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Putin Dodging Hard Questions on his Presidential Platform
Vladimir Frolov, Vladimir Belaeff, Vlad Ivanenko, Dick Krickus, Alexandre Strokanov and Vitaly Strokanov
- Russia Profile - russiaprofile.org - 1.27.12 - JRL 2012-15

In an essay posted on his Web site January 16 and published the same day in Izvestiya, Vladimir Putin offered his vision of where he wants to lead Russia as its next president, claiming only he can guide the country between the twin threats of instability and stagnation. Why is Putin dodging the hard questions about his presidential platform and his plans for the presidency? Does he have anything specific to say to the Russian voters, other than reminding them about the disasters of the 1990s? Why is he running away from his own party ­ United Russia? What is it that he wants to finish accomplishing as president of Russia that justifies his return to the Kremlin? In what was billed as the first installment of his presidential platform Putin criticized the "urge for revolution" as a "constantly recurring problem in Russian history" and dismissed the opposition's demands for change as empty rhetoric: "Today people talk about different ways to reinvigorate the political process. But what is up for discussion? How state power should be structured? Handing it to the 'better people?' But what next? What then? I am worried that there is virtually no broader discussion of what should be done beyond the elections, after the elections...We need a broad dialogue ­ about the future, about priorities, long-term choices, national development and national prospects."

Although Putin called the article an "invitation" to a dialogue about Russia's future for the country's middle class, it ended up being a rambling, 3,400-word monologue with almost no mention of the country's ills ­ like corruption, nepotism, government impunity and abuse of power ­ that brought urban middle class voters out onto the streets last December.

Putin's article contained no specific proposals to remedy these wrongs. In fact, his manifesto is conspicuous for its lack of any specific ideas that might form a presidential candidate's electoral platform and provide voters with a sense of future policies the candidate will pursue if elected.

As blogger Lucian Kim points out, "Nobody in Russia needs an article about the country's challenges; they are clear to everyone. What voters might have found more useful is a campaign platform with proposals to meet those challenges. Here there isn't a single legislative initiative, or new government program, or benchmark against which Russians will be able to measure Putin's performance in six years. In December, Putin ridiculed the protest movement for not having a concrete program, yet in his article he sounds even more incoherent than his opponents, who at least have a list of political demands. If there's a message with which Putin would like to leave the reader, it could be boiled down to one sentence: 'I saved Russia, but I'm not quite finished yet.'"

Putin is silent on political reform and battling government corruption, which are at the front of the protesters' demands, and does not even mention President Dmitry Medvedev's recent initiatives to open up Russia's political system and increase political competition. It is remarkable that practically all of Putin's competitors in the presidential race ­ from Gennady Zuganov to Grigory Yavlinsky ­ offer quite specific and realistic proposals for political reform, including a constitutional ban on more than two presidential terms for life.

Putin offers nothing specific on his future tax, healthcare, education, defense or foreign policy plans, while vaguely promising to address these issues in subsequent articles. This is how he formulates the objectives for his next presidency: "I see our goal in the years to come as sweeping away all that stands in the way of our national development, completing the establishment in Russia of a political system, a structure of social guarantees and safeguards for the public, and an economic model that together form a single, living, ever-changing organism of a state that is, at the same time, resilient, stable and healthy."

He does not elaborate how exactly and at what public cost he intends to accomplish these goals.

Putin never mentions his political party, United Russia, which technically nominated him for president, and which still lists him as its leader. Nor does he ever mention Dmitry Medvedev or other members of his team who would help him run Russia (he only modestly claims that in the 1990s "he and a group of his soul mates saved Russia").

Why is Putin dodging the hard questions about his presidential platform and his plans for the presidency? Does he have anything specific to say to the Russian voters, other than reminding them about the disasters of the 1990s? Why is he silent on political reform and battling corruption, while his rivals address these issues in detail, knowing they are very important to voters? Why is he running away from his own party ­ United Russia? And why is he belittling his tandem partner, Dmitry Medevedev, by downplaying and even pouring scorn on his policy initiatives, like the universal school exam system (Russian analogue of the SAT)? What is it that he wants to finish accomplishing as president of Russia that justifies his return to the Kremlin?

