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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 11

Putin Persona and Forthcoming Elections in Russia

Saturday 1 March 2008, by Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra


The forthcoming presidential elections in Russia in March 2008 have naturally cought the world’s attention. Scholars on Russia agree that Putin is going to shape the emerging political scenario, but there is divergence of views about the exact course his political career would take after March. There have been debates and discussions not about the result of the forthcoming elections which appears to be inevitable but rather on the future of Putin. Speculations range from whether he would retain his all-powerful position in another capacity, or would let Russia usher in genuine democracy, or would install a puppet in the Kremlin and so on. However, on analysis one thing appears certain: at least for the coming decade Putin would influence Russian politics. His role in choosing the presidential candidate or his participation in December 2007 Duma elections shows that Putin is not going to adopt a life of retirement. The Russian people have retained their confidence in Putin, who is perceived macho and strong, ready to deliver.

The Putin Persona

THE Putin phenomenon has intrigued analysts throughout the world. A decade back, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was almost a non-entity in political circles of the world. Now, after a decade he is a person of world stature. The Time magazine, in its annual issue of 2007, chose President Putin as the Person of the Year for bringing Russia to the ‘Table of World Powers’. He is compared with Russian figures like Lenin, the founder of the Bolshevik and socialist age in Russia. Like Lenin, Putin harped on the Russian past to emphasise its greatness. He called the Soviet collapse in 1991 the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. Incidentally Putin was 47 when he became President as was Lenin when he led the October Revolution of 1917. He is also compared with Peter the Great who adopted ways to develop relations with other powers. His assertive foreign policy found a decisive utterance in the Munich conference on Security Policy in February 2007 where he criticised the American attempt to subjugate the whole world.

Putin found himself lucky in the scheme of things when he came to power. The economy registered a boom in the late 1990s due to rise in energy prices. Besides the rise in oil price, incidents like the handling of the Chechen issue and the Russian embarrassment at the failure of Western promises provided Putin the ground to shape Russian foreign policy in the changing world order. The Russian economy has grown almost sevenfold to almost $ 1.4 trillion in the past eight years of Putin’s rule. As per estimates, the country has the world’s third largest currency reserves and it has enough oil revenue funds to boost investment from about $ 160 billion in 2006 to almost $ 440 billion by 2010. Putin, with his characteristic sporting spirit (with black belt in karate to his credit), started assertive diplomacy among nations of the world. Within a few years in office, Putin suddenly emerged in the world centre-stage. While the Western critics called him a dictator, a promoter of ‘managed democracy’ and ‘authoritarian’, his popularity at home rose drastically. His policies struck a chord between divergent factions amidst the fragile scenario within the Russian public, and he was rated one of the highly venerable leaders after Lenin.

Russian society itself provided President Putin adequate ground and locus to emerge as a strong leader. The Russian psychology (shaped by imperial history and leadership) proved fertile soil for the rise of such leadership. Russia was never a democracy in the Western sense of the term; there is almost no separation of powers among the different braches of government. People believe in a strong national leader, whether he is Lenin or Stalin or Putin. The rule and domination of the authority at the top have led to the evolution of a culture of dependency on a particular locus of power. Hence, Putin’s rise in the popular psyche is explained not only by the economic development of the region but also by the Russian psychology itself. Besides, his actions have evoked in popular memory the actions of a strong leader a la Lenin who can deliver. Putin’s action in Chechnya was the first such step. According to a survey, Putin’s popularity rate was about at 50 per cent before the second Chechen war in 1999. His rating after the war suddenly crossed the 60 per cent mark. The Russian people appear to be more status-centric, not much geared towards change. In this scheme of things, the leader emerges supreme; his actions are at times seen without scrutiny.

However, Putin’s actions, despite strong criticisms, cannot be said to be mere components of a hyperbole or pure manipulations or just a gimmick. Putin raised Russia from a Western-totting entity to an assertive, independent and rising global power. Putin’s enigma is not only connected with his capacity to meet the challenges from the West, NATO or EU, or the increasing influence of Kremlin-insiders called ‘Siloviki’, but it also linked to his success in raising Russia’s stakes in international politics. Though oil and energy made an important contribution to Russia’s post-Cold War emergence, it was undoubtedly Putin who played a dynamic role whether at the summit talks with the Western powers including the US, or reinventing ties with India and China, or adopting independent positions on interna-tional issues such as Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Kosovo, or taking a strong stand in the neighbourhood in the framework of the CSTO, CIS or such organisations, or in bringing stability in Russia’s regions such as Chechnya. If there is something called the Putin phenomenon emerging, there is no doubt that the Russian psychology has aided the process; but at the same time it is the personality of Putin which has strengthened such a perception.

