TASS's Sitov, John Bolton Preview Russian Race

“I think it’s a pretty good guess to say Medvedev will win,”  is how Andrei Sitov, White House correspondent for the Russian news agency TASS, recently analyzed the upcoming (March 2) election for President in his country.

Sitov, tongue firmly implanted in cheek, was making what was probably the biggest understatement of the week.  With all the other heavyweight contenders — such as as former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and onetime world chess champion Garry Kasparov — driven from the presidential sweepstakes through bizarre election rules or blunt intimidation, the victory of Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev on Sunday is a slam-dunk.  The President-to-be has long made it clear he will name benefactor Putin as prime minister. 

So the big question now asked increasingly — and dealt with by President Bush at his news conference this week — is just how Putin will still be calling the shots in the Kremlin as he sits at the other end of the table as prime minister.  And, at a time when relations between Moscow and Washington have become chilly over issues ranging from Kosovo to North Korea, a key question is what kind of relationship George Bush’s successor will have with Vladimir Putin’s successor. 

And, on this side of the Atlantic, the question is how comfortable can the U.S. be with a Russia that had appeared to be on the road to freedom and is now returning to autocracy.  As my fellow White House correspondent Peter Baker, himself the Washington Post co-bureau chief in Moscow from 2001-04, wrote of the Putin era in ’06: “. . .[T]he Kremlin has nearly completed a seven-year project to reconsolidate power  and eliminate any serious opposition.  It started by taking over television, then parliament, then business.  It manipulated elections and then, when that became inconvenient, eliminated voting altogether for the nation’s 89 governors and now is considering the same for big-city mayors.  It has intimidated human rights groups and assumed control of newspapers, one by one.”

Adding an element of intrigue right out of Frederick Forsythe’s international thrillers are the killing of KGB agent-turned-author Alexander Litvinenko by exotic radioactive poisoning in London, the murder of newspaper journalist Anna Politikovskaya, and the murder by car bombing of Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev while in exile in Quatar.  The common denominator is that all three victims were outspoken critics of Putin.  Whether he orchestrated their deaths, in Peter Baker’s words, “remains murky, of course, but they are a standard of the Russia he has built.”

So where does Russia go from here?  Surprisingly, some of the observers I talked to were hopeful and positive.  TASS’s Sitov, for example, pointed out that for all the undemocratic reviews leveled at the election Sunday, “this is the first time [since the modern Russia was born out of the rubble of the old Soviet Union] that an election has gone off according to the Constitution, fully in accordance with the election laws and with no last-minute changes.”  Sitov is also one of the few who is not yet convinced that Medvedev will be a ceremonial fixture and Putin will call the shots from the other end of the table.  “The presidency of Russia is one of the strongest executive offices anywhere and no one has talked of changing the law to alter the presidency,” Sitov observed, adding that the President has the power to at any time dismiss his prime minister (as Putin and the late Boris Yeltsin before him did frequently with their prime ministers).

Watch Ivanov, Says Bolton

Sitov’s views were seconded by former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.  In his words, “The Presidency is unquestionably dominant in the Russian government and the prime minister serves at the pleasure of the President,” Bolton told me.  But, he added, the office of prime minister could become “a very different kind of job” with Putin.  As to whether it will change, “I don’t think we can do more than speculate.”

But Bolton also said that one way to tell whether Medvedev will be a strong and independent leader or whether he is “Putin’s poodle” is to watch how many of the current Putin-named Cabinet officials are retained under the next President.  One particular figure who bears close scrutiny, Bolton advises, is Sergei Ivanov, former defnse minister and now deputy prime minister.  Dubbed “Russia’s Rove” by one wag, Ivanov has been a close friend of outgoing President since he and Putin were young KGB spies together.  Retention of Ivanov in a high position — say, foreign minister — would be a sure sign Putin is still calling the shots, concludes Bolton.

As for Medvedev, Bolton voiced some positive sounds.  “He’s an European-style economic liberal [which means he is open to free market ideas],” Bolton told me, and added that Putin’s heir has “established the independence of the judiciary.  Overall, his reputation is pretty good and I don’t take the view that Russia is lost.”

Putin’s defense of North Korea, and Iran and “trying to keep us from [deploying] ABM” (Anti-Ballistic Missile defenses) are cases of disagreement with Washington cited by Bolton.  (The disagreement over Kosovo independence, cited by Bush at his news conference, was dismissed by Bolton, who said “We have bigger fish to fry.”)  “One of the major challenge for the next President is to see that Russia is more aligned with the West and less aligned with China,” the former diplomat told me, “We’ve got to move ‘em the right way.”

Parting Shot

There are several historical cases of a strong leader assuming a position under the presidency and still giving orders to a surrogate.  Rafael Trujillo, strongman in the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961, did not hold the presidency in all that time.  On occasion, he had a “front man” hold the presidency while Trujillo himself held a lesser office or no office at all; one front man was Trujillo’s younger brother Hector (also known as “Blackie”) and another was Dr. Joaquin Ballaguer, frequently referred to at the time as the “puppet President.”

After Trujillo’s death, however, the “puppet President” began to behave like the real deal — easing the Trujillo family out of the country, forgiving the surviving assassins who had struck down the late strongmen, and gradually guiding the Dominican Republican into the democracy it is today.  Ballaguer himself would be elected and re-elected into his late 80’s and when he was died, his countrymen gave him the biggest state funeral in the island nation’s history.

Much as Medvedev is derided by some as “Putin’s poodle,” Vice President Anwar Sadat was dismissed as “Nasser’s poodle” when he succeeded the charismatic Egyptian leader as president in 1970.  But Nasser stunned the world — expelling Soviet agents from Cairo, moving his country out of the Soviet sphere and closer to the U.S., and finally striking the historic Camp David accord in 1978.  At the time of his death by assassination in 1981, Sadat had completely changed West’s perception of Egypt and today, that country is our most trusted ally in the Middle East after Israel. 

Judging Medvedev and how he will come out from under Putin’s shadow — if at all — is something we can only speculate on now.  Different times, different circumstances, and different political roles can turn poodles into greyhounds and German shepherds.