Vlad Ivanenko, Ph.D., economist, Ottawa

Looking in a distant 2006 for a new research agenda, I had a look at the issue of optimal economic strategy for Russia. My conclusion was that the progress made by the Russian government of the epoch was uneven. Then Minister of Finance Alexey Kudrin put in place procedures for the state budget consistent with the Russian economic status in the world, and then presidential advisor Vladislav Surkov managed to arrive at a workable system of political governance. However, these two components were necessary but not sufficient to indicate the path that Russian economy followed. Several economic think tanks provided certain documents that contained elements of "national development strategy," but, overall, a logically consistent set of economic objectives was missing in 2006. The country drifted by the force of inertia along the path already set in 1970s: the country was slowly turning into a raw appendage of the European Union.

With that conclusion in mind, the next step was to define non-controversial objectives supported by the majority of voters. According to the voter's preferences, as expressed in sociological surveys, they would support the economic agenda that contains three essential elements. Firstly, the voters wanted strong economic growth, which was consistent with the path Russia followed. Secondly, they did not want prosperity to come at the expense of Russia being left outside of international decision-making, which was the will that went against the export-driven model of growth. Their third concern was for the common cultural space suggesting the need for state mechanisms of wealth redistribution within Eurasia.

Given the approaching election in 2008, I thought that a strategy that addressed each of the aforementioned items would be in high demand among contenders for the presidency. In fact, there was almost none: the candidates preferred highly general terms and avoided concrete proposals. Correspondingly, the electoral discourse was extremely hollow.

Thinking about the phenomenon, I captured the eerie feeling the Russian politics is deliberately conducted in such a manner. As soon as a presidential candidate came up with a relative coherent set of initiatives, like Sergey Glazyev did in 2004, he encountered numerous administrative problems that did not allow him to broaden his political appeal.

Eventually, I concluded that the emptiness of electoral debate couldn't be explained by reasons other than a theatrical performance designed to allow one of the candidates to win the election without binding himself to a set of specific promises. To see this, lets consider what promises the perennial winner since 2000, Vladimir Putin, made as the president or prime minister. I count at least three ideas, each of which had the potential to be elaborated in a consistent set of economic policies, but it was not.

The first idea, launched in 2000 by then Presidential Adviser Andrey Illarionov, was for Russia to attain the level of Portuguese GDP per capita by 2010. At first, Vladimir Putin embraced enthusiastically this ambitious goal ­ never reached by Russia before ­ but he did not really commit himself to its attainment. In retrospect, he was right, as it proved to be as much elusive in 2012 as it was in 2000.

Then, the idea of energy superpower came. Being initiated by unknown authors, possibly, from the national gas monopoly Gazprom, it set the goal for Russia to become the dominant player in the global energy market. In this respect, I am willing to grant partial credit to Putin, as the country managed to scare a few of its neighbors with natural gas price scandals. Yet, I would interpret the idea differently as a superpower in energy extraction and processing technologies, specifically in the north and Arctic waters. Since the likes of Schlumberger or Halliburton continue to dominate the field worldwide, one can conclude that Russia is as distant from technological leadership in 2012 as it was in 2000. Obviously, Vladimir Putin did not endorse the idea, even though certain governmental actions indicated that it was followed in deeds if not in words.

Finally, the idea of sovereign democracy, authored by Vladislav Surkov, might provide foundation for a Eurasian Economic Union, if treated ingeniously. It was not. Instead, the union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan was announced for the purpose yet to be explained. At the moment, it appears that the union is more aimed to fill the gap before these countries, jointly or individually, join the European Union, rather than to offer its alternative. Again, the reaction of Vladimir Putin to the term of "sovereign democracy" was muted. Is there a pattern?

This historical overview shows that Putin avoids deliberately committing himself to any well-defined economic strategy. I believe that his aversion to a "grand vision" is natural: he seems to be more at ease performing smaller, tactical tasks. That is why I do not expect Russia to be put on a firm economic course after the election. More likely, Vladimir Putin will continue battling each wave individually instead of steering the ship out of the approaching "perfect economic storm."

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

The presidential election in Russia is just now unfolding, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's campaign is probably the most efficient and successful so far. This is reflected in the results of the polls in January that show a steady growth of the percentage of Russian people who will vote for him.

