January 09, 2012

THE STRONGMAN CRACKS

UP FRONT
by KANWAL SIBAL



The Russian Constitution allows a president only two consecutive terms in power. Vladimir Putin was President from 2000 to 2008. Highly popular for having restored the political and economic authority of the state as well as national self-respect after the disarray of the Yeltsin years, he could have obtained another term through a constitutional amendment with wide public support. He foreswore expedience to avoid weakening the institutional basis of the fledgling Russian democracy, but the logic of power eventually trumped the force of principle and, as a first mis-step, Putin manipulated his succession by putting in the Kremlin his protege Dmitri Medvedev and himself became Prime Minister for four more years of power, in violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitution.

Putin became unpopular with the West when he began closing the doors for outsiders to manipulate Russia’s domestic politics in the name of democracy and control its vast natural resources under the cloak of the market economy. The antipathy for him in the US and the UK has been specially high because he has scorned their sustained barbs at his supposedly retrograde policies.

As Prime Minister, Putin’s image-building as an outdoor and sporty leader was supposed to further bolster his popularity with the youth, but implementing promised reforms in the bureaucracy and the justice system and curbing corruption and the power of the security establishment has lagged under his watch. Large sections of the society, especially the young and enterprising, have therefore felt asphyxiated by the present system.

The 2008 global financial crisis hit Russia particularly hard, with a negative 7.8% growth rate in 2009. Large currency reserves and high oil prices have cushioned the downturn, but slow growth (4% in 2010, about 4.3% in 2011), coupled with the economy’s lop-sided dependence on commodity exports, the stagnation of the manufacturing sector and failure to propel technological innovation, have blotted the performance of Putin’s government.

The December 4 Duma elections have reflected the public’s negative mood, with the vote share of United Russia, the ruling party, falling from 64% to little under 50%. Allegations of poll rigging have provoked large scale public demonstrations in Moscow, with finger pointing personally at Putin, puncturing his image of a politician universally popular in Russia.

Hillary Clinton was quick to drive the democratic knife into Russia’s mid-riff by calling for free and fair elections, eliciting a sharp warning against interference from Putin himself. Blaming the US for encouraging street mobilization against the election results overlooks the genuine sense of alienation of the middle class voters from the existing frozen political system, but the US and the UK would relish Putin’s political discomfiture, with their media amplifying voter discontent.

The Russian government has handled public protests with uncharacteristic flexibility, aware that repression may escalate the street challenge- the Tunisian and Egyptian examples weigh with governments now. Putin has acknowledged the decline of government’s popularity; some mollifying poll reforms will be implemented to shield the March Presidential polls from controversy.

Putin’s second mis-step was to reveal in September, while announcing his Presidential candidature, his pact with Medevedev in 2008 about exchanging places in 2012, which signalled to the voters that they did not determine decisions on key ruling positions. Under the amended constitution Putin will now be President for 6 years, and potentially for 6 more.

Somewhat down, Putin is by no means out. The divided opposition has no viable candidate to pit against him. His opponents at home and abroad would feel gratified if he is cut down in size by failing to secure 50% of the votes in the first ballot and being pushed into a second round. This would be hardly material once he is President, particularly if, aware of voter impatience, he implements more purposefully his agenda for Russia’s resurgence which the West wants to confine.

Putin has built a strong strategic partnership with India. We have no reason to share the West’s aversion to him. Putin again in the Kremlin is beneficial for India-Russia relations. We have no geopolitical stakes in the ups and downs of the democratic process in Russia, which is a concern primarily of the Russian people.

Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary

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