The Russian Duma elections are scheduled for December 4. Carnegie hosted media conference call with Dmitri Trenin in Moscow and Matthew Rojansky in Washington to discuss the election and its implications on Russia and its foreign policy.
TOM CARVER: Good morning. My name is Tom Carver. I’m the vice president for communications and strategy at Carnegie Endowment. And this is an on-the-record media conference call on the upcoming Russian parliamentary elections on Sunday.
With me, I’m pleased to say, we have Matthew Rojansky, who is deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Carnegie and has worked on Russia and national security issues for a long time, and is also involved in the Dartmouth Dialogues. And on the phone from Moscow is Dmitri Trenin, the head of our Moscow Center, who was for many years in the Soviet army, and then has been at the Moscow Center since its inception.
So the way this will work is we’ll do – it’s all on the record. I’ll ask a couple of questions to Matt and Dmitri about the elections. If, at any stage, anyone wants to jump in and ask questions, please feel free to do so. The purpose is for your benefit, for the media, and as I say, it is on the record. And a full transcript of this will be available fairly shortly afterwards.
So maybe I could just turn to you both. You know, Dmitri, from your perspective, where you’re sitting in Moscow, and Matt here in Washington, how do you see these elections unfolding on Sunday? Do you think there will be any surprises that we haven’t, perhaps, anticipated? Matt?
MATTHEW ROJANSKY: Well, I’ll start. You know, I think this election is very much about continuity. It is, however, a test. It is an inflection point for Putin, and, I think, in a broader sense, as a shorthand for the Putinist system, if you will, which has now existed for more than a decade. It’s a system that depends on elections as a show of legitimacy.
That’s not to say that it’s a fully democratic system, but that system can’t be sustained without, at least, the process – going through the motions of the election. And so how the process runs, whether it happens smoothly, whether Putin’s ruling United Russia party comes out of the elections appearing to be strong, appearing to cohesive and well-organized – these will be the tests for the Putinist system.
It’s not a traditional political, democratic test, as we’d have in the West, but it is nonetheless, I think, a test.
MR. CARVER: Dmitri?
DMITRI TRENIN: Well, Tom, let me make four very quick points. First, the nature of the Russian political regime and the importance of elections – I would agree with Matt that elections are indispensable for legitimizing the rule of those in power. But the regime itself is best described as mild authoritarianism rather than a form of democracy.
My next point would be that the Russian constitution makes Russia a presidential, or as some say, super-presidential republic, but the Duma election is important. And this is the election that will take place on Sunday. This election is important as a prelude to the presidentials, which will be in March, and as a gauge of public opinion. Russia is led by people who are really conscious of the public mood because the whole nature of their regime calls for manipulation. And you need to have a very good idea if – (what ?) the subjects are thinking, and what are the – (inaudible).
My third quick point would be that that doesn’t relate to the general forecast. The ruling party, United Russia – it’s not very much of a party. It’s more of a collection of government bureaucrats. It stands, probably, to lose its current two-thirds majority in the Duma. It may get a simple majority. The public opinion polls show the United Russia getting slightly above 50 percent of the popular vote.
The Communist Party is 15-plus percent, followed by the nationalists who are incongruously called Liberal Democrats – that’s 10-plus percent. And the self-described social democrats, another Kremlin creation, which is called the Just Russia party, may get about the 7 percent threshold. Other parties will continue to languish outside of the Russian parliament, as they have since 2003.
And my very last point, of the day after: I see a lot of resentment and grudging in the air. A lot of people are unhappy with the authorities, and they’re out to vent their anger against Mr. Putin’s party. The authorities are taking no chances. There are 50,000-plus policemen from around Russia who will be on hand on Sunday, election day, in Moscow.
There are many thousands of the younger followers of United Russia to make sure that there is no attempt to have a challenge to the official result of the election. So there is a fear of a mass rejection of the results of the poll. But again, I would conclude by saying that although you have that resentment in the air, very few people are actually likely to go to the streets to take any form of action to challenge the election results when they are publicized.
