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New president in Russia doesn’t signal change

Sunday, March 9, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:11 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.

Loory: The United States’ presidential campaign stretches on, keeping voters mesmerized with debate, controversy, advertising and endless expert analysis. In Russia, an election came and went quickly and quietly as incumbent Vladimir Putin anointed his handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev without dissension. A meaningful opposition wasn’t allowed to develop. Medvedev is a 42-year-old bureaucrat who was named deputy prime minister of Russia by Putin late last year. Within days after Putin named Medvedev, the candidate announced he would appoint Putin prime minister. It seems there won’t be much change in the way Russia is governed or who will provide leadership. Putin calls this “sovereign democracy,” which appears to mean the state authorities remain supreme, not subject to influence or criticism. Russia, with its huge reserves of natural gas and oil, has enjoyed tremendous economic prosperity in the past 10 years, mainly because of increased world energy prices. What effect does this prosperity have on the way Russia is governed? How are things shaping up in Russia after the election?

Ekaterina Egorova, president, Niccolo M political consulting group, Moscow: Before the election, the media and political elites painted Medvedev as the best choice for the Russian electorate. Now there are two hypotheses as to how Medvedev will behave. The first says he will be like the British queen, the face of the nation with management in Putin’s hands. Another hypothesis says Medvedev is young, ambitious and won’t permit an old Russian elite to stay in power.

Peter Lavelle, anchor and producer, Russia Today, Moscow: There was a campaign to get to know Medvedev. The television stations covered him to the point of crowding out other candidates. But the Russian electorate was asked to perform a referendum. If you’re happy with the last eight years, why not have another eight years under Medvedev? Medvedev was elected because Putin supported him, and Putin is fabulously popular. There was no doubt in voters’ minds they were voting for someone Putin likes.

Loory: How does one explain Putin’s popularity despite democracy in Russia not developing?

Peter Baker, White House correspondent, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C.: When Russia emerged from a period of upheaval in the 1990s, people were worried they could have another economic crash, lose their life savings. Politics was fought in the streets, with tanks firing on parliament. Billionaires emerged overnight with a lot of state assets. So, Putin comes along and looks like a solution. He promised order and stability. He created a Russia that re-emerged on the world stage. The economy has gotten better, the price of oil is going up and Russia is a better country. Putin turning away from democracy is of less importance. Democracy had been discredited to many Russians because they associate it with the chaos of the 1990s.

Loory: How has this campaign been greeted in the Baltic countries in Eastern Europe?

Pauls Raudseps, editorial page editor for Diena and commentator for Transitions Online, an online magazine covering Eastern Europe and Russia; Riga, Latvia: It’s seen as an election in the same way the Soviet Union had elections. People are told they should vote, that there will be problems if they don’t. The Baltic States are happy they got out from under the Soviet Union and are part of the European Union, but they’re worried about the xenophobic undercurrent that grew in the Putin years. It isn’t clear Medvedev will be able to stand up to that or will want to.

Loory: Will Medvedev be more or less democratic than Putin?

Lavelle: Medvedev calls himself a liberal. He spent a lot of time speaking about the need to build a stronger civil society, to build a stronger middle class and how that will translate into a stronger democracy. Medvedev has no illusions about where Russia’s democracy is. But if one steps back from Western lecturing about what the rest of the world should be doing, Russia’s democracy is where one would expect it to be considering what happened during the 1990s. The 1990s in Russia were like America’s Great Depression, but it was economically worse than in America in the 1930s.

Loory: Isn’t the “Great Depression” in Russia over because of increased energy prices?

Lavelle: That’s an easy phrase, but it’s insulting the economic management of Russia. Everyone gets the impression that oil and gas are doing everything. Since Putin has been in office, it’s estimated one trillion dollars has come into Russia. Medvedev has saved a good part of it. The perception that this has just been serendipity is a gross simplification.

Loory: How much power will Putin have in Medvedev’s Russia?

Egorova: If Medvedev permits replacing the “siloviki,” the organization of former FSB (KGB) people, Putin used to staff his government, and Putin is prime minister, he won’t have real means for ruling the country. He will be a weak president in the presence of a great prime minister. If Medvedev has this instrument in his own hands, he has a chance to be the real president and to decide what to do in Russia. Then Putin will be the usual prime minister, but there might be conflict between the two.

Lavelle: The big question is whether Medvedev will take a passive role. Considering the exaggerated view that Putin can do whatever he wants —change the constitution, serve a third term, change the powers of the offices of prime minister and president, which he didn’t — why would he leave a powerful office? Why would he want and promote a weak president who would only hurt the interests of this country and undermine what he believes is his legacy?

Loory: Other countries are concerned under Putin’s government there wasn’t a rule of law and governance was undemocratic.

Lavelle: The rule of law has a long way to go, but I’m not sure about the connection to democracy. Corruption is probably the greatest failure of Putin’s presidency. So much money coming into the economy is making corruption worse. Medvedev said it’s hurt the country, but if Medvedev wants to take on corruption, we’ve heard it before. Everyone is going to see if he’ll be able to do it.

Loory: If a Democratic president is elected, will he or she continue development of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe?

Baker: Not with the same vigor as Bush. Democrats have been skeptical of that program and skeptical of whether it’s worth aggravating the Russians.

Raudseps: That’s a perfect example of why countries neighboring Russia are fearful about Putin and Medvedev’s Russia. Russia is upset about something that doesn’t affect it. Elections in Russia were stage-managed, and Russia is nervous about democracies on its borders, especially democracies that used to be Socialist countries. These countries show one can have successful democratic free-market countries that used to be Socialist. That’s a threat to Russia’s power system.

Lavelle: No leader in his right mind would turn a blind eye to a new weapons system on its borders against a dubious enemy. Any Russian leader would neglect the country’s security to say that’s OK, especially when it’s done unilaterally like Kosovo’s declaration of independence, again breaking the spirit of cooperation and security in Europe.

Loory: We haven’t heard any indications there will be much change in Russia after this election. We’re going to have to wait to see what will happen.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Eunjung Kim, Hui Wang and Catherine Wolf.


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