nthposition online magazine

On stage with the President-Elect

by Joshua E Abrams

[ opinion - march 08 ]

The excitement, such as it was, has died down. The ballots are counted, the transition assured and, as of March 2, Election Day, Russia's new era begins with a wink and a yawn. The Presidential election resulted in a striking 70% victory for Dmitri Medvedev, First Deputy Prime Minister, Chairman of corporate giant GazProm, and a protégé of outgoing President Vladimir Putin.

The genius of Russia's Presidential election is how meticulously the government managed the process. None of the noise and uncertainty of the American elections. None of the oafishness of Russia's own recent past, when Boris Yeltsin gave himself a heart attack in 1996, clowning onstage for his own reelection. Even the recent parliamentary elections in December, which delivered Putin a handy majority of his pet party, was strangely fascinating for the public frenzy whipped up about foreign powers preparing to tear Russia to pieces.

This campaign, in contrast, was quiet, even boring. There was no campaign per se, no sense of contest, no sense of competing ideas or debate. It is hard to elicit much enthusiasm with a fait accompli. The country knew their next President would come from above, with a nod of Putin's head. The nod came in December, and since then the country has known that Medvedev, would succeed him. That Medvedev then promised to make Putin Prime Minister is frosting on the cake.

The speculation has only been on why. Why the fuss? Why the careful orchestrations? Why the façade of democratic choice? Had Putin decided to append the Russian Constitution and run for a third consecutive term, no-one would have stopped him. People would have preferred it. There would have been no mass protests, had Putin declared himself President for Life. Russians like stability, predictability, and Putin brought both, as well as financial solvency and a new-found sense of pride.

He could do it, just as many of his post-Soviet neighbors and allies have. The presidents of Tajikistan and Kazakhstan did just that, orchestrating referendums and laws that allow them indefinite and predetermined runs. President Karimov of Uzbekistan was even more shameless - he simply ignored his own country's constitution and kept his job.

The simple answer is that Russia is different. It is a major power, a world player, and a redeveloping country with even greater aspirations. There is a need to establish precedents, to establish a system, and to maintain appearances. Russia needs to be seen as a democratic country, based on the rule of law, and strictly adhering to constitutional norms. The Constitution says that Presidents cannot run for a third consecutive term, and the letter of the law will be followed.

But politics do not live by constitutional norms alone. Laws do not operate in a vacuum; they are meaningful only in how they are interpreted. Russia's constitution is a document from the early 1990s, a product of that time of chaos and optimism, when the post-Soviet leadership repudiated the old system and looked to Western concepts to build a new power structure. The constitution thus welds a model of liberal representative federalism onto a unitary state with no history of electoral democracy.

As the founding law for a nation, it is an awkward document - imported Western parliamentarianism combined with Soviet-style statism. Freedoms are guaranteed, but with caveats and exceptions. That the Russians have managed to turn it into a functioning blueprint for a country is to their merit, and that they have had to amend the imported bits to fit Russian political culture should be expected.

The most basic truth is that Russia depends on personalities more than it does institutions. Russians look to strong leaders, to people who can embody their symbolic role, and who can be seen as the final arbiters for the country. Putin embodied that ideal perfectly, coming on strong as Yeltsin's Prime Minister in 1999, and getting stronger with every year, becoming for the Russians a symbol of their newfound strength, their resurgent confidence, and their growing wealth. More than the drunk, doddering Yeltsin, Putin is rightfully seen as the father of modern Russia.

But a modern country is one that is governed by law, and the law says no third consecutive term. It is to Putin's credit that he is choosing to step down, choosing to make that precedent, when he could easily have chosen otherwise. That he will continue as Prime Minister may violate the spirit of the constitution, but accommodations do need to be made to guarantee stability. The balance of power needs to be maintained, and so the elite use the framework of the law to ensure that the right personalities - the same personalities - remain in charge. Which, to us, does not look particularly democratic.