MR. CARVER: And what is, (though ?), the biggest source of resentment? I mean, is it a sense that Putin has been in power too long, or is it the corruption? Is it the economy? I mean, what is driving people’s frustration, Matt, would you say?
MR. ROJANSKY: Well, you know, I would first point out that I do not think frustration is at a boiling point in December of 2011. And I agree with Dmitri that this is very much important as a prelude to March of 2012, the Putin return to the presidency. I don’t even expect that it’ll be at such a point at that point. I think we’re looking at a, sort of, mid-term timeline for things to become relatively more unstable in Russia.
That said, I think the frustration you have is certainly in the liberal camp, but that’s a relatively small and marginal camp. People would agree with what you said, Tom: It’s been too long. Putin’s got to go. He shouldn’t have come back in the first place.
But I think the broad swathe of folks in the middle, their frustration is about the perception that they may see economic stagnation – that the modernization, eliminating the corruption, making business more rationable (sic) and more accessible – the things that they wanted to make the entrepreneurial environment just better – those things haven’t happened.
And they now don’t really see a light at the end of the tunnel. Medvedev, for a moment, was that sort of glimmer of hope. You know, Putin has adopted some of Medvedev’s rhetoric, but I think everybody is starting to feel that the reality is going to be continuity with a kind of negative twinge – continuity with a twinge of stagnation.
And I think that’s the frustration. But that’s not something that pushes people out into the streets as long as they can buy enough food, as long as they continue to get paid, they can put gas in their cars. And all of those things remain true in Russia for the short term. So it’s a mid-term to long-term scenario, and that’s very much post-2012.
MR. CARVER: Dmitri?
MR. TRENIN: Well, I think I would agree with that. The thing is that for the wide majority of people, it’s their daily lives that are most important, clearly – not what they consider right for the nation. It’s not even so much the resentment against Putin as staying too long in power.
The way Russia is – the Russian political system is constructed – with monopolized power at all levels – if you have a problem, then you know that it’s the people in power who are responsible for your problem. At least that’s what you think. And then you vent your frustration against the ruling party, against the sitting president, against your governor, and those people have to – have to do something about that.
And they’re trying to buy popular support by all sorts of promises, which are being made in a pretty lavish manner by both President Medvedev, who is the official head of the party list – of the United Russia party list – and by the former and future president Putin.
MR. CARVER: OK. Let’s just pause to see if anyone wants to jump in at this stage. Has anyone got any questions they want to ask now?
Dmitri, yesterday you had an op-ed in The New York Times about the – kind of what you call the asymmetrical relationship between the U.S. and Russia, and the way in which Russia continues to look at the U.S. through the, kind of, prism of the Cold War. Is there – is that, do you think – you know, now that we know that Putin is basically going to come back – is that sort of asymmetry, that kind of archaic way of looking at the relationship, going to increase?
MR. TRENIN: It’s an interesting question. So first of all, in an election season, you’re bound to have a bit more nationalism against – a bit more critique of U.S. foreign policy than you have between elections. And Medvedev’s remarks on ballistic missile defenses clearly have a domestic angle to them. However, I need to emphasize that there was no such thing as Medvedev’s foreign policy over the last three-plus years.
This opening, this outreach to the West, this talk of modernization and modernization alliances with the West, all this has been – the reset with the United States – all this has been approved by Vladimir Putin. So Putin is, above all, a pragmatist. He is a very conservative person. I think he bears a huge grudge, still, against the United States, and I don’t think it will disappear. But it’s not that Putin’s return to the formal position of power in the Kremlin will necessarily signify a toughening of Russia’s foreign policy and Russia’s attitudes toward the United States and the West.
MR. CARVER: And Matt, from Washington end, I mean – is the kind of re-anointing of Putin a setback, a major embarrassment for Obama? Because they did kind of put their eggs in the Medvedev basket.
MR. ROJANSKY: I think it’s a challenge for continuity on the reset. You lose the – at least, the functional-level personal relationship that you had between Obama and Medvedev. Remember, these are two guys who have literally had more than a dozen hours of direct phone calls, one head of state to another.
