Russia's Parliamentary and Presidential Elections in Focus
by JOHN W. MILLER
December 8, 2011
The first round elections held in Russia on the weekend of 2-3 December have surprised many observers at home and abroad and with good reason. The governing United Russia party suffered largely unexpected losses, gaining just under 50% of the vote with nearly 95% counted. This was followed by a rally estimated at 5000 by the Western press in Moscow on the 5th December, with several arrests made of prominent anti-government activists. A lesser but also vocal crowd repeated the performance the following night, again to be met by riot police in full equipment.
The basis of the protests appears to be corruption in government and fixed elections. The tenor of the protests was bluntly summed up in the words of a well-known blogger Aleksey Navalny, who branded United Russia as “the Party of Swindlers and Thieves” (New York Times December 6, 2011). The ‘official’ number of arrests released via the Interfax news service was 300 on the first night and 250 on the following day.
By Western standards, crowd sizes were laughably small but there can be no effective comparison. We are used to demonstrations numbering in the thousands and hundreds of thousands as the recent “Occupy” activities have shown. Russians still harbor deep suspicion of government and authority, even twenty years after the final collapse of the USSR. My unpublished thesis on the rise of Putin and the form of his government are fairly long and complex: suffice to say the first term of his presidency was hallmarked by what I described as “Putinization,” the accretion of power from the ashes of the Yeltsin years and the demise of many of those whom Americans could well call carpetbaggers but were usually described as the kleptocracy or oligarchs. Those who chose to resist the forces surrounding Putin (the siloviki – literally men of power) found themselves marginalized and occasionally jailed of forced abroad for the good of their health – London being a well-patronized destination.
The result was stable government, great personal popularity for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the diminutive former Lt. Col. In the KGB, described by numerous former ‘colleagues’ as a second-rater or a nonentity. To give the man his due, he permitted freedom of travel, assembly, organization (with limitations) and placed the Russian Orthodox Church back where many, not all believers, thought it should be central to the regime. The KGB was dismantled and two successor organizations the SVR (foreign) and FSB (internal security) took its place. A number of senior officers from the old organization were retired but many remained and the political system of Putinism was characterized by slow accumulation of power, especially in the power and energy sectors. Together with huge natural resources (especially in the energy sector) modern Russia has the potential to dominate Europe by economic means, while for the most part much of the equipment of the Russian Armed forces rusted away or became relics of the nostalgic part.
Putin when he was in the KGB…
The standard of living of the average Russian is probably a great deal better than Soviets days and life expectancy is longer (depending on whom you believe) but the European component of the population is declining relative to the number of Islamic and non-Russian nationality groups. Despite terrorist attacks and a high police and security presence, the dreaded knock on the door at 2.00am is not feared as in days gone by and there are frequent grumbles about the increasing cost of vodka. However, most Russians can criticize and complain, openly for the most part, in a way unthinkable at the height of Soviet power.
Criticism of the government has long appeared to be tolerated within certain limits but given the organizational strength, government support and the lack of an effective alternative, has granted United Russia a monopoly of power in the Duma and regional assemblies. The Party activists have been given further voice through its youth wing “Nashi” (literally ours) which has kept an eye on the tactics used in former Soviet countries, especially the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which is particularly loathed by diehards.
...and as he is now.
The extra-parliamentary opposition is divided, turns on different personalities and operates from a base of poor organization and coordination, although as usual the Western media has played up the role of electronic means, Twitter, Facebook, the Internet but its significance at this stage is problematic. The protests will undoubtedly continue but there have been reports of troops being deployed to assist police to counter the demonstrations and as yet, it is almost impossible to predict whether the protests will slowly fizzle out or a gain in strength – it’s virtually a case of “Ask your expert,” and be prepared to expect the unexpected.