Democracy cannot be simply understood as a system of institutions, interacting on a specific set of rules. Democracy is not simply a matter of elections, and not simply how institutions are named - it is the full system of rights and obligations, understood and acted upon, based on commonly accepted modes of interaction. It is an ugly truth for people who believe otherwise, but culture determines politics, as much as politics affects culture.

In that sense, the election of Dmitri Medvedev was not a total sham, nor was it a keeping up of appearances for Western consumption. It was dishonest in resembling a Western-style election, but should be seen more precisely as a process of popular acclamation, of legitimacy through public endorsement.

The open secret in Russia is that no-one has any real say in the matter, but this is fine, since life is improving and Medvedev seems like a reasonable man. More importantly, there is no realistic alternative. So why not make a party out of it, rally public support behind the decision, and have free food and music at polling places, and a gala concert on Red Square for the kids, and bread and roses to the masses in exchange for their compliance.

The real question is whether it really matters. Should we be concerned that Russia's elections were managed from above? Do we care that there is no meaningful political debate or opposition, or that civil liberties are curtailed? In short, are Russia's internal affairs our own concern?

Not really. It is a good foreign policy tool for Western governments, of course, as international opinion matters to the country's power elite in a way that holds them to certain measures. But the actual wellbeing of Russia's citizenry is not a matter for international concern. The days of mass oppression are long gone. The West should, actually, be satisfied by Russia's careful political management, for at least it is insuring a smooth transition within a well-established power elite with a proven track record of running the country. They've brought stability to the country, set it on a decently stable economic footing, and are bringing more benefit to more people than Russians have seen in decades. It is politically naïve to think that Russians don't see the political charade going on at the top; it is even more naïve to believe that most of them care.

The image that captures the essence of these days, the audacious in-joke, the splendid theatricality, itself took place on a stage: At eleven p.m. on March 2nd, at the peak of an outdoor, Election Day concert held just below Red Square, Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev emerge from the Kremlin gates. They walk together, alone, across the empty square's cobblestones, Russia's heroes, the camera framing them adoringly as they saunter nonchalantly toward the stage, while Putin's favorite band, Lyube, perform their macho, patriotic ballads, something akin to a victory march.

Their approach appears on the stage's huge video screens - Putin's confident, martial stride, Medvedev's stiff but smiling swagger - and a cheer goes up from the crowd. The two men enter stage right, and the cheers grow into a roar. And then, for the first time in eight years, as a symbol of the transfer of power (before the official election results are even announced), President Putin cedes pride of place to his protégé, and has Medvedev be the first to greet the crowd.

Medvedev's speech is short, and to the point. This is a great day, thank you for your support, the future is bright. The crowd cheers, but it is clear the new guy still needs some work. He's missing the magnetism, the KGB stare that can pierce metal that his predecessor perfected. There's a certain tentativeness, as if he's thinking about what he needs to say, and worried if it will be good. He gets the strongest reaction when he declares that, with his election, "We will be able to preserve the course laid by President Putin." The new President-elect ends his speech, and the crowd responds by chanting the name of the man he is replacing.

Putin steps up to the microphone. "Do you mind if I add something?" he calls out to the crowd, and a howl rises up. "I want to thank every citizen, who participated in the elections," he says, in his commanding, sinuous style. "It demonstrates that we live in a democratic country, and our civil society is becoming strong, active, effective, and responsible!" He praises his successor's leadership abilities, praises the election's adherence to the law, but his speech is drowned out by his own name, chanted over and over by the crowd, "Putin! Putin!" and he has to over-shout them to conclude that, yes, "the successful course we've pursued these past eight years will continue!"

The two leaders shake hands and wave to a crowd still calling for Putin. They disappear from the stage and the concert.

Two hours later the official results are given, and Medvedev is declared winner with the long-predicted 70% of the vote. At 12.50 am, he holds a press conference, demonstrating a cool professionalism as he takes reporters' questions. Within the first five minutes the President-elect confirms that Putin will, indeed, be named Prime Minister. The state prevails, Russia endures.