Politics and International Affairs and the quest for the ulterior motive.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Russian Elections: Putin's Marketing Ploy
Russia has elected, some say selected, a new president to take over from incumbent Vladimir Putin. Dmitry Medvedev, a long term ally of Putin and first deputy prime minister under him, will take the reins in May after a landslide victory in the March 2nd polls. As predicted, the candidate that enjoyed the backing of Putin found it easy to take the country’s top job, in elections that the West has cast doubts on counts of fairness. The objections of the West aside, analysts feel that these elections will not dramatically alter the power structure in Russia, with Putin slated to become Medvedev’s prime minister in May. Medvedev himself, in his victory speech, pledged to carry forward the path shown by Putin, who enjoys a larger than life status in Russia. Putin, with the help of the United Russia party will be easily installed as prime minister and in all likelihood still decide policy and direction for his country. In so far as relations with the West may be concerned the reaction from Western countries has been mixed. While the Germans, French and European Commission have welcomed the new president, hoping to solidify their relations with a rising former superpower, the United States has not overtly congratulated the president elect and has voiced concerns over the state of democracy in Russia.

Putin has described his country’s version of governance as a ‘managed democracy’. A strong executive in the shape of a president that controls the government and its various arms and where free enterprise is allowed to flourish as long as they remain loyal to ‘national interests’. This understanding of democracy has led many to believe that Putin is a direct throwback to the Communist era where dissent is not an option and where a fair electoral system is present only on paper. Putin has argued consistently that the turmoil his country has witnessed after the break up of the USSR required a tough approach to get the country back on track. And he has numbers to back him. Russia is today the world’s eighth largest economy and its economic upturn has ensured a rising middle class. While the economic boom has got with it rising costs and inflation, Russians do claim to have regained a sense of pride in their country steadily climbing back to its erstwhile status of a superpower to match the United States and other European big wigs. Coupled with the massive reserves of natural gas and hydrocarbon reserves that the country holds on to, the Russia of old seems to back. This rise of Russia has left many in West worried. This worry materialized when Russia played up its gas diplomacy to the hilt in the last two years by stopping gas supplies to Georgia and Ukraine, both formerly in Russia’s sphere of influence but seen as moving closer to the West and the European Union. Russia asked for a fair price for its gas and signaled to the West that Russia’s natural wealth will no longer be ‘exploited’ by the West. These strong arm tactics were carried by Gazprom, the Russian hydrocarbon’s giant that is under the direct control of Russian government and by that extension under Putin. Interestingly, president elect Medvedev has been the chairman of Gazprom and European governments would therefore be familiar with the man.

The United States and Russia also share a tenuous relationship. What started off as bonhomie between George Bush and Vladimir Putin, both men were elected in 2000, soon turned sour over Russia’s role in crushing the separatists movement in Chechnya and failing to toe the American line. The independent minded Putin further crossed hairs with the West by curbing down heavily on free speech and on the oligarchs, the select group of Russia’s richest men who made billions in sell of state property after the fall of the Soviet Union under Boris Yeltsin. Yukos owner, Mikhail Khordokovsky’s case was highly reported in the United States. The West saw this as Putin’s attempts to curb a man who wanted to be Russia’s president. Yukos, the billion dollar oil and gas firm was nationalized and sold to Gazprom and Khordokosky was sent to a Siberian prison for a decade. Putin, in the face of the West’s disapproval showed to the world what the definition of a ‘managed democracy’ actually is. More recently, Russia and the United States squared off over the US’ plans of setting up military bases and missile silos in Poland and Georgia, which met with strong disapproval by the Russians. Last month, when Kosovo declared independence, the US sided with the Kosovars while the Russians backed the Serbs. Taking opposing views, keeping in mind respective national interests, be it on Iran or on issues in the UN, has become the norm between the two countries, thereby further straining relations.

With his second term ending this year, and a third not possible under the Russian constitution, Putin began the hunt for his successor. Amongst the many names that came up, Medvedev’s candidature best suited Putin. An old hand from Putin’s native St. Petersburg, Medvedev is a known loyalist and a moderate. Putin’s selection for his successor seems to be two fold. He chose a loyalist to ensure that he continues to call the shots as the prime minister, and it is entirely possible that Medvedev is keeping the seat warm for Putin to return as president in 2012. Also, he has chosen the 42 year old lawyer with no secret service experience so as to ensure that he does not create an alternate power base inside the Kremlin. The old guard of the former KGB and the present FSB secret service will remain loyal to Putin, from whom he derives maximum power. This will ensure that Medvedev remains reigned in. Putin will not make the mistake of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who chose Putin as his successor imagining the ex-spy to be a puppet under him. Putin managed to get the security and military establishment to back him and ultimately became the new power centre in Russian politics. Second, in choosing Medvedev Putin has also sent a signal to the West that he has installed a more moderate and liberal figure as president to perhaps begin some sort of rehabilitation of ties between Russia and the West. The new face of Russia is young, moderate and in keeping with the times. This while the real power continues to be Putin, albeit behind the scenes. It seems that Medvedev will act as the perfect marketing tool for Putin, whom the West found impossible to deal with. In light of this Putin may have created the perfect smokescreen for the West. Medvedev, at 42, marks a generational shift from the Communist days and his love for liberal talk and Deep Purple may just win him brownie points in popularity in the West. This while Putin can get on with the job of running his country.



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