Understanding Russia: Let’s not assume Medvedev is Putin’s Puppet

February 29, 2008

dmitry-medvedev.jpgRussia no longer makes headlines in the West. There are other evil empires to defeat. But this weekend we should be interested in Russia’s Presidential elections, and the intertwined fates of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev

President Putin is set to become Prime Minister Putin. (Yawn). He steps down as President at the end of his second term. The overwhelming favourite to replace him is Dmitry Medvedev, a Business leader (Chairman of Gazprom), who in the West has been dismissed as some sort of Putin puppet.

In the West, we are much more interested in whether America will go for that nice Mr Obama, or pick their first woman for President, or maybe seek another good old-fashioned warrior in Senator John MacCain.

A Ritual of Pretend Democracy?

Are the Russian leadership elections a sham? Russia Today is overtly state-sponsored, and directed outwards. Its blogger, Peter Lavelle, or to give him his official title, Political Commentator, takes the issue head-on.

Many in the media have dismissed Russia’s presidential election as a charade and a ritual of pretend democracy. This is a mistake. The presidential election is clearly not exciting and there is a predictable outcome. But this does not mean the voters don’t have a choice. They do have a choice and I fully expect the electorate to act out the following logic: “If is not broken, why fix it?”

Russians will go to the polls on Sunday to vote on their future. There are four candidates on the ballot. One is well known and supported by the very popular President Vladimir Putin. Two are old hands in politics and the fourth is a relative unknown. For the “commentariat” in the West and some in Russia this all means a non-election. However, I submit this election is not about voting for someone, but about what kind of Country Russia can, and needs to, become.

Lavelle goes on to argue that Democracy is emerging in Russia, and that Putin has earned his popularity through his political leadership over his two terms of Office.

What does the West have to say?

Not a lot, as I indicated. The Guardian reflects the libertarian position in the UK. Luke Harding from Moscow reports the Civil Rights issues highlighted by Amnesty International.

President Vladimir Putin has presided over a major “roll-back” of civil rights in Russia, which has seen freedom of expression, assembly and association seriously curtailed, Amnesty International warned yesterday. In a report ahead of Russia’s presidential elections this Sunday the human rights group said the Kremlin was using new laws to persecute non-governmental organisations, forcibly break up opposition demonstrations and wipe out dissent.

The Kremlin claims it is committed to human rights and democracy. It accuses western governments of using rights as a political weapon to try to thwart Russia’s resurgence on the international stage.

The BBC at home and abroad

The BBC has been disappointing in its reporting for a home audience, while retaining some of its traditional excellent coverage internationally. On the eve of the elections, on Friday 29th February 2008, the BBC’s home news page on its website had as lead story Price Harry who has been serving in Afghanistan for the last ten weeks. No mention of the Russian elections.

In contrast, The BBC World News page did have the elections as a lead story. The focus was taken from an interview with Vladimir Churov, the head of the electoral commission.

Mr Chirov had ‘admitted media coverage was unequal’, but was further quoted as saying the Campaign was “fair but not equal”.

“That’s a problem not only for our country but I can agree that not all candidates have an equal number of news items,” However, the election chief argued it was legitimate for news programmes to focus on the activities of Mr Medvedev in his current capacity as first deputy prime minister, [adding] that he had no regrets that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Europe’s main election monitoring body, had decided not to send an observer mission, and that the world would form its own opinion on the legitimacy of Sunday’s election.

More of the Same, Please

More interesting was a series of interviews with Russian citizens on their views of the elections.

The interviews suggested one view on the current situation in Russia. Unlike the United States, there is no momentum building up for yet more change. However contrived the elections appear to be in Western eyes, the Russians interviewed seemed to be welcoming the prospects of continuity.

I have no way of knowing how selective are the comments, or whether it would have been impossible to obtain stronger oppositional views expressed. I am more confident that the BBC had been unable to secure any such views, which would have made a rather more interesting story. No change wanted is not the headline of choice.