Democracy Ideas: Lilia Shevtsova, “Russia Rewrites the Rules”

International Forum for Democratic Studies Interview Series

About this Episode

In this episode of Democracy Ideas, Lilia Shevtsova discusses Russia’s political transformation under President Vladimir Putin, the emergence of Russia’s new, illiberal political narrative, and how Russia’s foreign policy serves a domestic agenda.

Lilia Shevtsova chairs the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Currently, Dr. Shevstova is a member of the Editorial Board for the American Interest, Pro et Contra, Demokratizatsiya, and the Journal of Democracy. In addition to participating in the Davos World Economic Forum’s ongoing Global Redesign Initiative program, she is a senior research associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Economics and an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). Dr. Shevtsova is the author of fifteen books including the most recent Change or Decay: Russia’s Dilemma and the West’s Response with co-author Andrew Wood.

Related Content

Read Lilia Shevtsova’s article “The Putin Doctrine: Myth, Provocation, Blackmail, or the Real Deal?” published in The American Interest.

Also read “Putinism Under Siege: Implosion, Atrophy, or Revolution” from the Journal of Democracy July 2012 issue.

Interview Transcript: 

Walker: You’ve indicated that Russia’s system is undergoing a process of transformation. Could you give us a sense of what are the most important elements of this transformational change?

Shevtsova: The Russian political regime is trying desperately. It’s trying hard to adapt to the new reality and to new domestic and international challenges, and having no ability or readiness to modernize itself as a top-down government, the political leadership has decided to return back.

Before today, they’ve been trying to rule Russia by imitating liberal democracy, liberal democratic values and the system, in general.

Now there is another premise for the Russian political system—they are trying to contain the West. They try to return back into the past in order to revive Russian traditional myths, stereotypes, and mechanisms of law.

Walker: You have also suggested that the change in Russia is one that’s based on the idea of “civilizational uniqueness.” Can you describe to us what this idea means?

Shevtsova: Before 2013, there was an old premise for Putin’s team, and on the basis of the premise they ruled the country: “We are just like you, we are just like the West, we are a nearly liberal democracy.”

But now today, their premise is “Russia is a unique state civilization,” which is based firstly on the important role of the Orthodox Church; secondly on the role of the state, where the state is dominant, and individuals, or people, have to be subjugated to the state; and thirdly on traditional morality, which means total rejection of any tolerance.

Walker: And what is most important for the outside world to understand about this idea of the unique civilization in Russia?

Shevtsova: Well, you mentioned a very important side of this civilization, and this side is international and regional. Compared to other authoritarian states, Russia’s matrix and personalist power system exists by trying to expand, by trying to have impact outside [the country], and by trying to return to idea of Eurasia—that means Russia as a kind of galaxy that will include Russia in the middle and a galaxy of dependent states.

At the same time, there is a second element of Russia’s foreign policy which has to be the element of serving the domestic agenda. And what is the domestic agenda? It is containment of the West.

Walker: How sustainable do you believe the new Russian model is?

Shevtsova: If you return to history and read The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama, you’ll understand that apparently Russia has ended the period of more or less stable status quo and entered a new period of agony. True, agony could continue for a long time, but the system is hardly sustainable.

[Russia] has two options to develop. One option is further degradation, demoralization, rot, and maybe gradual fragmentation of the state and society.

The second option is crisis. Crisis is probably the best solution for Russia because crisis gives an opportunity to revive forces of change and dynamism.

Walker: Finally, in your view, what is the greatest misapprehension that the outside world has of Russia today, and how should the outside world understand the changes that the country is undergoing?

Shevtsova: Well, the Russians are mistaken about Russia, but if we are talking about the West, it seems that the West and the outside world underestimated the possibility for the revival of Russian exceptionalism, of Russia’s expansionism, and of Russia’s ability to damage the outside world and to try to break the rules of the game.