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Will Putin's Victory Change Russia?

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 7, 2012

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Vladimir Putin, who served as president of Russia from 2000 to 2008, has been reelected for the next six years amid charges of election fraud and opposition protests in Moscow. Putin's campaign was aimed at "stirring up emotions of his supporters" and "attacking his opponents" with the charge "that they were paid agents for the West," says CFR's Russia expert Stephen Sestanovich. He says the opposition, which came to life after the controversial parliamentary elections in December, needs to go "beyond just the challenge to the legitimacy of the election, and to see if they can actually become a viable political force in this very constrained environment." On U.S.-Russia relations, Sestanovich says that the U.S. plan for a missile-defense system in Europe remains the biggest sticking point in Moscow.

What was your overall impression of this election?

My dominant impression of this campaign was of Putin's efforts to mobilize his base. After the highly controversial parliamentary election in December in which his United Russia Party prevailed in an apparently highly corrupt vote, a lot of pundits said Putin was facing a choice between liberalization and repression. But he pursued a different tack, actually. He decided to conduct a campaign that he's never conducted before: one devoted to stirring up emotions of his supporters; attacking his opponents, and even more the protestors, sliming them with the charge that they were paid agents for the West.

[Putin] decided to conduct a campaign that he's never conducted before: one devoted to stirring up emotions of his supporters; attacking his opponents, and even more the protestors.

His appearance on election night outside the Kremlin was typical of this. He got the biggest demonstration by far that night, more than the protest rallies. There was a big stage, an extravaganza, and a highly emotional speech by Putin, where instead of offering a hand of conciliation, he again attacked the protestors for trying to usurp power. He said the results of the election showed that nothing could be imposed on Russia--this struggle for national autonomy would continue.

So Putin, in his own mind, has waged a highly successful effort to beat back the crowds in the streets, show that they're not the real Russia, try to evoke what I've been calling the "silent majority" support for his reelection. And the results, with all of the vote manipulation that doubtless went on, have to be pretty reassuring to him. One Russian commentator said that he worries that Putin actually considers this a great victory, and a reason that he doesn't have to undertake as much change as a lot of people have been telling him is necessary.

There was no real candidate standing out in opposition. What would have happened if there was a legitimate opposition campaign?

A different lineup could have produced a different dynamic with more enthusiasm among Putin's opponents for actually getting out the vote and pushing the total for the other candidates above 50 percent, so that Putin would have had to go through a second round.

The lineup of opposing candidates was pretty tired, with the exception of Mikhail Prokhorov, who did in some ways better than people expected. Some of Putin's people, and Putin himself, are touting Prokhorov as a comer in Russian politics. They like Prokhorov's kind of opposition. They see him as a possible partner for a cooptation strategy, as somebody they can reach out to, claim to be listening to, and use as a sign that they are moving in a more liberal direction.

If you had Grigory Yavlinsky, who heads the Yabloko (Apple) party, on the ballot, and some of the more dynamic figures in the opposition parties, it's not too hard to imagine that you could have gotten a 50 percent-plus vote for all of them together. And it's interesting--in the big cities, Putin did not do well.

In Moscow, Putin did not get 50 percent?

He didn't win Moscow, and even the official number for his vote, 48 percent, was probably inflated somewhat. In most of the big cities, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Prokhorov came in second.

We don't know much about Prokhorov in the United States, except that he's the owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team.

They don't know much about him [in Russia] either. He has not run a really vigorous campaign; he has not done an awful lot to set himself in opposition to Putin, except in very general terms. He's said that he wants to form a party, and Putin has actually encouraged him to do this. A center-right liberal-reformist party would take some of the steam out of middle-class anger with Putin.

What is the long-range outlook for the political opposition?

It's important to understand that for the Russian regime and for the opposition, this election was a milestone that had to be passed. But the real question now is how they handle it going forward. What sort of strategy does Putin pursue towards his opponents who've been in the streets?

