Putin Regime Arose Because Russian Democrats In 1990s Betrayed The People – OpEd


“The key mistake of the Russian democratic movement of the early 1990s was its betrayal of the people in the name of its own interests, Vasily Zharkov says, a betrayal that happened then as before because the democrats imagined themselves “heirs of the nobility” and decided that “only they had ‘the right genes’ and ‘the good people.’”

The historian at Moscow’s Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences (“The Shaninka”) points out that this betrayal opened the way for a revival of the earlier authoritarian system and made the rise of the Putin regime inevitable (reforum.io/blog/2023/02/13/okno-vozmozhnostej-otkryvaetsya-tolko-vruchnuyu/).

The self-proclaimed democrats of the 1990s began on the left but ended on the right, given that they reflected not what the people in fact wanted, including elements of the ancien regime but only what they themselves wanted, confident that they were right and the people were irrelevant. Because the regime betrayed the people, the people came to view politics as dirty and distant.  

This has happened again and again in Russia and could easily happen in the future as well, Zharkov says. Former oppositionists come to power and say “we know how we must act, but we need a lot of time so that something alien won’t come to power and interfere. Therefore, we put off free elections until the end of the transition to a beautiful Russia of the future.”

They are able to do so, the historian says, because they play on Russian fears of chaos;  but those fears are overblown. Even in revolutionary times, relatively few people are involved and the amount of chaos in Russia in 1917 or in 1991 as well as the threat of it has been routinely exaggerated.

Compounding this problem is that when a new group come to power, it acts as if it must start from square one, rejecting everything that has been done by its predecessors. That ignores the fact that people are used to acting habitually and need to see compelling reasons for change rather than simply be compelled to do so.

According to Zharkov, regime change is already beginning in Russia once again, but it is unclear whether there will be a repetition of the past or something fundamentally new. The coming change may recall the February 1917 revolution with only a handful of people involved but then open the way to a new October. Or it may involve the masses and open a new era.

To prevent a new October, he continues, means ending the war; and to block a restoration of authoritarianism, Russians must overcome their fears of chaos and the threat from the people. Chaos is far less likely than many think; and the population is both more moderate and left of center than extremist and radical right. 

Any new leaders must accept the reality that there is enormous diversity in the population and that not everyone people support will be welcome, but they also have to accept that only if people can speak for themselves and be listened to and only if leaders recognize that they are in power only for a time can Russia avoid a new October or a new Putin. 

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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