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Russia's Sober Presidential Vote

Author: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
March 2, 2012


The last major opinion survey before Russia's March 4 presidential election showed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gaining more than 63 percent of the vote (Reuters/Levada) against a weak field. Moves by federal authorities to block other viable candidates and muzzle independent media (HRW), combined with apparently effective campaigning by Putin, put him in a strong position to regain the presidency for another six years. Speculation is mounting about how the results will be received by a newly galvanized swathe of the public (Economist) seeking reforms, and what a second Putin presidential cycle means for the U.S.-Russian "reset" of relations established with outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev.

What's At Stake

Putin's election, if tainted, could revive protests of the large scale seen in December, in which demonstrators called for new elections, the release of political prisoners, and the registering of opposition parties. Putin has warned against post-election protest violence. A smooth reelection, on the other hand, reinstalls a president who ran a campaign antagonistic toward the United States.

The reset, declared after the Obama administration took office, contributed to momentum on strategic nuclear missile reductions, cooperation on military transports to Afghanistan, and U.S. support for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Putin's return as head of state, some analysts say, raises concern that tensions over Iran, Syria, and U.S. missile defense plans could worsen.

The Debate

A number of longtime Russia analysts, noting the size of the December protests--the biggest in twenty years--believe the end of Putin's grip on power is near, regardless of the election's outcome. But there is disagreement over the viability of the opposition to govern.

Dimitri K. Simes of the U.S.-based Center for the National Interest, speaking in December 2011, said the poor showing by the leading liberal Yabloko faction in the Duma elections indicated that popular and nationalist parties (PDF)--dissatisfied with Putin but not embracing the West--are performing better than liberal groups. Yet Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr., a member of Russia's democratic opposition movement, said at a February 29 meeting at CFR that claims of rising nationalist influence are overblown and that the country's protest movement is dominated by liberals. Also important, CFR's Stephen Sestanovich told the CFR meeting, are emerging divisions within the elite, who have traditionally backed Putin. "You now have an elite that is much more wary of co-optation" by Putin, he said.

In Washington, debate is underway about the extent to which the reset of relations has run its course. U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is against the reset policy, repeatedly expressing concern at the direction in which Putin is leading Russia. A chief Romney foreign policy advisor, former diplomat Richard Williamson, says the reset is a failure and Russia "is consistently taking positions in opposition to U.S. interests." Michael McFaul, the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, defends the reset policy (RussiaToday) as having been very effective over the past three years.

Policy Options

To abide by WTO rules, Obama administration officials have pressed efforts to end the Soviet-era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which has restricted trade with Russia. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told the House Ways and Means Committee on February 29 that a repeal of the law would be a boon to U.S. exporters (Bloomberg) such as farmers and manufacturers, and strengthen U.S.-Russia economic ties.

But some lawmakers want to maintain legislative leverage over Russia (WashPost) on human rights issues. The Obama administration opposes a bill pegged to the case of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in police custody in 2009, saying it interferes with the State Department's work (NYT). At the same time, the administration has vowed to continue dialogue with non-governmental and opposition groups in Russia.

Background Materials

How does Putin see foreign policy priorities in a return to the presidency? The Carnegie Endowment offers "Putin's Platform" on a range of issues.

The Pew Research Center reports on waning confidence in capitalism in democracy in Russia and other former Soviet states.

Maintaining momentum in the nuclear arms control process between Russia and the United States has proved challenging, as this sixty-year interactive timeline shows.

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