You know, you can’t do that – you can’t call the prime minister, then, when you’re the head of state and Medvedev has been demoted to prime minister. You won’t be having these meetings at summits the same way you did, so the personal relationship is lost. And that was an important dimension.
The other thing is, I think, politically, it just becomes much, much harder on both sides to sustain the momentum of constant contact. You know, on the Russian side, you had officials at the mid-level, at the high level, who were taking part in these bilateral commission meetings on everything from health to energy to nuclear weapons.
If you’re anticipating the return of Vladimir Putin, somebody whose reputation, at least, is for not being particularly excited about engagement with Washington, you’re going to be much more cautious about, you know, how many trips you take to Washington, how much outreach you do. And we’re already beginning to see that.
The other thing is, there have been some concrete steps lately that have been very troubling. You know, the United States has suspended cooperation on conventional forces in Europe, which basically means we’ve eliminated transparency about, you know, where NATO has got our conventional forces, and revealing that to the Russians. This is a response to the Russians doing it four years ago, but why now? You know, this timing is problematic.
At the very same time, the Russians have said they’re going to position missiles to potentially threaten American missile defense in Europe, because they’re dissatisfied with our approach to cooperative missile defense. So we have a lot of very – we have storm clouds gathering. I think that’s really the problem. And the return of Putin, I think, you know, it starts to paint a face in the storm clouds, if you will. And that really lends itself, especially going into political campaign season in the United States, I think, to some very destructive rhetoric.
MR. CARVER: And do both of you feel that the Russian people, generally, are in a different position to Putin in regard to the United States? Are they kind of – do they feel warmer to the U.S. than Putin does?
MR. ROJANSKY: You have to remember that, you know, “the Russian people” is not a single actor by any stretch. You have Russians today who literally spend more time in Europe and the United States than they do in Russia, and that’s really different than in Soviet times. So Putin doesn’t have nearly the level of control over information that past authoritarian leaders of Russia have had.
What that means is he can try to sell a message. He can, sort of, lay everything at America’s doorstep, or at NATO’s doorstep, and say, the problems you have are because of this outside force. There’s always going to be a set of the Russian population that disbelieves that, because they’re inherently skeptical and because they’ve seen otherwise. And I think that set is growing within Russia.
The problem is, the safety valve remains, which is that they can simply leave the society. And many of them do, you know, totaling millions of them. So I think for the bulk of the Russian population, which still has very limited prospects, economically, in terms of travel, education, et cetera, the message that they hear from Putin – which is one that’s very skeptical about the West and about diplomacy, and about the United States in particular – I think is still a compelling message.
MR. CARVER: Right. Dmitri?
MR. TRENIN: Well, I think I would distinguish between two things: U.S. foreign policy, on the one hand, and everything else about the United States, on the other hand. And I think that the attitude towards the United States as a nation, as a culture, as a civilization, is vastly more positive than the attitude towards U.S. foreign policy.
Typically, Russian public opinion, which, like public opinion in all countries, is primarily focused on – (inaudible) – typically, public opinion turns against U.S. foreign policy when there’s an international crisis in which the United States is using force. And that happened over Kosovo; that happened over Iraq. And most recently, this happened over Libya.
And I think that, again, there are very few people in Russia, even among the people who form the bulk of the Russian establishment, who really supported or thought positively of Moammar Gadhafi or his regime. Those people were not very supportive – let’s put it that way – of the methods used, you know, to help one side in the civil war in Libya to prevail over the other side. And that, I think, was something that Putin and others helped support, helped lead – make that kind of attitude.
But again, even – I would still stress this point. It’s U.S. foreign policy versus the rest. Even the people who come over and spend time in the U.S. or in Europe who enjoy the good things of Western lifestyle, even those people can be very critical of America’s foreign policy.
I think that they are far less critical today than they were four years ago when the name of the United States president was George W. Bush. Obama has a better reputation among Russians across the board. But yet, it’s the fact that the United States has so much power, the fact that the United States exercises that power globally that sets quite a few people in Russia on a critical tone regarding U.S. foreign policy.
