Professor Timothy M. Frye Discusses the Russian Political Scene

Interview by Tanya Domi

Feb. 21, 2012Bookmark and Share

In the late 1980s, Timothy Frye, a recent Middlebury College graduate with a B.A. in Russian language and literature, went for the first time to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, where Mikhail Gorbachev had just come to power. “It was just such an exotic and fascinating place,” he says. “And if you’re a curious individual, you begin to ask questions: Why is this country the way it is? Why is the political system the way it is?”

Frye (SIPA’92, GSAS’97) was lucky enough to be in Russia again in the 1990s, in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet empire. “Just to see the creation of states and markets and parties, of elections being held for the first time, the possibilities for research were overwhelming,” he said. “It was like reading the Federalist Papers in the U.S. and being able to interview Madison, Jay, Hamilton and say, ‘Why are you doing this and not that?’”

Timothy Frye (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)
Timothy Frye
Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

Now, as the Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy and director of Columbia’s Harriman Institute, the oldest academic institution devoted to the study of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Frye is once again riveted by the state of the Russian political scene. With national elections scheduled for March 4, few doubt that Vladimir Putin will return to power as Russia’s president. But with mass demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the country is “as politicized as I’ve seen Russian society since the early 1990s,” he said. “Many well-educated Russians who were not particularly interested in politics really made a special point to talk with me about what was going on.”

Q. There have been a series of demonstrations across Russia leading up to the election [on March 4], the largest since the 1990s. Vladimir Putin’s approval rating has dropped into the 40s from his historical high of 80, and yet he’s still expected to be easily reelected. Why?

During Putin’s tenure in office, both as president and as prime minister, the Russian economy has done very well. Economic growth prior to the crisis of 2008 was in the 6 to 7 percent range a year and the size of the economy doubled between 1998 and 2008. Also he has an image of being a moderate nationalist who stands up for Russian interests on the global stage. That said, he’s likely to win the election primarily because the field is limited to people who are approved by the Kremlin. They’re not going to approve any candidate who’s a real threat.

Q. Has the economic growth in Russia benefited everyone? Or some much more than others?

Inequality in Russia is roughly on par with that of the U.S. What’s different is that the number of billionaires in Russia is extraordinarily high for the size of its economy, so there’s lots of inequality, particularly at the very high end, because of the natural resource wealth in minerals, oil and gas. But under Putin the poverty rate has gone down substantially, and this massive growth in the economy has lifted almost all boats.

Q. So what are the rallies and demonstrations about?

The main rallying cry of the opposition is anti-corruption. To the extent that great wealth is perceived as being ill-gotten, this touches a deep chord in Russian society and throughout the post-Communist world. So it’s not so much the wealth as the way it was obtained. Russia is far too well educated to be as corrupt and as undemocratic as it is. One structural argument that political scientists make is that countries with high levels of education tend to be more democratic, but Russia contradicts this claim. One irony of the protests is that the economic growth of the last decade has helped many of these well-educated protesters increase their standard of living, but many of them now see their life chances limited by the high levels of corruption. Whether you are in the private sector or the government sector, if you’re not well connected, you’re still vulnerable no matter how well-educated and well-trained you are and no matter how well you’re doing financially.

Q. Putin has been publicly criticized for taking care of his cronies. Has he been responding to his critics?

He recently wrote a piece in Kommersant [a daily business newspaper in Russia] calling for reforms, so in a way he’s already begun to shift in response to public opinion. But the devil is in the details. He’s been talking about anti-corruption for many years, even as many people believe corruption has grown under him, particularly among high-level government officials. He’s announced a series of new initiatives, like he’s going to put regional governors up for elections again, but only approved parties will be able to nominate them and the president will still be able to dismiss them at will. And he’s going to reduce driving privileges for government bureaucrats, who right now can just put blue lights on top of their cars and sail through traffic. Moscow is an old city with horrible traffic and the increase in the number of cars because of the new wealth is extraordinary. You can imagine what it’s like for the average Moscovite stuck in traffic to see somebody put the siren on and go shooting down the side of the road.