It would be very interesting to learn authoritatively of the details of the post-election wash-up in the Kremlin. Certainly more prominence will be given to Putin’s profile and ensuing policy changes. The natural temptation will be to step up ‘internal discipline’ while still presenting a popular face to the Russian people. Old habits die hard and it should never be forgotten that Putin still celebrates KGB Day regularly on December 20 each year at the old KGB headquarters at the Lubyanka and nor should the West ever forget Putin’s words that the dissolution of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 2oth Century,” although this view was only articulated publically in his annual state of the nation address in April 2005, really not that long ago.
Other habits have never changed – Russian espionage in the West exceeded Cold War levels in the mid-1990s and has continued to increase, especially in the field of technological and scientific intelligence.
Not that these factors impact that greatly on the US and Western governments, distracted as they are by Islamic terrorism, elections and economics. With the approach of Christmas holidays and the New Year, it can be expected that the international media become ever more preoccupied with the forthcoming US presidential election. However, it is vital that we pay no less attention to Russia’s presidential election, scheduled for March 4, 2012.
Not for a moment have I ever doubted that the leading contender and probable winner will be Vladimir Putin, Russian President for two consecutive terms following the rule of Boris Yeltsin; and President Putin’s Prime Minister will be his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev, President for the past four years.
This will represent a consolidation of the politics and policies of the Putinist ruling class. Both have had the support of the major Russian political party, United Russia. As some cynical observers might say, it has been all according to plan.
At this stage, the only declared challenger is the perennial communist candidate, 67-year-old Gennadiy Zyuganov, who has no realistic hope of taking the election to a second round of voting, especially as Putin remains very popular among the Russian people and is viewed as a strong leader in a way that Russians appreciate.
Many Russians, especially outside the major cities, still retain nostalgic memories for the stability and certainty of communism; but, realistically, most Russians today have a longer life span, enjoy freedom of travel and religion and, like many citizens in the West, are perplexed by economic cycles and vagaries of life. It is doubtful whether longings for the past can ever be realized.
However, over the past few years, there has been intermittent academic speculation about the prospects for a new Cold War. Some of Putin’s more intemperate utterances about the West have done little to kill off this speculation.
However, a new Cold War is something of a non-issue, in the sense that Russia is no longer a superpower and has as many reasons to adopt a more reasonable tone in its dealings with the West, and the US in particular, than to throw its weight around in international affairs.
For example, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is as real for Russia as for the West, irrespective of whether this is recognised in the Kremlin. In the eyes of Islamic fundamentalists, Russians are no less infidels than Americans. Moreover, the Russians are closer to the Middle East and the Afghan-Pakistan region. Furthermore, al Qaeda and linked organisations have strong support in many of the former Soviet states such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and, closer to home, in the Caucasus, especially Chechnya, North Ossetia, Abkhazia and Dagestan, home to the disparate arms of the Caucasus Emirate, now a proscribed terrorist organisation.
I have little information on the much-touted intelligence cooperation between the Russian FSB, the American FBI and other Western anti-terrorist groupings. I would like to see a cost-benefit analysis of any information exchange, probably out of curiosity.
Russia and the West have so many pressing issue they face in common, especially the threat from global terrorism, that the Russians would be well advised to cut back on the continuing high levels of espionage operations against the West.
Russia is notoriously difficult for the West to work with, even 21 years after the collapse of communism. Developments in foreign affairs, especially in relation to Libya, Syria and Iran, have show that there is no desire in Moscow to follow the Western lead, and Russia still gains from selling weapons systems to countries hostile to the West.
The Texas-based think tank, Strategic Forecasting, Inc., which prides itself on providing timely intelligence, recently claimed that Russia was rebuilding an empire while it could. (See Lauren Goodrich’s article in Stratfor magazine, October 31, 2011).
In light of this warning, it would do well to be sceptical about the likelihood of the US “becoming friends” with Russia any time soon.
Indeed, we should heed the testimony of the late Colonel Sergei Tretyakov, a former KGB/SVR intelligence officer who defected to the US in 2000, and whose remarkable story is recounted in Pete Earley’s book, Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia’s Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War (2008). Tretyakov bluntly and convincingly warned that Russia would never be America’s friend.
