Questions on the March 4 Russian Presidential Election

Editor’s note: Fiona Hill answers some of the major questions surrounding the upcoming Russian elections.

How did Putin manage to become the only real powerful political figure in Russia today?

Vladimir Putin has been Russia’s dominant political figure for more than a decade essentially by engaging in a permanent campaign to boost his popularity at the first signs of political trouble. Putin has maintained himself in power through a close reading of public opinion and a whole array of mechanisms––like his frequent PR stunts as a deep sea diver or big game hunter or race car driver––to make a direct connection with Russia’s different political constituencies. These performances portray Putin as the ultimate Russian action man, capable of dealing with every eventuality. He and the Kremlin apparatus around him have controlled political parties, marginalized charismatic independent politicians, and usurped the agendas of nationalist and religiously-motivated political groups that could otherwise appeal to the public over Putin’s head, and indulged in heavy manipulation of the media—from television, to newspapers to the internet. As a result, the political system Putin has built around himself as Russian President and Prime Minister has been highly personalized. Its legitimacy and stability is heavily dependent on his personal popularity.

What would another Putin presidency mean for Russia?

Another Putin presidency was intended to create stability and predictability for Russia. Putin and the Kremlin inner circle wanted to continue Russia’s current trajectory of economic development and foreign policy. Instead there may be an extended period of political uncertainty ahead as a result of recent developments. The negative reaction to Putin’s announcement in September 2011 that he was disbanding the tandem power-sharing arrangement with President Dmitry Medvedev and returning to the presidency himself means Putin cannot guarantee sustained popularity in his next presidential term. Russian voters’ rejection of the ruling party, United Russia’s, monopoly on power in the December 2011 parliamentary elections has undercut the legitimacy of the political system.

The massive street protests in Moscow and other cities over electoral violations and against Putin’s rule since December 2011 have made the presidential election campaign far more difficult than the Kremlin anticipated. Putin has not been able to rely on the United Russia party machinery to manage the campaign for him and to mobilize his voter base. Instead, he has had to run as an independent candidate in a solo campaign. Putin has had to pull out all the stops to boost his ratings, which––even though they may seem quite robust to a western observer––were on a clearly downward trajectory at the end of 2011. Mr. Putin is still the most popular individual, political figure in Russia, and it has not been too difficult for him to find ways to discredit his opponents in the presidential election campaign, but his political brand, and the system associated with it, is on the decline.

Russia, like other countries, does not have static politics, but politics and the way of doing politics has changed in Russia in the past year. Putin himself said at the November 2011 Valdai meeting I participated in: “Russia has changed, we have changed.” The system looked very different in 2000, when Putin came in––as he laid out in his December 29, 1999 “Millennium Message”––to “save” and “restore” the Russian state. It looked very different again in 2007-2008 when the decision was taken to create the tandem and hand over the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev while Putin became Prime Minister. Everything seemed to be under control in 2007-2008––even the war with Georgia was handled relatively successfully from Moscow’s point of view. The Kremlin did not count on the economic crisis and the freefall in the Russian economy that came at the end of 2008. Now in 2012, after several years of crisis and intense political debate about the imperative of modernization on every front (economic, political, social), Russia is different again. The real question now is whether Mr. Putin can also present himself and his next presidency as something different from before.

During his first term, Putin billed himself as the “President of hope,” in his 2nd term, he was the “national leader,” does he have anything new or substantive to offer his country? Have there been any indications that his fundamental outlook has changed in the last twelve years?

No, beyond Putin’s own statements and those of his inner circle––that “Russia has changed, we have changed”––there are no indications that Putin has changed his outlook in any major way. All of his recent articles and manifestos promise more of the same kinds of policies that Putin has laid out before—they all look like they were “written by committee” and pulled together from all kinds of papers and reports that have been prepared for Putin in the past few years.

Putin has also specifically said that he wants to finish what he set out to do in terms of restoring the state in 2000, and that he and his team are sticking to the plan “Russia 2020” that he put together at the beginning of his presidency. Putin has openly stated that he sees his work as incomplete and he is the only person who can really guarantee that the plan will be fulfilled. In the early 1900s, Putin’s frequently invoked historical role model, Tsarist Prime Minister Petr Stolypin, said: “give the state twenty years of internal and external peace and you will not recognize Russia.” In the 2000s, what Putin seems to have been saying is: “give me 20 years and you will not recognize Russia.”

Putin now seems to see himself almost as the embodiment of the state. He is running for president purely on the basis of his personal achievements, attributes and popularity, and how Russia has progressed under him—not under a team or party as he is not politically rooted in anything other than his Kremlin inner circle. It’s now all about Putin and his legacy.

