(Editor's note: Today's entry is by…..a guest blogger! It is breaking new ground for ginandtacos. Three things struck me. First, it would be relevant and interesting to say something about the recent Russian election. Second, I know dick about Russia. Third, I know people who know a lot about Russia. So with little further ado, enjoy what my colleague (and regular commenter) Brandon Wilkening has to say about it. Incidentally, I'm more than willing to let regulars do guest posts! If there's a topic you feel particularly keen to write about, feel free to let me know via email.)
The Democratic presidential candidates earned some mild criticism in their final debate last week when they were unable to identify the future Russian president by name. When Tim Russert asked the candidates what they could say about him, Barrack Obama looked somewhat nervously at Hillary Clinton, who proceeded to butcher his name, before giving up and exclaiming “Whatever!” I just want to make a couple of points about this. First, the moderate rebuke that they did receive in the blogosphere (particularly among Russia watchers) was entirely justified, as I consider the failure to be able to name the soon-to-be president of the world’s largest country right up there with some of Bush’s early foreign policy misstatements (not to imply that either candidate is at Bush's level of ignorance). Second, Hillary’s exasperated “Whatever!” was particularly cringe worthy and reminded me of Sean Hannity’s ignorant dismissal of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s name.
That said, perhaps the most disappointing thing for me about that short debate was lack of any substance in what they had to say about the presumptive victor. Hillary largely dismissed the man, Dmitry Medvedev, as Putin’s handpicked successor and essentially a stooge, and Obama largely echoed her points. Okay, yes, he is Putin’s handpicked successor in the sense that whomever Putin endorsed to be his successor was almost guaranteed to be able to ride Putin’s popularity to an easy victory. And I understand the almost reflexive need for American politicians to criticize Russia’s backsliding on democracy, a criticism with which I largely agree. Nevertheless, Putin’s exit from the presidency and the ascendance of Medvedev, who easily won this past Sunday with nearly 70% of the vote, both offer an opportunity for the next U.S President to forge closer and more constructive ties with Russia. While Medvedev can hardly be described as an eager puppet for American interests, he sounds like somebody with whom the U.S. and its Western allies can work, making it all the more disappointing that Clinton and Obama were so casually dismissive of the man.
First, a multitude of x-factors seriously complicate the exercise of trying to predict Russia’s political future. The first concerns Putin's future role. What is known is that he will become Prime Minister, which has led to speculation that Putin will enhance the power of that position and thereby retain his dominant role in Russian politics. Under Russia’s strong presidential system, the PM position has long been a thankless administrative job. If Putin were to remake the position into a serious locus of power, it would represent a transformative change. Frankly, a more serious counterweight to the president (especially since the Russian Duma has largely been transformed into a rubber stamp parliament) might not be a bad thing for Russia. The worry, of course, is that the newly empowered PM would be Putin, who has increasingly played an assertive geopolitical role, often times challenging American and Western interests. There is also speculation that PM Putin and President Medvedev would split responsibilities, with the former concentrating on domestic tasks and the latter on foreign policy, or possibly vice versa.
The other big x-factor concerns Medvedev himself. Assuming that he does inherit the vast powers of the Russian presidency and is able to make his mark on Russia’s political future, what will be his governing style? Here I believe there is some room for optimism. The first thing to note is that Medvedev and Putin come from utterly different social milieus. While the latter rose through the ranks of the KGB, Medvedev is an academic. His primary responsibilities as one of Putin’s top deputies has been the implementation of a number of national projects, including education, agriculture, health, and housing. He appears to favor a less ideological, more technocratic governing style. In recent speeches, he has publicly repudiated the official state ideology of “sovereign democracy” by arguing that Russian democracy should not be preceded by adjectives. His campaign speeches (uncontested, since the Russian campaign did not feature debates with the largely marginalized opposition) lacked the nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric recently ascendant in Russian political discourse, instead largely focusing on the solution of economic problems. Finally, his rather amiable public persona presents a sharp contrast to Putin’s often icy style.
Of course, all of this will be irrelevant if he turns out to be a mere figurehead assigned to do Putin’s bidding. But let's not jump to that conclusion. First, Medvedev didn't reach this position by accident. His name has long been mentioned as a possible successor, but for several months prior to the official announcement many assumed that Putin would name Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s former Defense Minister. Given his military background and nationalist credentials, Ivanov would have been the obvious choice to continue a legacy of state centralism, nationalist rhetoric, and anti-Western foreign policy. That Putin did not choose Ivanov or one of his other cronies from the intelligence services, but rather a brainy technocrat suspected of having reformist sympathies is intriguing to me. Your inner cynic argues that Putin knew he would be able to control Medvedev more easily. I this argument unconvincing. If Putin was looking for a stooge, there is certainly no shortage of them in contemporary Russia. Instead, he chose Medvedev, somebody with a prominent public role and nationwide name recognition.
My analysis is rosier than most, and I don’t mean to gloss over the real challenges both in U.S.-Russian relations and the state of Russia’s domestic politics. The election campaign was definitely a farce. Opposition candidates faced indifference from the national media, new electoral laws present nearly insurmountable hurdles, and an electoral commission used technicalities to bar many candidates from running. In addition, I don’t expect U.S.-Russian relations to improve overnight, as the two countries will continue to clash over Kosovo, missile defense, and American involvement in Russia’s backyard – especially post-Soviet countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. In addition, a McCain presidency would be particularly disastrous for U.S.-Russian relations, as McCain, rightly or wrongly, has been a harsh critic of Putin and is largely reviled in the Russian political establishment. Nevertheless, I feel somewhat vindicated in my optimism after attending a talk at Indiana University on Tuesday by Oleg Kalugin. Kalugin, a former KGB general and later reformist, has essentially been in political exile in the United States since publicly criticizing Putin. If anybody has reason to be pessimistic about Russia’s future, it would be him. On the contrary, he sounded optimistic that Medvedev would reduce the role of the security and intelligence services in Russia and represent a decisive break with Putin’s style of governance. I don’t expect that break to be quick or clean, but I firmly believe that this opening provides an opportunity that the next American president would be foolish to pass up.