Foreign Affairs

Russia: The Other Election

There is another election going on, for now delegated to page 17 of newspapers, or not even mentioned at all, displaced by the rock-star hype of US primaries. But the presidential election in Russia may affect Americans in some ways equal more than the US elections.

On the surface, the Russian campaign is moving at a blissful pace with a foregone conclusion. Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked successor scores 60 percent or more on all Russian polls. He is trailed badly by token candidates who cannot garner more than 10 percent of the vote. Medvedev, 42, a man that even now is totally unknown to most outsiders and still unknown to many Russians will be the next president of the would-be super-power, come March. And most observers believe that Putin will be calling the shots for years to come.

But Medvedev has an unenviable role and not just because he will be the puppet. Rarely has there been a case where a politician is elected in a practically uncontested landslide and to be faced with the problem that Medvedev will be from the start. He will be expected to perform, in fact to pull the rabbit out of the hat, many times over.

Putin had it easy. He rose to unparalleled adulation riding two wings that could only fly in Russia. First, a cultural yearning for a Tsar-like figure which he filled as a glove with impeccable KGB credentials, a steely glance, a nationalist, at times belligerent, rhetoric and, to boot, martial arts proficiency.

The second — a natural endowment in that vast land mass — were huge oil and gas deposits. An energy- hungry world and the coincidence of being in charge while world oil and gas supply came perilously close to demand for the first time in decades propelled Putin. And Putin, by hook or (mostly) by crook essentially took over the oil and gas industry. Almost all of Russia’s economic activity and progress and the improvement in living standards have been oil and gas trickle down.

This windfall will be Medvedev’s headache and undoing.

A recession or slowdown in the United States and Europe, causing even mild reduction in Russia’s oil-dominated income will hit the country like a ton of bricks. If we catch a cold they will come down with pneumonia.

Lacking Putin’s persona, Medvedev has only one option during the campaign. He crisscrosses the country to demonstrate his “fatherly care” for his “babies” — his constantly touted by the controlled press national projects: education, health care, affordable accommodation and agriculture. The anchor news from Murmansk, Kaliningrad and Rostov-on-Don, praised Medvedev for the success of his social care programs:

Construction of kindergartens, increasing salaries for elementary and secondary school teachers, improving living conditions of young families through low-interest loans and federal subsidies of infrastructure construction in rural areas. For an ordinary Russian citizen nothing works better than promises of social benefits, how mother Russia and its government will take care of them.

Such promises are familiar the world over, including the US campaign. But in Russia under Putin, oil at $100 and massive gas exports already gave Russians the feeling of change for the better. But that was just a taste in a country where health care is abysmal, male mortality averages had dropped to about age 55 and where corruption ranked Russia between Nigeria and Indonesia. Progress is a feeble feeling.

An old Turk once told me that it’s for sure better to eat a piece of dry bread than starve. But what then complicates is the unavoidable desire for cake.

Reduction in oil and gas revenues will put a hold to all of Russia’s social progress all financed by those commodities. One knee jerk reaction would be to reduce output in an effort to shore up oil prices. The US and the rest of the world showed over the last few years that they can bear higher oil places but cannot live with supply interruptions. There lies the potential disaster.

Economic problems are never good for any country, especially one that is surrounded by hostile ex-satellite states and one that still owns tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and feels that its due place in the world has been diminished. Oil and gas were used as a proxy in what I have often called energy imperialism. In its absence, it is everybody’s guess where Russia will go with a weak president whose strings are pulled by the same man that created the entire situation in the first place.


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