Putin very wisely decided in his campaign not to rely on the United Russia party, but instead on the People's Front, which was formed intentionally for the election last summer. By doing this, Vladimir Putin stresses that he is not a candidate of just one party, but a people's candidate, the national leader.

Another brilliant idea of his campaign was to open a conversation with the nation through the Web site "Putin2012." We are regularly monitoring suggestions and proposals that come on the site. Of course, these "letters to Putin" are different, and some of them are really interesting, but you can also see some nonsense. This is inevitable on such forums but it does not detract from the fact that this site has provided an excellent source of information for understanding what is truly on the minds of real Russian people. Vladimir Putin has a draft of the program on his site, but his real program will be formed from this "direct line" with the nation, reflecting the people's suggestions and proposals. At this point, Putin has listened to his people, but please be patient. He will give his answers to all of the major concerns of the country, including corruption, before the day of the vote. His article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta about the national question and ethnic relations in Russia is just another excellent example of it. This is also perfect answer to the nationalist Alexey Navalny, whom Western media is trying to present today as a new star of Russian politics.

His article in Izvestia had a clear goal, and that is to begin a dialog in a different format. He mentioned that this is only the first article and it has particular goals. Although we find that the article is not without faults, its value is that it contains the real words of Putin, and they represent his thoughts and true feelings that he shares with the people without the involvement of his speech writers, as we can see in the "creativity" of other candidates, like Mikhail Prokhorov. This article primarily addresses Russia's domestic and foreign challenges. Putin was also absolutely correct in his analysis of the Russian elite.

The changes in legislation proposed by president Medvedev regarding political parties will not change much in Russian politics because the problem is not in the number of parties, but in their character, and the qualities of politicians that the country has today. Russian politics cannot become more competitive if we continue to see, as we have for the past 20 years, the same people: Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Grigory Yavlinsky. They are candidates who can simply never win the presidential election, though they may even not seriously wish to win, and their participation in the election is just plain silly. Their hypothetical victory could lead to a disaster, and the country realizes it. The so-called non-system opposition is monopolized by the former governmental officials, or State Duma deputies, reasonably thrown out of their "feeding troughs," such as Mikhail Kasyanov, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov. They are even less popular and less capable than the leaders of the major parties. This is clearly understood by the majority of Russians and that is why they express their skepticism over Medvedev's proposal, as the polls have again shown.

If Russia is indeed in need of a revolution, such a revolution should occur inside all its major political parties (including United Russia). These parties have to stop being "monarchical" and become real places for open discussions, the development of new ideas, and they need to serve as elevators for politically active young people from the provinces.

After an analysis of the programs of the major contenders in the Russian presidential election that we have been conducting for last 20 years, we unfortunately did not discover many new important and realistic initiatives about what to do with the country, as Vladimir Putin has again correctly observed. The Russian opposition that exists today is simply politically impotent, and that is obvious for the majority of Russians who will vote for Vladimir Putin on March 4, 2012.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

Putin's article of January 16 was announced as the first of a series. To claim that this first article is not a complete and specific presidential platform is a bit premature, and some may even say, facetious. Since that date, Putin has published more, has met with journalists and has been busy getting his message to the electorate. Therefore, a critique of the first article is largely moot. Let us wait until the man has articulated his entire message before challenging his program.

Putin, as incumbent-in-government, has one major advantage, which accrues to all incumbents in all democracies: a record of accomplishment. His competitors do not. It is therefore understandable that the competitors must provide very specific litanies of what they intend to do if elected. One should note that some of the specific political changes proposed by the other candidates require changes to the Russian Constitution, and any candidate other than Putin will not have the necessary parliamentary votes to make such political changes. In fact, any candidate, other than Putin, if elected president, would be confronted with legislative gridlock similar to the one currently facing President Barack Obama in Washington.

In the case of Putin the electorate knows already what he can and does do. The problem for the competitors is that Putin has been largely successful in his endeavors, and big segments of Russian society have benefitted, in particular if one considers the chaos and failure of the final years of the 20th century.

