After Putin’s Tears: Russia’s Elections in Context

March 6, 2012

This weekend, as forecast, Vladimir Putin won an election that will return him to the Russian presidency. Putin appears to have both won a strong majority and engaged in electoral irregularities. The Obama administration joined observers in calling for investigation – even as Mitt Romney accused it of failing to do exactly that.  Rhetoric aside, experts say that the surprises in Russia lie ahead – political and economic uncertainties are growing, and Putin’s power may start to dwindle. Washington will continue to need a pragmatic policy that pursues common interests where they exist and calls out differences – on human rights, Syria or Iran – clearly.

Putin’s election was no surprise—he’s been the driving force in Russian politics since his first election in 2000, and, despite the flawed election process, retains significant support outside Russia’s urban elites. As Alexander Nazaryan of the New York Daily News writes, “Putin returns to the presidency after having garnered about 60% of the vote in Russia’s presidential elections, according to exit polls. This will be his third term in that office, which he relinquished in 2008 to president-in-name-only Dmitry Medvedev. As everyone well knew, Prime Minister Putin was pulling the strings all along, in classic Kremlin fashion. Now, he doesn’t even have to pretend. Though he appeared at least slightly shaken by the protests that followed the brazenly rigged Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, Putin regained his form just in time for the presidential contest – and then some. Last Friday, he was already looking forward to running in the 2018 election: ‘It would be normal, if things are going well, and people want it.’ The Economist further explains, “And after the economic crisis of 2009 removed that anaesthetic [strong economic growth], the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev provided something of a placebo. With his tweets and iPad, he appealed to the most modern part of the middle class, promising liberalisation and institutional change, whereas Mr Putin continued to appeal to the traditionalists. What some Western observers mistook for true conflict between them was for the most part a carefully contrived balancing act.” [Alexander Nazaryan, 3/4/12. Economist, 3/3/12]

Experts look for Putin’s influence to wane as political, economic questions mount. The Economist explains, “Developments in the past few months have shown that Mr Putin cannot rule his country indefinitely. The beginning of the end of his reign has begun. Whether it is a good end or a bad one is up to him… Russia is changing. A richer and more vocal middle class has sprung up, one that recognises Russia as an ill-governed kleptocracy.”

Andrew S. Weiss, director of the RAND Center for Russia and Eurasia, further explains in the Washington Post, “Putin’s neo-czarist system has been sputtering for some time. Slower economic growth, crime, corruption and a bloated bureaucracy have led many Russians to say ‘Dostali!’ (‘We are fed up!’)… This treacherous political environment will force Putin to govern with real give and take, something he’s hardly accustomed to. Some in Moscow’s chattering class even suggest that he could be forced from office in the next year or two and that he needs to start grooming a successor who can help him exit with dignity — and with immunity from prosecution. That may be wishful thinking, but Putin is now fighting for his political life.” Weiss adds, “the Russian economy is the real hostage. In 2011, revenue from oil and gas accounted for about half the federal budget, and raw materials made up more than 85 percent of exports. Thanks to a huge trade surplus, enormous currency reserves and an overvalued ruble, Russia’s domestic industries have become uncompetitive against imports — a textbook case of what economists call ‘Dutch disease.’” [Economist, 3/3/12. Andrew Weiss, 3/2/12]

Pragmatic U.S. policy works towards common interests, speaks out on differences; Putin’s re-election doesn’t change that. As Russia expert Samuel Charap explained last year: “Let’s first be clear about what the reset is not. It is not a secret weapon to vaporize all those in the Russian security establishment who deeply distrust U.S. intentions and at times act on that mistrust. It is also not a reset of Russia’s political system, some sort of magic wand for effecting instantaneous democratization. What it was, and remains, is an effort to work with Russia on key national security priorities where U.S. and Russian interests overlap, while not hesitating to push back on disagreements with the Kremlin at the same time. The idea is that engagement, by opening up channels of communication and diminishing antagonism, should — over time — allow Washington to at least influence problematic Russian behavior and open up more space in Russia’s tightly orchestrated domestic politics… This diplomatic tactic is not new; it harks back to George Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, and his approach to the Soviet Union.”

Weiss notes, “Putin has shown he’s able to act pragmatically when it serves Russia’s interest. Witness his strong support for Washington after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Russian votes in the U.N. Security Council in 2009 and 2010 to tighten sanctions on Iran, the 2010 New START nuclear arms reduction treaty and the creation of a supply corridor across Russian territory for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. There are plenty of important issues on the agenda — nuclear nonproliferation, terrorism, the dangerous situation in Pakistan and the wobbly global economy — on which U.S. and Russian interests more or less converge. An experienced leader such as Putin, who prides himself on being cold-hearted and calculating, surely figured that out long ago.” [Samuel Charap, 8/12/11. Andrew Weiss, 3/2/12]

As administration pushes Russia on vote irregularities, Syria, Iran, Mitt Romney’s attack falls flat, fails to offer alternative. Yesterday, Mitt Romney went after the Obama administration’s response to the Russian elections, saying, “Instead of stating that it ‘congratulates the Russian people on the completion of the Presidential elections,’ as the Obama Administration has done, it should have condemned the flagrant manipulation and media restrictions that marred this election.”

The administration, which has spared little rhetoric in its efforts to shame Russia for continuing arms sales and blocking an Arab League plan to end killing in Syria, did call for investigation of irregularities in the very statement that Romney is criticizing. The statement reads, in part: “The United States endorses the preliminary report of the observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and welcomes the many other assessments of the Russian presidential election by Russian election monitors. We note the statement by the head of delegation for PACE that the election had a clear winner with an absolute majority. We also note, however, the OSCE’s concerns about the conditions under which the campaign was conducted, the partisan use of government resources, and procedural irregularities on election day, among other issues. We urge the Russian Government to conduct an independent, credible investigation of all reported electoral violations. As underscored in the OSCE report, we also note the new steps that the Central Election Commission took to increase transparency of the voting process since the parliamentary elections last December. We urge Russian authorities to build on these steps to ensure that the procedures for future elections will be more transparent.”  [Mitt Romney via TPM Live Wire, 3/6/12. Victoria Nuland, 3/5/12]

What We’re Reading

EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton indicated that the group of global powers known as P5+1 is ready to resume talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

In closed-door meetings, Benjamin Netanyahu assured President Barack Obama that Israel has not made any decision on attacking Iran’s nuclear sites.

The ruling Indian National Congress Party was defeated in a critical election in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest state.

After thirty years of rapid growth, some sectors of the Chinese economy are starting to slow down.

Russia offered to re-establish diplomatic relations with Georgia, ties that had been cut off when the two nations went to war in 2008.

Vice President Joe Biden told Latin America leaders who are considering paving the way to legalize illicit drugs that the U.S. will not waver in its opposition to such a step.

During a two-day visit, China’s special envoy to Syria is expected to urge Syrian officials to adopt a ceasefire.

Rifts are beginning to emerge in the Pakistani Taliban leadership.

Leaders in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi want semi-autonomy for the oil rich eastern region.

Turkish Airlines completed its first flight to Mogadishu marking the first time a commercial airliner has landed in the war torn Somali capital in more than 20 years.

Commentary of the Day

Doug Bandow asks why the U.S. is still in Afghanistan.

George Friedman concludes China may be rising but it is still far from solving its fundamental strategic problems and further yet from challenging the United States.

The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board speculates on whether North Korea will hold up its end of the deal this time around.

George Grant does not believe that Libya is on its way to being a failed state.

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