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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 17

2008 Russian Elections and the Future Scenario

Monday 14 April 2008, by Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra

The Russian presidential elections in March 2008 and their results did not come as a surprise to Russia watchers. Expectedly Dmitry Anatolevich Medvedev, the candidate backed by President Vladimir Putin, won an overwhelming majority, that is, more than seventy per cent of votes amidst charges of irregularities and state patronage. Besides the high drama of rejection of some high profile candidates such as former Prime Minister, Kasyanov, the boycott of elections by some international monitors despite the Putin administration’s assurance of fairness have added much colour to the recent elections. The world leaders and media remained cautious in exercising their opinions over the election results, for instance while US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice looked forward to work with the Kremlin under Medvedev, she did not pronounce any judgement on the results or electoral campaigns. The succession of Medvedev to the highest office of Russia on May 7, 2008 and the political aftermath too have been subject to wide speculations. This article analyses all these issues related to the recent presidential elections, and then focuses on the future course of action the new President would likely take.

I

IT was till December 2007 that speculations were rife about who will be the next Russian President after Vladimir Putin, who declared his unwillingness to amend the Constitution and contest for a third term. Though the names of the First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, and other low profile leaders such as Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov were doing the rounds for succession, it was still difficult to predict the name Putin would choose. On December 10, 2007 Putin ended all speculation by announcing the name of Medvedev as his preferred successor at a meeting of the United Russia Party, the patron party of the Russian President. Besides United Russia, four other parties—Fair Russia, Agrarian Party, Civilian Power, Russian Ecological Party ‘The Greens’—supported the candidature of Medvedev. On December 17, 2007 Medvedev was officially declared as their candidate in the 2008 presidential election. On December 20, 2007 Medvedev formally registered his candidacy with the Central Election Commission which after one day, on December 21, 2007, accepted the candidacy as valid.

Besides Medvedev, four other candidates registered with the Central Electoral Commission to contest the elections. The most popular among these four candidates was the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov. Zyuganov is a veteran of the Communist Party in Russia. His popularity was at its peak when he almost gave a second run to then Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, in 1996. He remained the official Communist candidate in later presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, but lost to Putin. Another candidate, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, also the Deputy Speaker of the Duma, is known for his eccentric way of dealing with things. Reportedly he physically hurt his opponent in a TV discussion programme during the election campaign. Regarding India he often advocates strong relations with the South Asian country and calls for Russia’s strategic inroad to the Indian Ocean. Though he contested all the presidential elections, he never secured more than eight per cent of votes. Andrei Bogdanov, the leader of the Democratic Party of Russia, was the youngest of all candidates at the age of thirtyseven, but without a mass base. Boris Nemtsov of the Union of Right Forces withdrew his candidature on December 26, 2007 and supported the candidature of Mikhail Kasyanov of the People’s Democratic Union.

One of the most controversial aspects of the electoral process was the disqualification of the candidature of the former Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, on controversial grounds. His candidature was rejected on the ground that many of signatures of support (for successful registration of candidature one should have the support of two million citizens) were forged and owing to this shortcoming he was declared disqualified. Kasyanov appealed against the decision of the Electoral Commission to the Supreme Court, which rejected the appeal on February 6, 2008. This issue of rejection raised dissenting voices in various quarters accusing the government body of partiality. Some of the other candidates whose candidatures were rejected included Vladimir Bukovsky, Nikolai Kuryanovich and Oleg Shenin. Bukovsky was a Soviet-era dissident. His candidature was rejected on the ground that he was not living in Russia for the last ten years, a requirement for candidature. Kuryanovich’s ultra-Right ideas and open admiration of Hitler led to the rejection of his candidature.

The opinion polls before the election were divided on the percentage of votes the contesting candidates would secure, though all the polls agreed with the forgone conclusion that the Kremlin-backed candidate, Medvedev, was going to win the election. According to an opinion poll published in BBC News on January 20, 2008, about 82 per cent of people said they would vote for Medvedev, followed by Zyuganov, whose poll rating was between six and 15 per cent. Other candidates secured less than six per cent of votes. This poll showed the huge popularity of the candidate supported by President Putin. It appears that it was the popularity of Putin which fetched Medvedev such a huge percentage of votes in opinion polls, which later actualised in practice. It can be mentioned here that the election posters during the campaign portrayed Putin and Medvedev standing side-by-side with the slogan ‘together we will win’. Another opinion poll by the Levada Centre in Moscow, in September 2007 after Putin announced his intention to head the United Russia party in the parliamentary elections, showed a lead for Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev (then prospective candidates for presidency), with 34 per cent and 30 per cent of the votes respectively.