In the behind the scenes nomenclature of Russian governing circles, Putin shifted some time ago from being called the nachalnik (boss) to the “Tsar.” This will become a serious problem after the presidential election––how does Russia move beyond “Putinism” and a political system that, with the abandonment of the tandem, is almost entirely fixated on one man.

Do you believe we will see Putin 2.0?

Medvedev was supposed to be Putin 2.0, or “Putin-lite,” the kinder, gentler, more progressive brand and face of Putinism. He stood for modernization and change, and a new style of politics. The creation of the tandem, with power-sharing between Putin and Medvedev was supposed to institutionalize and de-personalize the system. Putin himself explicitly said––multiple times––that this was the purpose of the tandem. Putin also said that Medevedv’s presidency marked the rise of the next generation of Russian political leaders and that Medvedev’s task was to bring new people and new technology and methods into government. But Putin summarily dismissed Medvedev on September 24, 2011—it was essentially a “product recall” for his supposed new brand of politics.

The Russian people are protesting Putin’s presidential aspirations, why?

Not all the Russian people are protesting—although in the case of Moscow the size of the protests, often in excess of 100,000, has been significant. The opposition is made up of four general segments: Russian nationalists (who want a Russia more focused on the interests of the ethnic Russian core); those rallied around the remnants of the old Russian Communist Party who have essentially been opposed to whoever is in the Kremlin since the Yeltsin era and see Putin as perpetuating the same essential politics as Yeltsin; then the old-style supposedly pro-Western liberal elites and parties that have demanded more economic and political reforms since the 1990s; and now a new group––the new generation of professionals and educated Russians who have emerged over the last decade or more. This latter group garners most of the attention in the US and elsewhere, but they are not the totality of the opposition.

There is no coherent manifesto coming out of the opposition groups, although some of the individual sentiments and demands for more responsive government overlap, which is why they have made common cause. There are elements of both the US “Tea Party” and “Occupy Wall Street” movements in the protests. Generally, the protestors are calling for predictable rules of the game in politics—not arbitrary actions and electoral falsifications—and the right to organize and respond to issues by themselves. They also want to have and to make choices about the direction the country should head in. So they are demanding real political alternatives, not just more of brand Putin, and the imitation politics of the Putin era with its “tame” or fake opposition parties.

The new generation of protestors is the internet generation. They have made Russia one of the leading countries in social networking and who consume most of their political news on the internet, not from the state media. It was this generation, with their video capable smart phones and strategic use of Twitter, that played the instrumental role in publicizing election violations in December. Russia’s own version of Facebook, vKontakte, has been the vehicle for organizing most of the protest marches in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities. Most of these younger Russians seem to have bought into the new, modern version of brand Putin, with the tandem and Dmitry Medvedev. They felt betrayed when Putin ended it.

As President, Medvedev may not have had real power, but he did have considerable influence. He created space in Russian politics for a real debate about Russia’s future. Many of the protestors were people who took part in these debates. They did not emigrate and move to Europe when Russia opened its doors to the West. They wanted to stay at home and make their careers in Russia. With all the talk about modernization and innovation, and the emergence of Dmitry Medvedev as an independent political factor, they thought Russia was changing.

This group saw Putin’s September 2011 announcement that he would come back to the presidency as a rejection of the promises and progress they thought had been made. They also saw it as potentially marking the end of their own careers and personal prospects. This new generation of professionals has done well under Putin, but they don’t want to be under Putin forever. It smacks of personal––not just political or national––stagnation for them. They didn’t call or vote for a Tsar, yet Putin effectively declared himself the Tsar in September. In their view, he told them that they did not matter, and that he is the only person who matters in Russia and Russian politics.

What’s next for Putin after his expected victory on March 4? Do you think his third term will be marked by increased protest? Can you see him remaining in office until 2018? 2024?

In September 2011, and at every juncture since, Putin has failed to present any future scenario for Russia that does not feature him at the center. If he looks like he is set to stay forever—and 2018 and 2024 are forever for the average Russian––then, yes, there will be more protests. Russian opposition to Putin has been mostly passive over the last several years, now there is an activated movement to hold his feet to the fire and to constantly question his right to power.

Putin is now moving into his “Berlusconi phase.” At the November Valdai meeting with foreign experts, Putin spent considerable time praising his friend “Silvio” as the most charismatic and competent politician in Europe. This was right at the time when Silvio Berlusconi’s political brand was in free fall and he was about to be ousted from the Italian premiership. Like Putin in Russia, Berlusconi dominated Italian politics. Berlusconi’s brand had been tarnished for a long time, but he was still the most popular individual politician in a fractious Italian political scene. He also stifled the opposition and manipulated the media. He also had mass protests against him. But none of the political opposition seemed to be capable of dislodging him from his perch. It was the international financial markets that eventually forced change in Italy where the opposition could not—when Berlusconi became the evident obstacle to Italy’s economic reform and debt bailout at the height of the Eurozone crisis. Italy also had an institution that theoretically stood above Berlusconi—the Italian presidency. Italian President Napolitano effectively sacked Prime Minister Berlusconi.

