CU Boulder political scientist Sarah Sokhey, who has watched evolution of Putin’s Russia up close, isn’t surprised by reports of election meddling and doesn’t see Russia as predestined to become less democratic
Allegations that President Donald Trump’s administration has been entangled with Vladimir Putin’s Russia even before his election continue to surface almost every day.
A small sampling of stories that have made headlines: the resignation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn after it was revealed he had contacts with the Russian ambassador before taking office; revelations that Attorney General Jeff Sessions misled Congress about his own meetings with the ambassador; and news that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was paid millions of dollars by a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
On March 20, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the agency is investigating claims of Russian meddling in the election and whether there was any coordination with the Trump team.
What’s a baffled American to make of it all?
Enter Sarah Sokhey, assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado Boulder and an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Institutions and Development at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Sokhey has visited Russia 13 times since 2002, giving her a front-seat to the evolution of Putin, who has been president or prime minister for more than 16 years.
Though many Americans and Europeans view Putin as a dangerous autocrat, she notes that he polls well among his own citizens.
“Putin is genuinely popular in Russia, in part because media is not competitive and opposition parties are not doing well, but that’s not a made-up statistic,” says Sokhey, whose book, “The Political Economy of Pension Policy Reversal in Post-Communist Countries” will be published by Cambridge University Press in September.
She says recent protests against corruption could threaten Putin’s popularity, “but it remains to be seen if the people will really turn on him. People forget that you can have an authoritarian leader who is genuinely popular.”
Putin became acting president on Jan. 1, 2000, when Russia boasted a competitive, if sometimes chaotic, democratic system, raucous political competition and free media.
Three months later, he was elected in what was widely seen as a free and fair election.
But throughout his rule, Putin has showed an increasingly authoritarian streak, clamping down on political opposition and media. On March 23, former Russian politician Denis Voronenkov was assassinated in Kiev, Ukraine, becoming the latest in a long line of Putin critics to have been killed in recent years.
Sokhey has watched with fascination the unfolding of the controversy about connections between the Trump administration and Putin’s Russia, including allegations that Russia actively tried to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in favor of Trump via cyber-hacking, leaking emails and using trolls and bots to promulgate memes damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“It’s plausible that the Russian government was involved” in attempts to influence the election, Sokhey says. “It has a history of similar involvement with government in other countries of the region.”
Anne Applebaum, author of four books about the Soviet Gulag and life behind the Iron Curtain and a London-based columnist for the Washington Post, argues that many of Trump’s affinities for and connections to Russia were well-established long before he took office.
“Trump doesn’t have to be a Manchurian candidate who has been hypnotized or recruited by foreign intelligence,” Applebaum wrote. “It’s enough that he has direct and indirect links to a profoundly corrupt and violent foreign dictator, whose policies he admires, whose advisers he shares and whose slogans he uses.”
From her front-row seat, Sokhey can understand why Trump and his key advisor Steve Bannon might see a kindred spirit in Putin. The Russian leader has promoted a narrative that there is a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and Russia, which has battled Islamic insurgents from Chechnya, while Trump has made no secret of his belief that Muslims pose a clear and present danger to the United States.
“Russia has been threatened by Islamic terrorism for years. After 9/11, there was some sentiment of, ‘See, now you know what we are dealing with,’” Sokhey says. “It’s us vs. them, these two worlds, and you have to take a strong stance. There is clearly some affinity between (Trump and Putin) on that.”
Most people forget that in the 1990s, there was a very competitive system with lots of parties and a much freer media,” Sokhey says. “So it’s not inevitable that Russia goes down a non-democratic path, although things don’t necessarily look great for democracy right now.”
And despite relentlessly anti-American Russian media, most Russians reserve their animus for the U.S. government rather than individual Americans, she says.
“I speak Russian with an American accent and when I open my mouth it’s not hard to figure out where I’m from,” Sokhey says. “But I don’t feel like I’m treated any differently. Their opinions of the U.S. government are worse, but Russians don’t appear to broaden that to Americans in general.”
Sokhey doubts the increasingly anti-American sentiment is the result of U.S.-led sanctions imposed on Russia following the 2014 takeover of Crimea by pro-Russian nationalists and Russian armed forces. The sanctions have had an impact, but have not significantly altered how Russians live.
“It wasn’t causing widespread shortages. Certain luxury foods are harder to get, brie and other fancy cheeses, and the agriculture sector had to start raising more chicken,” she says. “The fall in oil prices has been a much bigger strain.”
Mass protests against Putin’s regime in 2010 and 2012 didn’t translate into to sustained opposition, and despite large anti-corruption protests in late March, Sokhey believes it’s “more likely than not” that he will be re-elected to another six-year term in 2018. (Current law bars him from seeking a third consecutive term, though he got around that in 2008 by serving four years as prime minister.)
But she doesn’t believe Russia is necessarily doomed to an authoritarian future.
“Most people forget that in the 1990s, there was a very competitive system with lots of parties and a much freer media,” Sokhey says. “So it’s not inevitable that Russia goes down a non-democratic path, although things don’t necessarily look great for democracy right now.”
And she notes that conflict between the United States and Russia is nothing new, no matter what government is in place.
“The U.S. and Russian governments have often been on opposite sides, even in the post-Communist era,” she says, citing disagreements over wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. “It’s really not that unusual, but the U.S. and Russian governments have also found points of cooperation at times.”