But again, let me – let me say final – (inaudible) – that the general public attitude toward the United States, toward America, toward American films, American cars, all other tokens of American civilization is overwhelmingly positive in Russia.
MR. CARVER: OK. I know there’s a number of people on the call. Do you want to – I want to give people a chance to ask Matt and Dmitri questions directly. Does anyone have a question for them?
MR. CARVER: Hello?
Q: (Inaudible) – totally true on the – (inaudible).
MR. ROJANSKY: I can’t – I can’t understand anything.
MR. CARVER: Could you just repeat that? (Pause.) OK. I think that was a question, but we couldn’t understand it – at this end, anyway. Maybe, Matt and Dmitri, just talk a little about the opposition. I mean, is there anyone in the opposition worth kind of, you know, flagging up to people, do you think? I mean, is there any – are there any new plans emerging? Are there any trends happening in the opposition, Matt?
MR. ROJANSKY: Well, you know, there had been a moment where Putin had essentially tried to position Mikhail Prokhorov, who’s one of the major oligarchs. He’s famously bought a number of interests internationally – including a basketball team, the New Jersey Nets, here in the United States – as kind of a in-house opposition figure, as the head of the right-cause party. You know, this is a sort of social democrat kind of party as well.
The reality is that, you know, Putin remains head and shoulders the most popular political figure in the country. Most of the opposition, such as it is – and it’s all sort of officially if not endorsed, at least officially engaged. They have a dialogue. They know what their place is, and they do play a role. But the play the role of supporting cast. And there’s really no opportunity for them to move meaningfully into a powerbroker kind of position, because that’s dominated by Putin and those who are close to him.
The reality in the Russian system also is that, you know, power is not distributed through the Duma. Power is distributed through the executive branch and to – frankly, to a larger degree, through various private-sector or quasi-private-sector enterprises, even than through politics.
MR. CARVER: Dmitri?
MR. TRENIN: Well, I would say this. The opposition in terms of the Duma is certainly part of the opposition and certainly represented by the Communist Party. There is a fairly large number of Russians who believe that the Communist Party is the only organized force that can stand up for the ordinary man against the oligarchs, against the bureaucrats associated with the powers that be.
There is, of course, opposition outside of parliament. And this is the opposition that is mostly of a liberal or democratic direction. And the – perhaps the oldest political force in Russia, the Yabloko, which calls itself Russia’s democratic party, is part of that opposition. Yabloko’s historical leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, has been given a lot of airtime on Russian state-controlled television.
I think the idea is to have at least him in parliament. There’s a law that says that even if a different party fails to get 7 percent of the popular vote in order to have representation in the Duma, to have a share of the Duma seats, if the party polls above 5 percent but less than 7 percent, it can have one or two representatives. So I think that Yavlinsky is shooting for that.
There’s also a far more radical liberal and democratic opposition in Russia that has failed to register, a party of – (inaudible) – and they’re very critical of Mr. Putin personally, and the – of the government. But they have, according to the public opinion polls, a very small support among the population. They also have a little chance to reach out to the – to the wider public.
But I think more importantly is that – more important is the fact that in Russia, opposition still means something akin to enemy within. It’s not that you have a government and the opposition and those two trade places every so many years. You have a government that wants to stay in power, and both Medvedev and Putin have been saying recently that they stay in power essentially indefinitely. They talk about other nations where the ruling party did not quit for decades. And they use that as good examples – examples to follow, whether that’s in post-war Europe, whether that’s in Japan, whether that’s in Mexico. And that’s a possible reality.
So the opposition is seen as something, as I said, of an enemy within, highly suspicious. Mr. Putin has been talking of the opposition as people who have the support of – have the support of outside interests, of outside powers – first of all, of course, the United States. And this has been a recurring theme in Russia’s election campaigns, whether it’s this year or whether it was four years ago. And that’s really unfortunate. So the idea of an opposition as the – as part of the establishment is still foreign to the Russian – (inaudible).