Putin’s brand is similarly tarnished, even if there is no other real contender to oppose him. Unlike in Italy, the international markets are not likely to turn against Mr. Putin. There is also no Napolitano, no higher institution, to “sack him.” The only way the hyper-personalized Russian political system can now be changed is if Putin opens it up and brings in new faces. Only Putin can change Russia. No one else can get rid of him.

The dilemma is how to bring people in from the outside into what is essentially a closed system to create evolutionary change. If Putin could not really devolve power over the last 4 years and give more political space to Dmitry Medvedev, someone he has known and worked with closely for 20 years, it is hard to see how he can now open things up and share power with others—especially with people he has no personal connection with. The onus is now on him and the people immediately around him to realize how much things have changed in Russia.

How will Putin’s likely re-election affect Moscow’s relations with the US? The EU? Asia?

The difficult presidential election campaign has involved a good deal of heated rhetoric. The Putin team have conjured enemies at home and abroad as unifying forces, whipping up fears of extremism and nationalism at home, by unleashing their pet xenophobes and anti-Semites like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, and trying to portray members of the opposition, like activist blogger Alexei Navalny, as potentially dangerous nationalists—with Mr. Putin presented as the only person who can still save the day and keep Russia on track. The US is back to being the international enemy constantly out to get Russia.

Anti-Americanism is always one of the stock tools of the political trade in Russia. The volume of the rhetoric is turned up and down (although never completely off) depending on the circumstances. Anti-American comments were more muted over the last couple of years of the “reset” but now the volume is up again, way up. The US has been accused of funding the protest movements and individual opposition figures and parties, and running a variety of conspiracies against Russia. Putin and Moscow have made many of the issues of mutual concern on the bilateral US-Russian agenda, like Missile Defense, features of contention in the campaign. This does not bode well for the future of US-Russian relations once the dust from the elections has settled. Putin may calculate that Russia can patch up relations with the US later, when and if necessary, but considerable damage is being done.

Putin is not generally well-disposed to the US. He is always touchy and distrustful on relations. He harbors a sense of betrayal from the Bush Administration in spite of good personal relations with Bush. He has no real relationship with Obama—all the recent focus of US-Russian relations has been on the “youthful, modern, warm” relationship between Obama and Medvedev. The Obama Administration put the spotlight on Medvedev in its Russia policy and made it clear that they preferred dealing with Medvedev. Putin genuinely believes that the US would like to oust him from power, and he knows that outside the White House, Capitol Hill and other US elites are not well-disposed to him. Forging a relationship with Putin will be difficult for Obama as well as for whomever else might come next in the US presidency. After the vitriol of the campaign, it will be extremely difficult to put some momentum back in the relationship.

In Washington DC, given the good personal chemistry Medvedev developed with Obama and other world leaders and the way he “lifted the mood” about Russia externally, Putin’s return is seen as retrograde step. This is pretty much the same sentiment in Europe and the EU. European leaders also liked dealing with Medvedev, even if there were no real breakthroughs on bilateral issues, and no major changes in Moscow’s policies, the atmosphere was better. They see Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency as portending yet another difficult period in their relations when they have enough problems on their plate in dealing with the fraught politics of the Eurozone crisis.

Asia is a more difficult question—Russia’s economic, political, demographic and security position in Asia is weak. Putin wants to restore it. Russia hosts the 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostok in November 2012, which is intended to mark its return to the Asia-Pacific arena. Asian leaders will be looking to see how much Putin’s personal legitimacy has been tarnished by recent developments and where Russia is now heading politically after the elections. Right now Asian leaders do not see Russia as much of a player in the region outside Central Asia and the old Soviet republics.

The real test is for Russia’s complex of international relationships in the Middle East and Syria, where Moscow is trying to hold onto its last real foothold and bastion in the region, by backing the Assad regime in the face of genuine and increasing international opposition to his mounting brutality. Mr. Putin sees Syria in old Cold War terms of West versus East (or North versus South), and also fears the “domino effect” of Syria’s collapse on neighboring states as well as on Russia’s own militant Islamist movements in the North Caucasus and the Volga region. Russia is lined up only with Iran, Assad’s true regional patron, and China (which also fears further state collapse and upheaval in the Middle East as well as the impact on energy supplies) on this issue. Putin is seen as the powerbroker for Russia’s policy on Syria and not likely inclined toward working closely with the US, EU and others (even the Arab League) in trying to creative compromise solutions.