Why did Putin not mention United Russia (the party) in his first article? A humorous observer might suggest this is done in deference to Navalny, who seemingly invented the slogan about the "party of thieves and crooks" allegedly with United Russia in mind (we have no evidence of this; one can propose that there are several parties in Russia which include thieves and swindlers in their ranks, no?) More seriously, the presidential election in Russia is about individuals, not parties (the Duma elections are more about parties). The office of the president of Russia is meant to be above partisanship ­ this is a healthy legacy both of the Russian Duma monarchy (1906 to 1917) and of the negative experience of the one-party political ambiance in the Soviet Union.

Regarding Medvedev, the lack of mention is not sinister. Medvedev is the present and the recent past. Putin's articles concern Russia's future.

One should note that the problems listed by Frolov (corruption, nepotism, etc.) and many others not listed (demographic decline, petty lawbreaking, degradation of the natural environment, the devastation in the villages, to name a few more) will not be solved by any one president, in particular one who wants to govern for only four years (like Mikhail Prokhorov announced). Nor will they be solved by political reform. Political reform is about how someone shall get the power to do things in Russia. Solving Russian national problems is about how that acquired power will be used.

Presidential candidates in Russia who focus on political reform seem to forget that the electorate is not professional politicians or political scientists, who are fascinated by such topics. The electorate wants to hear about how their future needs shall be satisfied, and not about a three percent Duma election threshold.

Considered in their entirety, Putin's publications are no more specific or vague than similar declarations by American presidential candidates, currently being delivered in large amounts to U.S. voters. There are also major differences: Putin is more thoughtful, personal and more candid to his electorate than the average U.S. politician.

Dick Krickus, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Mary Washington, former H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University, Washington, DC

Vladimir Frolov asks: "Why is Putin dodging the hard questions about his presidential platform and his plans for the presidency?" The answer is simple: he is confident of winning a third term as president, so he is at liberty not to address them. Neither his old opponents ­ Yavlinsky's liberals, Zuganov's communists and Zhirinovsky's neo-fascists ­ nor the new ones ­ the middle-class activists led by bloggers like Navalny ­ have the votes to deny him that office. He is confident that Russians tethered to the vast government bureaucracy, including the military and special services, and the army of ordinary folk who rely upon state entitlements will stick with him.

He neither needs United Russia nor even wants to be associated with the discredited party, lest his image be tarnished. "If the recent parliamentary elections were rigged, the people associated with the party were responsible, not prime minister Putin." He also is betting that whatever their grievances, in the final analysis most Russians will accept his offer of providing stability in favor of the mayhem that his opponents will wage upon the country should they somehow wrest power from him and his associates.

Of course, the Kremlin will continue to exploit institutional devices to diminish his rival's prospects. The Central Election Commission's barring Grigory Yavlinsky from running for president is an example. So is the government's shutting the offices of Golos, the group that monitors elections. The rationale, that its offices required electrical repair work, is downright silly, and an admission of confusion. These absurd efforts to dismantle the opposition, however, underline several important observations:
Putin and his team remain wedded to the "good old days" when the Kremlin overlords could treat the people with contempt and not worry about the consequences. They will continue to personalize politics on the one hand and deinstitutionalize it on the other, and Russia will remain stagnant.

The Kremlin oligarchs simply have no answers to Russia's problems and seem to be confused about the surge in grassroots protest.

They are unwilling to have a real "broad dialogue" ­ Putin's words ­ with the activists that marched in December and to adopt political reforms that open up the political system and seriously address state-associated corruption.

Within Russia, the Kremlin's failure to acknowledge that a growing number of people ­ most of whom are critical to Russia becoming a normal and prosperous European country ­ will not be denied a voice in matters that are central to their lives, represents an ominous warning signal. Attempts on Putin's part to "manage" the March election could spawn serious confrontations between the reformers and the government that produce unanticipated consequences. Among other things, less-privileged Russians who do not share the reformers' values nonetheless may be emboldened by their clash with the authorities and press their own unique set of grievances. In short, the reformers by themselves may be incapable of making mischief to attract Putin's attention, but as catalysts for widespread grassroots upheaval they may be successful.

Beyond Russia, the advocates of a "reset" in relations with the West will find it ever more difficult to justify joint efforts that address shared global problems. Yes, it will remain true that only the Russian people can move their society toward pluralism; that friendly foreigners can only offer help on the margins; and that self-interest compels East-West cooperation on matters vital to both sides, but the barriers to such cooperation will proliferate should Putin resort to harsh policies to silence the reformers. At the same time, an intervening phenomenon like economic turmoil in Europe may serve as a force multiplier and fuel all manner of popular protest within Russia.

