Thursday, April 13, 2006

Putin's Fear of Elections

Writing in EDM, Pavel K. Baev observes that the result of the Italian elections is yet one more instance of a severed European connection with Moscow, allowing Russia to drift ever further into isolation from the rest of the continent. The defeat and weakness of Moscow-aligned forces in much of Europe are, however, also associated in Putin's mind with the uncertainty regarding his own future, and that of the bureaucratic elites he represents:
Italy is the latest point in this trajectory since Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's defeat this week signifies for Russian President Vladimir Putin the loss of a key European ally and the end of a carefully cultivated personal friendship (Vremya novostei, April 11;, April 13). The March 26 parliamentary elections in Ukraine, inconclusive as they are, have confirmed Kyiv's European vector and shown the steady retreat of the pro-Russian forces in the multi-colored political arena (, April 11). Presidential elections in Belarus on March 19 and the swift suppression of public protests against the crudely manipulated voting left Putin, who rushed to congratulate Alexander Lukashenka on his victory, alone against the broad European condemnation of this authoritarian regime (Ekho Moskvy, April 11). Even the elections in the Palestinian Authority fit the pattern, since Moscow's readiness to embrace the Hamas leadership has generated mild disapproval in Europe and bitter acrimony in Israel (Kommersant, April 12).

The trend could easily be traced further back: Parliamentary elections in Poland last September were dominated by parties that hold serious suspicions about Putin's Russia, and elections in Germany forced the departure of Putin's closest and most privileged partner, Gerhard Schroeder, from the Bundestag. Some electoral results that were unfortunate for Moscow were decided by margins slimmer than the "hanging chads" that decided Bush's victory in 2000, and both Berlusconi and Schroeder could complain about bad luck. In other cases, Belarus being the prime example, Moscow was clearly set to lose because of its own political choices. Lukashenka enjoys solid enough popular support to win a free and fair election, but the very possibility of creating a space for uncontrollable political opposition was unacceptable, and he opted to show the "monolithic unity" of the quasi-Soviet regime (Ezhednevny zhurnal, April 1).

Putin is in much the same situation and shows equally deep mistrust in election mechanisms, but he feels the need to hide his true preferences behind many layers of "Euro-correct" rhetoric. This habitual hypocrisy serves to make him an acceptable partner for Western leaders, but the Russian public apparently prefers a more frank expression of political views; a recent poll by Ekho Moskvy radio (March 20) showed that 82% of listeners would vote for Lukashenka as the president of a hypothetical union of Russia and Belarus, while only 18% preferred Putin. Finalizing the text of his annual address to the parliament, Putin now may take a clue from this rather unexpected choice and add a few explicitly populist condemnations of his own bureaucracy (Vedomosti, April 12). He also knows that he has no real competitor in the country so that the officially discarded idea of a third presidential term remains far more popular than any of his potential successors; 45% of Russians are now ready to amend the constitution accordingly (Kommersant, April 12).

Read the whole thing.

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