Q. How bad is corruption?

There’s a website called Rospil which is run by an anti-corruption activist named Aleksei Navalny. He and his group scour the state procurement websites for purchases made by state entities that seem very dodgy, then they publicize this information and ask the state anti-monopoly commission to investigate—things like the Chechen police force buying 30 Mercedes sedans or the federal security services trying to buy golden fixtures for their bathrooms. And many of these entities are linked in one way or another to United Russia, Putin’s party. So Navalny, in a real stroke of genius, has coined the term “the party of swindlers and thieves,” which has really taken off in Russia and become a rallying cry for the opposition. But the even deeper story here is that people within the Russian government were able to pass the law requiring all state entities to put their bids for their purchases online. Without someone deep in the bowels of the Russian bureaucracy and some academic experts pushing for this law forcing greater transparency in the first place, Navalny wouldn’t even exist.

Q. In last year’s elections, Putin’s party, United Russia, had a smaller majority in the elections for the Duma than it has ever had. Is it losing its influence?

A couple of things happened. The drop in United Russia’s vote was starkest in the big cities and the big industrial centers, which is not a good sign going forward for Putin because Russian society is still dominated by Moscow, St. Petersburg and the big cities in the Urals. It’s a very urban society, so most of the young people, the most productive element in society, live in the cities, and once you lose them, it’s much more difficult to govern. Even so, particularly if the presidential election is close, United Russia will find a way to push Putin over the 50 percent barrier in the first round of elections. The main slogan of the Putin campaign has been “don’t rock the boat”—we finally have stability after the difficult period of the 1990s, we’ve had a decade of growth, and look around the world, other countries aren’t doing very well. He has warned against extreme nationalists or foreign provocateurs or anyone who would disrupt the elections. This is right out of the play book of autocratic incumbents across the globe.

Q. Is the Russian economy’s dependence on energy prices helpful or hurtful going forward?

Russia has benefited tremendously from the high energy prices leading up to the global financial crisis in 2008. And the rebound in energy prices afterwards, which was much quicker than many people expected, has helped Russia bounce back fairly quickly. Still, the country is trying to diversify its economy, but it’s very difficult to do. What they have done well is manage the inflow of hard currency into Russia. They have built up large reserves that were helpful during the global economic crisis—they weren’t used very efficiently, but the scale of them was large enough that they helped the Russian economy bounce back. But diversifying to build up other sectors of the economy is a difficult task, and few countries have been able to do it well, particularly countries that are starting with weak political institutions and autocratic governments.

Q. Russia indicated it will participate in the bailout of Europe. What’s the advantage to them of doing that?

The different figures that have been thrown around are $8 billion or $10 billion to help bail out Europe. And this is in Russia’s interest. Europe is their main trading partner. Europe buys between 20 and 30 percent of its natural gas from Russia. So as the European economies have suffered, demand for gas from Russia has gone down, and this is a big portion of state revenue in Russia.

Q. Recently Russia, along with China, vetoed a U.N. Security Council vote condemning Syria’s handling of rebels. Why does Russia care about Syria?

Syria is a fairly large purchaser of Russian military equipment, about $1 billion a year. It is also one of the few countries in the Middle East where Russia has good relations with the government. So if a new government were to come to power, Russian influence in the region as a whole would wane. But the bigger issue is one of national sovereignty. The Russian government has been pretty consistent in saying that the international community should not be choosing leaders for any other country, and that this is interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. When the international community rallies together to push out an autocrat, one can trace a thread back to thinking in the Kremlin, ‘Well, this has happened in other countries and could it happen to us someday?’”

Q. How would you describe U.S.-Russian relations currently?

There have been a number of substantive achievements that President Obama can point to, most particularly the approval of the New START arms control agreement and an agreement to allow the U.S. to use Russian airspace to help supply troops in Afghanistan. Russia’s been somewhat helpful in Iran, canceling some sales of surface-to-air missiles after suggestions from the Obama administration. Russia’s set to join the World Trade Organization after negotiations of more than 17 years. So on all these points there’s been cooperation. Now, it’s often the case in U.S.-Russia relations that with elections on the horizon, many initiatives are put on hold because both sides recognize that there are some domestic political costs to being too friendly. It could be very interesting for Obama because on the one hand, he can point to some real successes working with [President Dmitri] Medvedev and Putin. On the other hand, if the protests continue and if there’s perceived to be lots of election fraud, or if there’s a crackdown after the elections, that card becomes a lot less valuable for Obama. It’s going to be very interesting to see how that plays out politically in the U.S.