The elections took place on March 2, 2008 amidst complaints by international organisations and media of unfair means adopted by the Kremlin to garner more support for Medvedev. One of the major setbacks to the elections in the context of impartiality was the refusal of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in its capacity as an international election standards watchdog, to monitor the elections because of undue restrictions put by the government. Russia later agreed to increase the number of OSCE observers and extend the time-frame for their visit, but the OSCE refused the offer as it did not meet its requirements. It insisted to send at least 50 observers on February 15, 2008, five days before the date proposed by Moscow, in order to effectively monitor the election campaign, which Moscow refused to accept. The February 28, 2008 issue of The Economist reported, quoting figures from SCAN, a media database owned by Interfax, that Medvedev was mentioned over six times more often than his three rivals in 1000 different news sources. The Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, reported forged election protocols and cases in which independent observers were not allowed to monitor the election process. Reportedly, in an incident in Biysk city in the Altai Krai region of Southern Siberia three out of nine members of the local Electoral Commission refused to sign the protocols citing widespread irregularities.

The Russian civil society organisation, Golos (a Russian name, literally meaning ‘voice’), after covering 40 Russian regions during elections, observed that the elections were largely free and fair but with irregularities. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observer mission stated: “The election is a major factor in the further democratisation of public life in the Russian Federation, and recognises it as free, open and transparent.” A similar view was expressed by the observers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as they hailed the elections as free, fair and in line with international standards. The observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stated the elections ware a “reflection of the will of an electorate whose democratic potential was, unfortunately, not tapped”.

As per the data provided by the Central Electoral Commission, 69.6 per cent of Russia’s 109 million registered voters took part in the poll. The elections took place with 300 international observers and 96,000 polling stations. On the expected lines Medvedev was declared elected by the Electoral Commission. The total break-up of number of votes and percentage of votes secured by candidates was as following: out of total 73,731,116 votes cast, 1,015,533 votes proved to be invalid due to one or other reasons. Medvedev secured 52,530,712 votes, amounting to 70.28 per cent of votes cast. His closest rival Zyuganov secured 13,243,550 votes, amounting to 17.72 per cent of votes. Zhirinovsky secured the third position with 6,988,510 votes and 9.35 per cent. Andrei Bogdanov secured only a marginal 968,344 votes, amounting to 1.30 per cent of votes. The election results officially made the path clear for Medvedev to be crowned the third President of Russia.

Many in the Western media portrayed the presidential election as nothing but farce, criticising it as ‘mockery’ marking the country’s ‘retreat from democracy’. Some analysts expressed the opinion that the overwhelming majority for Medvedev was a mandate for Putin’s policies. Some others expressed the opinion that it was the fear of likely Western interference as in the neighbouring countries which motivated the voters to favour the official candidate. President Putin hailed the election of Medvedev and observed that it would help in ‘maintaining the course we (himself and Medvedev) have chosen together and been implementing together’. Medvedev without any reservation stated that his term would be a ‘direct continuation’ of Putin’s policies. He dismissed predictions of his role as a puppet under Putin, who would likely serve as the Prime Minister under his presidency.

The international reaction to the election of Medvedev was rather restrained. On the eve of his election as the President, a White House spokesman from Washington stated in a formal tone that ‘the United States looks forward to working with him.’ The unofficial US response appeared critical and harsh. Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party observed that the elections marked ‘a milestone in the country’s retreat from democracy’. The European Union (EU) Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, expressed the hope that under the leadership of Medvedev Russia and the EU would ‘consolidate and develop their strategic partnership, based not only on common interests but also on respect for values’. However, the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament, Graham Watson, commented that Russian citizens had been deprived of free and fair elections which would likely further strengthen authoritarianism in Russia. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) too expressed disappointment at the conduct of the elections. Calling the elections unfair and unjust, its leader, Andreas Gross, criticised the Russian Government for depriving the people the opportunity to ‘fully exploit its democratic potential’.