Keywords: Russia, Government, Politics - Russia News - Russia

 

In an essay posted on his Web site January 16 and published the same day in Izvestiya, Vladimir Putin offered his vision of where he wants to lead Russia as its next president, claiming only he can guide the country between the twin threats of instability and stagnation. Why is Putin dodging the hard questions about his presidential platform and his plans for the presidency? Does he have anything specific to say to the Russian voters, other than reminding them about the disasters of the 1990s? Why is he running away from his own party ­ United Russia? What is it that he wants to finish accomplishing as president of Russia that justifies his return to the Kremlin?

In what was billed as the first installment of his presidential platform Putin criticized the "urge for revolution" as a "constantly recurring problem in Russian history" and dismissed the opposition's demands for change as empty rhetoric: "Today people talk about different ways to reinvigorate the political process. But what is up for discussion? How state power should be structured? Handing it to the 'better people?' But what next? What then? I am worried that there is virtually no broader discussion of what should be done beyond the elections, after the elections...We need a broad dialogue ­ about the future, about priorities, long-term choices, national development and national prospects."

Although Putin called the article an "invitation" to a dialogue about Russia's future for the country's middle class, it ended up being a rambling, 3,400-word monologue with almost no mention of the country's ills ­ like corruption, nepotism, government impunity and abuse of power ­ that brought urban middle class voters out onto the streets last December.

Putin's article contained no specific proposals to remedy these wrongs. In fact, his manifesto is conspicuous for its lack of any specific ideas that might form a presidential candidate's electoral platform and provide voters with a sense of future policies the candidate will pursue if elected.

As blogger Lucian Kim points out, "Nobody in Russia needs an article about the country's challenges; they are clear to everyone. What voters might have found more useful is a campaign platform with proposals to meet those challenges. Here there isn't a single legislative initiative, or new government program, or benchmark against which Russians will be able to measure Putin's performance in six years. In December, Putin ridiculed the protest movement for not having a concrete program, yet in his article he sounds even more incoherent than his opponents, who at least have a list of political demands. If there's a message with which Putin would like to leave the reader, it could be boiled down to one sentence: 'I saved Russia, but I'm not quite finished yet.'"

Putin is silent on political reform and battling government corruption, which are at the front of the protesters' demands, and does not even mention President Dmitry Medvedev's recent initiatives to open up Russia's political system and increase political competition. It is remarkable that practically all of Putin's competitors in the presidential race ­ from Gennady Zuganov to Grigory Yavlinsky ­ offer quite specific and realistic proposals for political reform, including a constitutional ban on more than two presidential terms for life.

Putin offers nothing specific on his future tax, healthcare, education, defense or foreign policy plans, while vaguely promising to address these issues in subsequent articles. This is how he formulates the objectives for his next presidency: "I see our goal in the years to come as sweeping away all that stands in the way of our national development, completing the establishment in Russia of a political system, a structure of social guarantees and safeguards for the public, and an economic model that together form a single, living, ever-changing organism of a state that is, at the same time, resilient, stable and healthy."

He does not elaborate how exactly and at what public cost he intends to accomplish these goals.

Putin never mentions his political party, United Russia, which technically nominated him for president, and which still lists him as its leader. Nor does he ever mention Dmitry Medvedev or other members of his team who would help him run Russia (he only modestly claims that in the 1990s "he and a group of his soul mates saved Russia").

Why is Putin dodging the hard questions about his presidential platform and his plans for the presidency? Does he have anything specific to say to the Russian voters, other than reminding them about the disasters of the 1990s? Why is he silent on political reform and battling corruption, while his rivals address these issues in detail, knowing they are very important to voters? Why is he running away from his own party ­ United Russia? And why is he belittling his tandem partner, Dmitry Medevedev, by downplaying and even pouring scorn on his policy initiatives, like the universal school exam system (Russian analogue of the SAT)? What is it that he wants to finish accomplishing as president of Russia that justifies his return to the Kremlin?

