Medvedevs youth and Putins experience may be just the combination for a dream team to lend a new dynamism to Russia.
IT was the most subdued and uneventful election campaign in post-Soviet Russia. A foreigner visiting Russia in the run-up to the March 2 election could easily have failed to notice that the country was in the midst of a transition from President Vladimir Putin to a new leader. Election rallies were few and far between, television programmes lacked any grip or fervour and media coverage of the election campaign was scarce. The crushing victory of Vladimir Putins chosen candidate, Dmitry Medvedev, evoked remarkably little excitement either. As the Central Election Commission announced the winner, people went about their business as usual.
This seeming indifference had a reason: Russians knew the name of the next President 10 weeks before the day of the vote when Putin threw his support behind First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev. Putins popularity after eight years in office was so huge over 80 per cent that Russians were ready to support a candidate of his choice.
All opinion polls showed that Russians would prefer Putin to stay on even as the Constitution barred him from running again after serving two straight four-year terms. In the absence of Putins name in the ballot paper, Medvedev was the next best option for the majority of Russians. Medvedev predictably swept the poll with over 70 per cent of the votes polled, beating his nearest opponent by more than a 50 per cent margin.
Medvedevs promise to continue to work in tandem with Putin was a key factor behind his overwhelming victory. The two have worked side by side for the past 17 years. Medvedev, a lawyer by training, was Putins protege since the time they both worked in St. Petersburgs mayoral office in the early 1990s. In recent years he headed Putins Kremlin staff and then worked as First Deputy Prime Minister in charge of key social programmes.
Immediately after his nomination Medvedev invited Putin to join his future government as Prime Minister and the latter agreed. Therefore, Putin not only wholeheartedly supported Medvedevs presidential bid but also sent a message to the electorate that he would stay on in a leading position, which accorded with the voters wishes.
Given the enormous popularity of the Medvedev-Putin duo, the chances of other candidates were nil. In fact, they did not even try to win. For veteran Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, taking part in his third presidential election was an opportunity to quell the growing rebellion in his party, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which is rapidly losing popular appeal. Zyuganov retains a good chance to survive by coming a distant second with under 18 per cent of the vote, which is markedly better than the 11.6 per cent his party polled in the December parliamentary election.
Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who received over 9 per cent of the vote, was also in the race to show his voters that he was still in fighting form despite growing older. The fourth candidate, obscure newcomer Andrei Bogdanov, who garnered just 1.3 per cent, used the election to make his name known in the country.
Western observers were disappointed with the Russian vote. Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gross, who headed the 22-member observer mission from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), described the election as a plebiscite and a vote of confidence in the incumbent president rather than a proper democratic election. He hit the nail on the head. The vote for Medvedev was a vote for continuation of the course charted by Putin.
Stability and continuity the central themes of Medvedevs campaign struck a chord with the voters. Russias economy has doubled in size under Putin and peoples incomes have risen two-and-a-half times over. Medvedev vowed to sustain this positive dynamics and won the peoples support.
Western complaints about a lack of competition and fairness in the election seemed misplaced. How can one judge Russia by Western standards when its democracy is barely 15 years old and was preceded by centuries of autocracy and outright dictatorship? What would have happened had Putin stepped aside and let the democratic process take its course? Who can guarantee that Russia will not slide back into the democratic phase of the early 1990s when a split in the Russian elite led to civil strife and bloodshed as Boris Yeltsin, the Wests darling, ordered tanks to assault the opposition-held Parliament?
This is not to say that the Russian electoral process is above criticism. It was one thing for Putin to name his choice of successor but quite another for the state-controlled media to give campaign coverage heavily biased in favour of the Kremlin candidate. According to some estimates, Medvedev received 17 times more air time than all his rivals taken together. The Central Election Commission did not see any violation on the grounds that television stations showed Medvedev discharging his duties as First Deputy Prime Minister rather than his election campaign.
