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Could Medvedev Become Russia's Yushchenko?

Dmitri MedvedevLast week Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview on Chinese state television that he would "not rule out the possibility of running for a second term at the presidential elections. The decision will be taken very shortly." For the first time, Medvedev has clearly indicated that this would be his own decision and would not be settled in private talks with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Is Medvedev adopting Yushchenko's strategy of galvanizing the popular support of Russia's liberal opposition, even if it means a loss to Putin in the presidential elections next year?

Less than a year ago it seemed almost natural that Medvedev and Putin would meet in mid-2011 and decide quietly between themselves which one of them would run for president in 2012. But as the presidential elections draw nearer, it is getting harder to envision this encounter. Now, Medvedev and his team are working hard to make such a chat altogether impossible, or at least preclude it from ending amicably.

This appears to reflect the realization in Medvedev's camp that Putin was likely to run for president himself and that it was politically preferable to preempt a humiliating scenario in which Medvedev would have to step aside to make way for Putin. They are now rolling out their plan to announce Medvedev's candidacy first and make such a "selection day" altogether impossible.

Putin responded with his own statement the following day that he does not discount the possibility of his own bid for the presidency in 2012, and that a decision to that effect would be made with all due considerations. He had to quickly quash the impression that Medvedev could make his decision to run for reelection on his own.

What might be shaping up here, if we discount the possibility of a staged performance by Russia's top leaders, is the first truly competitive presidential election since 2000.

The Russian public is tired of backdoor deals for transferring presidential power where Putin and Medvedev decide everything between themselves. The public, it turns out, resented the way it was denied the opportunity to choose the country's leader and impact its future in 2008.

Thus, both men need to run in a competitive election. It is the only way to bolster the government's legitimacy and regain public trust in the system.

Medvedev is likely to lose against Putin. However, he will win enough popular support to become the natural leader for liberal voters favoring more political freedom and better relations with the West. This could hasten the transition to a two-party system in Russia with Medvedev having a good shot at the presidency in 2018.

The plan for Medvedev's camp seems to be to preempt Putin with a reelection decision, then either to intimidate Putin into not running for president or at least hold a competitive election. As a result Medvedev will either win a second term or finish a strong second, ultimately emerging as an alternative Russian leader with strong popular support and backing from the West. He could even become a powerful prime minister in a "coalition government."

It is a win-win strategy for Medvedev, compared with the likely humiliation he would suffer by stepping aside for Putin to become president again.

There is only one problem with this plan ­ its closest precedents in the former Soviet space are Victor Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili.

Is Medvedev adopting Yushchenko's strategy of galvanizing the popular support of Russia's liberal opposition, even if it means a loss to Putin in the presidential elections next year?

Could this really happen in Russia? Is that a feasible scenario? Could Medvedev become the leader of those discontented with Russia's ossified political system? If so, could he force changes before the next presidential elections in 2018? Or could the restoration of Putin to the presidency in 2012, even through an open and competitive election, trigger a popular revolt similar to the uprisings in the Middle East or the Ukrainian Orange revolution of 2003? Where would the West stand, particularly Barack Obama's administration in Washington, assuming Putin is reelected, and Medvedev turns into a popular opposition figure in Russia? Would they openly support him? And what would Putin do were Medvedev to challenge him before and after the election?

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law, Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong, Australia:

Russia's political situation today is readily distinguishable from what existed in both Ukraine and Georgia at the time of the Orange and Rose Revolutions. The Ukrainian and Georgian populations were not merely seeking a better economic future and less corruption; they were looking to the West to minimize Russia's influence in their countries.

It would be a positive development if the individual who emerges as Russia's next president in 2012 does so as a result of the preferences of the Russian people and not the result of a negotiated arrangement between Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately, public opinion research suggests that most Russians are disturbingly uninterested in national politics. Russia has a passive-aggressive, cynical majority, unlikely to become enthusiastic about any political figure. This is not surprising as the situation is replicated to varying degrees in numerous other countries governed by minority or coalition parliamentary governments (Australia, Belgium, Canada, etc.) and in the United States with its dysfunctional, divided government.

It would be impossible for me to write with a high degree of confidence who will emerge as the next Russian president. Certainly, the most prominent pundits on Russia are not of one mind and are sharing scores of contradictory scenarios about the country's future. My hope and expectation is that Putin will decide to retire.

Russia is the world's richest failed state. The federal government has failed in many key initiatives, for example Putin's attempt to create federal districts to increase central control over the regions. The planned Winter Olympics and World Cup may enrich members of the Russian elite, but I fear that the disappointments may range from low attendance to a real disaster like a terrorist attack.