Vlad Ivanenko, Ph.D., economist, Ottawa

Looking in a distant 2006 for a new research agenda, I had a look at the issue of optimal economic strategy for Russia. My conclusion was that the progress made by the Russian government of the epoch was uneven. Then Minister of Finance Alexey Kudrin put in place procedures for the state budget consistent with the Russian economic status in the world, and then presidential advisor Vladislav Surkov managed to arrive at a workable system of political governance. However, these two components were necessary but not sufficient to indicate the path that Russian economy followed. Several economic think tanks provided certain documents that contained elements of "national development strategy," but, overall, a logically consistent set of economic objectives was missing in 2006. The country drifted by the force of inertia along the path already set in 1970s: the country was slowly turning into a raw appendage of the European Union.

With that conclusion in mind, the next step was to define non-controversial objectives supported by the majority of voters. According to the voter's preferences, as expressed in sociological surveys, they would support the economic agenda that contains three essential elements. Firstly, the voters wanted strong economic growth, which was consistent with the path Russia followed. Secondly, they did not want prosperity to come at the expense of Russia being left outside of international decision-making, which was the will that went against the export-driven model of growth. Their third concern was for the common cultural space suggesting the need for state mechanisms of wealth redistribution within Eurasia.

Given the approaching election in 2008, I thought that a strategy that addressed each of the aforementioned items would be in high demand among contenders for the presidency. In fact, there was almost none: the candidates preferred highly general terms and avoided concrete proposals. Correspondingly, the electoral discourse was extremely hollow.

Thinking about the phenomenon, I captured the eerie feeling the Russian politics is deliberately conducted in such a manner. As soon as a presidential candidate came up with a relative coherent set of initiatives, like Sergey Glazyev did in 2004, he encountered numerous administrative problems that did not allow him to broaden his political appeal.

Eventually, I concluded that the emptiness of electoral debate couldn't be explained by reasons other than a theatrical performance designed to allow one of the candidates to win the election without binding himself to a set of specific promises. To see this, lets consider what promises the perennial winner since 2000, Vladimir Putin, made as the president or prime minister. I count at least three ideas, each of which had the potential to be elaborated in a consistent set of economic policies, but it was not.

The first idea, launched in 2000 by then Presidential Adviser Andrey Illarionov, was for Russia to attain the level of Portuguese GDP per capita by 2010. At first, Vladimir Putin embraced enthusiastically this ambitious goal ­ never reached by Russia before ­ but he did not really commit himself to its attainment. In retrospect, he was right, as it proved to be as much elusive in 2012 as it was in 2000.

Then, the idea of energy superpower came. Being initiated by unknown authors, possibly, from the national gas monopoly Gazprom, it set the goal for Russia to become the dominant player in the global energy market. In this respect, I am willing to grant partial credit to Putin, as the country managed to scare a few of its neighbors with natural gas price scandals. Yet, I would interpret the idea differently as a superpower in energy extraction and processing technologies, specifically in the north and Arctic waters. Since the likes of Schlumberger or Halliburton continue to dominate the field worldwide, one can conclude that Russia is as distant from technological leadership in 2012 as it was in 2000. Obviously, Vladimir Putin did not endorse the idea, even though certain governmental actions indicated that it was followed in deeds if not in words.

Finally, the idea of sovereign democracy, authored by Vladislav Surkov, might provide foundation for a Eurasian Economic Union, if treated ingeniously. It was not. Instead, the union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan was announced for the purpose yet to be explained. At the moment, it appears that the union is more aimed to fill the gap before these countries, jointly or individually, join the European Union, rather than to offer its alternative. Again, the reaction of Vladimir Putin to the term of "sovereign democracy" was muted. Is there a pattern?

This historical overview shows that Putin avoids deliberately committing himself to any well-defined economic strategy. I believe that his aversion to a "grand vision" is natural: he seems to be more at ease performing smaller, tactical tasks. That is why I do not expect Russia to be put on a firm economic course after the election. More likely, Vladimir Putin will continue battling each wave individually instead of steering the ship out of the approaching "perfect economic storm."

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

The presidential election in Russia is just now unfolding, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's campaign is probably the most efficient and successful so far. This is reflected in the results of the polls in January that show a steady growth of the percentage of Russian people who will vote for him.

Putin very wisely decided in his campaign not to rely on the United Russia party, but instead on the People's Front, which was formed intentionally for the election last summer. By doing this, Vladimir Putin stresses that he is not a candidate of just one party, but a people's candidate, the national leader.

