by Laura Snedeker
Russian President Vladimir Putin runs his country like only a KGB man can. As a mere formality, Russians vote tomorrow (Sunday, March 2) in a presidential election to give legitimacy to Putin’s chosen successor, allowing the president to step out of office in May and into the office of prime minister with his powers intact.
Putin, who cannot constitutionally run for a third term, picked first deputy prime minister and Gazprom Chairman Dimitri Medvedev as his party’s candidate for the presidency in December, further inciting the ire of politicians and journalists who have long criticized his autocratic tendencies. Medvedev has no connection to the state security services and is largely seen as a politically weak figure who Putin can easily control.
Medvedev then announced his intention to appoint Putin to the position of prime minister, a decision Putin reinforced at his last press conference in mid-February. “The president is the guarantor of the constitution,” he said to the assembled reporters. “But the highest executive power in the country is the Russian government, led by the premier."
Since he was elected in 2000, Putin has tightened controls on the economy and the media, and has waged a brutal war in the breakaway Russian province of Chechnya. His government is also suspected in the October 2006 assassination of independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was documenting human rights abuses in Chechnya. Several other journalists, including American-born Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov, have also been killed in recent years.
Parliamentary elections in December that handed a victory to Putin's party United Russia were marred by fraudulent voting and an atmosphere that stifled the opposition parties, according to European elections monitors. One group of monitors cancelled its mission to observe the presidential elections, citing severe restrictions imposed by the government.
The New York Times documented the flawed presidential campaign and described the sense of fear and intimidation present in Russia in the weeks running up to the election. In addition to shutting down newspapers that printed unfavorable information and harassing the opposition parties, Putin’s United Russia has blackmailed workers and college students into voting for Medvedev, threatening them with the loss of their jobs or university positions.
Although the allegations were hardly surprising, the responses by Russian readers printed in the Times gave a glimpse into how Russians see their own country and its relations with the U.S.
Many admitted that their political system is far from democratic, but criticized the article for failing to see the other perspective. One reader noted that although he agreed with the “quite ugly picture of political reality,” the article gave him an unpleasant feeling. “As the patriots correctly noted, the opinion of the reporter is too contemptuous, which is very close to America’s and Americans’ foreign political views on the outside world."
More notable than the nationalistic sentiments that the article provoked is the underlying theme throughout the responses that suggests a direct link between the American media and a hostile American foreign policy. The assertion that the newspaper of record is merely an arm of the U.S. government may be due to a tendency to identify all media with state propaganda. However, the media’s failure to hold American politicians accountable contrasts with their criticism of Putin; Russians interpreted the story as an intensification of tensions between the U.S. and Russia and not as a more altruistic attempt to bring to light the stifling of democracy.
The indifference with which American politicians have treated the Russian elections only adds insult to injury. During Thursday’s press conference, President Bush admitted that he did not “know much about Medvedev either,” and could not say if he was concerned that Russia’s new president would be Putin’s puppet. The man who plans to station missiles in Eastern Europe over Russian objections apparently has little interest in the dynamics of the new government.
Master of manipulation that he is, Putin will not miss a chance to exploit Russian paranoia over the influence of the United States and to exploit the perception that the American media are part of a sinister plot by the government to undermine a resurgent Russia. Many people would prefer democracy, but more still resent foreign meddling, and until the U.S. can show that Western-style democracy is not always imposed from above and does not always guarantee chaos and rule by a moneyed elite, Russians will continue to vote for the devil they know. As one reader said, “Mr. Putin and his team are evil, of course. And only cattle vote for him. BUT these are OUR problems. And WE will sort them out.”
(The photo shows Russia's President Vladimir Putin in a meeting at the White House with U.S. President George W. Bush in 2001; the photo is by Eric Draper. The photo is an official White House photo and in the public domain.)
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by Laura Snedeker