Russia remains a country that is a raw materials exporter (it is not entirely clear why energy prices are so high except for instability in the Middle East and market manipulations due to the futures' market ­ there simply is not enough global demand for resources from the struggling economies of the industrial world). Russia cannot attract significant foreign investment due to political instability and the lack of the rule of law. Russia's population is declining and the country is suffering from a brain drain that will bear lasting consequences. Data shows that the median income of Russian citizens has declined in the last ten years. These are the legacies of the Putin era.

Putin is a product of a national security state ­ but the Cold War has been over for quite some time. Yet, many of the leaders of Russia's ministries are holding onto influence by any means available to them (but they are growing older with every passing day).

Medvedev has a far better appreciation than Putin as to what needs to be done to move the Russian economy and Russian society forward. He is not a paranoid personality. Medvedev is probably the best positioned person in Russia to move the country in the right direction. He might not be ideal, but he does have a good brain trust and allies in positions of power. Unfortunately he still lacks the will and power base to push his mentor aside. What is different today is that Russian industrialists and foreign investors have come to appreciate the situation ­ President Dmitry Medvedev himself even seems increasingly aware of this.

Russia is becoming increasingly decentralized in an unplanned manner. Russia's population is defecting from the country. President Medvedev seems to understand that only by making Russia operate effectively as a federation can it survive. The importance of regional leaders is growing. The "siloviki" are getting older and the "power vertical" is impotent ­ though its members have enriched themselves at the expense of the Russian population. The children of the siloviki are likely to face a huge desire for retribution for what is viewed as their ill-gotten gains.

Admittedly, I have been making these points in my writings with Mary Holland and others for several years. This is not a matter of a stopped clock being right twice a day. Paul Goble regularly describes Russia as a country out of control, which may be 50 percent Muslim by 2050 (although their level of observance is by no means uniform). Marshall Goldman has been describing the Russian economy's inability to reform. There are a huge number of Russians living abroad expressing similar views. In addition, many Russian specialists within the country are becoming increasingly confident in their pessimistic predictions.

President Medvedev's decision to force individuals such as Igor Sechin out of commercial enterprises is a major event. It is a clear signal that the era when government officials and the allies can use their position to enrich themselves with impunity may be coming to an end. It shows the explosive nature of the current situation. If such people have their assets abroad, they have almost certainly violated foreign anti-money laws or other rules that require banks and security dealers to "know their customers." Their assets may be subject to foreign "unexplained wealth" laws and seizure. They may also even be subject to criminal liability unless they have diplomatic immunity.

Putin and many of his former supporters have real incentives to leave politics and attempt to keep what they have gained during the Putin era, hoping that while Medvedev reforms the country, he may leave them alone. If this does not occur, it will only be a matter of time before the Chinese and Russian elites living east of the Urals will enter into their own arrangements, irrespective of the Kremlin's desires.

Vlad Ivanenko, Ph.D. in economics, Ottawa, Canada:

In 1961, General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev announced that "the current generation of Soviet people will live under communism." In 1986, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev declared that there would be "a separate apartment or home for every family by the year 2000." In 2000, President Vladimir Putin came up with another extremely ambitious target: to catch up with Portugal in terms of GDP per capita in 2010. What these promises all have in common (apart from the observation that they were all given by bald leaders) is that they were all broken.

The subject of the Russian presidential elections in 2012 is turning out to be increasingly popular, unlike four years ago, but this time around Russian leaders may again come up with unrealistic promises (as they always do in the face of real political competition). Without being partisan, let me suggest an economic approach that the winner in 2012 will take in practice if not in words.

Continue to raise national welfare. Russia becomes to Europe what China is to the United States: the supplier of cheap products paid with debt obligations. This development leads to a partial loss of cultural identity that the Kremlin claims to uphold in words but not in deeds. If Russia, like China, manages to link former Soviet republics into its own supply chains, the loss of identity vis-à-vis Europe will not impact its cultural authority over its neighbors. With this end in mind, Russia aims at monopolizing positions in these key areas where it has strengths ­ in energy and minerals.

Speed up innovation. Energy extraction and mineral mining are the lowest hanging fruits, where Russia could move from upstream down the commodity chain or to develop horizontal links. The technological challenges in these fields are numerous. It suffices to mention shale gas, deepwater and Arctic water exploration and development. Entering into technological alliances with European industry leaders, like Norway in marine petroleum servicing or Germany in metals, is the way to import cutting-edge know-how.