Another brilliant idea of his campaign was to open a conversation with the nation through the Web site "Putin2012." We are regularly monitoring suggestions and proposals that come on the site. Of course, these "letters to Putin" are different, and some of them are really interesting, but you can also see some nonsense. This is inevitable on such forums but it does not detract from the fact that this site has provided an excellent source of information for understanding what is truly on the minds of real Russian people. Vladimir Putin has a draft of the program on his site, but his real program will be formed from this "direct line" with the nation, reflecting the people's suggestions and proposals. At this point, Putin has listened to his people, but please be patient. He will give his answers to all of the major concerns of the country, including corruption, before the day of the vote. His article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta about the national question and ethnic relations in Russia is just another excellent example of it. This is also perfect answer to the nationalist Alexey Navalny, whom Western media is trying to present today as a new star of Russian politics.

His article in Izvestia had a clear goal, and that is to begin a dialog in a different format. He mentioned that this is only the first article and it has particular goals. Although we find that the article is not without faults, its value is that it contains the real words of Putin, and they represent his thoughts and true feelings that he shares with the people without the involvement of his speech writers, as we can see in the "creativity" of other candidates, like Mikhail Prokhorov. This article primarily addresses Russia's domestic and foreign challenges. Putin was also absolutely correct in his analysis of the Russian elite.

The changes in legislation proposed by president Medvedev regarding political parties will not change much in Russian politics because the problem is not in the number of parties, but in their character, and the qualities of politicians that the country has today. Russian politics cannot become more competitive if we continue to see, as we have for the past 20 years, the same people: Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Grigory Yavlinsky. They are candidates who can simply never win the presidential election, though they may even not seriously wish to win, and their participation in the election is just plain silly. Their hypothetical victory could lead to a disaster, and the country realizes it. The so-called non-system opposition is monopolized by the former governmental officials, or State Duma deputies, reasonably thrown out of their "feeding troughs," such as Mikhail Kasyanov, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov. They are even less popular and less capable than the leaders of the major parties. This is clearly understood by the majority of Russians and that is why they express their skepticism over Medvedev's proposal, as the polls have again shown.

If Russia is indeed in need of a revolution, such a revolution should occur inside all its major political parties (including United Russia). These parties have to stop being "monarchical" and become real places for open discussions, the development of new ideas, and they need to serve as elevators for politically active young people from the provinces.

After an analysis of the programs of the major contenders in the Russian presidential election that we have been conducting for last 20 years, we unfortunately did not discover many new important and realistic initiatives about what to do with the country, as Vladimir Putin has again correctly observed. The Russian opposition that exists today is simply politically impotent, and that is obvious for the majority of Russians who will vote for Vladimir Putin on March 4, 2012.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

Putin's article of January 16 was announced as the first of a series. To claim that this first article is not a complete and specific presidential platform is a bit premature, and some may even say, facetious. Since that date, Putin has published more, has met with journalists and has been busy getting his message to the electorate. Therefore, a critique of the first article is largely moot. Let us wait until the man has articulated his entire message before challenging his program.

Putin, as incumbent-in-government, has one major advantage, which accrues to all incumbents in all democracies: a record of accomplishment. His competitors do not. It is therefore understandable that the competitors must provide very specific litanies of what they intend to do if elected. One should note that some of the specific political changes proposed by the other candidates require changes to the Russian Constitution, and any candidate other than Putin will not have the necessary parliamentary votes to make such political changes. In fact, any candidate, other than Putin, if elected president, would be confronted with legislative gridlock similar to the one currently facing President Barack Obama in Washington.

In the case of Putin the electorate knows already what he can and does do. The problem for the competitors is that Putin has been largely successful in his endeavors, and big segments of Russian society have benefitted, in particular if one considers the chaos and failure of the final years of the 20th century.

Why did Putin not mention United Russia (the party) in his first article? A humorous observer might suggest this is done in deference to Navalny, who seemingly invented the slogan about the "party of thieves and crooks" allegedly with United Russia in mind (we have no evidence of this; one can propose that there are several parties in Russia which include thieves and swindlers in their ranks, no?) More seriously, the presidential election in Russia is about individuals, not parties (the Duma elections are more about parties). The office of the president of Russia is meant to be above partisanship ­ this is a healthy legacy both of the Russian Duma monarchy (1906 to 1917) and of the negative experience of the one-party political ambiance in the Soviet Union.

