by Gordon M. Hahn

As Russia prepares to commemorate the 1917 Bolshevik coup which followed the initial phase of its violent revolution from below and led to its second phase, the Russian civil war and ultimately to totalitarian communism, some Russian opposition figures are beginning to think seriously about how to fashion a regime transformation that both regime and opposition figures and the population at-large can ‘live with’ figuratively and literally speaking.Contrary to some in the Russian democratic opposition, who are radical, irreconcilable revolutionaries, oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovskii seems to get it – understand the preferability for an internally agreed upon Russian transition from Vladimir Putin’s soft authoritarian regime to a democratic one.

Overall. there are various types of internally-generated regime transformation. Revolutionary forms of regime transformation that are generated from below, in society, by societal opposition forces, usually end in violence and non-democratic outcomes. Although revolutions from above can be less violent — as Russia’s 1991 revolution from above was — they have a poor record in producing democracy. Negotiated or ‘pacted’ transitional forms of regime change as well as imposed ones or those managed entirely from above by the regime ruling group or groups have a much better record in terms of bringing both a democratic order and a peaceful takeover of power by formerly opposition elements.

Khodorkovskii’s Moderate Approach

Khodorkovskii recently announced that his ‘Open Russia’ (Otkyrtaya Rossiya) or OR foundation will sponsor a conference that will bring together Westernizing or ‘Europeanizing’ Russians representing opposition and regime-friendly figures to prepare for a “bloodless transition of power.” From the society-based democratic opposition he has invited representatives from Grigorii Yavlinskii’s Yabloko Party and Mikhail Kasyanov’s National Freedom Party or PARNAS. Among the regime-friendly figures invited are: ‘Business Russia’ (Delovaya Rossiya) leader and Putin’s business ombudsman Boris Titov; Civic Initiative leader, Putin economic advisor and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin; and even the Putn-organized, pro-Kremlin All-Russian National Front (Obshcherossiiskii natsionalnyi front) or ONF (www.ng.ru/politics/2017-03-06/1_6942_hodor.html).

Khodorkovskii thus appears to be pursuing a path to some sort of transitional, likely a negotiated or ‘pacted’ transition process, in the event Putin’s soft authoritarian regime falls. The conference is scheduled to be held on the 100th anniversary of the October coup that brought the Bolsheviks to power leading to Soviet totalitarianism. In a recent article “Russian Europeans,” Khodorkovskii noted: “One hundred years ago our predecessors could not agree and power fell into the hands of a quite small group of harsh murderers for decades. Our people paid for this with tens of millions of lives and the country’s collapse. Fearfully refusing well-intentioned contacts with people considered unacceptable in the present situation in Russia, one can demonstrate loyalty to the Kremlin, but lose the future. In the exact same way, holding to the most principled and extreme point of view, rejecting cooperation with the more moderate, one can be a great publicist, but one cannot achieve the goal before us – the real transformation of Russia.” In the same article he proposed organizing a “roundtable” to include “experts from the teams” of the invitees mentioned above and others. Khodorkovskii’s representatives emphasize that the initiative is not just an effort to unite the opposition but is rather Khodorkovskii’s proposal “to begin negotiations about a regime transformation and an attempt to create a common vision and common ground” about how to act not just in pursuit of “democratic changes and replacement of the regime in Russia,” but also to agree on “how to act when the regime falls.” Khodorkovskii and his allies regard the fall of the present Russian regime as inevitable and once that begins some in the regime “will be ready for dialogue” (www.ixtc.org/2017/03/mihail-hodorkovskiy-russkie-evropeytsy/).

Invitee Kudrin is one of the few, if not the only opposition-oriented figure in Russia, and certainly the most authoritative political one who is trusted both by Putin and many in his inner circle, on the one hand, and many in the pro-democracy opposition, on the other hand. Kudrin has repeatedly called for destatizing economic reforms and democratization, and he actively pursued negotiations between regime and opposition figures during the winter 2011-12 white ribbon or ‘belaya lenta’ mass demonstrations protesting alleged fraud in the December 2011 State Duma elections. He is still well-positioned to play a similar mediating role today or in the near future if need be.

