international analysis and commentary

Preludes to the Russian presidential race

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In less than a year, a new president will come into power in Russia. Observers are already busy guessing who it will be; yet no prediction will be convincing until the ruling party, United Russia, releases the name of its candidate. In any case, the decisive moment of the race will be during the December parliamentary elections.  

Although according to the Russian Constitution, the country is a presidential, rather than parliamentary, republic, the most defining moment is the election of the Duma. In other words, the question of who will be president in 2012 – Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev or some third person – will be answered in December. The outcomes of the elections are crucial especially for United Russia. Founded in 2001 and led by Putin since 2007, United Russia needs a solid constitutional majority in the Duma in order to legitimize the executive decisions of the government, including the choice of the next president. Yet, United Russia is facing a steady decline in its popularity which, as the ratings show, has dropped to nearly 50%.

Experts claim the negative trend of United Russia is even worse than what the official data report. Alexei Navalny, a Russian political and social activist, defined United Russia as the party of “crooks and thieves”, and – more importantly – one third of Russians agree entirely with this statement. Elections, which were once competitive, have become completely controlled by the authorities. This transition has driven many Russians to be increasingly disillusioned with the current political paralysis of the country embodied by its ruling elite. Natalia Bubnova, from the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes that under the slogan of “sovereign democracy”, power in Russia has become non-elective and essentially immutable and non-competitive. Leaders have also failed to act on larger reforms that even they recognize are needed – such as reducing the country’s dependence on oil prices and capital inflows.

In contrast, Putin’s popularity, generally speaking, remains unquestioned. And, before his party’s image could get any worse, Putin began his political campaign in May. His first step was to create a broad social movement, known as the All-Russia People’s Front. The idea was that in order to support Putin one doesn’t need to be a member of United Russia – one can join the All-Russia People’s Front. Before its manifesto had even been written, hundreds of community-based organizations and individual citizens rushed to join its ranks. In May it already had 450 organizations on its books and another 150 had applied for membership.

The survey carried out by the Levada Center between May 13-16, 2011 showed that the majority of Russians (57%) saw in Putin’s initiative nothing other than an attempt to help United Russia receive more seats in the Duma, and only 16% believed the official slogan of “bringing together all of society’s positive forces.” Yet, we can clearly state that the main goal of the All-Russia People’s Front is to boost the role of the ruling elite, distract the voters away from the decline of United Russia and ensure that the elites favor Putin.

Having said that, still nobody knows what the outcome of the elections will be. Political analysts are wondering whether this new election vehicle will help United Russia maintain a constitutional majority in the Duma after the December elections. Doubts are also growing after a series of scandals that shook the All-Russia People’s Front. In any case, it seems clear that Putin wants to retain power after 2012, or at least, keep open the option of returning to the Kremlin.

The question that inevitably emerges concerns the future of President Medvedev. In a recent analysis, Lilia Shevstova (of the Carnegie Ednwoment) argues that Putin’s decision to form the All-Russia People’s Front under his leadership is the clearest sign of Medvedev’s political end. Many experts agree share the assessment that the chances for a second term for Medvedev are rather slim.   

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Medvedev proclaimed that he wants a second term in office following the 2012 elections, but that he would not run against Prime Minister Putin..In fact, Medvedev has thus far shown no ambition or political will to challenge the Prime Minister.

At the Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, for instance, other than a few new proposals like the extension of Moscow’s borders, Medvedev did not go beyond his usual familiar statements. The slogan of modernization, launched by the President in a 2009 article, has turned out to be too vague and tangible results have been modest. Medvedev’s credibility has suffered, and the promise of major changes are very unlikely to win him many votes in the upcoming elections.

Most importantly, the “ruling tandem” has exhausted itself. In 2007-2008 Putin divided the presidential powers into two: one formal, embodied by Medvedev and the other informal, taken over by himself as Prime Minister. The system has both benefits and flaws. On one hand, it allowed Russia to boost its image at home and abroad. It inspired democratic legitimacy in the eyes of Russian citizens and the international community. Arguably Medvedev, the “Twitter President” as some experts nicknamed him, performed a “civilizing mission” participating in world forums, openly fighting rampant corruption and supporting “modernization” and the “rule of law”. Yet, the result of this duality was a hybrid: an authoritarian system and a democratic façade.

This arrangement has reduced the efficiency of power and important decisions involving long-stalled reforms, particularly concerning the pension and healthcare systems. Tackling serious political reforms becomes practically impossible as long as two leaders run the country – with neither being fully accountable.

There is real uncertainty surrounding the name of the next president, but ultimately it is certain who will settle the issue: Vladimir Putin himself, partly depending on the outcome of the next parliamentary elections.