From Autocracy With Love

Fred Weir

Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev attends a meeting in Krasnodar, Russia on Jan. 31

Even as one-horse races go, Russia’s cur­rent pres­i­den­tial cam­paign lacks suspense.

There seems lit­tle doubt that Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s anoint­ed suc­ces­sor, Dmitri Medvedev, will coast to an over­whelm­ing vic­to­ry when Rus­sians go to the polls on March 2. Medvedev, a 42-year-old Krem­lin func­tionary, may not be a famil­iar fig­ure to Russ­ian vot­ers, but he makes up for that by hav­ing served as a loy­al aide to Putin and, since 2001, as chair­man of Russ­ian nat­ur­al gas monop­oly, Gazprom. 

Even before the cam­paign offi­cial­ly kicked off in late Jan­u­ary, Russia’s three state-run TV net­works began insert­ing Medvedev into the top of every news broad­cast – as if his cur­rent job as first deputy prime min­is­ter in charge of social projects had sud­den­ly become the most impor­tant post in government. 

Not that Medvedev plans on actu­al­ly­cam­paign­ing. He has offi­cial­ly declined to debate his three oppo­nents, and his office says he’ll spend the month-long elec­tion cam­paign doing his reg­u­lar job.

Like his pre­de­ces­sor and men­tor, Putin, who built Russia’s now ful­ly blown sys­tem of man­aged democ­ra­cy,” Medvedev has been plucked from rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty and hand­ed a job whose key chal­lenge involves medi­at­ing – and some­times bang­ing heads in – dis­putes between the country’s frac­tious elites. 

There is a great deal of behind-the-scenes strug­gle going on between insid­er inter­est groups, but any real com­pe­ti­tion between forces and ideas in the pub­lic sphere has been severe­ly lim­it­ed by the author­i­ties,” says Andrei Ryabov, an expert with the Gor­bachev Foun­da­tion, a think tank found­ed by the for­mer Sovi­et leader. We can’t real­ly call these elec­tions,’ since the real con­test is already over.”

Three can­di­dates are on the bal­lot besides Medvedev, includ­ing two tame oppo­si­tion politi­cians from the 1990s: Com­mu­nist Par­ty leader Gen­nady Zyuganov and odd­ball ultra­na­tion­al­ist Vladimir Zhiri­novsky. Also in the run­ning is Andrei Bog­danov, the hith­er­to unknown leader of the tiny but sup­pos­ed­ly lib­er­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, whom many experts sus­pect of being a Krem­lin stalk­ing horse.

Any con­tenders who might have at least inject­ed some excite­ment into the cam­paign were weed­ed out before it began. First to go was chess cham­pi­on Gar­ry Kas­parov, head of the anti-Krem­lin Oth­er Rus­sia coali­tion, who found it impos­si­ble to even rent space in which to hold his nom­i­nat­ing con­fer­ence. For­mer Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the lib­er­al Union of Right Forces, pulled out in late Decem­ber, say­ing he didn’t want to legit­imize a far­ci­cal” elec­tion. And Russia’s Supreme Court ruled in Jan­u­ary that ex-Sovi­et dis­si­dent Vladimir Bukovsky was inel­i­gi­ble to run because of his long­time res­i­dence in Britain.

Get­ting rid of Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as prime min­is­ter dur­ing Putin’s first term, proved more dif­fi­cult. Kasyanov, sad­dled with the rep­u­ta­tion of being a cor­rupt politi­cian and lack­ey of Russia’s big busi­ness oli­garchs, had lit­tle chance of get­ting elect­ed. But as a for­mer Putin insid­er, he might sim­ply have known too much to be giv­en a pub­lic platform. 

It’s pos­si­ble the Krem­lin has decid­ed that Kasyanov is too unpre­dictable to allow in the race,” says Ryabov.

Kasyanov was struck from the bal­lot after an offi­cial review dis­cov­ered that 14 per­cent of his 2 mil­lion nom­i­nat­ing sig­na­tures were alleged to have been forged. Kasyanov denied any wrong­do­ing and not­ed, accu­rate­ly, that democ­ra­cy in Rus­sia is dead. Hopes that the polit­i­cal process will devel­op with­in the con­sti­tu­tion­al field have not been jus­ti­fied,” he told jour­nal­ists after he was dis­qual­i­fied in late January.

Polls sug­gest more than 60 per­cent of Rus­sians will vote for Medvedev, though the solid­i­ty of that sup­port is in doubt. 

In a late Jan­u­ary sur­vey by the state-run polling agency VTsIOM, 76 per­cent of respon­dents­said they expect Medvedev to win the elec­tions, though only 53 per­cent thought he would be capa­ble of han­dling his pres­i­den­tial duties.” 

In a poll in late Decem­ber by the inde­pen­dent Lev­a­da Cen­ter, 42 per­cent said Medvedev’s main strength was Putin’s trust in him,” while just 4 per­cent point­ed to his inde­pen­dent position.”

There­in lies the biggest threat to the suc­cess of man­aged democ­ra­cy.” Putin, whose own pub­lic approval rat­ings con­sis­tent­ly top 80 per­cent, does not appear ready to leave. In Decem­ber, he ran for par­lia­ment as head of the pro-Krem­lin Unit­ed Rus­sia par­ty, which won almost two-thirds of the votes. That vic­to­ry man­dates that Putin con­tin­ue as nation­al leader” even after he steps down as pres­i­dent, says Sergei Markov, a par­lia­men­tary deputy for the Unit­ed Rus­sia Party. 

The Russ­ian peo­ple have made it clear they want Putin to con­tin­ue influ­enc­ing pol­i­cy, and that’s a demo­c­ra­t­ic real­i­ty,” says Markov.

Putin has agreed to serve as Medvedev’s prime min­is­ter, but in Rus­sia, that’s a fig­ure who is appoint­ed by, and serves at the plea­sure of, the president. 

Rus­sia is not a coun­try that has much expe­ri­ence with divid­ed pow­er; Rus­sians are used to hav­ing a sin­gle supreme leader,” says Masha Lip­man, an expert with the Carnegie Cen­ter in Moscow. It is not at all clear how this Putin-Medvedev tan­dem will work in prac­tice. Infact, it seems to be fraught with future instability.”

Fred Weir is a Moscow cor­re­spon­dent for In These Times and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent, Cana­di­an Press and the South Chi­na Morn­ing Post. He is the co-author of Rev­o­lu­tion from Above: The Demise of the Sovi­et System.
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