‘We don’t need a show’ What Vladimir Putin thinks about the Russian opposition and state-supported ‘political competition’
In the latest episode of the series 20 Questions for Vladimir Putin produced by the state news outlet TASS, Russia’s president was asked to discuss the opposition and its rights. Specifically, his conversation with journalist Andrey Vandenko touched on the contrast between the so-called “systemic” and “non-systemic” opposition. The former term describes parties that are legally registered and politically established — the Russian Communist Party, for example — as well as candidates who receive official recognition but ostensibly provide competition for the ruling party, United Russia. Non-systemic opposition politicians or parties, on the other hand, are explicitly anti-Kremlin as a rule and may never be recognized by government officials.
Vandenko argued that the systemic opposition has come under the government’s “manual control,” with politicians who ostensibly compete with Putin “living in dachas owned by the presidential administration and riding around in BMW limos with flashing VIP sirens.” Putin responded to the journalist’s reprimand by saying that the point of political competition is for the government to provide identical conditions for politicians with various views. He also referred to non-systemic opposition parties as parties that are officially registered with the Justice Ministry and barely mentioned any other political forces. Here’s a condensed version of Putin and Vandenko’s conversation.
Andrey Vandenko: So if a professional oppositionist is living in dachas owned by the presidential administration and riding around in BMW limos with flashing VIP sirens, that’s all good?
Vladimir Putin: Yes. Listen to me.
And then there’s this non-systemic opposition — what is it? It’s legal parties. We have 50 parties in total. Right now, we’ve liberalized political party registration in this country, and we have 50 of them. That means whether someone from an opposition party rides in a certain car or not is a different question.
Vandenko: Undoubtedly. The opposition is necessary in part because it’s a thorn in the government’s side, because it makes you think.
Putin: Yes, yes, yes, correct. And that’s why I said both the systemic [opposition] and the non-systemic [opposition] are necessary. I’m telling you this not just as the current president but simply as a Russian citizen. But we don’t need a mess. We don’t need a show. We need serious political work.
Vandenko: You understand that when an oppositionist is non-systemic, they practically automatically become an enemy of the state.
Putin: Not at all. Where did you get that from? Do you want to think that way? That’s not true.
Vandenko: I’m just going off of the fact that you’re a strong person. That is, it’s like playing antichess. You need to have a worthy opponent. An opponent who has a BMW limo and lives in state dachas can’t mount a serious challenge to you.
Putin: Yes. Listen to me. You think that in any other democratic country, including the U.S., congressional legislators or senators ride on, what, goats?
Vandenko: It’s not just about legislators…
Putin: Or on lame mares? They also use state-provided transportation and ride…
Vandenko: But this isn’t about the cars, I swear.
Putin: No. Here’s what this is about. You implied that they’re partially bought and paid for. They use what the government gives them to carry out their roles within the bounds of federal law… The president and the president’s logistical staff are required to give according to the law, regardless of whether they like a particular deputy or party leader or not.
Vandenko: But this isn’t about the cars or the deputies…
Putin: That’s what it’s all about. That means the government is obligated to provide everybody with identical opportunities to carry out their political roles.
Vandenko: This is about a political fight, not about some cars or dachas as such…
Putin: But that is a political fight. The government is obligated to create the conditions necessary for anyone with any political views they might choose to hold to have the chance to work effectively. You can’t have it so that the chair asks, “Are you in the governing party? Great. You can ride in a BMW, and the rest of you can each have a Zaporozhets [a Russian automobile model].” No! Everybody should be put on a level playing field.
Update: Following the president’s interview with Vandenko, journalists asked Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov to name members of the non-systemic opposition whom Putin considers to be serious politicians rather than enemies of the state. “It’s not the Kremlin’s job to name or categorize non-systemic oppositionists. There are people who fit that label. There are people who try to become non-systemic oppositionists. One can say that they’re all extremely marginalized, fragmented, and that they still haven’t demonstrated any ability to unite their forces in the political playing field,” Peskov said.
Cover photo: Anton Belitsky / TASS