Reduce income inequality. Each Russian leader should keep a watchful eye at the widening gap between "haves" and "have-nots." A country with high income inequality that maintains stable foreign trade surplus risks losing its accumulated wealth. Capital has the property to fly across borders and a Russian billionaire who feels uncomfortable at home will be welcome in a heavily indebted but politically stable European country. Needless to say, the new "motherland" will tax his or her money in return for providing a shelter. As such, it would be a "win-win" situation for each Russian leader to assure the super-rich of political certainty in exchange for paying heavy taxes collected to reduce income inequality.

The platform above only marginally resembles the one promoted by ex-president Yushchenko. This precludes the question of whether it would be in the interest of any candidate to turn "into a popular leader of Russia's liberal opposition," as such a candidate would never have a chance to win. My impression is that both Putin and Medvedev (and, more importantly, the groups behind them) understand that to start rocking the boat in 2012 as the Ukrainian elite did in 2004, would be too dangerous for them, their supporters, and Russia in general.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT, and Vitaly Strokanov, Senior Lecturer of Political Science, Izhevsk State Technical University, Chaikovsky, Russia

Although it could be very interesting and exciting for us, one as a historian and the other as a political scientist, to behold a presidential election in which Medvedev and Putin ran against each other, it is unlikely that this will ever happen. Much more likely, as they have already stated, is that they will decide over the course of this year who will run in the 2012 elections. Nor have we seen any serious conflict between them recently, although some commentators have already rushed to announce one after their latest round of interviews.

Is Dmitry Medvedev capable of becoming the leader of Russia's liberal opposition and going against Vladimir Putin? Again it is very unlikely, in our opinion, due to the fact that Medvedev appears more an office style bureaucrat rather than a real public politician and charismatic leader. He obviously does not possess any of the qualities that are necessary for playing the role of an opposition leader. In that capacity he would not be better than Mikhail Kasyanov, whom the majority of people in the country may even have a hard time identifying today. Just imagine Dmitry Medvedev speaking at a public meeting on the squares of Russian cities, being surrounded by police who are ready to disperse the meeting? Honestly, we have a serious difficulty even conceiving of such a scene.

Dmitry Medvedev has spent all his political life in an office and not on the street, where the Russian opposition finds itself most of the time and where Yushchenko and Saakashvili started their revolutions. Medvedev certainly is not a revolutionary figure and at the present moment may have a political future only in his association with Vladimir Putin and with his blessing.

Will Russia face a popular revolt in the event of Putin's victory in the presidential election? Again, very unlikely, but such chances, in our opinion, are increasing quite significantly in the event of a second term for Dmitry Medvedev, and if Russia is not flooded again with petro-dollars for a long time. We took a survey of approximately a hundred people on their preference between Putin and Medvedev as the next Russian president. It was not a great surprise to see that more than 80 percent of our respondents preferred Putin.

The West certainly would prefer to see Dmitry Medvedev as the Russian president, but it will not do much to help him raise Russia to any heights of modernization, as it has not done so for far more serious reasons in this regard, just as it did not really help Yushchenko make Ukraine a prosperous country. A weak Russia is much better and preferable for the West than a strong Russia and the West is not going to assist with Medvedev's plans for modernization. It would be absolutely naïve to expect this.

We think that neither Putin nor Medvedev are very interested in the revival of competition in Russian elections and in political life in general, and such thing may come only from sources other rather than the Kremlin. It could come from the new, younger and more energetic leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party or the Communist Party, but such a prospect does not look very promising at this point.

Consequently, it is more than likely that there is going to be a" boring election" in 2012 with pre-decided results, rather than real competition with an unpredictable outcome. Russian elites obviously do not want to see such unpredictability and competition in the political life of the country even at the level of choosing, as it is in the United States, between Coke and Pepsi. Rather it is satisfied with the ruling tandem of Coke and Coke Light.

Ira Straus, U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Russia in NATO, Washington DC:

What a Westerner can responsibly ponder on this matter is what can/will/should be the West's conduct, if Putin and Medvedev square off electorally?

The official West will probably have the good sense to keep quiet. Anything it would say would be counterproductive. Of course it would be no secret that it prefers Medvedev. The media will inevitably be blaring this, and Putin will inevitably use it to electoral advantage.

