The Cold War may have ended, but Russia and America, the motherland and fatherland of international relations, remain home to the two most powerful offices on earth. Those offices have been thrown open to democratic election this year. One has attracted millions of inches of newspapers coverage and hours of television debate, the other will pass barely unnoticed – telling of a system that is unlikely to change. The nail biting feature of elections means that America may or may not have a new President at the end of this year and no ones knows who that President might be. Russia will most certainly be presided over by the same man who rose through the ranks of the KGB in the 1990s to take his seat as Prime Minster of Russia in Moscow only nine years later: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
Rossiyskaya Federatsiya has given birth to some of the worlds’ greatest culture - from Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy to Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov; great instrumentalists, singers, dancers, artists and circus performers; chess grand masters and a stunning array of sporting excellence. Yet now this formerly great country that has lost its way. It has lost much of its self-confidence and left a vacuum of uncertainty which Putin has capitalised upon, both to revive his beloved country but to also cement himself firmly on the political landscape. Putin’s regime has witnessed assaults on Russia’s independent TV broadcasters, an erosion of civil society and a catalogue of criminal investigations have been launched against some of Russia's most prominent oligarchs. One young Russian said,
“Putin is certainly entrenching himself very effectively, taking on the oligarchs and strengthening his power base. And although not a primary factor, it is very worrying that Chechnya has disappeared from the agenda and Putin, to a much greater extent, has been given a licence by the international community to deal with the issue without fear of reprisal.”
Additionally, and in a surprise move on 24th February, Putin dismissed his entire Government, with the explanation that "this is linked to my wish to set out my position on what the country's course will be after 14th March 2004." Put simply, Putin is surrounding himself with ‘yes’ men.
I’m the King of the Castle…
This is more telling of the ‘Putinism’ that has gripped the country. Despite untold losses in Chechnya, despite the surprise axing of his Government and despite the poverty that still riddles Russia today, Putin has acquired a fairytale aura about him that his people have a curiosity and affection for. Putin has become the modern day and untouchable Tsar, as noted by Steve Rosenberg, the BBC Correspondent in Russia,
“There are pop songs about Putin on national radio. His face adorns chocolate boxes and T-shirts. You `can buy Putin board games, Putin tooth picks. There are even wedding dresses now bearing his presidential portrait.”
Putin has created a persona so strong and so appealing that even if an alternative did exist, it would be unlikely to survive. The EU, traditionally an advocate of democracy and the rule of law, has cold shouldered reports of human rights abuses and legal irregularities. Accession of ten new Member States after this year is unlikely to alter EU-Russia relations, since the new Members are involved in bitter wrangling over exactly how much say they will be allowed. Europe’s statesman have struck up cordial relations with Putin, as have many of the world’s other Presidents and Prime Ministers. The outside world can offer no alternative, so can Russians, so fascinated and loyal to their President, provide an alternative to the Putin system? The election is a formality. Few, inside or outside of Russia, are aware that Sergei Glazyev, Irina Khakamada, Nikolai Kharitonov, Oleg Malyshkin or Sergei Mironov are the five other Presidential hopefuls. They each have their own alternative to offer, but know their ambitions of reaching office will never be realised.
Strengths and weaknesses
Yet the answer to an alternative to the Putin system lies with the President himself. His dramatic political gambling and willingness to take on some of the world’s most powerful industrialists will leave him vulnerable to personal and political attack. This is a philosophy echoed by John Bowis, MEP for London and Vice-Chairman of the Parliamentary Delegation to a group of former Soviet states,
“Putin's strength is also his weakness. He has used aggression at home and abroad to strengthen his position at home. He is also playing the new "Great Game"”.
For now, however, there is no alternative to the Putin system and Putin himself claims popularity ratings of 80%. More realistically, Russians have been stripped of any opportunity to think they need any alternative. Ironically, the only alternative can come from Putin himself. He will already be considering the Russia he will be leaving behind when he retreats from the political word and is already molding a system capable of installing a loyal Putin protégéé.
Putin will not loosen his grip on his mother country, there will be no alternative, Russia will inevitably ending up suffering. As always old habits die hard.