Regarding Medvedev, the lack of mention is not sinister. Medvedev is the present and the recent past. Putin's articles concern Russia's future.

One should note that the problems listed by Frolov (corruption, nepotism, etc.) and many others not listed (demographic decline, petty lawbreaking, degradation of the natural environment, the devastation in the villages, to name a few more) will not be solved by any one president, in particular one who wants to govern for only four years (like Mikhail Prokhorov announced). Nor will they be solved by political reform. Political reform is about how someone shall get the power to do things in Russia. Solving Russian national problems is about how that acquired power will be used.

Presidential candidates in Russia who focus on political reform seem to forget that the electorate is not professional politicians or political scientists, who are fascinated by such topics. The electorate wants to hear about how their future needs shall be satisfied, and not about a three percent Duma election threshold.

Considered in their entirety, Putin's publications are no more specific or vague than similar declarations by American presidential candidates, currently being delivered in large amounts to U.S. voters. There are also major differences: Putin is more thoughtful, personal and more candid to his electorate than the average U.S. politician.

Dick Krickus, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Mary Washington, former H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University, Washington, DC

Vladimir Frolov asks: "Why is Putin dodging the hard questions about his presidential platform and his plans for the presidency?" The answer is simple: he is confident of winning a third term as president, so he is at liberty not to address them. Neither his old opponents ­ Yavlinsky's liberals, Zuganov's communists and Zhirinovsky's neo-fascists ­ nor the new ones ­ the middle-class activists led by bloggers like Navalny ­ have the votes to deny him that office. He is confident that Russians tethered to the vast government bureaucracy, including the military and special services, and the army of ordinary folk who rely upon state entitlements will stick with him.

He neither needs United Russia nor even wants to be associated with the discredited party, lest his image be tarnished. "If the recent parliamentary elections were rigged, the people associated with the party were responsible, not prime minister Putin." He also is betting that whatever their grievances, in the final analysis most Russians will accept his offer of providing stability in favor of the mayhem that his opponents will wage upon the country should they somehow wrest power from him and his associates.

Of course, the Kremlin will continue to exploit institutional devices to diminish his rival's prospects. The Central Election Commission's barring Grigory Yavlinsky from running for president is an example. So is the government's shutting the offices of Golos, the group that monitors elections. The rationale, that its offices required electrical repair work, is downright silly, and an admission of confusion. These absurd efforts to dismantle the opposition, however, underline several important observations:
Putin and his team remain wedded to the "good old days" when the Kremlin overlords could treat the people with contempt and not worry about the consequences. They will continue to personalize politics on the one hand and deinstitutionalize it on the other, and Russia will remain stagnant.

The Kremlin oligarchs simply have no answers to Russia's problems and seem to be confused about the surge in grassroots protest.

They are unwilling to have a real "broad dialogue" ­ Putin's words ­ with the activists that marched in December and to adopt political reforms that open up the political system and seriously address state-associated corruption.

Within Russia, the Kremlin's failure to acknowledge that a growing number of people ­ most of whom are critical to Russia becoming a normal and prosperous European country ­ will not be denied a voice in matters that are central to their lives, represents an ominous warning signal. Attempts on Putin's part to "manage" the March election could spawn serious confrontations between the reformers and the government that produce unanticipated consequences. Among other things, less-privileged Russians who do not share the reformers' values nonetheless may be emboldened by their clash with the authorities and press their own unique set of grievances. In short, the reformers by themselves may be incapable of making mischief to attract Putin's attention, but as catalysts for widespread grassroots upheaval they may be successful.

Beyond Russia, the advocates of a "reset" in relations with the West will find it ever more difficult to justify joint efforts that address shared global problems. Yes, it will remain true that only the Russian people can move their society toward pluralism; that friendly foreigners can only offer help on the margins; and that self-interest compels East-West cooperation on matters vital to both sides, but the barriers to such cooperation will proliferate should Putin resort to harsh policies to silence the reformers. At the same time, an intervening phenomenon like economic turmoil in Europe may serve as a force multiplier and fuel all manner of popular protest within Russia.

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