By Mehru Jaffer
Is it enough that Russia has a new president?
No, it is not, according to Professor Lilia Shevtsova, specialist in Russian presidential politics and co-chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Project at the Carnegie Moscow Center for International peace. Speaking on the eve of the Russian presidential elections at Vienna's Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, Shevtsova said the greatest challenge before Russia remains whether an individual will rule the country in the future or it will be run by democratic 'institutions'.
Shevtsova spoke here on Russia after the presidential elections and on the domestic and foreign policy challenges facing the country. The political analyst says that Russia's strength before the world belies political stagnation within the country. The type of capitalism chosen by the political elite in the past two decades is suicidal for Russia. She is critical about Vladimir Putin; he has destroyed state institutions and concentrated power in the State presidency.
Putin was recruited by the KGB, the secret service of the former Soviet Russia, and served in the office of foreign intelligence till 1983, serving as a spy in Dresden, East Germany between 1985 and 1990. Boris Yeltsin, former Russian president, did not approve of the omnipresence of the KGB and after the Soviet break-up in 1991 decided that he did not want to leave national security in the hands of a single organisation. The KGB was broken up into half a dozen agencies and the Federal Security Service (FSB) emerged as the main domestic intelligence agency.
During Putin's presidency, intelligence officers were chosen to fill up prime positions in a majority of government and business offices. Soon, the power enjoyed by the FSB was being compared with the glory of the KGB in the past.
Although Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's chosen successor, is not from the intelligence service, experts predict that the paranoia typical of the KGB and FSB may lessen in degree under his presidency. The truth is the crème de la crème at the Kremlin continue to be from the intelligence service.
The Medvedev presidency is expected to be a continuation of Putin's doctrine of assertive economic and military policies and unwavering centralised power. Since Putin could not contest for a third term, he handpicked Medvedev for a job that he would have liked to keep for himself. Shevtsova predicts that either Medvedev will remain a puppet of Putin or emerge as head of State in his own right.
The problems facing Russia include low birth rate, unemployment and economic disparity. Russia's anti-West rhetoric distracts the public away from the country's shattered social infrastructure that threatens economic and social stability. If social problems at home are not addressed, the danger is the simultaneous rise of nationalist forces along with the further purge of moderate voices in the name of national security.
Shevtsova would like the world, in particular the western states to understand Russia's unique dilemmas and choices and to engage the country in areas of international terrorism, energy security and climate change but never at the expense of a crack down in democracy in Russia.
Putin describes his Russia as a managed democracy; Shevtsova calls it an authoritarian presidency. The combination of autocracy with elections makes the system of governance unstable. She fears that the authoritarian system will lead Russia towards political suicide. Democratic elections in Russia are really a plebiscite, a referendum. In Russia, voters have no choice except to approve or disapprove of one political party, that of the president. She regrets that the multiparty system does not exist in her country. What worries her most is the absence of any opposition in the form of legislators, regional heads and a democratic opposition to balance the absolute power vested in the hands of the elite. There is fear and a sense of insecurity even among the chosen political elite as it enjoys power due to one individual.
Putin's system of governance is founded on subordination and centralisation of power. Unfortunately, the defeat of liberal democrats encouraged an authoritarian bureaucracy to align itself with big business. Russia is not a Police State yet. What worries Shevtsova is the weakening of democratic institutions and repression of multi-party elections. For an entire country to depend on its future on the popularity of one individual makes Shevtsova uncomfortable.
It is not possible for Russia to reform and to genuinely progress if the people are unable to participate in different aspects of public and the political life. The refusal of the State to share power with the people and institutions is suicidal for Russia, says the author of Russia: Lost in Transition, one of Shevtsova's many books on Russia.