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Russian Election: The Questions Are Just Beginning

Commentary, 3 March 2008
Europe
Dmitry Medvedev – a polite, unassuming official who never ran for any elected office – was proclaimed as Russia's next president after the 2 March election. But beneath the coreography, there is much political uncertainty.

By Jonathan Eyal

Dmitry Medvedev – a polite, unassuming official who never ran for any elected office – was proclaimed as Russia's next president after the 2 March election. But underneath the carefully-managed transition, there is much political uncertainty.

His mandate is decisive: Mr Medvedev captured almost 70 per cent of the votes – more than three times the share taken by his three opponents put together – largely because he was the handpicked successor of Vladimir Putin, the current president.

Yet despite all the carefully-scripted choreography – which included a post-electoral victory rally in Moscow with Mr Medvedev and President Putin swaggering on a makeshift stage like a pair of ageing rock stars – huge question marks remain about the country’s future.

Nobody knows what Mr Medvedev stands for. And nobody can predict what powers he will enjoy.

Since government officials made sure that all serious competitors were disqualified from standing in Sunday’s elections, Mr Medvedev was confronted by three electoral misfits who never had any chance.

Nevertheless, the communists’ candidate did capture almost a fifth of the vote, far more than anyone predicted, an indication that ordinary Russians remain dissatisfied.

On paper, President Vladimir Putin – who leaves office after eight years at the helm – is bequeathing an impressive legacy. Per capita GDP has risen from a mere $1,300 in 1999 to $9,500 today. Pensioners now enjoy decent payments. And the army is getting shiny new toys. So, when Mr Putin was recently asked why people should be voting for Medvedev, his response was simple: ‘salaries are going up by 16 per cent – that’s the answer to your question’.

Nevertheless, much of Russia’s economic boom remains unsound. The country’s industry is uncompetitive; growth is entirely dependent on high prices for oil and gas exports. And inflation, now running at 12 per cent a year, is a critical concern in a rapidly ageing nation, where much of the population is on fixed, government-related income.

Mr Medvedev is hardly a novice: before his election, he ran Gazprom, the country’s natural gas giant. Yet his economic priorities remain a mystery: ‘Russia should focus on the four "I"s: institutions, infrastructure, innovation and investment’ was the meaningless slogan he kept on repeating during the campaign.

For foreign governments, however, there is a bigger and more immediate riddle: who will actually make future decisions in Moscow?

According to Russia’s constitution (which, curiously, was modelled on that of the US) a period of transition is now in place. Mr Putin, the outgoing president, will remain in office until early May. So, Sunday’s elections have not decided the power distribution; this will be settled by the political game of musical chairs which is only now beginning.

Mr Putin has indicated that he expects to continue wielding significant influence, by taking the post of prime minister. In theory, this should be Russia’s ‘dream ticket’ – a new head of state with a crushing popular mandate, supported by a prime minister with huge experience.

However, despite the fact that Russia’s national emblem is a double-headed eagle, the country has never worked under a double-headed leadership.

The constitution, which grants most powers to the president, views prime ministers as just managers appointed and dismissed at will: Mr Putin himself had four prime ministers – one for every two years in office – and all sank without trace.

Matters are different this time: Putin and Medvedev are life-long friends and genuinely trust each other. Still, their arrangement may be unworkable.

Given his secret service background, Mr Putin will continue to enjoy the absolute loyalty of the military and intelligence agencies, even when he becomes prime minister. Yet legally, these crucial government departments are meant to be under the president.

Meanwhile, Mr Medvedev has better relations with financial tycoons, but the economy is supposed to be the responsibility of the prime minister.

In effect, the country’s traditional political arrangements are about to be turned upside down, and all in a matter of weeks. This would be tough for any country, and particularly for Russia’s fragile institutions.

The suspicion is that, at least for a while, the tandem will play a ‘bad cop, good cop’ game on the international scene. The urbane and well-educated Mr Medvedev will represent Russia’s moderate face, while the gruff, macho Putin will make menacing voices, continuing his current policy of confrontation with the West.

But such an arrangement, although ingenious, could also cost Russia dear. It could increase the West’s confusion about dealing with Moscow, leading to foreign policy miscalculations. And it could leave the national economy leaderless, as prime minister and president strut on the world stage.

The reality remains that Russia’s history is full of examples of leaders who initially appeared weak, but turned up to be far stronger.

In the Russian language, Medvedev means ‘bear’. The newly elected leader is now a cub, but nobody will be surprised if he quickly learns how to growl.

Jonathan Eyal
Director, International Security Studies
RUSI

Photo courtesy of the Presidency of Russia.

 

 

The views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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