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Russia: quo vadis?

01 April 2004

The results of Russia's presidential elections on 14 March held no surprises. Turnout was registered at 61 per cent. The incumbent Vladimir Putin received 71 per cent of the vote, followed far behind by the Communist Party candidate, Nikolai Kharitonov (13.8), Sergei Glazyev (4.1) and the liberal Irina Khakamada (3.9). The victory confirmed three points. First, the contrast between the high emotion of the 1996 presidential elections that led to Boris Yeltsin's second term and the striking calm of Putin's bid for a second term reaffirms that Russian politics has become phlegmatic. Second, the poll, however it is interpreted, confirms the undisputable popularity of Vladimir Putin; he has the support of the great majority of Russians. Third, there is no opposition to speak of. The Duma elections in December 2003 provided the pro-Kremlin party United Russia with a majority of seats in the parliament. Faced with such loss, no opposition party put forward a first-rank candidate for the presidential bid: Irina Khakamada was the surprise liberal figure; Gennady Zyuganov avoided representing the Communist Party, as did Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Putin ran unchallenged.
International views may be summed up in one sentence: the elections may have been free but they were not fair. The OSCE concluded that the elections were `well administered' but lacked elements of a `genuine democratic contest'. The EU Council noted its concerns over opposition candidates' lack of fair access to the media. Comments by pundits were less restrained. Putin is everywhere presented as Russia's new Tsar, who has eliminated all institutions that might check or balance his power, from Russia's regions and republics to the media, the oligarchs and the Duma. Putin's change of government on 24 February confirmed the picture, with the appointment of an unknown bureaucrat, Mikhail Fradkov, as the new Prime Minister. Putin holds all the reins. While the substance of international opinion is beyond dispute, the tone is questionable. Developments in Russia do raise worrying issues. The level of civil liberties has declined since 1999, the war in Chechnya remains a blight and the absence of any serious opposition to the leadership is a concern. However, the elections did not produce a fraudulent result. It is worth reiterating that Russians elected the man they wanted to elect.
With good reason, many Russians argue. In 1999, when he became Prime Minister, Putin inherited a Russia on the verge of collapse, with restive regions and republics, a separatist Chechnya, an economy barely recovering from the 1998 rouble crash and empty coffers. Consider 2004: the Russian state is no longer in question, central power has been restored, the economy has grown for the last four years, the budget is balanced and salaries are paid on time. Putin has brought stability to a new state that has been buffeted by storms since 1992. Russians are aware of the costs of the new order, and accept them, preferring Putin's `democracy within limits' to Yeltsin's `democracy without restraint'.
Yet, in 2004, the questions remain the same as in December 1999. Who is Vladimir Putin? Where is he taking Russia? The Russian president holds pre-eminent power in his hands and faces a unique opportunity to transform Russia. In his first term, he may have stabilised Russia, but what does his second term hold? In reply to a question about his place in history, at a press conference following the election, Putin admitted: `As for whether I'm ready for my place in history - no I'm not'. His place in history is uncertain. Having been the `great stabiliser', will he become a `great transformer'? If so, all of his work remains ahead.
Nor is Russia's relationship with the EU clearer. The presidential elections occurred simultaneously with a review of the EU's Russia policy. 2004 marks a turning-point in EU-Russian relations, with enlargement, the expiry of the EU's `Common Strategy' and the launch of its `Wider Europe' project. The moment for a review is opportune. Never have EU-Russian relations been so strained and never has the lack of substance at the heart of the declared `strategic partnership' been so evident. The more Brussels and Moscow realise the real - as opposed to the simply declared - importance of the other, the more their relations are marked by friction. A period of pushing and shoving in the dark lies ahead as each works out the place of the other in its own plans.