Overview of This Week’s Report: “Dealing With the ‘New’ Russia”

When Russian voters went to the polls to elect a new president on March 2, the outcome was hardly in doubt. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, 42, is both genuinely popular and had been picked by the even more popular incumbent, President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Indeed, Medvedev garnered 72 percent of the votes. “It was not really an election, it was an appointment,” observed Fraser Cameron, director of the European Union’s Russian Center, expressing a widespread Western view. Medvedev was inaugurated on May 7 and immediately nominated Putin – barred by the constitution from serving a third term – as prime minister at the head of his United Russia party government.

Medvedev has defined Russia’s new leadership structure as “a single team” that would “be able to solve the most difficult and large-scale tasks.” Political commentators in Moscow are calling the partnership a diarchy, or a government by two joint leaders. But finding the right label is a lot easier than figuring out how the power-sharing arrangement will work in practice.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the position of prime minister has been largely administrative and no threat to the presidency, but Putin has already indicated that he will broaden its political scope.

Medvedev, on the other hand, has never held elected office and has spent most of his career in Putin’s shadow as a trusted deputy, so the most likely scenario seems to be that Putin will continue to dominate the government. If public opinion polls are to be believed, this sits well with the majority of Russians. According to surveys, more than 80 percent expect Putin to continue as chief guide and arbiter of the nation’s fate. More than 50 percent would be happy to make him president for life.

Yet Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Moscow-based Russia in Global Affairs magazine, says things may not be that clear-cut. Two-headed power is without precedent in Russia – never mind that, ironically, the double-headed eagle was for centuries the Russian imperial symbol.

“The Russian political tradition is to have one single leader – one czar,” Lukyanov observes. “Now we will get two centers of power, which is extremely unusual. If anyone tells you he knows how the system is going to work, don’t believe it.”

Meanwhile, with the U.S. presidential election looming, time is running out for any significant improvement in the U.S.-Russian tension that has developed during the Bush administration. Still, President George W. Bush telephoned Medvedev on March 4 to express the hope – in the words of a Medvedev spokesperson – that “the two [leaders] can establish a close working relationship that will help them deal with important world issues.”

A working relationship is what Bush no longer seems to have with Putin. In 2001, President Bush said he looked Putin in the eye and saw a man who was “straightforward and trustworthy.” But it has been downhill from there.

“In 2001 the Russians thought they were entering into a new strategic alliance [with the United States] against global terrorism, “says Michael McFaul, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. When the Bush administration sought to establish military bases in Uzbekistan and other former Soviet satellites in Central Asia to support a U.S. attack on al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Putin agreed. But when Bush turned on Iraq, Putin strongly opposed the invasion.

Relations between Washington and the Kremlin continued to worsen, with each side blaming the other for the deterioration and some experts warning that further worsening could lead to a new Cold War. “Now, relations are the worst in 20 years,” says McFaul. “The central belief of Russian foreign policy is: If it’s bad for the United States, it’s good for Russia.”

The contours of U.S.-Russian differences have emerged in disagreements over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, U.S. support for Kosovo’s independence, efforts by Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO and construction of gas and oil pipelines in the region. Moreover, Bush and top administration officials have lectured Putin on human rights violations by a presidency “based on the uncontested primacy of the top executive, with controlled politics and a growing intolerance towards public dissent, let alone political autonomy,” as Washington Post columnist Masha Lipman wrote from Moscow early this spring.

Some Russian analysts advance the argument that Putin’s autocratic rule – also known as “Putinism” or “managed democracy” – was necessary to stabilize the country. Says Veronika Krasheninnikova, director of U.S. operations for the Council for Trade and Economic Cooperation and author of a recent book (in Russian) on U.S.-Russian relations. “Putin is putting order where there was chaos: The collapse of the Soviet Union had destroyed the state in every function.”

Meanwhile, Putin charges that the Bush administration has aggressively moved to encircle Russia with military bases, install missiles on its borders, topple allied regimes in Central Asia and incite political upheaval in Moscow through U.S.-backed pro-democracy groups.

Arguably the most contentious single issue between Washington and the Kremlin is the Bush administration’s plan to install an anti-missile defense system in Eastern Europe with the long-range missile interceptors deployed in Poland and a tracking radar system in the Czech Republic. Bush says the missiles are needed to protect the West against possible nuclear attack from Iran or North Korea.

To remove legal obstacles to the system, the Bush administration in 2002 withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which prohibited missile defense systems in the region. Putin calls U.S. concerns over Iran overblown and complains that the proposed missile shield “will work automatically with the entire nuclear capability of the United States” functioning as one unit. The missile system also will trigger “a new arms race,” Putin adds, since it will force Russia to update its own antiquated missile network.

Some blame unrealistic expectations on both sides for the existing tensions. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former White House national security adviser, said, “There was too much euphoria; too much inclination to declare that Russia was a democracy; and too much pretension. . . . All of that has created ambiguity when clarity is needed.”

The United States has been disappointed that the hoped-for democracy has failed to take root in Russia after the fall of communism. For their part, the Russians had expected more from the United States in terms of support. Instead, a weakened Moscow was pressed into signing arms-control agreements. Furthermore, by welcoming former Soviet Eastern Europe and the Baltic states into NATO, the Atlantic alliance planted itself right on Mother Russia’s front porch – a move that Putin, not surprisingly, saw as a serious threat.

But when that happened, Russia was weak and poor, and with its economy in free fall, the country was too eager to integrate itself into the West to object too strenuously. Russia’s latest prosperity has brought a marked change in attitude. Thanks to rising world energy prices, revenues from Russia’s vast natural gas and crude oil reserves have contributed significantly to putting Russia back on its feet – rich, resentful and nationalistic and seeking to regain its great-power status. (After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian oil production fell about 50 percent, largely because of a lack of much-needed investments and poor management. The situation remained unchanged during Russia’s financial crisis in the 1990s. The dramatic turnaround came in 1999, after two new pipelines were completed, the ruble was devalued, making Russian oil and gas cheap, and world energy prices spiked, triggering new foreign investments.)

Grateful Russians, their pride restored, credit Putin with the country’s resurgence and its consistent 7 percent annual growth rate, and the Russians gave him great latitude to exercise his “tsarist” style, which – unlike democracy – does have its roots in Russia.

Caught in the middle, as usual, is Europe, the historic battlefield of Russian expansionism. French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed the general concern – increasingly reflected in the polls – that “ Russia is imposing its return on the world scene by playing its assets, notably oil and gas, with a certain brutality.” He was referring to Putin’s use of Europe’s dependence on Russian energy supplies (some 36 percent in the case of Germany) to pressure Europe into supporting Moscow’s positions.

To view the entire report on CQ Researcher Online, click here. [subscription required]

To buy a PDF of the entire report, click here.