One of the leaders of the protest said at the demonstration on Monday night that they're seeking a permit for a big demonstration this coming Saturday. They want to retain the moment. But they obviously have to build beyond just street rallies. They have to find a way to put pressure on the government to liberalize the rules for involvement in politics. There are regional and local elections coming this fall, and this could spur opposition efforts in those elections. A year from now, you can have a sprinkling of new opposition leaders in political positions across Russia. And a year beyond that, you can have a much more significant set of opposition victories if they choose their ground carefully and work hard at building a base. That's their big challenge now: to go beyond just the challenge to the legitimacy of the election, and to see if they can actually become a viable political force in this very constrained environment.

What about the relationship between the United States and Russia? During the campaign, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made some comments about corruption in the December parliamentary elections. This upset Putin, and he's been lambasting so-called Western and American influence in the elections. Have relations suffered as a result of this campaign, or, now that he's elected, is that issue going to go away?

You've got to distinguish between two things. There's been the issue of alleged American interference in Russian politics, which the Putin campaign talked up in a big way, charging that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had paid the demonstrators in the streets; claiming that Ambassador Michael McFaul has been sent to Moscow to foment a revolution; arguing that foreign nongovernmental organizations were pursuing a partisan agenda. And that had some emotional resonance.

Then there was the accumulation of policy disagreements on other issues, particularly on Syria, where the Russians and the Chinese vetoed a UN Security Council resolution, strongly backed by the United States and the Arab states.

The question that people now have is, with the election over, which of those issues get put aside? The domestic interference issue is more readily put aside, although of course, the residual bad feeling on the American side about being charged with this sort of absurd manipulation of the protests is real. But still, you get over that. You say, "That's just domestic politics." The interesting question concerns Syria and to some extent Iran as well.

If you had an end to the Syrian issue, whether because the regime falls or by some other route, that would remove what is currently the most emotional irritant between Russia and the United States.

The Russians are pretty dug in and have accepted more isolation on the question of Syria than I would have expected. They say: "We're loyal to our friends and we don't abandon them just because they get into trouble." And they have been quite unyielding. There's some sign that they're quite anxious about the degree of isolation that they've felt. There was a little-reported phone call from [outgoing Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev to the king of Saudi Arabia on February 22; Medvedev called up to discuss the issue of Syria and the king gave him a tongue lashing. He said: "I don't know what you can consider is the point in having a dialogue about Syria when you have been supporting this regime that has been killing its own people in great numbers. The entire Arab world is aligned against you. There are other countries that have been calling for a resolution of this situation, and you are one of the few backers of the regime."

So, the Russians have gotten the message that this has not been a winner, in diplomatic terms. And they're exploring a formula for somehow trying to end their diplomatic isolation, make it look so they're part of the solution. If you had an end to the Syrian issue, whether because the regime falls or by some other route, that would remove what is currently the most emotional irritant between Russia and the United States. The language on both sides has gotten extremely heated. Secretary Clinton has referred to the Russian statements and actions as "despicable," which is not the way secretaries of state generally talk. For the Russians, the big issue that they want to address is missile defense. And in every major statement, that's the one that they come back to. They really regard it as the prime problem that needs to be addressed between the two sides. They claim that the American efforts to develop a missile-defense system to deal with the possibility of an Iranian ballistic missile threat in the future threaten the Russian deterrent.

It's interesting that President Obama has yet to congratulate Putin.

They weren't obviously in any hurry to pick up the phone. In one way or another, his election has to be acknowledged, by a note, a phone call, a more elaborate letter, a mix of these. The administration is clearly trying to figure out what the right tone is. Instead of congratulating Putin on his victory, the State Department congratulated the Russian people.

There will be a G8 meeting at Camp David on May 18 and 19. That will bring Putin to the United States.

The question will be whether he joins in the NATO summit meeting, which is due to follow in Chicago in some fashion. There is the Russia-NATO Council, which could have a meeting at the summit level, and maybe issue some declaration, or have an exchange of views. The presumption has been that Putin is not going to come to this, because disagreements about missile defense are too great. But whether there is some other format for interaction between him and some leaders of NATO, we don't know yet.

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