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 globaljournalist.org.
Loory: On Dec. 2, two important votes took place outside of the United States. One was in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez was defeated in a referendum that could have made him president for life. The Venezuelan people, who have given him strong support previously, didn’t like that idea. In Russia, a possibly rigged election gave President Vladimir Putin enough control of the parliament to reform the constitution in just about any way he wants. This election paves the way for a presidential election in which a Putin-named successor will succeed the president. We have a crippled strongman in an oil-rich Latin American neighbor, and one who has been given more muscle in a former superpower. The U.S. has never been happy with Chavez’s brand of socialism, and relations between Moscow and Washington have soured over Putin’s criticism of America’s policies in the Middle East and the possible construction of an American missile defense system in Eastern Europe. President Bush telephoned Putin after the election to tell him that he had concerns about the way voting was conducted. What do these events hold in store for Venezuela and Russia? Chavez politely accepted defeat but has since grown more bellicose. He still wants to carry out constitutional reforms that would give him more power. What chances does he have of turning the Dec. 2 result around?
Phil Gunson, freelance journalist, Caracas, Venezuela: We’ve seen Chavez snatch victory from the jaws of defeat many times in the past, but this time it’s looking more difficult. That’s partly because his coalition seems to be somewhat falling apart. He lost the Democratic Socialist Party that used to support him, and he lost the support of a former defense minister. He’s also facing a revived, vigorous student movement. Those elements, and his first defeat at the polls in a decade, mean it’s going to be difficult for him to recover from this blow.
Loory: What can we expect from Putin now that the parliamentary election is over and he has scored a big victory?
Megan Stack, Russia correspondent, L.A. Times, Moscow: A lot of people say that Putin himself doesn’t have an answer to that question yet. One way or another, he would like to maintain influence within Russia. How he does that as an outgoing president is the trick.
Nabi Abdullaev, staff writer, Moscow Times, Moscow: It’s still an enigma — the way Putin would remain in power after he has to leave office in May. This elementary election in which Putin united Russia is a good check for Putin against the future president. By having the constitutional majority in parliament, Putin will secure things. That will be a strong signal for any president, whether he goes after Putin personally or tries to reverse any of Putin’s policies. Putin will not be moving behind the Russian development, but he will be a force that secures developments that go into the channels that he sees as right.
Loory: The White House reacted publicly to the orientation in Russia, but there hasn’t been much reaction to what happened in Venezuela.
Julie Mason, White House correspondent, Houston Chronicle, Washington, D.C.: At a press conference, Bush was asked about Venezuela, and he said he was delighted with what he believed was the Venezuelan people’s repudiation of Chavez’s one-man grab for power. He was more circumspect about Putin, however, which underscores what a strategic ally Russia is to the U.S. Bush brought up election concerns and talked about Iran, but it was far short of what he might have done or said about another leader who had the same sorts of questions raised about election fraud. Bush has what he calls a freedom or democracy agenda. It’s one of his great mantras. For Bush to maintain credibility, it’s important to call Putin on the election even though his soft handling of Putin underscores how inconsistently he applies that freedom agenda to different countries depending on how important they are to him strategically.
Loory: What is the reaction in Mexico to what happened in Venezuela?
Malcolm Beith, national and international editor, The News, Mexico City: The most interesting reaction is President Calderon’s lauding of the Venezuelan public for their democratic attitude. Calderon also congratulated Chavez for the valor it took to recognize adverse results. For Calderon, it’s an important thing because he has reached out to Venezuela and to Cuba, to presidents that his predecessor alienated. Calderon has tried to be a bridge builder, so he has diplomatically acknowledged democracy but also kept from alienating Chavez.
Loory: Is Chavez reaching out to other leaders in Latin America for support?
Gunson: Chavez has a number of closely allied governments, including Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua. But his behavior in the run up to the referendum made it seem that he wanted to fight with everybody. He fell out bitterly with the Spanish after calling the former Spanish prime minister a fascist, and he fell out with Colombia’s president. Chavez isn’t only facing trouble at home, but he’s succeeded in isolating himself to a large extent internationally, even in countries which feel a good deal of sympathy for his revolution.
Loory: Will Putin postpone the presidential election and, if he does, does that indicate that he is trying to retain the presidency?
Abdullaev: Putin didn’t say that he would postpone the election. He won’t participate as a candidate because that would strongly undermine his national status and Russia’s status. Putin says that he knows of at least six candidates who might succeed him, but he will keep that secret until the party has to announce the candidate it supports. The candidate it names will definitely be the one that Putin supports.
Loory: There were stories that the election in Russia was rigged. Are those exaggerations?
Stack: I didn’t see anything like that, but I wouldn’t rule it out either. There was skepticism about the results because returns showed that almost 100 percent of the people voted for the United Russia party. When you see things like that, your eyebrows go up, and when you ask people in the Kremlin about those numbers, they sort of back away. I’m sure that there were problems in spots and probably in Moscow. The bigger concerns about the election were ones about state-run media and access to media by opposition candidates. The election was set up as this vast mechanism that revolved around Putin.
Loory: In Venezuela, there weren’t problems during the voting that there were during the campaign, right?
Gunson: The campaign was marked by an enormous advantage for the government because it brings all the resources of the state, and the opposition is under-resourced. The good news is that an electoral authority, which is dominated by the government, recognized an opposition victory. That’s an enormous step forward. Unfortunately, Chavez, in some of his remarks, undermined that gain, and even some people on the opposition are claiming the result isn’t entirely clean because the difference between the government and the opposition is much greater than the percent that was announced.
Loory: There were some surprises Dec. 2. Those surprises will continue, and time will give us even more uncertainty about the future in two countries that are very important to the U.S.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Devin Benton, Yue Li, Heather Perne and Catherine Wolf.