Putin’s puppet show
People talk about the Russian presidential election like it really matters. But it doesn’t. The supposedly big news and debate right now is whether or not Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will run for president again in 2012.
The real news that no one is talking about is not the presidential election parlor game being played in Moscow right now, but is about an authoritarian government feeling the need to try to paint a veneer of democracy. Besides, the fall parlor game will matter much more than this spring one.
Western media can keep making it out to be as big a deal as they want to, but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Medvedev stays on as president or if Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin returns to the post. While Medvedev looks like he is trying to distance himself from Putin — he has taken a different stance on Libya and is pro-US and Europe and pro-private sector — Medvedev, as much as he may be interested in running again, is not going to run against Putin if Putin puts himself in the race.
Historically, Russia has had show trials; this is a show election. In the past, Russia has put on trials to try to convince the Western world that there is a rule of law and that government transparency exists in their country. But this presidential election is feeling much too like the Khodorkovsky trial, yet another show trial that failed to prove that fair trials exist in Russia. There is no rule of law in Russia.
What’s remarkable about the Khodorkovsky trial is that we are still talking about it a decade later. It’s not in Russia’s interest to let Khodorkovsky speak publicly, but the Russian government feels a need to allow Khodorkovsky to go through the motions of talking to the media so that it looks like he is receiving a fair trial. The trial isn’t for Russians themselves, but for Russia watchers.
Despite a handful of people and media publications who see right through Russia’s vexing charade, there is a deep rooted reason why they continue to put on such a show — Russia’s insecurity complex. It is exactly that complex, and the diverted energy to cover it up, that makes Russia continually bluster any meaningful political and economic reform.
Despite Russia’ desire to compete with the West, the fact is their economy is not growing – in fact, banks are starting to pull out of the country. Yet Russia is so desperate to be considered a superpower and accepted as an advanced Western nation that they continue to flex their muscles. In the end, this only makes them look yet weaker , especially against the backdrop of their next door neighbor, China, which is growing, along with its confidence.
For now, the outcome of who’s going to run for president is probably already predetermined, but it looks nice for Russia to have foreign speculation of plurality in their country. Contrary to common wisdom, it would be a mistake to count Medvedev out. While Putin is still quite popular and could easily get reelected, going back as president shows weakness on his part and it’s great to have Medvedev be his plausible deniability.
This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.
Photo: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow on June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov