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Russia’s New President … ‘Putvedev’?

Merely dismissing the recent Russian election as a Putin-orchestrated "farce" obscures what is really happening there, writes Sean Guillory.

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Sean Guillory

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March 4, 2008 - 12:02 am

The Russian elections are over and as expected, Putin protege Dmitri Medvedev will be the third President of the Russian Federation.

Preliminary results posted on the website of Russia’s Central Electoral Commission give Medvedev 70.2 percent with over 52 million votes. The other guys who bothered to run, (I refuse to call them challengers), Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovskii, and Andrei Bogdanov received 17.7, 9.4, and 1.3 percent respectively. The turnout of registered votes was an unfathomable 99%, a number that was certainly helped by ballot stuffing, repeat voters, and count manipulation.

Turnout was highest in Russia’s regions and autonomous republics, where local elites stuff the ballot box unhindered. Mordovia and Ingushetia didn’t disappoint its Kremlin masters. Just like in the Duma elections last December, turnout there exceed 100 percent. Once again, regional sycophancy to the center doubled back to reveal how much of a farce the election was.

Many, especially in the West, like this word: farce. True, western Russia watchers are right to call the Russian elections that, but the vehemence in which it’s used has a tendency to obscure what is really going on in Russia. Yes, the Kremlin has a monopoly on political, media, and economic power. Yes, the Kremlin rules through autocratic, authoritarian, and arbitrary means. Yes, Putin will continue to exercise power and influence over Russian politics. Everyone knows this and to keep repeating it makes commentary about Russia sound just as boring as these elections were. Most of all most Russians don’t have any illusions about all this. The real kicker, and one that many Western pundits can’t understand, is that they don’t care.

They don’t care not because democracy is an anathema to the Russian’s “authoritarian nature.” Nor is it because Russians have a penchant for a strong leader. Nor is it because the Kremlin controls Russian television and dupes the population into submission. If you read the Russian press, you will find that Russians aren’t anybody’s fools. They know exactly what their elite is up to and they don’t try to sugar coat it with empty paeans to “freedom,” “democracy,” or “human rights.” Russians aren’t against these, by the way. It’s just that engaging in idealism doesn’t get you very far in the real world. Plus, if seventy years of Marxist schooling has taught them anything, it’s that there are classes and the strong ones tend to benefit at the expense of the weaker ones.

What is going on in Russia and why Medvedev would have won even if the Kremlin didn’t engage in its usual paranoid over zealotry boils down to a simple American political saying, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Russia looks nothing like it did before Putin took office. No longer do Russians have to go scrambling to find something as basic as toilet paper (yes, toilet paper). Nor do they have to worry if their bank account isn’t going to disappear because of rapid inflation. They also don’t have to worry if their employer is even going to pay them. Putin has brought stability. And even if he’s not personally responsible for the economy’s boom, as many are now claiming, he is reaping its political benefits.

Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin put it quite simply in the New York Times on Sunday. “Most Russians do not love Mr. Putin per se, but they love Mr. Putin’s Russia.” Kotkin writes. “They love being middle class. They love planning for the future.” This middle class is growing. Rapidly. Income statistics published in Kommersant shows Russian families earning between $50,000 and $125,000 a year grew by 113 percent between 2006 and 2007. Given this, many Russians are reluctant to rock the boat no matter how frustrated they are with the political process. For example, when a reporter from the Moscow Times asked a passerby if he had voted, he responded, “No, of course I didn’t vote. What’s the point? They have already chosen the president. If these elections were fair and free, then why didn’t Medvedev … take part in any debates?” He then said something quite revealing, “But if I had voted, I would have chosen Medvedev.” Why would he have voted for Medvedev? Because few are willing to put their fate in the hands of a communist, a nationalist, not to mention, a liberal.

But why Medvedev? And more importantly why what some are now calling “Putvedev”? The answers have nothing to do with the desires of the middle class. They were never part of the conversation. Plus, they would have supported anyone Putin anoints anyway.

Contrary to the standard American reasoning that Putin wants a weak president so he can retain power behind the scenes, I believe that Medvedev was chosen because he was one of the few in the Kremlin’s inner circle that wasn’t tied to any clan besides, well, Putin’s. Clans are the way elites do business in Russia. Palace intrigue and factional infighting has existed during the Tsars, Soviets, and now post-Soviets. Most of all, clans have shown themselves to be the most irksome in periods of political transition.

Clan infighting flared up last October, when Viktor Cherkesov, the head of the Federal Narcotics Control Service, wrote his now famous “We must not allow warriors to become traders” article. In a break with elite protocol, Cherkesov let inter-clan warfare out into the public. “It is better to open the abscess right away than to wait for the gangrene to set in,” he wrote. “There can be no winners in this war, there is too much at stake.” The war Cherkesov was referring to was a clan war between he and Presidential Administration Deputy and Rosneft chair Igor Sechin. At stake was which clan would be on top in a post-Putin Russia, and more importantly if the riches they’ve skimmed off of state industries would still be theirs. The last thing any of them want is for the new President to turn them into the next Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Then after Putin picked Medvedev, the war suddenly abated. The compromise appears to be twofold. Medvedev was picked to be President because he’s not beholden to either clan. This makes him best suited to keep a power balance.

But Medvedev is too green to take on such a mammoth role. Much of the President’s power still rests in Putin. The second part of the compromise was that Putin would stay on as Prime Minister, I suspect, as long it takes for Medvedev to stand on his own. Therefore, Putin becoming Prime Minister is more about stability within the Kremlin elite rather than a personal power grab.

Like much about Russia, this remains all speculation. Given the herky-jerky qualities of Kremlin politics, things could just as easily go the other way. In this sense, the easy part is over. Medvedev is President. Now begins the hard part: establishing where all the other power players stand after Medvedev formally takes office.

Sean Guillory is a PhD candidate in Russian and European History at UCLA. You can read his thoughts on Russia at Sean’s Russia Blog.

Sean Guillory is a Ph.D. student in Russian history at UCLA and blogs about Russia at Sean’s Russia Blog.
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