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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Exposing The Faces — And Silence — Of Russia's Liberal Elites

Back in the 1990s, the Russian elite were busy maneuvering behind the scenes. But today, Moscow's liberals know better than to contradict the strongman in the Kremlin.

Photo of Sberbank CEO German Gref sitting in front with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Kremlin

Sberbank CEO German Gref meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin

Benjamin Quénelle

MOSCOW — As the war in Ukraine nears its first anniversary, Russia's liberal elites have fallen silent — criticizing the disastrous invasion in private, but not daring to risk Vladimir Putin's wrath by speaking out.

A source in Moscow, close to the inner circle that currently still wields major political and economic power, said would-be reformists have been watching events closely, both at the Kremlin and on the battlefield: "The withdrawal from Kherson highlighted the mistakes made by the military command since the beginning of the war," the source noted. "It also exposed how bad Russia's senior political leadership is."

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The source summed it up this way: "Many want Putin’s regime to end. But no one is ready to do something, or willing to get involved in order to bring the regime down. So nothing will change."



Among the most influential economic figures close to the Kremlin, some no longer hesitate to call the ongoing war a "great mistake" ⁠— an opinion they nevertheless voice privately, as one can never be too careful in these troubled times, where individuals raising a critical voice are eliminated.

Justifying war

Still, behind the scenes, Muscovite elites wonder what next move their president might trumpet as a victory, in order to justify his war.

The liberal political elite are becoming more marginalized than ever.

The Kremlin’s main military strategy has become the destruction of Ukrainian energy infrastructure, using winter as a weapon of war ⁠— not only against their neighbor, but also the rest of Europe. But this can't be called a victory as and of itself, as Moscow chose to wage a long-term war.

These elites still don't clearly see what Putin hopes to gain from the invasion, or what his overall objective is in the broader conflict with the West, but they all acknowledge that the current offensive will lead Russia to a deadlock.

At the same time, the liberal political elite ⁠— who are the most likely to drive change in Russia ⁠— are becoming more marginalized than ever.

The former Minister of Finance, Alexei Kudrin, has been privately opposed to the current offensive and its aftermath. Off the public radar for a while, he recently returned to the political forefront to take up new duties at Yandex, the Russian equivalent of Google, where he will be tasked with balancing internet freedom against state control.

Photo of Putin meeting with Sergey Kiriyenko

Vladimir Putin meeting with Sergey Kiriyenko

en.kremlin.ru

Lying in wait

The few well-known Russian liberals who remain active have also accepted key roles in Vladimir Putin’s system.

Among them, German Gref — the CEO of Sberbank, the country’s main bank — dares to offer only veiled warnings about how the war is damaging Russia’s economy.

Laying low, waiting for Russia to become a more normal country again.

Sergey Kiriyenko, a liberal icon in the 1990s, is now withdrawing into silence, too busy in his duties at the head of the Kremlin’s political administration. He is currently orchestrating the annexation of Ukrainian territory in the Donbas region.

Most of the once-influential liberals and entrepreneurs who oppose the current situation in Moscow have now left the country. They are laying low, waiting for Russia to become a more normal country again.

This atmosphere stands in contrast to the end of the 1990s, at the twilight of Boris Yeltsin's era and the dawn of Putin's. The system had shattered. In Moscow, the Russian elite were busy behind the scenes. But today, in Dubai or on Venezuelan beaches, they have taken refuge — protected, lying in wait.

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Geopolitics

The Trumpian Virus Undermining Democracy Is Now Spreading Through South America

Taking inspiration from events in the United States over the past four years, rejection of election results and established state institutions is on the rise in Latin America.

Two supporters of far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro dressed in Brazilian flags during a demonstration in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Bolsonaro supporters dressed in national colours with flags in a demonstration in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on November 4, 2022.

Ivan Abreu / ZUMA
Carlos Ruckauf*

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — South Africa's Nelson Mandela used to say it was "so easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build."

Intolerance toward those who think differently, even inside the same political space, is corroding the bases of representative democracy, which is the only system we know that allows us to live and grow in freedom, in spite of its flaws.

Recent events in South America and elsewhere are precisely alerting us to that danger. The most explosive example was in Brazil, where a crowd of thousands managed to storm key institutional premises like the presidential palace, parliament and the Supreme Court.

In Peru, the country's Marxist (now former) president, Pedro Castillo, sought to use the armed and security forces to shut down parliament and halt the Supreme Court and state prosecutors from investigating corruption allegations against him.

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