(Event) Assessing the Implications of the Russian Elections Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center, March 7, 2012
Moderator: Blair Ruble, Kennan Institute. Panelists: Ariel Cohen, Heritage Foundation, Stanislav Belkovsky, National Strategy Institute, Nataliya Rostova, Kennan Institute, and Henry Hale, George Washington University.
Blair Ruble opened the event by announcing the official results of Sunday’s presidential election: Putin won, handily. Allegations of voter fraud and vote tampering, he said, are tempered by the fact that whatever fraud was committed was probably unnecessary-Putin still would have won. Rostova spoke about the biased media coverage on the major television channels. The use of stand-ins during debates, she said, gave the whole affair a farcical quality, with Prokhorov’s brother debating famous director Mikhailkov, who was standing-in for Putin.
She discussed the nature of media control in Russia and said that in the next Putin term ownership is going to become more concentrated. Social media is an acceptable outlet, she said, but expected the Kremlin and regional governments to be able to prosecute bloggers under a new extremism law. Rostova’s last remarks brought up a point that warrants further explanation or argument. She stated that without media coverage, the protest movement would fractionalize, then fall apart and be a ghost of what it is. Hale argued that the only real chance for change will come from the top. This would necessitate that Putin’s “tears were real,” but Hale doubted that necessary change will come with the current cadre in the Kremlin. Super-presidentialist systems rarely allow political liberalization. These systems do not manage shock well, and seek guidance from the elite cadre, or even a single leader. Although the protests manage to unsettle the Kremlin temporarily, he said, it seems the elites have succeeded in creating enough of a pressure valve to avoid addressing much of the protestors’ demands. Pushing against much of the commentary about the recent elections, Belkovsky said that its importance is overstated. The results were predetermined, with most people knowing or suspecting that Putin would win in the first round. More important is the perception of legitimacy and how that impacts the regime’s future. Nationalists of certain stripes have rejected Putin’s policies. Belkovsky stated that this election signifies “Perestroika 2,” where the system will again undergo changes not dissimilar from Gorbachev’s signature policy. The only way reform will arrive in the system is through a constitutional assembly that will devolve power from the presidency to the parliament. Why Putin would allow this devolution of power remains unclear, and Belkovsky only had a rough outline of why it would happen. He stressed that it would be a “revolution, but not revolutionary.” Beyond the election, Ariel Cohen stressed three key issues important to understanding the current political situation: the historical context of the election, Medvedev’s modernization campaign, and Putin’s foreign policy. As far as the historical context, Cohen argues that the leadership of Russia still has yet to learn the lessons of the revolutions in 1905 or 1917, namely that the Kremlin must respond to the needs of civil society. This line of argumentation was never fully developed, and would have been interesting as the both revolutions had tremendous differences. With regard to the modernization campaign, Cohen stressed that both the “software” (i.e., institutions) and the “hardware” (i.e., physical infrastructure) need to be updated. The costs associated with improving physical infrastructure are in the trillions, Cohen stated. Instead of investing in these improvements, Putin seeks military modernization and a quasi-imperial vision in the Eurasian Union. Other experts, such as Fyodor Lukyanov, have argued that the Eurasian Union is actually a step to promote economic integration along pragmatic lines, but Cohen was stringent in his criticism. With regard to foreign policy, Cohen outlined a vision of perpetual confrontation between Russia and the West. Putin is following a tsarist foreign policy of “fortress Russia,” borrowed from Alexander III. The West’s best policy response is concerted pressure with our European allies. Ruble concluded that despite the different opinions on what the elections meant, or if they were important in themselves at all, some common trends exist. The tumult of the 1990s, lingering anti-Americanism, suspicions of the West, and the centralization of power have all led to the creation of a system resisting change and in conflict with its neighbors. Furthermore, Ruble suggested that Western analysts are preoccupied with pseudo-Marxist interpretations with what is going on inside Russia. Discussions about business interests driving politics, and an obsession with Russia’s petro-political economy have clouded “our” analysis. After these elections this past weekend, Ruble argues, we might not have learned much at all.
– Wilder Bullard, staff contributor