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November 16, 2007 12:03 pm
Russia’s energy-fuelled economic boom of recent years has placed it firmly back amongst the world’s most powerful nations, and the nation goes to the polls on December 2 to elect the State Duma.
The result appears almost inevitable - a landslide victory for the Putin-supported United Russia party and a continuation of the ‘Putin plan’. Will there be any new powerbrokers and what does this mean for Russia and for the international community?
Is the popular support for Vladimir Putin as vast as it seems? Do Western criticisms of the Kremlin on human rights and the democratic process have any effect? What are the implications of Putin’s move back towards central economic planning?
Dmitri Trenin, Senior Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, answered your questions live online on Wednesday 21 November.
About the expert: Mr Trenin is the author of twelve books covering world politics and international relations, Cold War history, Russia’s domestic and international evolution, and the geopolitics of Eurasia. He spent 21 years in the Soviet/Russian army before becoming the first non-NATO officer to be selected as a Senior Fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome.
Do you think Vladimir Putin really intends to remain a meaningful political actor in Russia after his term ends in March 2008? Or is he just trying to manoeuvre a position that is high-profile enough to protect him from political attacks once he has left office?
Ruth Hetherington, Paris
Dmitri Trenin: Protection and immunity for the outgoing president is part of the succession routine: see Yeltsin’s (and, even more importantly, his family’s) case. I wouldn’t worry about that.
Putin evidently cares for the system that he has built – even more, it seems, than for his place within that system. He understands that, as he steps down, and the new president is not yet able to manage the system, some sort of intra-elite arbitration would not be just necessary, but could well be crucial for the system’s stability. Hence his obvious intention to continue to function, for a period of time, at least, as the systemic arbiter and guarantor of stability. To be able to do that, Putin may have to become a public politician: a supreme irony, of course!
On my last trip to Moscow I could not fail to notice the large banners in the centre proclaiming ‘Moscow votes for Putin’ while those of the opposition only started cropping up on the outskirts of the city. Do you feel there is any way the remaining independent parties will be able to withstand the continual onslaught of the authorities in the long run?
Daire Reid, London
Dmitri Trenin: The election campaign is obviously dominated by the United Russia – now that they are physically linked to Mr. Putin. The interesting thing is that at least one party, the Union of Right Forces, is fighting back, by going to court against the President’s public interventions in favor of the UR. The URF has lost the case, of course, but the temerity is clear. I would not discount the Communist Party, either. Some people may decide that voting Communist in this election, whatever their political preferences more broadly, is casting the only “useful vote” not only against the government, but, more importantly, for political pluralism. I expect the actual Communist vote to be way above the 8% or so with which that party is now credited.
Is there genuinely huge support for Putin in Russia, and if so, why? What are Gary Kasparov’s chances in next year’s presidential election?
Raghavendra Jagtap, Minneapolis
Dmitri Trenin: Putin’s popularity rests on several important factors:
- material: people’s incomes have been going steadily up, since 2000;
- political: his presidency is a period of relative stability which has succeeded the periods of revolutionary chaos under both Yeltsin and Gorbachev;
- psychological: he is credited with winning a measure of respect for Russia internationally, and self-respect domestically;
- personal: he is seen as serious, competent, capable, articulate, both in command of the bureaucracy and with a common touch;
- physical: look at his bare-chest photos from Altai: a number of women rank him as one of the sexiest political figures anywhere.
On Gary Kasparov: He is one of the world’s greatest chess players, but politics is more complex than chess, and it requires, certainly in today’s Russia, a different kind of intellect. Also, Russia has little room for public politics today, even at the time of elections. Most people make their decision based on the reasons cited in the first half of my answer (on the reasons behind Putin’s popularity); they simply refuse to take Gary Kasparov seriously.
I’ve noticed news reports of various protests about the rapid rise in the cost of basic foodstuffs in Russia, and some attempts to deal with it. Of course, overall inflation around 10 per cent may seem small compared to the 90s, and the Kremlin has extracted a deal from retailers to hold prices before the election, but how large does inflation loom in the mind of a typical Russian? Is it likely to affect voting?
Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade, UK
Dmitri Trenin: Inflation bites into the still meager incomes of the majority of Russians. They are obviously unhappy, and grumbling. Yet, they are unlikely to turn their anger against Putin, in the hallowed Russian tradition: the czar is good; his boyars are greedy, and bad. Most people do not necessarily associate the government, which is held responsible for allowing high inflation, with Putin (for the above-given reason) or the United Russia (which is not perceived as a governing party, and rightly so). Also, the level of inflation today is higher than in 2006, but it is nowhere near what Russia went through in the 1990s. Re the voting impact, I think inflation will add votes to the Communist Party’s lists.