Forthcoming Elections

IN view of his colossal rise in the Russian political scene it is but only to be expected that the forthcoming presidential elections on March 2, 2008 would revolve around the personality of Putin. It is almost a foregone conclusion that Putin’s hand-picked candidate, his long term aide, Dmitry Medvedev, would emerge as his successor. Putin chose to end the long speculation about his successor by announcing Medvedev as the candidate backed by him. Hence, there was no surprise the Medvedev, whose popular rating was merely at 30-35 per cent according to a Levada centre poll in 2007, suddenly found catapulted to 60 per cent after the nomination. Medvedev’s candidature is supported by the following political parties: United Russia (the party promoted by Putin, and which secured 70 per cent of seats in the December Duma elections), Fair Russia, Agrarian Party and Civilian Power. He registered his candidature for the post of President on December 21.

The nomination of the other candidates may add veneer to Russian democracy but without much substance. Till the end of December, besides Medvedev, four other candidates registered successfully their bids in the Central Electoral Commission. They included Andrey Bogdanov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov. A brief profile of these candidates can be attempted here. Andrey Bogdanov is the leader of the Democratic Party of Russia. Mikhail Kasyanov is a former Prime Minister and current leader of the Popular Democratic Union. Vladimir Zhirinovsky is the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. He ran for presidency in 1991, 1996 and 2000. Gennady Zyuganov is the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. He ran for presidency in 1996 and 2000, but not in 2004. Probably, he is the most popular and respected Opposition leader in Russia. Other high profile and outspoken leaders such as Garry Kasparov, the former World Chess champion and United Civil Front leader could not register their candidacy on some flimsy grounds.

The dilemma before Putin appears to be two fold. First, how to retain control over policy-making without violating the constitutional norms. It can be mentioned that the current Russian Constitution does not allow the presidential office-bearer to remain in office for more than two consecutive terms. Second, how to retain the image of Russia as a democratic and vibrant society. Incidents such as the murder of Anna Politovskaya, a human rights activist and journalist working on Chechnya in 2006, has made enough dents on Putin’s claims on the last count. It is alleged that the journalist was killed with official complicity as her reports were highlighting Russian excesses in Chechnya. However, it is difficult to predict the future course of actions Putin or his aides would likely to take to ensure his overall control. There are speculations in this context which can be listed as the following. First, Medvedev would be appointed interim President so that Putin can be again selected for third term without violating the Constitution. Second, as already proposed by Medvedev, Putin can lead the Duma in the capacity of Prime Minister with more powers. Third, there is a possibility that Putin may be declared by parliament the ‘national leader’ for life. By exercising the last option be is likely to adversely affect image by exposing himself as a power hungry politician.

Tasks Ahead for the New President

DMITRY Medvedev belongs to the post-Soviet generation. Starting his political career after studying Law from St Petersburg University, he joined politics at the young age of 25 in the Mayoral office of the same city. He worked under the guidance of Putin who was them a Deputy Mayor before becoming the Mayor in St Petersburg. Hence, when Putin boasts that he knows Medvedev for the last 17 years and the latter would likely lead Russia on the path he has laid, it makes sense. Medvedev sees Putin as a father figure and mentor. Medvedev’s meteoric rise in Russian politics could not have been possible without the blessings of Putin. It was Putin who called Medvedev from St Petersburg to Moscow and appointed him in important positions. He worked in various capacities such as coordinator of federal programmes in the areas of health, education, housing and agriculture. At the age of 37, he was elevated to the position of Chairman of the Board of Russia’s natural gas monopoly, Gazprom. He became a Deputy Prime Minister in 2005 at the age of 40.

The advantage of Medvedev is he is young, dynamic and has experience in politics and administration from a younger age. At the age of 42 he is poised to be the youngest leader Russia has ever had in its modern history. He bears no baggage of the KGB. However, the tasks ahead which he has to deal with are varied. First, unlike Putin, Medvedev is less experienced in handling international issues. Though he has occupied many important offices including that of the largest state-owned Gazprom, he does not have any direct experience in foreign policy. In the increasingly tense and competitive world Medvedev least initially may find it difficult to handle the issues. However, his liberal image in the Kremlin and outside may prove an asset for him to deal with the Western world. His observation at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year that ‘no undemocratic state has ever become truly prosperous for one simple reason: freedom is better than non-freedom,’ might have appeared soothing for leaders of the West. However, Medvedev is unlikely to toe the line of the West as Yeltsin did.

Second, the stability of Russia must be another concern. Maintaining stability in Russia’s Caucasian region such as Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, which have recently witnessed widespread violence, will be a formidable task for the new President. Third, developing and strengthening relations with emerging powers such as China, India, Brazil, etc. would be equally challenging. Fourthly, Russia’s ‘near abroad’ policy needs to be constantly reinvigorated as the region is still volatile due to ethnic disputes such as in the Nagorno-Karabakh, or Abkhazia or South Ossetia, religious fundamentalism, and because of the region’s geo-strategic importance. Fourth, Medvedev will have to assert his authority and establish control over the ‘Siloviki’, a powerful clan in the Kremlin who hold important positions and who usually have security force background.

Dr Mahapatra belongs to the Research Faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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