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As Protests Against Putin Mount, Where Is Russia Headed?

CAS prof on the future of U.S.-Russian relations


To steal political pundit Monica Crowley’s line, how crummy a dictator are you when you rig an election and almost lose it? Such was Vladimir Putin’s fate after the Russian prime minister’s United Russia party barely won a parliamentary majority on December 4. International and local election monitors condemned the regime for widespread fraud, prompting weekend protests with tens of thousands of disgruntled Russians, unheard of in the dozen-year-long Putin era.

Last week, the prime minister blamed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s criticism of the election for fomenting the unrest. Two men—billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin—have announced they’ll oppose Putin for the presidency, and current President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered an investigation of the alleged voting fraud.

What’s in store for Russia? Is another Cold War looming? BU Today sought the views of Walter D. Connor, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations, political science, and sociology. A scholar of Russia, Connor was director of Soviet and East European Studies at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute from 1976 to 1984.

BU Today: What does Putin gain by accusing Clinton of instigating the unrest? Can Russia do without American goodwill?

Connor: He gains very little by reverting to this old theme, but then, he never really abandoned it, and it costs him nothing at home. Our relations with Russia are not really close. Whether appropriately or not, the United States remains a kind of benchmark or base of comparison for Russia, as it was for the USSR before it. There is sensitivity in Moscow to U.S. positions, and what a secretary of state says counts. But can Russia do without American goodwill? Sure. In many areas, including trade, we are not really important to one another, though we figure larger in Russian calculations than they do in ours. There are no truly pressing bilateral issues between us that cannot, for the time being, be ignored.

How serious a threat to the governing party is the current unrest?

It is early in an emergent situation, but some things are fairly clear. Putin will have the votes in the Duma; this is not the big issue, and the system is loaded in any case in favor of executive, not legislative, power. It will be interesting to see over the next few years whether the recipe of a “party of power” at the center (currently United Russia), around which are grouped other parties in opposition, will endure. If so, the question is, how many reshuffles of names and identities may be coming.

How would you grade the Obama administration’s handling of the situation so far? Is there more American officials can do?

Let me quote what Putin might say—“It’s Russia’s internal affair”—and so it is. We don’t handle it; we comment and react. Secretary Clinton has hit, I think, quite the right tone here. When political procedures are crooked, shabby, and obviously, it seems, insulting to a growing number of Russians, let us say so. It’s fair comment. If protesters in Russia are calling United Russia the “party of crooks and thieves,” are we to pretend that all is well?

How serious a contributing problem is Congress’ failure to confirm an ambassador to Russia?

Not terribly serious by itself. These things are part of Washington life; they happen, and for various reasons. It is sad, because Obama nominee Mike McFaul is a major scholar-expert with deep experience with Russia. The United States has typically sent to Moscow either career diplomats with deep specializations in things Soviet/Russian or occasionally public figures. Mike is an academic with policy interests and hands-on exposure as a member of Obama’s (for whom I did not vote) national security staff for nearly three years. One hopes the “hold” [Republican Senator Mark Kirk placed on his nomination] will be released.

Are we in, or headed toward, a new Cold War?

Not really. For a cold war as we know and knew it, you need, one, an adversary with an explicitly announced ideology that challenges our way—the “Western” way, let us say—root and branch. Russia has nationalism, pride, lots of things, but no such ideology nor the basis of one. Two, you need more military and economic clout than Russia possesses today, or is likely to acquire. Three, you need a taste in Russia for the prosecution of an honest-to-God bipolar rivalry, with all the expense and effort that would imply. Putin is not threatening us with that, nor are the Russian people, who are living not in a democracy, but under an authoritarianism that is miles better than what preceded it, with the IKEAs, Starbucks, etc., that Soviet life denied them. They’re not interested in cutting their rations to finance it.

The Moscow I first went to 43 years ago, with a healthy, vigorous Brezhnev in charge, if you can believe that, is gone, as is Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s. But there are continuities. Russia is not a “Western” country, in the cultural-historical sense that Germany and France—but also Poland and the Czech Republic—are. Dealing with it will be difficult at times, but always interesting.

With two anti-Putin candidates announcing presidential candidacies and Medvedev announcing an investigation into the reported vote fraud, should Putin be worried?

It’s still too fresh to place in a definite context. Prokhorov is immensely wealthy, and evidently disgruntled with the treatment he and his Just Cause party received in September, but it’s a long trek to being a name on the March presidential ballot. Kudrin was a solid finance minister—in fact he stood out from the rest in critical ways—but organizing a political party and making it an effective tool for change is difficult, especially for center-right liberals. Still, the results are indicating frustration among the younger, educated urban professionals and the middle class emerging especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg. These are the kind of people a party such as Kudrin proposed would look to for support.

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

2 Comments on As Protests Against Putin Mount, Where Is Russia Headed?

  • PO grad on 12.13.2011 at 9:40 am

    PO represent! Nice to be needed…

  • McNair on 12.13.2011 at 10:58 am

    Putin is very smart and has made Russia a powerful country. But he has been in office for too long. I will be voting for that billionaire

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