By Habibe Ozda
The Russian head of state, Dmitri Medvedev, has announced at the United Russia Party Conference held on September 24 that he approves the nomination of Vladimir Putin for the March 2012 presidential elections. Putin, as a response in the statement he made, advised President Medvedev to become a candidate for the United Russia Party on December 4, 2011. These statements, announced on Saturday, are the public announcement of a joint decision Putin and Medvedev have made together. Although this move seems like a change of seats, in reality there are two consequences of Putin becoming a candidate for the presidency. First of all, Putin, who although having submitted his seat to a trusted colleague had not truly yielded his powers, regaining the title of head of state will not give rise to questions of who is governing Russia. On the other hand, it seems that the claims of tandem will die down at least for the period ahead. A new question is now taking the place of these two questions which have been answered: Where does Putin’s return take Russia?
Great Expectations of Medvedev
Great expectations had been placed upon President Medvedev who did not have a KGB background. This was such that there were even rumors that Medvedev could establish his own ‘team’ in the long term and confront Putin as an opponent, despite the fact that it was Putin who had chosen Medvedev. Furthermore, all these rumors occurred despite the numerous incidents of consistency that Putin and Medvedev displayed.
The new trend that has emerged after Medvedev declared that he will not be a candidate for presidency emphasizes that Russia’s democracy adventure has ended. Thus it is expected that the new era will again be a Putin period marked with an understanding of “managed democracy”. At this point, although there are many questions that linger in the mind, we should see that the proposition that “Russia’s democratic adventure has ended” was misconstrued from the very beginning. Since 2008, a considerable degree of continuity is apparent from the Putin period, both in domestic and foreign policies. Therefore, it wasn’t very realistic to say that Medvedev had an alternative vision for Russia by citing his liberal discourse. It should not be forgotten that despite the two leaders having different techniques, their policies were almost identical.
Putin, who has taken the country out of the post-USSR economic and political chaos and has restored the country to a relatively stable position, has achieved this at the expense of democracy and freedoms. Although it is contested how far Russia has strayed from democratization during the Putin period, one matter that has been settled is that the public at large supported this ‘undemocratic’ regime. To state it more clearly, while every type of governance needs the support of the public to establish its authority, how public support is established in an “undemocratic” Russia answers the question of “why Putin” in Russia. According to a poll-based study conducted in 2010, 56% of contributors to the poll responded to the question “What type of a democracy does Russia need?” with the answer “a democracy in accordance with national traditions”, while the amount of people who answered “A European or American style democracy” was only 23%.
Another factor we have to consider in explaining the support Putin receives in Russia is the reality that the economic circumstances the state finds itself in have a decisive effect on public support. Regarding this point, Putin, who announced his candidacy for the presidency recently, underlined in his speech that economic growth will have high priority on the agenda. Since public support is declining in accordance with the economic stagnation, stability of the Russian economy plays a key role in political scene.
Another possible answer to the question “why Putin?” is without a doubt due to historical memory. Thus the effect that the perception coined in literature as “the acceptance of status quo is better than suppositional changes” has had on the generation which experienced the Yeltsin era should be considered.
It has been said together with Putin’s announcement of his candidacy for head of state that Russia has diverted from the path of democracy. These days which way Russia will lead is a subject of interest. Putin, who is expected to get elected as the new head of state, is not a leader who is full of surprises when one considers his eight years in power. The emphasis on Russia’s status as a ‘big power’ and the pragmatic foreign policy decisions will appear as possible foreign policy inclinations in the coming period. On the other hand, Putin is deciding his policies by considering both the Russian and global economy’s current predicament. In this regard, in accordance with the falling energy prices, a Moscow that is on the one hand open to cooperation with international actors and on the other hand pursues policies that have an inclination toward asymmetrical dependency based on its regional vulnerabilities would not be a surprising prospect.
Habibe Ozdal, Researcher at the USAK Center for Eurasian Studies