Thursday, November 14, 2019

Probability of Russia’s Disintegration ‘Increasing with Each Passing Day,’ Ilya Ponomaryev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 9 – The probability that the Russian Federation will disintegrate is “increasing with each passing day,” Ilya Ponomaryev tells the Seventh Free Russia Forum in Vilnius; but this possibility may have the effect of “rallying” the regime and leading it to take steps in defense of its existence rather than of promoting more popular protest.

            The Russian opposition figure, now living in exile in Kyiv, drew those conclusions during a discussion of the state of Russia and of the Russian opposition today, with participants warning against underestimating either the power of the state to learn and become even more repressive or the possibilities of the opposition to change things (

            Human rights activist Lev Ponomaryev argues that Russia is still not a full-blown dictatorship but rather an authoritarian regime in which different elements within the government are often fighting with each other. In this situation, he says, he is “against a revolution by force in Russia. With the Putin machine one must struggle via peaceful means.”

            “We live in conditions of the transformation of Russian society, the activist continues. “On the map of Russia, there are thousands of protest actions, something which was never the case before. There is the myth that it is impossible to defeat the Putin system. But citizens have been winning in Yekaterinburg” and elsewhere.

            But Marat Gelman, a curator and opposition figure, observes that “the powers that be have learned to lose and then how to win.” They may retreat only to come back with renewed force. And that is especially likely if they do not have the support of the West, which many speakers in Vilnius say fails to understand how Russia works.

            Gary Kasparov says that the current situation is very different from what it was in Soviet times. Then, the West actively supported the dissidents; but now many in Russia and even more abroad say that there is no reason to sanction Putin despite his repressive policies.  And that sanctions alone won’t work.

            In that, Kasparov continues, they are right: sanctions aren’t going to transform the Russian system unless and until it suffers “a geopolitical defeat. And this won’t occur as long as we do not act as a united front. It is necessary to show the West that the Putin regime represents a danger” to it as well as to Russia.

            “The strength of Putin lies in the weakness of the West,” the opposition leader concludes.

            A major focus of the first day of the Vilnius conference was on the relationship between economics and political change, an especially important topic because the West assumes that if its sanctions make the situation in Russia worse, that by itself will lead to positive political developments there.

            But Russian participants are skeptical of that idea. Anastasiya Nikolskaya of the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service says that “there is no direct connection between the well-being of citizens and protest attitudes” and that “stable poverty often becomes a guarantee of conservatism and of a lack of desire to change something.”

            There is interest in change among Russians, she says; but political commentator Andrey Illarionov argues that this interest may not be in favor of democracy and the opposition. Many instead want a return of Stalin. Nikolskaya responds that what they want is a Stalinist-style revenge on corrupt officials.  

            To that extent, she says, “’Stalinism’ exists as a response to the absence of democracy.”

            Finally, commentator Igor Yakovenko says that the supposed outcome of the conflict between the television and the refrigerator, between the propaganda spread by the regime in the former and the realities of increasing impoverishment in the latter, is a myth. It isn’t the poorest who demonstrate. Otherwise, it would be the homeless dominating the demonstrations.

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