Russian Pact-Making: The Soviet Pre-History

If one has doubts about the likelihood of Russians negotiating let alone agreeing on a pact for a transition to democracy, then it is necessary for one to explain away two previous pacting episodes in recent Russian and late Soviet history. The former was fleeting, while the latter was serious but failed as a result of a coup that in turn also failed. In both cases, as in others, the pact talks were facilitated by a regime split in which elements from the extant regime’s ruling group or groups defect to the moderate opposition. Such an opposition is more likely to be an acceptable negotiating partner for regime elements seeking to extricate themselves from power while minimizing the hit their interests might otherwise suffer.

In the late Soviet perestroika era case, there were in fact two pact-making episodes. The first came in 1990 and was based on the ‘500 Days’ transition plan to a free market, which was foiled by disagreements between the camp of regime reformist softliners led by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and moderate opposition forces led by Russian Supreme Soviet Chairman Boris Yeltsin still operating within the confines of the party-state apparatus, albeit more on the state side and within the Russian Federation not at the Union level. The second episode during perestroika came in 1991 and involved negotiations and near completion of a new Union Treaty that included a full transition to democracy, federalism, and a market economy between the Gorbachevite softliners, on the one hand, and Yeltsin and several other increasingly independent leaders of union republics, on the other. The nascent Union Treaty pact fizzled out as a result of the failed August coup attempt against both Gorbachev and Yeltsin led by regime hardliners in the CPSU apparatus, KGB, MVD, and military. Before attempting to pact with the Gorbachevite softliners, Yeltsin had defected from the decaying Party-state regime, walking out of the Party at the June 1990 XXVIII CPSU Congress and establishing a Russian presidency, army and KGB in 1991. In doing so, he both brought with, and followed many who preceded him in doing so under the CPSU Democratic Platform, which allied with some moderate opposition groups in society.

Defections from shaky or collapsing regimes create the potential for massive defections to the opposition camp and the development of an additional feature of transformational regime splits: a four-way structure of strategic action which scholars refer to as a “moderates’ dilemma.” The task of moderates within the regime and opposition in this dilemma is to weaken and at the same time assuage their respective radicals.  This helps avoid outcomes such as a hardline restorationist coup and revolution from below; neither of which are in the moderates’ interests compared to a negotiated transition.  As much as they need to contain their radicals, the moderates must also overcome the inherent mutual distrust of being on opposite sides of the barricades.  In negotiating the details of any transition pact, each moderate side uses the threat of their radicals as a cudgel to hammer out concessions.  If regime softliners grant the opposition too much, regime hardliners may stage a coup.  If the opposition moderates win too few concessions from the regime, radicals may stage demonstrations or violent acts in pursuit of a quick and thorough revolutionary takeover.  As both sides threaten the other with their radicals, their moderate counterparts are disposed to believe that the other is actually ultimately in cahoots with the radicals. The dynamics of the moderates’ dilemma have been scored with respect to the Chilean and Brazilian imposed transitions, the Spanish pacted transition, and Russia’s revolution from above [see Youssef Cohen, Radicals, Reformers, and Reactionaries: The Prisoners’ Dilemma and the Collapse of Democracy in Latin America (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994), Chapter 5; Josep M. Colomer, Game Theory and the Transition to Democracy: The Spanish Model (Brookfield, Vt.: Edward Elgar, 1995); and Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2002)].

As I have written elsewhere, in the last of these cases the moderates dilemma – consisting in 1989-1991 of the CPSU and siloviki regime hardliners, Gorbachevite softliners, Yeltsinite regime radicals who defected and became opposition moderates, and opposition radicals or revolutionaries like the Democratic Russia, Russian and non-Russian ultra-nationaists and secessionists – ultimately confounded late Soviet era pact-making leading to Russia’s revolution from above.  Regime and opposition moderates led by the grand antagonists Gorbachev and Yeltsin could not overcome the level of political polarization and other factors to conclude a transition pact, despite several valiant attempts [Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2002), pp. 5-7, 23-7, 123-50, 223-46, and 313-50].