Putin has been reported as saying “an attack on Iran is an attack on Russia”. Where is that red line in terms of US use of force in Iran, and how might Putin respond?
Dmitri Trenin: I have not seen that comment, and I would be VERY surprised if it turned out that Putin has made it. If the US indeed uses force against Iran, Russia will condemn it, and refuse to have anything to do with it. Moscow’s reluctance to go down the sanctions path is based on the Iraq experience when the US was able to cite United Nations Security Council resolutions as justification for their attack. Now, Russia is taking no chances. If the attack happens (and I personally believe this would be folly, with calamitous consequences), Russia will stay out of the fray militarily; will probably join forces with China and others to heavily criticize the US action; may reach out to Iran to offer sympathies and some help (but it will be careful not to be drawn into the conflict with the US). However, Russia’s reaction will be the least of America’s concerns should it actually attack Iran.
A resurgent Russian economy has precipitated a vast increase in state spending. Has there been a corresponding increase in military spending? And, generally, how does the leadership of the armed forces view Putin and Russia’s future?
Louis Godena, Providence, Rhode Island USA
Dmitri Trenin: Yes, indeed, Moscow has embarked, for the first time since 1991, on a major program to modernize and rearm its Armed Forces. The budget allocates something around US$200 bn (actually, more, with the dollar’s value falling) toward that goal through 2015. The appointment earlier this year of Anatoly Serrdyukov, a former head of the Tax Police, as Russia’s defense minister, shows that the Kremlin is concerned about the actual spending of the allocated funds. So far, however, the rate of rearmament has been moderate to slow. The Russian military still mostly has to rely on Soviet-era hardware.
As for the military leadership’s response to Putin’s policies, they see him as the first leader in nearly 20 years who is serious about Russia’s national interests, national security and national defence. His leadership was also key, in their view, to succeeding in Chechnya where others had failed. The military leadership sees Russia as a great power with strong armed forces. In the strategic sphere, they want to be equals (which does not have to be equal numbers) with America; and they want to be able to assure Russia’s security vis-à-vis China, a friend today, but a mighty and growing power, nonetheless.
Putin has been reported as saying Russia will upgrade its nuclear weapons. To what extent is the US policy of attempting to build a new generation of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory responsible for this statement?
Dmitri Trenin: Russians have a long history of following the US’s lead, for better or for worse. Some U.S. actions in the strategic area are certainly used as a justification for similar Russian programs. On a related issue: Moscow’s rationale for withdrawing from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and its doubts about the wisdom of holding on to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty repeat verbatim the George W. Bush Administration’s official reasons for quitting the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002.
Some reports suggest Russia will become the world’s fifth largest economy within ten to fifteen years. Is this realistic, given that the Russian economy has many problems including outdated infrastructure and a declining population?
Ryan Miller, Washington, DC
Dmitri Trenin: The famous Goldman-Sachs investment bank report about BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies suggested Russia arriving in that position, but by 2040, not within 10-15 years. This is more of a description of current trends than an actual prediction. There is no question that Russia faces a host of major problems that constrain economic growth. Unfortunately, some of the Russian government’s policies which lay a premium on a greater role for the State in the economy, are probably misguided. The infrastructure is a big drag. Yet, Russia appears more likely to go forward and, over time, become capable of outstripping all EU economies individually, one by one.
As to the population decline, the actual number of people in the territory of the Russian Federation today is higher than 15 years ago, due to immigration. The quality of the population is a more serious issue than just quantity. But it can be handled by rising living and thus health standards, and a better utilization of the labour force currently in place. Russia should and can raise its labour productivity substantially.
The authorities in Russia appear to be very afraid of an Orange-style or Rose-style revolution, such as happened in Ukraine and Georgia. However, the conditions in Russia are very different. Why do Russians, both at the street level and those in positions of power almost always seek to belittle the events which took place in Ukraine and Georgia?
Dmitri Trenin: Mr. Putin today, speaking to his supporters in Moscow, brought up that issue again. I agree with you that the Kremlin should be more relaxed about Orange-style events in Russia: they are most unlikely to happen at this stage. Maybe this reflects the inner insecurity of those who otherwise appear tough and over-confident.
As to Russians belittling Ukrainian and Georgian experiences, this is partly due to their sincere inability to find much useful, or positive in the two colored revolutions. In their view, pluralist (i.e., clan-ruled, as they see it) Ukraine has certainly not overtaken Russia in per capita GDP terms; as to Georgian democracy, there were few in Russia who thought it was genuine, even before the recent events in Tbilisi. The leadership frankly regards Ukraine and Georgia as de-facto non-sovereign (though both changed sides since the fall of the USSR). As to the Russian people more broadly, they, from top to bottom, have turned nationalist – maybe the last in the former USSR to have done so. A natural development for a post-imperial nation, but obviously fraught with risks.
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