There is one, and only one, form of Western support for Medvedev that could be more productive than counterproductive. This is to do its legitimate part to make a success of Medvedev's foreign policy.
The main way the West could do this -- on a legitimate basis of common interest, not concessions for purposes of political influence -- is by giving him visible success in the sphere of the overtures he has made to the West; overtures that he has made, remarkably, in the name of a Euro-Atlantic security order.

It would not be possible to give Medvedev a complete success in this by 2011 to 2012, due to the nature of the thing: his formulations appeared too much like a paper agreement that could do more to undermine Euro-Atlantic security, by obstructing NATO, than advance it. The one path to a truly substantive joint order -- membership in NATO -- would require real work to agree on, despite being placed on the map by a (cautiously worded) endorsement by his foundation INSOR, and would take time to achieve even after being agreed upon as a goal. What could be done this year is something more basic: the West can come up with formulations that present the dialogue on these matters under an aura of intention to succeed, rather than an aura of failure or dismissive-ness. This might take the form of a joint Russia-West statement on the goals of a "common Euro-Atlantic security system" and of "NATO membership for Russia," setting in motion a process of working out a path to realizing these goals, beginning with the not trivial task of elaborating the goals in a concrete viable form -- "viable" meaning that it would work, and would work to the benefit of both parties, without a threat to the basic interests of either.

Thus far the West has not tried to do this. The "reset" has helped and indeed has been something of a lifeline, but in the larger sense, the West has done less to validate than to invalidate Medvedev and the aspirations to which he aspires. That he nevertheless currently stands any chance at all is a sign of how much of the Russian elite are still determined to find its future in and together with the West.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

Medvedev's cited statement to the Chinese media about his decision to make a presidential bid in 2012 ­ in both English and the original spoken Russian ­ gives no indication that the decision will be unilateral or not. The author or authors of this decision were not mentioned. In addition, all timeframes are relative. Therefore, it is illogical to state categorically, based on this single statement that a unilateral and accelerated decision will be made. It may happen this way ­ or it may not. There is not enough information in the statement to establish a certainty.

Some will consider the election strategy outlined in the introduction as political "grasping at straws" by neo-liberal activists who have no realistic and distinctive program, no candidate and no mass electoral base. Assuming that the outlined strategy is not a belated April 1st joke, let us examine it closely.

Medvedev is given the opportunity to unilaterally and quickly declare his candidacy for the presidency in 2012. He is then expected to lose that election. And after that, with the stigma of a political loser, he is supposed to become the leader of a neo-liberal revival, which may win some future election. Meanwhile, the other political parties are assumed to remain static, and no competing political leaders are expected to emerge anywhere... This is supposed to be the strategy transforming Medvedev into a "Russian Yushchenko." Medvedev is supposed to want to become a political loser, in order to eventually lead an imagined "color revolution" in Russia, to satisfy neo-liberal aspirations. Funny!

Of course, the Ukrainian Yushchenko became a despised president whose final rating was below five percent -- before he was electively "run out of town on a rail." During his tenure, Ukraine's governance was dysfunctional and the country survived the global economic crisis greatly thanks to the largesse of... Russia.

One might conclude from the analysis that some Russian neo-liberals really hate Medvedev a lot.

A curious component of this plan is the now debunked myth of the popularity of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. The 100,000 or so activists encamped on that square in Kiev were not representative of the population of that country. They succeeded largely because of the unique, specific and ephemeral configuration of Kiev politics.

Another strange aspect of the "Russian Yushchenko" gambit is the "evolution" to a two-party political system. A market of political choices reduced to only two is a loss of democratic pluralism. The Tsarist Duma had deputies from 14 (fourteen!) political parties. Voters had choices that were in line with their wishes. Perhaps the two-party model comes from a poorly understood image of U.S. politics. In fact in America there are many political parties, some of which (the Greens, for example) have significant regional and municipal presence. However, the two political parties represented in the federal Congress of the United States are often so similar, that clever observers speak of one "Republicratic" party, divided into two wings. Witticisms aside, such uniformity ­ which is measurable through voting analyses ­ is dangerously close to a single-party system, and Russia has already paid a very steep price for such an arrangement.

Currently, Russia's federal legislature has deputies from four political parties ­ a working European model, with sufficient political diversity responding to electoral needs. Why a reduction of choices for voters is offered by the neo-liberals as progress remains to be explained.

The real problem for neo-liberals is that they do not have a toe-hold in Russia's politics. But do they deserve one? Reckless liberalism caused the socio-economic disaster in Russia in the 1990s. Why should any voter swallow the neo-liberal bait again?

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