned from a trip to Russia’s extremities – Vladivostok in the east and Kaliningrad in the west. I asked him if he thought the threat of Siberian separatism was real. Yes, he said. The provinces look at the capital with disdain and resentment. If some Moscow-based liberal came to power – former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin or anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, for example – it could trigger a secessionist reaction. “Putin, whoever he may be, is an authority for all of Russia.”

The centrifugal forces that tore apart the Soviet Union are still at work.

On his attack on independent TV channel Dozhd

Shlegel most recently made headlines when he used his position as a Duma deputy to ask prosecutors to investigate how  feisty TV channel Dozhd (Rain) financed its coverage of the anti-government protests that broke out in December after reports of systemic vote-rigging in parliamentary elections.

Shlegel said it’s important to uncover all the sources of the demonstrations’ financing, which organizers say they raised exclusively from private donations.

“If they want to be the conscience of society, then they need to be open,” Shlegel said. “Domestic politics need to be transparent to a maximum.”

Of course Putin has financed his campaign in a most opaque fashion, dominating the evening news on national television and holding a huge rally last week to which participants traveled from around the country.

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Shlegel is interested in finding foreign fingerprints. Why is the international community so concerned with the state of Russian democracy but ignores the plight of ethnic Russians denied citizenship in the former Soviet republic of Estonia?

On the threat of U.S.-backed regime change in Russia

Putin’s supporters have made direct comparisons between Moscow’s protest movement and Kiev’s pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004, when thousands of Ukrainians camped out on a central square to protest election fraud. Russian opposition activists didn’t do themselves any favors by trooping to the U.S. embassy to meet new Ambassador Michael McFaul and trying to distribute tents to protesters. But wasn’t Putin’s campaign team overreacting?

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Shlegel insisted that the “orange threat” exists. “Of course the Americans want a more loyal leader than Putin. That’s normal,” he said. Russia is also interested in having friendly regimes on its borders.

“Of course the Americans want a more loyal leader than Putin. That’s normal.”

U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Libya had nothing to do with spreading democracy. “Don’t take me for a fool,” Shlegel said. “It’s about natural resources and nothing else.” Now U.S. media are creating a negative news environment around Russia in a similar way as they did with Syria.

On the post-election future

Changes are slow in coming but they will happen, Shlegel said. A fifth, liberal party will emerge and participate in a parliament of the future. (The next Duma elections aren’t scheduled until 2016.)

United Russia is beset with problems. “It’s a gigantic bureaucratic system that’s very vulnerable. It needs restructuring,” Shlegel said. “The problem is that the people who represent the party and those who take decisions are different. There’s no independence.”

Today’s society is ready for a multitude of parties, but it wasn’t in the 1990s, Shlegel said. “Society is growing up like a child.”

Shlegel said he agreed with a lot of the criticism of the existing power structure and had acquaintances who attended the protests.

“It’s good if they found parties tomorrow – but not if they organize unrest on Western grants. We don’t want a second Libya,” said Shlegel.

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“Are you serious?” I asked. All the talk of Libyan and Syrian scenarios sounded like scare-mongering to me.

“Yes. I’m concerned because a situation with bloodshed is possible,” said Shlegel. There are reactionary forces in Russia that have something to lose if there’s a radical change in power, he said. “People don’t take the danger seriously enough.”

On dialogue within the new generation

Shlegel doesn’t sit in an ideological foxhole. While he says Christian Democratic parties in Europe best mirror his political beliefs, he talks to other young politicians who are in direct confrontation with United Russia, such as Dmitry Gudkov, 32, an ambitious deputy from the Fair Russia party (and son of aforementioned Gennady) or Ilya Yashin, 28, a leader of the liberal Solidarity movement.

“I believe that any civilized politician must make a split between the personal and the political. It’s a sign of weakness not to talk to the opposition,” he said. “The situation could change so radically that we may end up on the same side of the barricades.”

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“There’s the danger that our liberals wouldn’t come to power but completely different people with weapons,” Shlegel said darkly. “There’s an evolutionary path and a revolutionary one.”

Putin is demonized as a tyrant, but he’s by far not Russia’s worst option considering the country’s totalitarian legacy, Shlegel said. Just take the iron-fisted dictatorship in his native Turkmenistan. “When they say we don’t have freedom in Russia, I have to laugh,” he said.

On the disputed parliamentary elections

“Was there ballot stuffing? Yes, but no elections take place without it,” Shlegel said. Based on the results of exit polls, it’s possible to assert that any irregularities were too insignificant to have affected the final outcome, he said.

“Was there ballot stuffing? Yes, but no elections take place without it.”

I remarked that the 99.48 percent showing for United Russia in Chechnya seemed a tad high. Shlegel answered that there had been no reports of vote-rigging from the province, which is run by local strongman and Putin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov.

On the fight against corruption

Government critics consider rampant corruption to be more than just a social ill but a mechanism of control in the hierarchical power structure Putin built. Shlegel disagreed vehemently.

Corruption is an inheritance from the Soviet Union, he said. The fact that bribes have ballooned under Putin can be attributed to the fact that the country has a lot more money than before. Besides, Shlegel added, corruption is a two-way street: there are just as many bribe-givers as there are bribe-takers.

“When people understand they don’t have to participate in this social contract, things change,” Shlegel said. “That’s already happening in Moscow.”

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On Russia’s trouble with the transfer of power

Putin’s decision to return to cut short Dmitry Medvedev’s career and return to the presidency himself is but another chapter in Russia’s troubled history of the transfer of power from one generation to the next. I asked Shlegel why this is the case.

Shlegel began with the example of the U.S. It’s an illusion to believe that Barack Obama controls the country; in fact it’s a small group of people and institutions that holds real influence in America, Shlegel said. In Russia, the situation is completely different: the state controls the most resources, and that’s why political conflicts have always been so bitter. “The struggle for power is in fact the struggle for money and resources,” he said.

On Putin’s reelection campaign in 2018

I asked Shlegel if he’d support a fourth Putin bid for the presidency in six years. He said he didn’t know.

“For me the most important thing isn’t a person, it’s the country,” he said. “I know what the destruction of a country means. I lived in Turkmenistan.”

I suggested that Putin – whatever his merits or faults – shouldn’t be allowed to serve another term because no single person should run a country for more than 10 years.

 “Who could lead the country at this moment better than Putin? I don’t know.”

“The system that exists now hasn’t exhausted itself, but change is inevitable,” Shlegel said. “Who could lead the country at this moment better than Putin? I don’t know. I’d like to, but I don’t.”

“Are you a Putinist?” I asked.

“No, I’m a patriot,” he said.

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