A Russian Pre-History?

In 2011-12, defections from the Putin-Medvedev ruling group sparked a fleeting post-Soviet Russian pact-making effort led by Kudrin. At the time, numerous regime-allied figures were leaving what seemed increasingly like of sinking ship of state, including political consultant Gleb Pavlovskii, the Kremlin-sponsored Fair Russia (Spravedlivaya Rossiya or SR) party, Presidential Human Rights Council members Irina Yasina and Svetlana Sorokina, and our very same former finance minister Kudrin, among others. Kudrin had resigned his post in September 2011 shortly after it was announced that then Prime Minister and former president Putin, not the less traditonalist president Dmitrii Medvedev would run for the presidency in 2012 on the United Russia ticket. When mass demonstrations against the Duma vote outcome began in December 2011, Medvedev offered a series of major reform proposals. Some leaders from both the regime and opposition immediately expressed a willingness to negotiate their differences. As Russia moved into the holidays and presidential campaign, Kudrin and several others, attempted to arrange talks between government and opposition leaders.

Kudrin’s efforts ultimately met with little success, but nevertheless a negotiating process did begin. In an interview on Validmir Posner’s program ‘Pozner’ on state-controlled television channel ‘First Channel’ Kudrin said that his efforts to arrange a dialogue had failed but that one was taking place anyway, citing meetings between moderate oppositionists, ‘Ekho Moskvy’ radio chief editor Aleksei Venediktov and Yevgeniya Albats, on the one hand, and unidentified representatives of the authorities, on the other hand (‘Pozner’, Pervyi Kanal, 23 January 2012, 23:30, http://www.1tv.ru/sprojects/si=5756). In early February, President Medvedev invited leaders of both the systemic parliamentary ‘opposition’ parties – including the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the ‘Fair Russia’ party, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) that are often in the Kremlin’s pocket voting as instructed or paid – and the non-parliamentary, non-systemic parties of the white ribbon movement’s nascent peaceful revolution from below. A first meeting was convened on 20 February 2012 to discuss Medvedev’s December proposals, specifically the first bill of amendments reducing the party membership and other rules for registering political parties.  The non-system opposition representatives included People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS) leader Boris Nemtsov, chairman of the soon to be reinstated and registered Republican Party of Russia (RPR) Vladimir Ryzhkov, United Left Front (OFT) leader Sergei Udaltsov, and Russian Union chairman Sergei Baburin. PARNAS, the RPR, and the OFT submitted a joint set of proposed changes to Medvedev’s legislative drafts. Most importantly, they supported the right for parties to form electoral blocs so they might consolidate the large number of parties that were sure to emerge once the registration rules proposed by Medvedev came into force (Mariya-Luiza Termaste, “Oppozitsionery gotovy k rabote v prezidentskoi gruppe,” Kommersant, 22 February, 2012, www.kommersant.ru/doc/1878493; Jonathan Earle and Nikolaus von Twickel, “Opposition, Medvedev Share Forum,” Moscow Times, 21 February 2012; Vladimir Ryzhkov, “Medvedev’s Swan Song,” Moscow Times, 28 February 2012; Vladimir Ryzhkov “Vystuplenie na vstreche s Dmitriem Medvedevym,” Ekho Moskvy, 20 February 2012, 19:39, http://echo.msk.ru/blog/rizhkov/860839-echo/; and Sergei Udaltsov, “Predstaviteli vneparlamentskoi oppozitsii vnesli na rassmotreni ryad popravok k zakonoproektam o politicheskoi reforme,” Ekho Moskvy, 28 February 2012, 18:09, http://echo.msk.ru/blog/udaltsov/863485-echo/.

