Sunday, 4 March 2012

Presidential Elections in Russia: maximising control

Kremlin in the background
MOSCOW - Russia is counting down to the 2012 Presidential Elections, in a few hours the electorate of the world's largest country will go to the polls. 

In case anyone is wondering whether there are any doubts over who will be handed over the keys to the Kremlin after tomorrow can ditch that illusion. From the Baltic borders to the Pacific Ocean, every Russian knows the charismatic 49-year old Vladimir Putin will be promoted from Prime Minister to Russia's President next week, a job he should not be too unfamiliar with, since he was president of the Russian Republic between 2000 and 2008.

The other, official candidates running for the presidency are Gennady Zyuganov (Communist Party), Sergey Miranov (A Just Russia), Vladimir Zhirinovsky (Liberal Democrats) and Mikhail Prokhorov (Independent). And to say it bluntly, they do not stand a chance. Realistically, their chances to the 'Holy Grail' are practically zero. And "the Holy Grail it certainly is", says a Moscow-based journalist, writing for a leading European newspaper. "In Russia, being in control of the Kremlin is all that matters if you want the keys to absolute power. If you control the Kremlin, you do not only control the Duma [Russia's Parliament], but you are also in charge of Gazprom [the world's biggest gas company], the judiciary, business, public life and the media. You basically rule the country without having to make compromises." He continues by explaining that the word control is "essential for Russian politics. It is of vital importance if you want to control this enormous country. It is what Stalinism, Communism and now Putinism are built on." He adds: "Control is so incorporated in the culture of the FSB [the former KGB, the country's secret service, where Putin once started as a young agent] that the current system simply could not survive without; the current government is so afraid of losing control its only options are to tighten its grip on the Russian people further and further." 

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow
Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that another Moscow-based journalist, who I meet in a lively Russian after-work diner right next to the gigantic, bombastic Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, predicts that "on Monday Moscow will burn". His reasoning is that when the news of "another' Putin victory will have sunk in, many Russians will be upset and genuinely angry". When I ask him why they are not flocking into the streets just yet, he explains "it is like you know someone is going to slap you in the face, but he does not quite yet. When he actually does [the morning after the elections when it is most likely Putin will be declared the winner] you get angry and want to hit him back."

Therefore, it is "absolutely essential that maximum control is exercised in the most efficient way in the next few weeks", says an American environmentalist, who I meet in a popular bar in the Red Square island district. She adds: "There is a saying in Russia: Europeans are white, Africans are black and Asians are yellow, and Russians? They are violent. That says a lot about the mentality in this country. Russians admire a strong leader and see violence and strong enforcement not necessarily as bad or immoral."

Russia's latest cinema hit
She seems to have touched on a good issue here, a valid point which needs to be considered if you truly want to understand how the Russian political system works. Apart from the fact that Russia's latest blockbuster is about the glorious defeat of 'the tirans' in neighbouring Georgia, violence seems to be incorporated in Russian society. It should therefore not come as a surprise that Putin will, once again, win the country's presidential ballot. Although criticism on his government is certainly growing - especially among younger Russians in urban regions - many Russians still see him as a credible, strong, charismatic leader who has put Russia back on the map after a decade of chaos and failed privatisation under the unpredictable and alcoholic President Boris Jeltsin in the '90s. 

Issues such as checks and balances within public office and government, human rights, the current situation in the Chechen Republic (Russia has been fighting a bloody war against Muslim separatists in Chechnya for more than a decade), the Kremlin's dubious relationships with regimes such as in Iran, North Korea and Syria, a number of political murders - such as the killing of Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 - all seem to worry many Russians, but are certainly not on top of their priority lists. 

When I ask the second European journalist I referred to above what the average Russian thinks of the Kremlin's support to President al-Assad in Syria he responds that "Russians simply do not care". Corruption and financial scandals are the only two events that really seem to move Russian voters, according to the American environmentalist. "If corruption continues to be a major issue, then Putin's days are numbered. But will that happen very soon," she wonders. "Is it likely that we will shortly place a new name to Russia's presidency? I doubt it."

Sources have been quoted anonymously in order to protect their interests and safety while working in Russia. Michiel Willems (c)