Presidential Elections in Russia Are Very Intriguing

It is clear that there will not be any real competition, but it is very interesting which of the two leaders, Medvedev or Putin, will be the next president. The decision on who will run for president will be made in the next few months. Nobody knows what these elections will bring. interview with Timothy Colton, Feldberg Professor of Government at Harvard University and Director of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies

Later this year and early next year elections will be held in Russia. What do the Americans expect from these elections?

There is a lot of interest in the U.S. in these elections. It is clear that there will not be any real competition, but it is very interesting which of the two leaders, Medvedev or Putin, will be the next president. The decision on who will run for president will be made in the next few months. This is the kind of political news that journalists like a lot and cover thoroughly. It is interesting. Nobody knows what these elections will bring.

Do the Americans see any powerful personalities in Russia, other than Putin or Medvedev, who could lead the country?

In the past we could not predict who would become the next leader of your country. I remember when I attended a conference in Washington in April of 1999. The theme of the conference was “Who will be Russian president next year?” Some suggested Luzhkov, Nemtsov and Zyuganov. Putin’s name was not even mentioned. There were no indications. Yeltsin appointed him as prime minister in August, and the conference was held in April. It’s possible that if it’s not Putin, he will find someone else.

He is currently shoring up his party and forming the Popular Front. Public organizations are actively engaged in the political life, but is this the way it should be? Public organizations should stand more in opposition to the authorities.

I agree. For me, it was an unexpected decision. First, “Popular Front” is an old name with historic connotation. But what’s more important is that he already has a party of power, he founded it, he is the party leader but not its member.

Maybe he is concerned that voters won’t support his party in the election?

That much is clear.

Or he cares about his own standing?

Yes, they are afraid of losing their standing. Recently Medvedev made some criticisms that were justified and polite. He said, “The Popular Front – it is good, they have the right, the campaign tactics…” and so on. This is all that he said about it. So, that’s a bit strange to me. Perhaps Putin made a mistake; he has very good political instincts in general, but perhaps they failed him this time. It is possible that he made a misjudgment.

However, Medvedev has sufficient resources to create an alternative party, doesn’t he?

Medvedev clearly would get a certain number of votes, but Putin would win the election because of his administrative resources. Under the Russian Constitution the president has a lot of authority. Only a very strong leader can exercise such authority, but it seems to me that your president is not a very strong leader. Medvedev’s personality and his relationship with Putin create an impression that Medvedev does not want to challenge him. Medvedev is different. I understand that it would have been very difficult. But that locks Medvedev in this role he plays. He talks but does not take action. This is his role in history. Perhaps he has plans in his mind for how to develop the country, and that’s good, but he needs to do something, take risks. Yeltsin took risks. Even Putin took risks in a way, despite the fact that he wanted to play it safe. I don’t think it’s possible to get to the top and be number one without taking risks.

So does Putin take risks?

Perhaps Putin was just lucky that Yeltsin chose him. In 2000 and 2001, he talked about his vision and took actions to support it, unlike Medvedev. Medvedev either does not want to or is unable to, and Putin is always standing nearby. It is difficult for a normal person.

And Medvedev still has not said whether he will run or not.

I don’t know whether he will run. I suspect that Putin will run and Medvedev will not. There is a sense that Putin is planning to run, he is trying to keep his public profile high. It seems he is trying to regain his standing. Many Russians think that if Putin puts his mind to it, he will get it done. Medvedev can win only if he takes the prime minister out of the way.

What do you think about our party system, that we only have four parties in the Duma and the ruling party has the majority of seats? Is it democratic?

No, it is not democratic. But you have a mixed system that has elements of democracy and authoritarianism. The leadership tries to reduce the level of political competition. It makes it impossible to create a new party without its approval.

What are the effects of reduced political competition? How long can this last, based on the experience in other countries?

This is a very good question. China, a very authoritarian country, proves that this system can be successful. History shows that an authoritarian regime can only be effective when the system allows for the periodic replacement of its leaders. The Chinese know that, they have a formula, a tradition: every eight years the vice president becomes president, and that’s the system. There is no such system in Russia, and this leads to stagnation. Maybe Putin understands that. Maybe he tried to leave but was not successful.

Putin was a very effective president. I believe he is a very intelligent and capable man who loves his country, but cannot stay in a leadership position for 10, 15, 20 years. Even a good, brilliant president loses initiative, gets stuck in a routine, repeats his mistakes. To be clear, I am not anti-Putin. It is not about the person but about the system. Russia is not Africa. It is a developed society and it is headed in the right direction, toward a definite system. It is not possible to modernize a system without modernizing the political component.

Many journalists say that the 1990s were much more interesting. In the Duma issues were actively discussed, you had to chase after each member to find out how he will vote, make predictions. Now the journalists do not have a lot a work to do. Is it true that there was more freedom in the 1990s?

I think that is obvious. But not everything was better then. It was a difficult period for your country. If we are talking about freedom, there was social freedom but not systemic freedom. It was more like anarchy than freedom. In 1995, there were some 230 political parties and movements in Russia; now there are seven. I am not saying that having 100 or 500 parties is good, but it means there is more freedom. You have one, the ruling party, and then A Just Russia party is created to be second to the ruling party. Other parties like KPRF and LDPR are not real competitors, and that’s all there is. This is a dangerous situation.

What about the Right Cause party? Will this party be successful?

Yes, I think that both Putin and Medvedev want that party to receive 5-7% of votes and make it to the parliament. Putin has many liberal ministers – for example, Nabiullina, Kudrin, Zhukov – and they all will vote for Right Cause. I’m sure that it will get even more than 5% of votes, as the Kremlin wants. After the Khodorkovsky case, many businessmen left politics; now we are seeing the opposite. I think that this is a significant change. Right Cause will be in the Duma after these elections.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.