Europe, Headlines

RUSSIA: To the Putin-Medvedev Cocktail

Kester Kenn Klomegah

MOSCOW, Mar 3 2008 (IPS) - First deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev overwhelmingly won Russia’s presidential election with a wide margin in the first round Sunday.

Medvedev, who was nominated mid-December by President Vladimir Putin as a preferred successor, and strongly supported by the United Russia party, contested against three other candidates.

Early results showed 68.2 percent of the vote for Medvedev, 18.5 percent for Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov, 10.6 percent for flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and less than two percent for the relatively unknown Andrey Bogdanov of the Democratic Party.

The Central Election Commission (CEC) is expected to announce the final results Mar. 7.

CEC secretary Nikolay Konkin said the highest turnout at 85 percent was reported in Chukotka, in Russia’s Far East. More than 60 percent of the electorate voted in east Siberia and in the Urals regions. Massive balloting was reported in the autonomous republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kaliningrad.

Konkin said the aggregate turnout was expected to exceed 70 percent by the end of the total vote count early this week, higher than in the December parliamentary elections, when 63.8 percent voted.

With the top Kremlin seat for his man, Putin can to continue to influence the political course when he becomes head of the executive cabinet, the main policy implementing organ of the government. Putin, 55, was constitutionally barred from standing for a third term.

This has raised questions about where the true centre of power will be – in Medvedev’s presidency or in Putin’s premiership. Medvedev has openly espoused support for Putin’s domestic and foreign policies, although many of his recent speeches have given the impression he is less harsh and more liberal-minded than Putin.

In addition to dealing with emboldened armed forces and increasingly aggressive security agencies, the new president faces the task of continuing reforms to the creaky, Soviet-era systems of education, healthcare and agriculture. He will also have to deal with thorny issue of arms proliferation in central Europe, and the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) towards the borders of Russia.

Medvedev, a 42-year-old lawyer from St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, and a Kremlin loyalist, is expected to take his new seat in May.

Putin quickly congratulated his handpicked successor. “Our candidate has a firm lead,” said Putin, appearing with Medvedev at an election concert on Red Square after polling booths closed. “I congratulate Dmitry Medvedev and wish him luck,” he said, to deafening applause from the crowd. Putin said the election was held in “strict accordance with the constitution.”

“I would like to thank everyone who voted for me, and also those who voted for other candidates, and together we represent almost two-thirds of our country,” Medvedev said. “This means we are not indifferent to our future, this means we can continue the path proposed by Vladimir Putin. Together we will move further forward, together we will achieve victory!”

Analysts say Medvedev will pursue Putin’s policies. Putin and his team did a lot over the past eight years to resolve social and economic problems, and were able to restore confidence among Russia’s 143 million people.

His nominee was always going to be at an advantage. “Russians are very familiar with Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky who have previously run for presidential elections without emerging victoriously. I really don’t think many people including myself will ever choose any of them for president, knowing their policies and capabilities,” Natalya Sokolova, a senior political science lecturer at the Russian State Humanitarian University in Moscow told IPS.

“Medvedev is a young guy, energetic and on top; many key aspects of his development programme for the country seem more appealing. That’s why I voted for him and for his meaningful policy.”

But some analysts say it would be difficult for Medevdev to control all the power structures.

“The level of infighting within the Kremlin is quite significantly tense,” Tatyana Lokshina from Moscow’s human rights centre Demos, told IPS. “Putin is able to mediate between different rival groups in his capacity as President, but his successor may prove to be incapable of coping with such a difficult task of controlling the system of vertical federal power structure that is very unstable in such a vast country.”

Lokshina said though it is now clear that Putin would leave office as president, his “political era” isn’t over as he has laid the foundation for numerous key processes that will shape Russia’s future.

“As regards the west, it seems that they are finally becoming sensitive to the dangers of Russian authoritarianism, but Putin’s popularity is increasing higher than ever at this point. Today, it’s much more difficult for the west to make any real impact on Russia.”

About 300 international election observers monitored the 96,000 voting stations scattered across Russia’s 11 time zones. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the main election arm of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, a European security organisation), refused to send observers, saying the Russian restrictions were so tight it could not work in any meaningful way. Moscow, however, rejected their claims.

A Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) election monitoring mission said the election was held in full accordance with electoral law. The CIS is an alliance of a number of former Soviet republics.

Speaking at the international information centre specially opened in Moscow to cover the polls – criticised by both human rights and opposition groups at home as undemocratic – European parliament member Paul Marie Couteaux also said the vote proceeded in line with European standards.

Critics described the election as stage-managed democracy that was tightly controlled, with limited freedom for the opposition groups.

Amnesty International said the clampdown on freedoms of assembly and expression had been visible. The authorities violently dispersed some opposition demonstrations, while pro-government events went ahead without interference, the human rights group said.

“The rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association are a cornerstone for a functioning civil society, and the Russian authorities are curtailing these rights as part of their strategy to counter so-called western influence. In doing so, they fail their national and international obligations to guarantee these rights for all,” Nicola Duckworth, programme director for Europe and Asia at Amnesty International told IPS on email.

“The continuing attack on this right, including by restrictions to the rights to freedom of assembly and association, has a stifling effect on the whole society. Without the right to freedom of expression, other basic human rights may be violated more easily. Silence is the best breeding ground for impunity – a powerful tool to undermine the rule of law.”

 
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