MR. ROJANSKY: Could I – if I could just add – I think Dmitri is exactly right, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a way for people to vote, in effect, for opposition. And that the way that people express that is twofold. There isn’t always an against-all option in post-Soviet countries. So I would – I would just note how many people vote for that option will be quite significant. Typically it’s at 10 or so percent. But then, the bigger one is whether people actually come out and vote. You know, those numbers can be falsified, but that’s tough to do. And there will be an OSCE-international, relatively credible election-observer mission.
Last time, in 2007, it was over 60 percent turnout. You know, these elections will not be considered particularly legitimate, and they may not in fact be deemed as having been free and fair by the OSCE if the turnout tumbles much lower than that. And that would be, I think, the primary way that Russians who – as Dmitri said – I think are right, are convinced that, you know, opposition parties are either not meaningful or perhaps they are not who they say they are. Plenty of them have histories of corruption of their own, et cetera. So they don’t want to vote for any of these options. They just stay home.
MR. TRENIN: OK.
MR. CARVER: OK. We’re coming up on the – on the half-hour. I just want to see one more time if there’s anyone that wants to ask questions, because it’s the purpose of this, is for the media who’ve called in. Does anyone want to ask Matt or Dmitri?
Q: Hi, I have a question.
MR. CARVER: OK. Please go ahead.
Q: My question is, do you expect falsifications or violations or any initiation of unfair competitions during the parliamentary election?
MR. ROJANSKY: Well, I’ll just thank you, Lyudmila, for the question. You know, I think it’s difficult to predict in specific cases. What I would say is that, you know, when you do an election observer mission, and I’ve taken part in a number of these, you know, election observation isn’t just on election day or even the week before the election. It’s something that needs to take place on a long-term basis. Even the long-term observers who are going to Russia now have only been there since the end of October. So altogether that’ll be just over a month of observation until election day.
The reality is, you have to observe the political process as it’s unfolded for years in Russia. You know, political parties have been either registered or denied the right to register over the past year. You know, that, I think, is a way of shaping what the outcome is going to be. So I think, you know, there will be abuses; there have been abuses already in that area just in terms of shaping the environment. The famous phrase – the administrative resource – that the – that Putin and the Kremlin control, you know, that’s the thing that enables them to control the electoral outcome.
Specifically, on election day, I think there will be abuses, of course. But I suspect by and large more of these will take place in a kind of entrepreneurial way by people at lower levels throughout the system kind of taking it upon themselves, getting the message that they would like to produce a good result to send to the center, than it being some kind of heavily orchestrated campaign from the top – mostly because, you know, it’s pretty difficult to control information like that in Russia today. That will come out. I think we’ll find out if that happens.
MR. CARVER: Dmitri, do you want to add anything?
MR. TRENIN: Not much, but I would say that historically there have been tacit allegations of the election campaign of not being fair, the election – the elections themselves not having – being totally free. So I would expect these allegations, and particularly on the election night and the day after.
But I would also say that – you see, the government faces a pretty difficult situation in which they certainly want the best result they can get. On the other hand, (then ?), they use what’s been known here as administrative resource, so you flip that. But on the other hand, they clearly know that doctoring the results too much could lead to resentment. So it’s a pretty delicate situation. I think that we will hear a lot about irregularities and violations as the polling stations close.
MR. CARVER: OK. Thank you. Any other questions? Did that answer your question?
Q: Yes, thanks.
MR. CARVER: OK. Well, we’re on the half hour. And these normally run for half hour. So I think we’ll wrap it up if there’s no other questions. As I said, there’s – a transcript will be available in, what, three or four hours? Well, certainly by the end of today, we hope – up on the website. And obviously it is all on the record. So feel free to quote from Matt and Dmitri.
Thank you very much to everyone for calling in. Thank you, Dmitri, as well, for calling in, and to Matt here.
MR. TRENIN: (Inaudible) – thank you, Tom. Thank you, Matt.
MR. RONJANSKY: Thanks, all.
MR. CARVER: That’s the end. Thanks. Goodbye.
MR. TRENIN: Cheers.