Former Russian Prime Minister discusses current politcal climate and upcoming elections
With Russian parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of next year and presidential elections set for early 2012 as backdrop, GMF hosted a discussion on Russia’s political scene with Mikhail Kasyanov, former Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. The conversation took place on Oct. 19 and was moderated by Peter Van Praagh, GMF’s Senior Director for Foreign Policy & Civil Society.
Kasyanov began the event by describing the political challenges facing Russia today. He explained that the controversial steps Vladimir Putin took following the Beslan massacre in 2004 played a key role in making it significantly harder for opposition parties to operate in Russia. While suggesting that many Russians had been hopeful that Medvedev’s 2008 appointment to the presidency would lead to positive political change, he said that after two years of inaction, disappointment was beginning to set in. With “no free media, no separation of power, and no free elections,” he recommended it was now time to put pressure on Moscow. He explained that pressure from the international community could be particularly effective, because Russia is not indifferent to foreign opinion – needing positive relations with the international community for its own internal “propaganda”. He thus advocated a reset policy with the United States that is more “principled and intelligent”. One that does not merely seek to avoid confrontation, but that is also critical of Russia’s “misbehavior” in areas like human rights and democracy. With regard to the latter, he pointed out that greater efforts must now be made in preparing for comprehensive external monitoring of Russia’s forthcoming elections.
After his introduction, Kasyanov was then asked whether he thought Russia should be classed as a full-participant in international democratic organizations, or if it should be relegated to observer status as a result of its internal shortcomings. Kasyanov said that full participation was essential for Russia, for without it there would be little legal basis for member states of such groups to criticize Moscow when not fully implementing its membership obligations. Pondering whether such criticism could be potentially portrayed by Russian media as outside interference, Kasyanov was asked what effective ways existed to talk to ordinary citizens about their government’s domestic obligations. Kasyanov portrayed the internet as being the major tool, but also explained that state-to-state criticism could also have a positive effect on Moscow–due to its aforementioned desire to have good relations with the international community. Kasyanov was asked how Putin manages to constantly remain popular in Russian public opinion. He said that this was due mainly to the government’s manipulation of the media, with Putin already “polishing” his image in advance of forthcoming elections. He added that popularity polls regarding Putin that are conducted in Russia are often flawed, manipulated, or distorted. However, he explained that the diminishing hope of President Medvedev’s capacity to implement positive change was now leading to increased pessimism over the current government. Also relevant to this issue, Kasyanov noted that Putin’s lack of success in quelling domestic terror or handling natural disasters could also problematic for his future popularity ratings. The conversation then moved on to economic issues, with Kasyanov noting that Moscow’s current economic success (3-4% growth) was a result of the relatively high price of oil today, and that it consequently does not reflect the true status of Russia’s economy. He explained that the reality was that aside from the gas and oil sectors, there was no growth in any other area of Russian industry. He said that inflation was reducing public demand for goods significantly, and that large numbers of middle-class citizens were now emigrating due to pessimism about their children’s future livelihood in Russia. As a result, he said that Russians were increasingly aware that they are personally paying for Putin’s policies and that the economy was not performing as well as statistics suggest. Other questions in the conversation focused on domestic issues, energy, NATO’s proposed missile defense shield, relations with Germany, and Kasyanov’s personal political evolution