The Russian Presidential Elections
December 20, 2011
Q1: Who is going to be running in Russia’s 2012 presidential elections against Vladimir Putin?
A1: The protests against perceived fraud in the December 2011 parliamentary elections have created a more fluid situation, with new contenders ready to throw their hats in the ring, whether to make a statement or raise their personal profile—but not to win, since almost no one thinks current prime minister and former president Vladimir Putin will lose, even though his popularity has declined precipitously in recent months. As of mid-December, four candidates had declared. Besides Putin, these include Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Just Russia opposition party Sergey Mironov, and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Zyuganov is a perennial candidate whose share of the vote has gradually declined (he took around 18 percent in the last election in 2008) as his mostly elderly voters die off and are not replaced by an infusion of younger blood. Mironov is a former chairman of the Russian Federation Council (upper house of parliament). The formation of Just Russia—which was pieced together from several disparate opposition groups in 2006—and Mironov’s candidacy for the presidency, were likely blessed by the Kremlin to provide a semblance of liberal opposition to Putin and the dominant United Russia party. Though he also ran against Putin for the presidency in 2008 (receiving less than 1 percent of the vote), Mironov famously said that even he wanted Putin to win. The most unusual and colorful candidate so far is Prokhorov, Russia’s third-richest man, known mainly for his playboy lifestyle and ownership of the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets basketball team. Prokhorov declared his candidacy on December 12, supposedly in response to the protests. Though he has long been close to Putin, he agreed to head up the liberal Right Cause party in May 2011, but resigned under murky circumstances in September. He alleged that the Kremlin was interfering with his attempts to turn Right Cause into a genuine opposition party. While setting himself up as Putin’s most serious challenger, Prokhorov has been careful not to criticize the prime minister, leading many outside observers to suspect his candidacy is mainly about creating a veneer of competition and legitimacy for the March elections.
Q2: Have the protests thrown any other new political figures into the spotlight?
A2: Two figures whose profile has grown recently are former finance minister Aleksey Kudrin and anticorruption lawyer/blogger Aleksey Navalny. Neither is running for president—at least not yet—but both are positioning themselves to play a larger role in the years to come. Kudrin was fired from the Finance Ministry in September after saying he would not work under current President Dmitry Medvedev, whom Putin has indicated he will appoint as prime minister (and thus head of the cabinet) following the election. Kudrin has been a strong proponent of fiscal orthodoxy, insisting as finance minister that Russia sequester its oil revenue in a reserve fund rather than spend it on social services or military modernization as Medvedev and others desired. Kudrin is well respected by the IMF and foreign interlocutors and would be an instant heavyweight should he decide to return to politics. He was offered the opportunity to head up the Right Cause party after Prokhorov’s ouster but declined. Nevertheless, Kudrin has spoken of Russia’s need for a genuine liberal (in the British sense) opposition party. He is widely spoken of as a future prime minister, especially if, as is frequently suggested, Medvedev’s tenure in the premiership proves fleeting.
Navalny is a former corporate lawyer who made his name investigating cases of official and corporate corruption. He set up a crowd-sourced blog encouraging readers to submit evidence of corruption and is credited with assigning United Russia the moniker “party of swindlers and thieves” in the eyes of the public. Navalny has helped shine a light on the systemic corruption that underpins Russia’s political status quo and galvanized a large segment of the population to demand change. He called on Russians to cast their votes for any party other than United Russia in the December 2011 parliamentary election. Unlike the Mironovs and Prokhorovs of the world, no one doubts Navalny’s opposition bona fides; he was sentenced to 15 days in jail for his role organizing and promoting the December protests, and he has been one of the few serious public figures to criticize Putin openly. Navalny has been at pains to emphasize that, while he opposes the current system, he is not a liberal, but an “ordinary Russian nationalist.” Controversially, he participated in the November 4 Russian March, an annual mass demonstration by Russian nationalists, fascists, and monarchists.
Q3: If Putin is going to win anyway, why do the March elections matter?
A3: The protests against the December parliamentary vote have demonstrated that the current system’s legitimacy is eroding. They are also a reminder to ordinary Russians that they do have the ability to affect the political system—the idea that the authorities should not demean them by cynically stage managing the electoral process. Putin increasingly looks like he does not have a plan for dealing with the economic, political, and demographic problems Russia faces. He is not offering any new ideas; his decision to return to the Kremlin is increasingly portrayed as a sign that the system itself has run its course. At the same time, the general public appears to have lost its fear of the authorities. The protests in December marked one of the few times in the past 12 years when Putin has been confronted with real public opposition and when the authorities were forced to blink. It is clear that Putin’s narrative of being the strong man who helped put Russia back on its feet after the chaos of the 1990s is wearing thin. With no significant opposition candidates in the field, the 2012 election will be in essence a referendum on Putin and his rule. To avoid being humiliated in the way United Russia was in the Duma elections, Putin will need to make further accommodations with a still amorphous opposition. Up until now, the Kremlin has been able to blame others for the system’s waning legitimacy; it will be much harder to do that if the target of public discontent is Putin himself.
Jeffrey Mankoff is an adjunct fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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