So, I missed one week’s worth of blog entries due to election season in Washington DC – but not the type of election you may think about. Granted, the town is all abuzz with the Republican race for presidential candidate. Probably anybody outside of the politics addicted D. C. area thinks that twenty debates is more than excessive to choose a candidate.
However, that is not the elections cycle that has kept me busy. On the other side of the world, on March 4, 2012, there is an election for president that is probably much more significant from the historical point of view: the election for President of the Russian Federation. In a way, elections in Russia have come a long way since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. Following the collapse of a sixteen country regime, an orderly transfer of power was arranged, and a more or less stable transfer of office has taken place since then.
What has proved much more interesting is the return of Vladimir Putin to the Presidency of the Russian Federation. This will be Putin’s third time occupying the office of President, following a short break as Prime Minister. He has run what has amounted to a non-campaign. Dmitrii Medvedev, the current President of the Russian Federation, could have run for another term as President, but decided – or was persuaded – to step aside for Putin to return to the office. Once Medvedev announced that he was not running, and Putin announced that he was running again, Putin’s return to office became a seemingly unavoidable fate.
First, let us recognize a few facts about Putin’s return to the Presidency. He is actually still popular enough that most experts in the field have had a hard time envisioning any other individual who could have run a campaign that would have seriously challenged Putin’s campaign. Putin did manage to orchestrate the stabilization of the Russian Federation following what had been some fairly stressful and economically unstable years immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union.
However, the seeming unavoidability of Putin’s return to power befuddles people who do not follow Russian politics on a daily basis – people like me, and I am technically a professional in the field! Thus, the last two weeks have been spent catching up, since D. C. think tanks that deal with the Russian Federation have been having what amounts to a Russian Election-Palooza (think Lolapalooza, only for policy wonks!) The Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (http://www.wilsoncenter.org/program/kennan-institute) had Matthew Rojansky, Deputy Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, spoke on the topic of “The Fate of the “Reset” During Political Open Seasons in Russia and the U.S.: Prospects for Change and Continuity,” an appropriately long wonky title for what turned out to be a very interesting talk. Mr. Rojansky talked about how under Putin, the Russian political system has evolved into a “vertical of power,” which sits above a carefully “managed democracy.” In the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace publication: “The Russian Protests and Putin’s Choices,” Mr. Rojansky points how that in spite of the apparently increasingly visible opposition in Russia, a third of the population is behind Putin for the simple fact that he has brought stability to Russia and, in relative terms, assured prosperity. Furthermore, he gets the credit for shutting down the chaos of rampant criminality, separatism, and terrorist attacks in the 1990s.
At the same time, an increasingly vociferous part of the growing middle class are becoming frustrated by the growing corruption within the system, and their desire to have their civil rights respected. This is horribly oversimplifying the situation, but it is probably an accurate overgeneralization of the most visible part of those who are voicing objections to Putin’s reelection.
On the other side of the debate there are those who are frustrated with United States policy towards Russia. Speakers at the World Russian Forum 2012, at the Hart Senate Office building, on Monday, February 27, 2012, pointed out that the United States has not done much to encourage Russia’s warm regards. Among the most serious points of conflict are the expansion of NATO to what amounts to Russia’s doorstep, the United States policies towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, and last but not least, the continuing existence of the Jackson Vanik amendment, a small but significant legal artifact that came into existence during the Soviet period to provide the United States with a legal justification to try and exert pressure on the Soviet Union and its civil rights record. The amendment was originally drawn to deal with the issue of free emigration, and now it exists for reasons of trade. One of the latest hearings on the issue can be found in the United States House of Representatives record, http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/111/56198.pdf.
What has really proved perplexing from the American point of view is that, in spite of the fact that there have been some visible protests in some of Russia’s major cities, Putin’s reelection has come about as some sort of fait accompli. Most likely, he will be reelected by a wide margin. He will do so without conducting a single debate. Instead of encountering the other opposition candidates in an open debate, Putin has chosen to explain his views in a series of six long essays. He published these essays in the principal news outlets in Russia, as well as in his web site, http://putin2012.ru/. It will be interesting to see what happens in the streets of Russia over the weekend.
 Matthew Rojansky, “The Russian Protests and Putin’s Choices.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Policy Outlook, December 22, 2011