Putin-A Happy Face

, Emmanuel Opati, Leave a comment

With the recent Russian economic boom, many Russians now see Putin as their Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd U.S. President that served four terms.

President Vladimir Putin led his party, United Russia, to a 64% majority victory in the recent Duma elections.

It is believed Putin went all out to ensure victory and tailored the election to be a vote of confidence on his leadership. This meant a crackdown on the opposition by arresting and denying them media coverage. “Opposition parties were not able to get their message out, especially in the main outlet—the national television networks which work closely with the Kremlin,” said Masha Lipman of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Angela Stent, Professor of Government at Georgetown University said “It was a referendum on President Putin and that referendum worked out for him.” Putin is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election in the March 2nd Presidential elections, but analysts see Putin’s active role in these elections as a strategy to position himself as a power figure with a lot of influence even after he leaves office.

There was criticism that Russian authorities used red-tape to make it difficult for election observers from The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Office for democratic institutions and human rights to get visas and go to Russia for the elections.

However, election observers who were allowed in criticized the election as not being free and fair. “Some observers from the OSCE’s parliamentary assembly observed the elections as did people from the parliamentary assembly of the council of Europe and they have now said the elections were neither free nor fair and that there was meddling of state and the political party in the electoral process,” said Stent.<-p>

Most Russians believe that it is President Putin who has brought them this economic stability, after the chaos of the Soviet Union. It is said that more people are today much better off economically than when President Putin came to power in 2000, and much of this has to do with the astronomical rise in energy prices.

“Under Boris Yeltsin oil prices were about $10-15 a barrel but they have risen to almost $100 a barrel,” said Stent. “Even the most liberal opposition in Russia admits that when you go round the country the vast majority of people can feel this material well-being and that obviously influences the way they vote. Poverty has been reduced under Putin quite impressively, there has been macro-economic stabilization, and more people can now travel which they couldn’t do during the Soviet times,” Stent added.

This economic boom has given President Putin confidence to lash out at the West especially the United States. Before the election, Putin warned U.S. not to meddle in Russian politics. During the election Putin accused the opposition of seeking support from foreign embassies and has repeatedly indicated that the United States wants to divide Russia.

Observers expressed concern of this propaganda which has been largely used to indoctrinate young people against the West. “There was a large demonstration of young people in Moscow that they were frightened that the U.S. was going to try to wrest victory from them and so they were demonstrating and saying that the Russian people have to fight U.S. attempts to overturn the results of the elections,” said Stent.

The state has also taken advantage of its control of the mass media to relentlessly show images of Putin as a charismatic ruler, portraying him as the only symbol of stability and order. “Putin means stability”, one young Russian said on CNN’s program, Czar Putin.

To consolidate his power, President Putin first changed the tradition of people electing Governors that was started by Boris Yeltsin. “Before Putin came to office, Governors were elected by people but in 2003 under Putin, the Kremlin passed a regulation that Governors had to be appointed and not elected by the people. This created a new super-group bureaucratic layer of super-Governors over their regions,” said Steven Groves of the Heritage Foundation. “This has no basis in the Russian constitution,” he added.

The symbiosis of political and economic power in Russia has further consolidated “Putinism.” Under Putin many energy companies have been nationalized as well as major media outlets. “The office of the president combines the management of the state with the custody and operation of the most important State assets many of which have been reclaimed by the government under Putin,” said Stent.

“The chairmen of the boards of all the most important energy companies or other strategic asset companies either sit in the Kremlin or occupy very high government positions. So you have this symbiosis between political and economic elites. This means that the succession we are about to see is as much a transfer of wealth as it is a transfer of power, she added.

Putin has finally chosen his successor, ending months of speculation that he will try and seek a fourth term. Announcing his first Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his successor, Putin said Medvedev would keep Russia on the same course that he set eight years ago.

It is no surprise that Putin chose a 42-year-old Board Chairman of the state-run natural gas company, Gazprom, given the close ties between business and politics in Russia. With Putin’s popularity to rely on, Medvedev is expected to easily win the March 2nd elections.

Putin took over from Boris Yeltsin in 2000 when Yeltsin became ill. Before then Putin had served as Prime Minster under former President Boris Yeltsin. He is a former KGB member who worked during the Soviet Union serving as an officer in East Germany during the 1980s, and later became head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) which succeeded the KGB.

Emmanuel Opati is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.