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Predicting Russia’s 2012 Presidential Election

During a panel discussion at the American Center on Thursday 9 June, experts shed light on the uncertainty and speculation shrouding Russia’s upcoming presidential election.

Russia, the world’s largest country and second-biggest nuclear power, will elect its third president since the collapse of the Soviet Union on 11 March of next year. In keeping with the country’s custom of last minute political moves (most notably then-president Boris Yeltsin’s 1999 New Year’s Eve decision to promote Vladimir Putin to president and Putin’s 2007 choice of Medvedev as his successor, rather than the expected Sergey Ivanov), neither of the predicted presidential contenders – incumbent Dmitry Medvedev or his predecessor and current Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin – has yet announced his candidacy.

In conjunction with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the US Embassy hosts monthly 90-minute panel discussions on topical international affairs at its American Center, located in Malá strana. Irina Lagunina, a senior correspondent for RFE/RL’s Russian Service with thirty years of journalistic experience, and Karel Svoboda, an analyst at the Association for International Affairs and a Charles University professor, offered opinions on the current state of domestic politics in Russia, and insight on the country’s future. The discussion was moderated by US Press Attaché Paul Oblesby and attended by approximately fifteen people.

Lagunina began the discussion with a brief overview of Russia’s complex electoral system. While the country has a mixed parliamentary system, the Russian president is elected by an absolute majority vote through a two-round system, and serves a six-year term. Because presidents do not have to depend on or belong to any one party, in theory, any one person could be elected head of state – however, as Lagunina pointed out, the Kremlin’s notorious behind-the-scenes bureaucracy keeps the power in check.

“It’s impossible for just anyone to be elected because those in control also control the media,” said Lagunina. Income from natural resources in the late twentieth century, particularly oil and gas, solidified Russia’s economy. Such economic strength allowed Putin to intensify government control over political institutions and the media. The Kremlin has exerted tight-fisted control over the press ever since, monopolizing the electorate’s attention and manipulating Russia’s citizenry.

“Which side of the coin wins?” added Svoboda. “There are two sides, but only one coin. Nothing in the system ever changes.”

If next year’s election is represented by a two-sided coin, Putin, a former KGB officer who has been in government for over a decade, certainly occupies one side. Putin is hailed for turning Russia’s economy around, at the cost of a significant rise in corruption and nepotism throughout government. Russian presidents cannot spend more than two terms in office, so when Putin’s second term was up, he handpicked Medvedev, the other obvious choice for Russia’s presidency, to be his replacement. Medvedev secured 70 percent of the vote in 2008’s election, a win facilitated by generous media support. Despite great pontification about the importance of modernizing Russia, the liberal Medvedev has made little progress in that direction. Many consider him to be, as Svoboda put it, “Putin’s creature.”

Both Lagunina and Svoboda seemed certain that Putin will run for president once again. “And if he is the candidate, he is the winner,” said Svoboda.

Polls back up Svoboda’s prediction: in recent years, Russia’s population of 140.3 million has consistently chosen Putin above all other possible candidates, including Medvedev. According to Svoboda, in many Russians’ eyes, Putin’s presidency is tied to the country’s economic growth at the beginning of the century. Engulfed in the economic crisis of 1998, the Russian people elected Putin in 1999 and, as Svoboda said, “he seemed to have solved everything.”

“Putin portrays Russia as a world power well, but under him, world relations will certainly worsen,” he said.

After eight years as president, Putin took over as Prime Minister. When the Duma amended the Russian Constitution in December 2008 to extend presidential terms from four years to six, it became clear that Putin was still the man in power – not Medvedev. Polls asking Russians to identify the top person in their country predictably answered that it was the prime minister, not the president.

Putin’s power was further emphasized in January of 2009 when Russian natural gas company Gazprom shut off its valve in the Urengoi-Pomary-Hzhgorod pipeline, which cut off several European countries from their primary supply of natural gas. The European Union was furious, and it was Putin who told journalists that Russia does not bargain with anything, including gas, the following day. The decision to shut down the natural gas valve was clearly Putin’s, not Medvedev’s, to make. The gas conflict brought about a question that many had been asking since Medvedev’s election: if the prime minister made the decisions involving foreign policy, regional aid, financial resources, and the Constitution, what decisions did Medvedev make?

However, as more time has passed, it seems that Medvedev has gained confidence, and perhaps found his footing as president. When Putin publicly criticized the Western-led military action in Libya, Medvedev publicly denounced Putin’s viewpoint. While a mere two years ago, both men said that they would never run against each other, it seems that the tide may have turned. However, it is likely that neither man will announce his candidacy until as little as two months prior to the March election date, said Lagunina.

While Putin continues to hold a majority in popularity polls, some voters are heading in an unexpected direction. The Communist Party, a platform that has traditionally held an older, stagnant electorate, has seen a three percent growth in recent years, as Russians protesting the social conditions in their country turn to the party for answers.

Both Medvedev and Putin have started to travel extensively around Russia, which Lagunina considers the beginning of the presidential race. “They’ve both begun to stage the debate publicly, which likely means they are both trying for the presidency,” she said.

Should both men run, which is the better choice for Russia?

According to Lagunina, a recent poll found that 59 percent of Russians want to see their country more prosperous, but not necessarily a world power. This group, however, is much less likely to vote than the 38 percent that, above all, want Russia to be a superpower that other countries fear. This group will vote, and will vote for Putin.

“The biggest challenge to Russian modernization is bureaucracy and corruption,” said Svoboda. “The reality in Russia is completely different from the laws. The trend towards lack of trust will only worsen if Putin is elected.”

While Medvedev has built a platform with a focus on economy and technology, Putin has established his reputation by engaging in power politics and setting a clear goal of securing Russia’s place as a world superpower.

With such lofty aspirations, the panelists expressed worry that other important factors, like economic progress and human rights gains, will fall by the wayside if Putin is elected. According to Svoboda, Russia’s heavy reliance on the ups and downs of the oil and gas markets is a major economic weakness. Lagunina, meanwhile, cited a survey in which Russians ranked their foremost concerns. Human rights and freedoms ranked a low 17, with only three percent of Russians considering the issue of great importance.

The panel’s audience was small but engaged, and posed questions until the very end of the discussion.

“I keep coming to the panels because the topics are always interesting,” said Svatava Svihilikova, a real estate agent who attended the discussion. “They give me answers, and different views of the world. We still don’t know enough about human rights, and people still don’t care enough about politics. We have to do things like this to show that we do care.”

“We frequently focus on subjects not directly related to the Czech Republic, but that we think will be interesting to a Czech audience,” said Oblesby after the discussion. “Political developments in Russia are always interesting, and Russia will definitely be one of the most important actors on the world stage in the coming years, particularly to the US and the Czech Republic.”

October 10, 2011

Suggested Reading:

- Lucas, Edward. The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West. Palgrave Macmillan; 2nd edition, 2009
- Teisman, Daniel. The Return: Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev. Free Press, 2011
- Burrett, Tina. Television and Presidential in Putin's Russia. Routledge, 2011

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