The Post-Putin Era: Russian Revolution or Russian Evolution?
The world’s two most dominant forces will usher in new regimes in 2008. Thompson offers insights into the next Russian presidential election and its diverse cast of players.
Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing DemocracyPublisher: Owl Books; Reprint edition
Author: Anna Politkovskaya
US publication date: 2007-01-09
Though Election Day 2008 is still many months away, the campaigning has already begun in earnest. Potential candidates have declared themselves ready for battle, and hit the trail toward replacing the incumbent president to lead one of the planet’s most powerful nations. Mark the date -- 2 March 2008 -- not 4 November 2008, as the critical day to watch voting results which will have significant global impact. The second day of March will feature the next Russian presidential election, an event, I would argue, that is as internationally significant as the United States’ race.
Though not given a great deal of attention Stateside thus far, the Russian election has been featured recently in The New Yorker (Michael Specter, "Kremlin Inc.", 29 January 2007), and The New York Times Sunday Magazine (Steven Lee Myers, "Post-Putin," 25 February 2007). I'm glad to see at least this limited domestic recognition, for where Russia and the 2008 presidential contest are concerned, ignorance is definitely not bliss. The election will have sizable political ramifications and is important to track for several reasons. Russia remains a powerful player on the world stage, and a tenuous ally with Europe and the West.
When I visited several times in the '90s (during the President Yeltsin era) I saw the birth pangs and tumultuous beginnings of the nascent Russian post-communist democracy. Russia, the Soviet Union’s successor state, retains a large army, sizable nuclear arsenal, and vast energy resources, while it has endured a difficult and dangerous time in its history. The new market-style economy has experienced the proverbial roller coaster ride since Russia emerged from the centrally controlled economy that dominated for 70 years. The political scene has been similarly rocky.
Since Vladimir Putin took office, he has consolidated power in a way that raises questions about his commitment to democracy in Russia. The economic situation remains precarious, the political scene roiled by terrorist attacks in Moscow, a brutal war in the breakaway province of Chechnya, and controversy reigns over Putin’s domestic and international policies. After 15 conflicted years, the "new" Russia is strong, yet the country is an ongoing state of flux. Next year's change of power from Putin to his successor will have ramifications on various fronts, internally as well as externally. Who, then, are the candidates to potentially lead the next Russian revolution onward in the 21st century? And who should we be watching?
The Russian electoral process is not long, but is somewhat complicated in terms of candidate and political party qualifications. One of the most important factors to consider is the multi-candidate methodology of the campaign. If no candidate receives an absolute majority of the total vote, three weeks after the 2 March 2008 election, the two top finishers face each other in a run-off election. In the first round, the goal is not only to win, but to win with over 50 percent of the vote.
The process makes it extremely difficult for opposition candidates to meet the party registration requirements. Consequently, the two front running candidates are key members of Putin’s government, and solid supporters of his policies, Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov. Any discussion of the 2008 Russian presidential election starts with them.
Though downplayed in various political and media circles, the ongoing KGB connection (to the presidential hierarchy) from the days of the USSR is troubling. KGB operatives were enforcers for state security, and were not schooled in the niceties of democracy. Also, Ivanov, as Defense Minister, played a large role in the ongoing Chechen struggle. Since 1999, the second Chechen war has been vigorously pursued, with Putin drawing upon Russian military superiority to control the province. Ivanov proclaimed, just before Putin elevated him, that, "We have scored a success in Chechnya … The problem is solved." (Chivers, C.J. 13 February 2007. “Russian Official Says Insurgency In Chechnya Has Been Tamed.” The New York Times, p. A7).
In the same article, the Times notes that though, "Attacks still occur in and near Chechnya … the pace of fighting is much slower than it was two years ago." Whether the problem has indeed "been solved" remains to be seen. As the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya wrote before her death in Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, the Chechen war represents, "Putin’s ideology … (and) our society ignored what was really going on in Chechnya, the fact that the bombing was not of terrorists’ camps but of cities and villages, and that hundreds of innocent people were being killed." (Politkovskaya, A. (2005). Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, New York: Metropolitan Books).
Can any other candidate possibly defy long odds and defeat Ivanov or Medvedev, without the vital Putin anointment? Such a scenario is improbable, but there are several candidates who are willing to challenge the front runners, and the Putin administration. I would suggest paying special attention to the campaigns of two dark horses who offer intriguing alternatives to Putin’s picks.
There are two remaining candidates whose backgrounds and views will place them in the midst of the campaign, though their chances of victory are slim. First, is the head of the Russian Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov. The old USSR Communist Party retains organizational strength, but the antiquated Soviet message has run its course. It was worn out in 1996 when I saw a still popular Zyuganov running against Yeltsin. He pushed Yeltsin to a run-off election, but mostly due to anger at Yeltsin, rather than reawakened communist support. Russians do not, any more today than in 1996, desire to return to the ways of communism. Zyuganov can still count on party structure, but his base of support is dying off, and he has no appeal to younger Russians. Still, he remains the last open proponent of the communist ideal, and how he tailors his message in 2008 (and the percent of the vote he tallies) will tell us whether the bell does indeed toll for communism in Russia.
Indeed, in following all the candidates, frontrunners and dark horses alike, it is essential to see how the Russian public reacts to their different messages. As the Moscow Times’ Boris Kagarlitsky wrote at the end of last year, Russians have given up protesting and traded freedom for stability, that Politkovskaya’s murder changed little, and that in the 2008 presidential election, "The people will be nothing more than spectators to the struggle. It seems as if most Russians are satisfied with this role …" (Kagarlitsky, B. 2006, December “One Last Year of Peace, Perhaps.” The Moscow Times.com. Retrieved 7 March 2007 from The Moscow Times.com). A Russian student where I teach writes that, "Russia has always been ruled by a strong political leader, so the liberties they have do not compare with those in the United States." Candidates such as Luzhkov, Kasyanov, and Kasparov do not accept that view, and suggest the idea of an increasingly accessible Russia, more open, less harsh, and more tolerant of the messiness of democracy. Will Russians be satisfied with a spectator role? Are they so weary of post-Soviet struggle that they will choose to continue the Putin era and vote for Ivanov or Medvedev?
Russia’s 2008 presidential election provides another crossroads moment for this troubled country, as well as for the rest of the world. Though the USSR is dead, a "democratic" Russia has struggled from the rubble, forcing memories of the Cold War to recede into the past. Russians and non-Russians, however, should not unquestioningly accept what Politkovskaya deemed the country’s "monstrous stability". Polls do show that, "Putin’s popularity rating couldn’t be better … Everybody approves of what he is doing." (Politkovskaya, A. 2005. Putin’s Russia. But we collectively need to follow the candidates, and carefully weigh their diverse messages about Russia and its place in our international environment. And as we do that, we need to keep in mind Politkovskaya’s message: "We cannot just sit back and watch a political winter close in on Russia for several more decades … the West (is not) going to help. It barely reacts to Putin’s antiterrorist policies, and finds much about today’s Russia entirely to its taste … Europe and the rest of the globe are satisfied with the way things are progressing on our sixth of the world’s landmass." (ibid).
Despite being nearly a year removed from the actual Russian election, observers should take heed of the various candidates’ campaign efforts and divergent messages. Will the new administration hold the course? Will a new voice score the upset? Only time will tell, and the election of a new Russian president will provide an interesting precursor (and possible counter point) to the United States’ own 2008 electoral race.