Putin Critic Last Economist Standing

Konstantin Sonin lost his job as vice president of Russia's top university after criticizing the policies of President Vladimir Putin in an interview with German media. The economist tells Handelblatt why he still wants to stay in the country and teach.
Still smiling but you wonder why.

Konstantin Sonin, 43, is one of the last critical top Russian economists. He has published his research in numerous international journals and is an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his economic policies. Mr. Sonin's criticism has been tolerated for years, but may have recently cost him a prestigious administrative position at the Higher School of Economics in Russia.


Handelsblatt: Mr. Sonin, you were vice president of Russia’s most renowned university, the Higher School of Economics, for just 18 months. You resigned shortly after a December interview with Spiegel Online, in which you criticized the government. A coincidence?

Mr. Sonin: I don’t want to comment on the reasons for my stepping down.

You continue to voice your opinions and are now one of the last critical economists in the country. When will you leave?

When I can no longer say out loud what I think, then I must emigrate. Schizophrenia is not for me. But so far, I have had no plans to leave the country. I’m not paranoid and I’m not afraid of the government’s criticism.

Over the past few years, Russia has experienced an exodus of economists. Sergei Guriev fled to France in 2013, after serving as the director at the New Economics School in Moscow. Sergei Aleksashenko, the former vice governor of the Russian Central Bank, emigrated in 2013. Why do you want to stay?

It is difficult for economists who want to publish in top international publications to stay in Russia. The work is easier at Western universities because many top researchers are there. In Russia, I also have to spend a lot of time explaining why modern economics offers valuable knowledge. But there are still reasons to remain here: My impact on teaching and explaining society is much greater here than it would be abroad.

Unlike you, most Russians support their president more than ever despite the economic crisis. Why isn’t anyone rebelling against Mr. Putin, even though food prices are exploding and real wages are dropping?

The Russians are patient. Think back to the economic crisis at the end of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Even then, there were no major uprisings. Things must stay the same for another 5 to 10 years, before the people start to hate their government.

You are an economist and not a politician. Why do you criticize the Russian government, even though you don’t have contact with Mr. Putin’s inner circle?

Outsiders can sometimes better judge the president’s next move and what it means for the economy.



Mr. Putin’s most important economic advisor is Sergei Glazyev, also a professor at New Economics School in Moscow. What do you think of him?

It sounds harsh but I have to say it – Mr. Glazyev simply doesn’t cut it as an economist. The fact that he has made it into the president’s inner circle is an example of the government’s failure. Overall, the quality of Putin’s advisors is strikingly weak. Our president has succeeded in silencing every clever person near him. Only pseudo-academics remain.

What do you mean, exactly?

These are his allies from his time at the Russian Security Service, the FSB. They try, with their secret analyses, to control the economic situation, without facing reality. They categorically refuse help from the outside, such as from me.

Why doesn’t Mr. Putin seek advice from one of the best economists in the country?

Mr. Putin doesn’t care about the economy. He is only interested in his power politics and the war against the United States.

Have you ever met Vladimir Putin?

Of course, most recently at the Valdai Conference in Sochi in October. However, I have no interest in really getting to know him and discussing issues with him.

Why not?

Every time Mr. Putin talks about the economy, it is almost laughable. Take the decline of the ruble exchange rate: Mr. Putin spoke about some speculators, although we have a freely tradable currency. That is absolute nonsense. When he said in December that the currency was stable, many Russians stormed the banks and exchanged their rubles for dollars or euros. I ask myself why people still listen to him at all.

Many of your countrymen cherish Mr. Putin, because he gives them the feeling of strength and pride they had in the Soviet Union.

What are these people thinking? Was the Soviet Union a world power? Militarily at most but surely not economically. These people also think North Korea is influential only because of its loud and aggressive leader. For them, Russia is like a large North Korea. In reality, Russia can’t make any larger demands than Germany or Great Britain.

Is Russia at risk of national bankruptcy because of its policies? Foreign exchange reserves shrank by about $100 billion last year, and the government-owned businesses have high levels of foreign debt.

If Russia were to take over eastern Ukraine, the country could go bankrupt. Unfortunately, it looks to me as if our president is trying to establish the old Soviet Union again and wants to take as many parts of Ukraine as possible.

Economically speaking, what is the Russia of your dreams?

I would like less government influence on the economy, and the power of the secret services in companies is much too great. Aside from that, we need a functioning democracy and less corruption. I don’t mean we should reach the level of Germany or the United States but at least be in the league of Venezuela or Mexico. Unfortunately, there will be no economic reforms as long as Mr. Putin is in power.


Maximilian Nowroth frequently writes about Russia, where he has studied. To contact the author: [email protected].