While Lauren Goodrich’s Stratfor analysis makes some valid points about Russia’s nostalgia for its lost empire, it is perhaps better to regard current Russian actions as consolidation of economic power and strategic alliances that could give it more international clout.
Countering Stratfor’s view was a recent trenchant editorial in the Russian business daily, Vedomosti [The Record], entitled “The Kremlin’s imaginary world” (reproduced in the Moscow Times, November 22, 2011). In plain language that no Russian would have dared to use during the time of communism, the Vedomosti editorial ridiculed Moscow’s imperial delusions. It said: “In the Kremlin’s imaginary, utopian world, Russia is the core of a powerful regional alliance stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. That union is a force with which the whole world must reckon, especially because the Russian military will be armed with cutting-edge technology and weapons and will overwhelm the entire world.”
While I regard the Russian election as being won four months out, but the indications of domestic discontent with Putin could scarcely be described as organised or particularly substantial. Those few accounts from BBC reporters and US media in Moscow and St Petersburg reflect the stirrings perhaps of a desire for more change rather than a reversion to the past.
What troubles me most is the fairly generalised groupthink in Western academic circles, which routinely seems to preclude any in-depth analysis of Russian intentions and long-range goals. Probably nothing is more discouraging to foreign affairs realists than the number of articles written by those who still persist in seeing Russia through rose-tinted spectacles.
Other commentators of a more conspiratorial disposition dismiss the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), and claim that the dissolution of the USSR was little more than a very clever Russian tactic to outflank the US.
In light of this latter view, it is rather ironical — tragic, even — that Mr Gorbachev has tried to set up in Russia a European-style social democratic party, but was quietly discouraged by powers from behind the scenes.
Western diplomacy also appears to succumb to more wishful thinking than sober appreciation of the moves among the Russian ruling classes. Important developments are routinely overlooked. Added to that, the quality and depth of Western commentary on the forthcoming Russian election reflect a degree of academic inertia.
The US conservative publication National Review recently produced an article entitled, “Whither Russia?” (November 21, 2011). It consisted of a two-part discussion, which purported to assess the personalities of Putin and Medvedev as well as the future prospects for Russia’s shaky democracy.
The arguments have very little to commend the publication, but, in discussing the change of leadership from Putin to Medvedev and back to Putin, mention was made of a significant background figure working for the Putin campaign — a person jocularly described as a Karl Rove-like figure.
This mysterious person has been described elsewhere as “the grey Cardinal of the Kremlin”. He is Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov, and has been described by the all-knowing New York Times as the third-ranked power figure in the Kremlin after Putin and Medvedev.
It has been speculated that he has political plans of his own, described by some as reformist. Among the very few things we know about Surkov is that he is a somewhat retiring 47-year-old, who formerly worked as “an agent for a crack intelligence special operations unit in the Red Army’s intelligence corps” (World Politics Review, August 9, 2007).
In the language of intelligence services, this translates into the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye, or GRU, the foreign military intelligence directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (formerly the Soviet High Command).
The GRU’s existence was practically unknown in Russia until the time of Mr Gorbachev’s perestroika. During my service in Western intelligence, I observed some Soviet GRU officers in action. Their level of professionalism was generally exceptional and there were far fewer defectors from the GRU’s ranks than from the better-known KGB’s, or from other branches of the Soviet government. Having a former GRU officer close to the locus of power in Russia is something new and interesting.
The GRU has survived every major upheaval in Russia since the early years of Bolshevik rule and still prospers today, ironically under the rule of a former member of its sworn enemy, the KGB. If the rumors of paying for results are any guide, this trend will continue whatever happens after the next presidential election
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor John W. Miller is a former senior intelligence officer with NATO and allied forces, with considerable experience in Russian (Soviet) affairs and counterterrorism.
Lauren Goodrich, “Russia: rebuilding an empire while it can”, Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting, Inc., Austin, Texas), October 31, 2011.
John Dunlop and Daniel Foster, “Whither Russia?”, National Review (New York), November 21, 2011.