When the law was passed in March, the right to form electoral blocs was not included. However, the government made several minor concessions; the most important was to allow the law to come into effect immediately after the president signed it rather than at the beginning of 2013 as originally planned. In terms of more explicit pacting, the meeting resulted in an agreement to set up a permanent working group on Medvedev’s democratization proposals, and, according to Ryzhkov, Medvedev did not exclude the possibility of holding mid-term Duma elections to address the opposition’s view that the December vote was fraudulent and illegitimate (Vladimir Ryzhkov, “Medvedev’s Swan Song,” Moscow Times, 28 February 2012). A second meeting to discuss the details of the amendments regarding Medvedev’s proposals on gubernatorial elections was set for April 9th, but appears never to have taken place as Putin won re-election. In January 2012 when Kudrin described the need for regime-opposition talks negotiations, he did so precisely in terms of resolving a moderates’ dilemma, noting the lack of talks “perfectly suits the hard-liners in each camp, but it cannot satisfy adherents of a rational approach” (Ellen Barry, “Meeting Fails to Bridge Opposition and Kremlin,” New York Times, January 17, 2012). It remains unclear whether Kudrin regarded or regards Putin as a hardliner. Regardless, Putin sided with them in rejecting regime change and in his third term as president rolling back many of Medvedev’s reforms and reversing his more accommodating style in relations with opposition elements.

Obviously, no regime transformation occurred, transitional or otherwise. Although the effort failed and Putin assumed power and replaced Medvedev’s four-year political ottepel’ or thaw with a zamorozka or freeze, the episode illustrates that under pressure from society and the threat of a more messy revolutionary regime transformation, Putin might opt for talks under similar circumstances. After all, it is assumed by most Russian observers that Putin, not Medvedev was running the show during the latter’s presidency. If that is true, then it is Putin who led the thaw, fashioned the more radical December reforms, and approved of the regime-opposition talks. It is well-known that Putin trusts Kudrin, who served as finance minister during both Putin and Medvedev presidencies and has for the last year sat on Putin’s economic advisory council. Kudrin’s Committee of Civic Initiatives is constantly proposing both economic and political reforms, monitoring opposition and protest efforts, and maintaining contacts with other democratic opposition groups. This puts Kudrin in good position to play a key role if and when a regime crisis develops (www.ng.ru/politics/2017-03-03/1_6941_kotel.html).

Is the Putin Regime Resistant to Pacting?

As I have written elsewhere, I believe Russian President Vladimir Putin and his close colleague Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev would likely seek to negotiate a transition pact to extricate themselves from the potential danger to their lives and ‘livelihoods’ if faced with the very real possibility of a chaotic, risky revolutionary mode of regime transformation.

Although there can be little doubt that the present regime and its top leaders, including Putin and Medvedev, are mired in the system’s inherent and massive corruption, there is also no doubt that Putin, Medvedev and others possess no small degree of technocratic, governmental, and political competence. They even move the country in some isolated areas in a market if not politically liberal direction (see Gordon M. Hahn, “Russia’s Quiet Revolution,” Gordonhahn.com Russia and Eurasian Politics, 5 January 2017, https://gordonhahn.com/2017/01/05/russias-quiet-revolution/).

Overall, the regime is a relatively soft version of authoritarianism when compared with most others, such as China, Saudi Arabia etc., etc. At times, the regime has shown flexibility in relation to the democratic opposition. Moreover, their involvement in corruption increase the risk of falling victim to revolution rather than seeking an extrication from power through talks with the opposition should a strong enough one emerge. The exposure of regime corruption, as in the recent revelations regarding Medvedev’s property empire, underscore the point, if such was necessary after the demise of the Yanukovych regime in Kiev.

Medvedev’s concessionary reforms and very nascent pacting talks of 2011-12, the ‘early’ release of Khodorkovskii himself in 2011, and even the recent releases of Dodin and others show that the regime is careful not to let the kettle boil over and is willing when necessary to compromise. If it drops the ball, however, and a serious protest movement emerges, Khodorkovskii, Kudrin, and other moderate opposition democrats like Vladimir Ryzhkov could very well provide the kind of responsible statesmanship necessary for Russia to avoid another 1917.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; Contributing Expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.