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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 Democracy

Publisher: Owl Books; Reprint edition
Length: 288
ISBN: 0805082506
Price: $16.00
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.

Sergei Ivanov

Ivanov is, like Putin, a former KGB officer. Due to his age, 53, he will have a slight edge over Medvedev, who is only 41. Also, Putin recently promoted Ivanov from the post of Defense Minister to the same position that Medvedev holds. Both are now deemed First Deputy Prime Ministers. This makes them equals in their respective government roles, and catapults Ivanov, older and with more government experience than Medvedev, into the prime spot to take Putin’s endorsement, which, as Steven Myers reports in The New York Times, "would be a virtual guarantee of election, given his (Putin’s) popularity and the centralized control of politics here." Myers also notes that Russian sociologist Olga V. Kryshtanovskaya, who studies Russia’s leaders, called Ivanov "an equal of Putin … (who is now) successor No. 1." (Myers, S. 16 February 2007, . “Putin, Promoting an Ally, Fuels Speculation Over Successor.” The New York Times, p. A6).

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).

Dmitry Medvedev

There is little doubt that either Ivanov or Medvedev will adhere to Putin’s game plan, in Chechnya, and in Russia. We can expect that succession of either will, in effect, equate to Putin’s "third term". And in both cases, the candidates will most likely, as Putin did in 2004, run stealth campaigns, avoid conflict, pledge to follow Putin’s policies, and then depend upon the transfer of Putin’s popularity to assure election victory. Interestingly, the chosen successor will assuredly defer to the other. However, it will be important to see exactly how loyal the "loser" is to the new administration once Putin leaves the scene.

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.

Yuri Luzhkov

First is Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. I witnessed his political power in 1996 when I was in Russia during President Boris Yeltsin’s hard fought reelection. Yeltsin was in trouble, and he literally (and regularly) hugged the popular Luzhkov during the campaign. Everywhere one looked, there were huge billboards with images of the two together, Yeltsin giving Luzhkov a friendly embrace, which was an obvious reminder of the mayor’s clout. Luzhkov seems to enjoy exercising strong political control as much as Putin does. Yet, I view him as a populist, and someone more in tune with the people. Imagine him as similar to another big city mayor in a presidential race, Rudy Giuliani. The comparison is not exact, but even in Russia’s "democracy," a big city mayor has to be considered something of a contender. And Luzhkov's staying power in the convoluted Russian political arena is impressive. His wealthy wife has been dogged by corruption allegations, and he has feuded with the Kremlin. Still, he has weathered political storms and brought tangible economic results. A victorious Luzhkov would be more outgoing and visible than Putin, and he might move carefully in Chechnya, while focusing more on Russian economic growth.

Mikhail Kasyanov

The other candidate who bears watching is Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin’s former Prime Minister and the leader of the Popular Democratic Union party. Putin fired him for reasons which are still not fully understood; "Kasyanov’s unexpected retirement remains a mystery … Kasyanov himself made very few comments, and very restrained ones, but it was still clear that he was holding back his irritation." (Shevtsova, L., 2005. Putin’s Russia, Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). Since Putin pushed him out of the inner circle, Kasyanov has been a strong opponent of the president. He is a true democrat and stands out in his willingness to criticize Putin’s centralization of power in the Kremlin. What will be crucial to watch is (if Kasyanov is a candidate) how Putin, and either Ivanov or Medvedev, react to his attacks. Will they ignore him, if they consider the election a lock? Or will they bring their formidable influence to bear? A Kasyanov administration would change much, in policy and in the restoration of a more open democratic environment in Russian politics.

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.

Gary Kasparov

The other long shot candidate is former world chess champion Gary Kasparov. An outspoken liberal, Kasparov emerging victorious would herald another dramatic shift in Russia’s post-USSR era, to a more western-style democratic environment. In a speech on 12 February 2007 at the New York Democracy Forum, Kasparov laid out what undoubtedly will be his campaign’s thrust, and expressed a firm belief that, "What is left of Russian democracy is on the endangered list, and this crisis has implications for the world, not just for Russians and our neighbors." His Russian state would focus on a wide range of policies, notably domestic policies, "the economy, crime, health care, or how Russians feel about the future of our country." It would also be quite a different partner within the international community. Kasparov's warning to that community is to not "underestimate the potential danger of a wealthy, aggressive, and nuclear Russian petro-state that has no respect for the rule of law inside or outside its borders." (Kasparov, G. The Prospects for Russian Democracy. Retrieved 7 March 2007 from New York Democracy Forum. The National Endowment for This rhetoric plays well in the west, though it is yet to be seen how this distinctly outsider perspective resonates 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 Retrieved 7 March 2007 from The Moscow 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.

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