Local authorities were accused of exerting pressure on government and private employees to vote in order to raise the turnout. The only independent Russian election-monitoring group, Golos (Voice), complained that its observers were denied access to polling stations despite having all the necessary documents. Even Medvedevs advisers blasted the stupidity of officials who bent over backwards to please the Kremlin.
For all these excesses neither his opponents nor Western observers questioned Medvedevs victory. The PACE monitors conceded that Medvedev would have been elected in any case. The President-elect will have a solid mandate, the mission said in a statement.
Putin left nothing to chance in securing victory for his chosen candidate. He crafted a skilful two-stage strategy that relied entirely on democratic procedures.
In the first stage, Putin shared his popularity with the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party to help it win the elections to Parliament last December. Putin headed the partys candidate list even though he was not a member of United Russia. This enabled the party to win a two-thirds majority in the State Duma, or lower house.
In the second stage, United Russia nominated Medvedev (who is not a party member either) as its official candidate for President and committed its organisational resources to his campaign.
It would be wrong to say, though, that Medvedev won the race solely thanks to Putins support. Medvedev takes much credit for boosting his rating from about 40 per cent at the start of the campaign to over 70 per cent by time of the election. From a Putin protege he evolved into a statesman in his own right, with a good grasp of problems and a will to solve them.
While pledging loyalty to Putin and his policies Medvedev showed that he is different. Apart from a different background Medvedev was an academic, while Putin worked for the KGB and the age difference Medvedev, 42, is 13 years younger he came across as a more liberal leader than Putin. His election platform called for greater freedoms, an independent judiciary, independent public television, a strong multi-party system and parliamentary oversight of the executive branch.
Spring has come. The season has changed, Medvedev told reporters after casting his ballot on March 2. His liberal platform was aimed at both the domestic electorate and foreign leaders. And it rang well with both.
With personal incomes soaring at 10 per cent a year and poverty shrinking, Russia is fast becoming a European-type middle-class society that is increasingly sensitive to such issues as deficit of democracy, corruption and an unwieldy bureaucracy. Medvedev responded to these concerns.
Freedom is better than lack of freedom. This principle should be at the core of our politics, he said in a speech at an economic forum in Krasnoyarsk last month. I mean freedom in all its manifestations personal freedom, economic freedom and, finally, freedom of expression.
The West also found Medvedevs liberal image reassuring. Western leaders, including United States President George W. Bush, said they were looking forward to working with the new Russian President. Medvedev has already said that foreign policy will come under his purview, which means that foreign leaders will have to deal more with him than with Putin, who has in the West the reputation of being an intractable hardliner.
The presidential election marked a major step forward in the Russian democratic process. For the first time in Russias history a leader, still relatively young and strong, had voluntarily stepped down after completing his constitutional time in office, even as many people around him called for amending the Constitution to extend his rule. (Yeltsin resigned ahead of time on New Years eve in 1999 owing to failing health.)
It was also for the first time that the election of a new President proceeded strictly according to constitutional rules. (Putin first became acting President upon Yeltsins abdication and was elected President later.)
The March 2 election set an important precedent. It was only the second transition of power in post-Soviet Russia and it established a benchmark of democratic standards future leaders will find hard to deviate from.
In the next few weeks the outgoing President and the President-elect will have to adjust to a reversal of their previous roles after Medvedevs inauguration on May 7, when Putin becomes Prime Minister answerable to President Medvedev. Many have already described the arrangement as a dual presidency, a two-headed Tsar.
Medvedev clearly indicated in an interview that he was not planning to play the role of a figurehead, saying Russia can only be governed by strong presidential power and a firm executive vertical.
Putin has conceded that he and Medvedev would be in a unique situation, but promised that the two would work as a team. Medvedev also said that given their long-standing association and trust they would work as true comrades and partners.
The combination of Medvedevs youth and Putins experience may well make them a dream team that will lend new dynamism to Russias further resurgence.