With Russia polls this Sunday, Vladimir Putin is seeking to return as president for the third time, after having spent the last few years as the prime minister. The crucial Presidential Election comes at a time when there are concerns about the future of Russia, and its economy. And protesters – thousands in number – have been relentlessly demonstrating, demanding greater freedom and reforms.
In an exclusive e-mail interview with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, Eugene Huskey discusses Putin’s chances in the elections, the likely consequences of his victory and the probable impact that the current polls would have on US-Russia ties.
Eugene Huskey is a Professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, and has also authored Presidential Power in Russia.
Q: Will mass protests thwart Russian PM`s attempts to win presidency this time? If no, do you think Putin will claim victory in the first round or be forced into a run-off?
A: The scale of the recent street protests in Moscow and other cities is unprecedented in the post-Communist era, but protesters still represent a minority of the country`s population. Recent polls show Putin leading the presidential race handsomely, with the support of about two-thirds of the electorate. So at this moment, a few days before the election, a Putin victory in the first round seems very likely. Much like the US President Richard Nixon in the turmoil of the early 1970s, Putin can claim to represent the "Silent Majority" of the country, who favour stability and traditional values over fundamental reform.
The major question is what reaction a Putin victory will prompt among the protesters. Let`s remember that recent upheavals in the post-Communist world, known as the colour revolutions, occurred in response to elections that many perceived as fraudulent. The more evidence of vote fraud detected in the Presidential Election, the more vigorous the reaction will be among those critical of the Putin regime.
Q: Is a Russian spring around the corner?
A: Fundamental change in Russia is usually initiated from above. The thaw after the death of Stalin and Perestroika of the Gorbachev era resulted from decisions by the country`s top leaders. It is true, of course, that we are in a more pluralistic moment in Russian history, when public protest provokes a less aggressive response from the leadership. Putin has exhibited a willingness to bend in the face of street protests, whether of the recent variety or those in the summer of 2005 that protested changes in the social benefits system. Once re-elected to a six-year term, it is possible that Putin will make a few additional concessions to advocates of reform. It seems highly unlikely, however, that he will allow the kind of far-reaching changes that would be needed to modernize Russia`s economy and political system.
Real change requires a form of political and economic competition where the winners are determined in a fair contest. Such a shift would require a loss of certainty about outcomes that Putin and those around him would find offensive and dangerous. I am not terribly optimistic, therefore, about the chances for an early spring in Russia. Unless I have misjudged the level of frustration in the Russian society, Russia is likely to muddle along until a serious economic crisis, caused by something like a collapse in oil prices, shakes the system to its foundations.
Q: Russian and Ukrainian security services have foiled a plot to assassinate Vladimir Putin. Do you believe this report or think the timing of the announcement was meant to attract sympathy for Putin before the polls?
A: There are no doubt plenty of people who wish Putin ill, especially in the troubled Northern Caucasus region, but the timing of this announcement is certainly suspicious. The plotters of the coup were apparently arrested last month, yet the news of the arrest has only just been leaked. Governments everywhere distribute information selectively to shore up their positions, especially on the eve of elections. This case seems no different, except that the news is more dramatic.
Q: What about other presidential candidates? Do they have the capacity and strength to challenge Putin?
A: Although the Russian media has granted the presidential challengers more coverage -- and it is more balanced too -- than in the past, none of the contenders seems to have a large natural base of support. Each appeals to a fairly narrow stratum of society -- the Communist Zyuganov to pensioners and rural folk, and Prokhorov to better-educated and ambitious urban voters. It is only Putin who can claim broad appeal. Putin has not been typecast as the representative of a particular segment of society, and of course he enjoys the usual advantages of incumbency as well as the special advantages that that status conveys in Russia, with its vast army of state workers and others who feel that they owe their livelihood to Putin.
Q: I am just trying to understand Russia a bit more. How much electoral gain Putin will garner by trying to evoke tensions with US in his speeches?
A: As Marshall Poe and others have argued, Russia`s legitimacy as a State has for centuries been linked to its insistence on standing apart from, and in some cases openly opposing, the Great Powers of the world. Although Yeltsin represented a break from this pattern, Putin revived this tradition of governance, in part because it plays well with many ordinary Russians. The rhetoric becomes harsher during elections, and it should return to a more normal tone after March 4, though again normality means occasional attacks on what the Russians consider American unilateralism in the world and its engagement with countries close to Russia`s border.
Q: How will the outcome of the Russian Presidential Election, as well as the US election (due later this year), impact the future of US-Russia ties?
A: Generally, who the leader is matters even more in foreign policy than in domestic affairs, so the particular pairing of presidents will certainly help to influence the US-Russian relationship. US-Russian relations have gone through a rough patch of late, but the two countries have many common interests that keep tensions and suspicions within reasonable bounds. Any change of leader in the US would probably occasion some months of reassessment and perhaps even harsh rhetoric, rhetoric that would probably be harshest if Gingrich or Santorum were elected, but there is little indication that the long-term foundations of the US-Russian relationship would be disturbed.
The one thing that could seriously upset the relationship is a broadening of the protest movement in Russia and a crackdown in response by the Putin leadership. In that case, the US, under either a Republican or Democratic president, would convey its support for reformist forces and its criticism of the Russian leadership. In that case, relations would deteriorate dramatically.