Ahead of presidential elections on March 4, Russia is facing both protests at home and international pressure in response to its position on the Syrian conflict. In a new Q&A, Dmitri Trenin says Russia has entered a new period in its political history and protests are likely to continue long after the election results are in. He says that while specific foreign policy issues are not a big part of the pre-election debate, concerns over the country’s global influence reflect Russians’ belief that there is a better way to do things domestically and internationally.

 

What is the mood in Russia ahead of presidential elections in March?

Depending where you look, there’s a lot of agitation—much more than previous elections. There’s some anxiety on behalf of the people who want Putin to be elected in the first round. They’re not sure whether this will actually be possible. There’s also a depressed mood among those who do not have their candidate as a contestant in March. But the good thing about what’s happening in Russia is that there is a lot of calm. People are getting used to more contestation during elections.
 

What impact are protests having on the campaign?

It’s the expression of the fundamental fact in Russia today that a lot of people who were previously not interested in politics are now paying attention, and they have their own preferences and are expressing those preferences. And there’s far less tolerance among ordinary Russian people for vote rigging and rigged campaigns.

What’s also interesting to note is that these protest rallies have been going on peacefully. This is very interesting. You have people demonstrating against Putin while other people—some would say with administrative support from the authorities—are demonstrating in favor of Putin. But so far there has been almost no collision between the two. There have been no clashes or police brutality that people had become accustomed to before.
 

Are protests likely to continue after the election?

I’m sure they will. The issue is how strong the protests will be because many people just want Putin out of power. They will not accept any verdict from the electoral commission, even though Putin might actually be able to garner at least 50 percent of the vote. Even then, a lot of people will be unhappy, and they might demonstrate against that. They will claim, with a lot of evidence behind them, that the election campaign was unfair and that not everyone was free to do what they have the right to do under the constitution, and things like that.
 

What steps is Putin taking to ensure victory?

Putin means to win in the first round, and he’s sure that he will win in the first round. He has been able to mobilize his supporters, something that he was not very good at doing before. Previously, he relied on the silent majority, and the administrative support that his principal political machine—the United Russia Party—was providing. But now, having seen the failure of the United Russia Party to get enough votes, from Putin’s perspective, in the December Duma vote, he basically eliminated the party from his campaign. Now there is a leader of the party waging a campaign to become president of Russia, but you don’t hear about the party; you don’t even hear about the popular front that Putin also organized last year. It’s just Putin, the personality of Mr. Vladimir Putin.

He’s been more successful than a lot of people thought he would be. He does reach out to the lower-paid categories of people. He does reach out to members of the military, police, and other law enforcement agencies. He does reach out to the people who live in smaller towns, people with a secondary education. It’s his electorate in many ways. There are actually many people in Russia who depend on the state and who see Putin as their protector.
 

What changes are likely if Putin wins the election?

It’s fair to say that we’ve just entered a new period in Russia’s political history. December 5, the day of the first protest against the rigging of the Duma vote, was day one of this new period. The protests will continue, and beyond the protests, there will be political forces organized that will come up with all sorts of agendas. People will organize themselves and press the government, the Duma, the media, and law enforcement agencies to do something about corruption.

This is a stifling phenomenon. Russia has never been as corrupt—especially at the top of the system—as it is now. This is a consensus statement in Russia. And although Putin talks about fighting corruption, talking does fairly little to actually deal with it from the perspective of ordinary Russians. Since December, people have started looking around, they have stopped focusing exclusively on their own personal well-being and started thinking more broadly. They are looking at the country as a whole and asking questions about how the country is run, whether can it be run better, and who would be a better candidate to run it.

 

Is the presidential election influencing Russia’s foreign policy?

Normally elections are fought on domestic issues and Russia is no exception. Foreign policy could be an add-on, but not in a big way. There is something to the Russia position—on say Syria or Iran—that is related to the presidential campaign, but it’s not the most important link.

That said, there is a general view, shared by a lot of people around Putin, that the Arab Awakening has been produced to a significant degree by various NGOs linked to various American interests. And there is a claim that Putin supports that a lot of Russian opposition groups (those parties not represented in the Duma) are paid by the U.S. State Department and things like that. So you see a link here, but it’s always been there.
 

How is Russia responding to the current situation in Syria? Is its position likely to shift?

Russia is essentially trying to launch a dialogue between the government and opposition in Syria. It’s the right thing to do but it comes too late. It’s inconceivable at this point that it is possible to have a productive dialogue between those two forces. From the standpoint of the opposition, the Assad family must go. That was not necessarily the case a few months ago or a year ago when the discontent started.

Russia’s mediation is relatively new—meaning it’s relatively late and maybe too late. What Russia wants to prevent—and it may be more successful in this than in instilling dialogue in Syria—is a repeat of the Libya scenario. That is something the Russians want to avoid for a number of reasons, some of them having to do with the Russian view of how international relations should be structured and what sort of world order should prevail in the twenty-first century.

But there’s also a fear of American interventionism becoming a constant feature of international politics. Maybe it’s Libya yesterday, Syria today, and tomorrow it may be one of the republics of the former Soviet Union, and that is something Russia clearly wants to avoid.
 

What is Russia’s role in the current diplomatic standoff with Iran?

There’s not much of a role, frankly. Russia’s position has always been to support an agreement between Iran and the international community. In October 2009, Russia thought it had a deal to refine low-grade enriched uranium for Iran, which France would turn into fuel rods, in exchange for Iran’s agreement to have its nuclear program monitored. But mainly because of differences within the Iranian leadership, and due to the complexities of the international situation in 2009—the year of the election in Iran and the Green Movement’s attempt to establish its authority there—all this came to naught.

Since then, Russia has been pleading for dialogue. It doesn’t support more sanctions against Iran, and it says that more sanctions will empower the wrong guys and disempower the more pragmatic-thinking Iranians. And clearly Russia does not support a military solution to the Iranian nuclear issue and believes that would usher in a virtual catastrophe for the region. The region is not that far from Russia’s borders, so it does not want a spike in radicalism and extremism among the Muslims so close to home.
 

Has Russia’s perception of itself as a global actor changed?

It keeps changing all the time. Russians are not satisfied with the country’s position in the world primarily because of its fairly small economic base. It’s still a country that has 2 percent of global GDP. Russia is the seventh-largest economy in the world, which is a bit too small for most Russians—they want to move up the ladder. They are also dissatisfied with Russia being essentially a provider of raw materials and energy to the rest of the world and an importer of many things. They’re dissatisfied with Russia having deindustrialized itself in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

And of course, Russia is a country that doesn’t have allies among the major powers of the world. It doesn’t have bad relations with most countries, but sometimes relations are pretty tense, as we see, for example, with the United States. There will be periods of reset and periods of pretty heightened tensions. Russians are still looking for a better role for themselves and a better place for themselves in the world. There are lots of views on how this new, better position in the world can be attained. And this is also part of the election campaign in a way.