II

IT is difficult to predict in the current scenario the exact course Russian politics would take after Medvedev assumes charge of the highest office. In the coming months, both Medvedev and his mentor Putin would like to work together for ‘direct continuation’ of the policies initiated by Putin eight years ago. But in the new scheme of things it is Medvedev (for the background and political growth of Medvedev see author’s article in March 1, 2008 issue of this journal), relatively inexperienced in matters of foreign policy, who would remain at the helm of affairs and Putin would work under him in the capacity of the Prime Minister. The inexperience of Medvedev may push him to rely on Putin for guidance. Unless Putin has any subtle plans and ambitions, he has to work with Medvedev to contain the powerful Kremlin clan, called siloviki, who hold important positions and have primarily a security background. Medvedev has tough challenges ahead as the disgruntled regions of Russia, such as Chechnya and Dagestan, have caused much tension due to separatism and the extremism factor. The disturbances in the ‘near abroad’ due to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO’s) expansion plans and politics of oil and energy too have caused much concern in Kremlin.

In the emerging scenario, the new Russian leader has to define Russia’s goals in both domestic and foreign policy. He has to tackle the oligarchs and contain corruption. In matters of foreign policy he has to adopt a middle path which can avoid the pro-Western romanticism of the Yeltsin era and the aggressive posturing of Putin. No doubt it would remain a daunting challenge for Medvedev to work with the West in a cooperative framework especially when both are entangled in a bitter power politics in the world, especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Medvedev may like to develop closer relations with China and India to counter US influence in the post-Soviet space and foster the framework of the multipolar world structure. However, it may prove difficult for Medvedev to ignore the West with which it has trade and economic relations.

Medvedev can also play the European card by driving home the point that Russia is a European country and its interests are best served by aligning with Europe and resisting the hegemonic ambitions of the US. The moving closer of Ukraine to the NATO has already generated much bitterness between the US and Russia. Countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan have also declared their intention to join the NATO. In this evolving scenario it may be difficult for Medvedev to smooth sail Russia’s foreign policy. It appears plausible in this context that Medvedev may continue the assertive foreign policy initiated by his immediate predecessor, but this assertion may not result in any military measures towards its neighbours or elsewhere. Russia too would likely play its oil and energy diplomacy to secure and strengthen its national interests.

Medvedev has declared that one of his priorities would be to make Russia the world’s biggest financial centre, adding that Russia would actively acquire shares in foreign companies. As one commentator observed, Russia under Medvedev could aspire to play ‘the role of a global regulator of the contemporary system of international relations’ as ‘this is the mission worthy of Russia in the global policy of the 21st century’. Hence, it may not be surprising that Medvedev would focus more on strengthening the Russian economy, and leave foreign policy matters to Putin. This economic ambition would also remain a difficult task to achieve as Russia is still not at par with the developed countries in terms of infrastructure, services and diversification of economy. It is the energy resources that catapulted Russian economy due to ‘petro-dollars’. But for a sustainable and developed economy Russia has to adopt vigorous economic reforms to diversify the economy and at the same time making it investor friendly.

Indo-Russian relations under the new dispensation in the Kremlin would likely remain unchanged. Though recent months have not been very satisfactory for bilateral relations as the controversies surrounding the aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, and Russia’s dismay at the growing Indo-US cooperation indicate, it would be farfetched to predict drastic changes in Russian foreign policy towards India. So far, Medvedev has not pronounced anything which can be seen against India’s interests. Some commentators have observed that the young leader with no security background may ignore India and seek for strategic partners elsewhere in Europe, Japan or China. The reverse speculation may as well be true that Medvedev may pursue a forward policy to strengthen relations with the rising Asian power with which his country enjoys traditional ‘seamless relationship’. As the Strategic Partnership document signed between the two countries in 2000 shows, both the countries share the vision to develop a terror-free, democratic and multipolar world order. Medvedev’s policy towards India, hence, would depend on his appreciation of these emerging imperatives and the role to be played by India and Russia together in the realisation of the strategic vision.

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

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