US Attitude on Elections in Russia: Ariel Cohen

US Attitude on Elections in Russia: Ariel Cohen

Baku, Azerbaijan, 1 March / Trend corr. A Gasimova / We are pleased to introduce you to analytic view of Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. , is Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation on the presidential elections in Russia scheduled for 2 March.

Last December Russian President Vladimir Putin chose Dmitry Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister, to succeed him in the country's presidency. March 2 presidential elections are anti-climactic, as they are going to ratify this choice, and as Medvedev is the only candidate likely to win.

Like in 2004, these are elections are without a real choice, in which one voter has cast his crucial ballot - Mr. Putin himself. The elections may have a democratic facade, but not substance.

Putin's great trust in Medvedev, who at 42 is 13 years younger than the Russian president, comes from a 17 years acquaintance and collegial relations with his successor. Medvedev was Putin's legal counsel, chief of staff, Chairman of Gazprom, and First Deputy Prime Minister. But he always was subordinate to his mentor and patron.

Putin's desire to remain in power while putting up Medvedev as a figurehead, has led the Kremlin to make sure that the democratic opposition would not pose a serious challenge. With liberal politicians Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov maneuvered out of running, the Russian Central Election Commission disallowed Mikhail Kasyanov, the former Premier, to run.

Besides Medvedev, there are three other candidates for the presidency.  The two veteran post-Soviet politicians, the Communist Party's leader Gennady Zyuganov, and the Liberal Democratic Party's Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are "niche" politicians unlikely to get more than 15-20 percent of the vote each. Pro-Kremlin Andrei Bogdanov of the tiny Russian Democratic Party is not a serious contender.

The state's control of the media would ensure Medvedev would get lots of publicity. His 73% popular support in the latest opinion poll, together with Putin's high level of popularity, show the majority of the Russian people is content with the status quo, in which the state is allowed to flex its muscle, often in violation of the letter and spirit of the law and the constitution.        

Putin gave further indications that he wants to remain at Russia's helm during his press conference of February 14. He made clear that the Cabinet, led by the prime minister, will be dominant as far as implementing policy is concerned. Thus, he stated that "the highest executive power in the country is in the hands of the Cabinet. There are enough powers to go around and...[Medvedev] and I will divide them between ourselves."

Putin said that the "Cabinet" is in charge of running the economy, of dealing with the social problems of the country, and of "ensuring our country's defence and security." In terms of how long Putin might be staying in power, he said: "I formulated the objectives for the development of Russia from 2010 to 2020," and that "if I see that I can realize these goals in this position [of prime minister], then I will work as long as this is possible."

When asked if Putin would hang in his office President Medvedev's portrait or his own, Putin revealingly answered that as prime minister "I do not have to bow to [Medvedev's] portraits." Putin might be the prime minister in a President Medvedev administration, but he will be the senior figure in terms of political capital and the execution of government policy.

What about Medvedev's plans for Russia? Medvedev's speech at the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum on February 15 has been widely hailed as liberal. He declared that his government platform is founded on the belief that "freedom is better than no-freedom" under the law. He stated that "ensuring that the judicial system is truly independent" is one of his policy objectives.

Medvedev outlined his reform priorities as the "four eyes": "Institutions, Infrastructure, Innovation, and Investment." Regarding Institutions, Medvedev proposed to reduce the number of government employees, to transfer tasks from the state to the private sector, and to combat corruption. Medvedev also stressed the need to lower the tax burden on businesses as part of his Innovation and Investment goals. 

Nonetheless, many experts and foreign diplomats are unsure as to how liberal Medvedev is. Inviting Deep Purple for a Kremlin concert may not be enough. As Chairman of Gazprom's board, he certainly used a hard-line approach when dealing with countries opposing Moscow's policies and energy interests. Claiming "free market price formation" Gazprom cut gas supplies to Ukraine in early 2006, interrupting, in the middle of winter, the flow of gas to a number of countries in the European Union.

The Russian gas monopoly's appetite for expansion into non-energy sectors of the Russian economy led German Gref, then Russian Economic Development Minister, to complain that "if all Gazprom's assets, which are already worth over $300 billion, ...are used across all economic sectors, we will find ourselves with the 19th century-style monopolistic state capitalism." Medvedev seems to back Putin's support for the "national champions," giant state-controlled companies with a decisive influence in the national economy.

The US and its allies will need to watch the Putin-Medvedev tandem carefully. Putin wants Medvedev viewed as a more liberal and independent player, who is more palatable to the West, in order to allow Russian companies to expand their investments in Europe and other OSCE countries.

However, unless there are clear signs that President Medvedev takes charge of Russia's defense and foreign policies, it would be safe to assume that Putin and the siloviki (the top power brokers from Russia's security services and the military) will continue business as usual. This includes a confrontational approach on Kosovo, opposition to missile defense deployment in Poland, abrogation of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, heavy handed approach to Ukraine and Georgia, and an anti-Western campaign at home. Both the Bush Administration and its successor will have their hands full dealing with an anti-status quo Russia which remains under Vladimir Putin's control for years to come.

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