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Thursday, February 11, 2016
- Another dramatic election fiasco is over. Russian voters have elected Vladimir Putin with an overwhelming 63% majority. In 2000 and 2004, he won with 53% and 71% majority, respectively. Though his victory never seemed in doubt, his election garnered more negative publicity than any other foreign election, thanks to the awesome Russian Spring.
As an avid observer of Russian politics for 50 years, I could not find a single opponent who could defeat Putin. All his opponents (Zyuganov, Prokhorov, Zhirinovsky) were neither popular nor had sufficient political experience to attract Russian voters. Putin remains genuinely popular with a large segment of the Russian population.
It seems to me that the Russians sensibly contemplated which party and candidate would be able to resolve underlying problems and uplift the working masses who have quietly suffered for decades. The dark eras of Brezhnev and Gorbachev and later “joker” Yeltsin’s regime brought outright disgrace to Russia. It was Putin who injected law and order into the society, and brought respect and credibility to Russia.
When Putin first came to power in 2000, Russia was in a deep recession following the devastating 1998 debt crisis. He developed the economy with new industries and investments; decreased poverty by boosting agricultural production and construction; and increased workers salaries and granted better pensions to poor pensioners who silently suffered for decades. To stabilize the economy, he introduced a flat tax rate, reduced corporate taxes, and established a stabilization fund to accumulate oil revenue to repay all of Russia’s debts. Later the fund was split into the Reserve Fund to protect Russia from future financial crisis, and the National Welfare Fund to enhance pension reforms.
Today Russia is not Stalinist Soviet Union with dictatorial powers. Russia went through generational change after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has created a strong, professional middle class in many parts of the vast country. It is now a pluralistic society with various civic groups, political parties, and social organizations. These people are well traveled, well educated and familiar with democracy and freedom. These new classes of Russians do not need outside influence to make decisions. Russians voted for Putin for the significant improvements he made in living standards and for reclaiming Russia’s recognition and respect as a world power.
But Putin’s external affairs are another matter. He has been publicly and increasingly critical of foreign policies of the United States and other Western countries – making them dislike him.
Putin publicly opposed plans for the US missile shield in Europe, and offered many viable alternatives. He proved that he is firm, sharp and intelligent enough to take a strong position that favors Russia. That was demonstrated during many international conflicts over Ukraine and Georgia, gas and oil deliveries to Ukraine and Europe, and currently on affairs in Syria and Iran. He is not a person who can be easily manipulated by world leaders no matter how powerful they are. However, during his Presidency, Putin maintained friendly working relations with many world leaders including President George W Bush.
Having listened to the grievances and demands of hundreds of thousands of Russians who demonstrated during the past few months, Putin may adopt policies to rectify shortcomings. But Putin would not change his foreign policy to please the United States or Western countries. Putin has always maintained that he wants to avoid another Cold War. He has often said that “we do not want confrontation: we want to engage in dialogue but a dialogue that acknowledges the equality of both parties’ interests”. This could be the premise for United States and Western nations to form better relations with Russia – provided all parties agree to respectfully disagree.
It is time for all nations to respect the UN Charter, adhere to International Law, use diplomacy to resolve international conflicts, and work harmoniously and in partnership to establish a world order that ensures security and prosperity for all.
The writer, a former Representative at the United Nations, is a Moscow educated international lawyer, who worked in the United Nations System (IAEA, FAO, UNESCO, WHO/UNAIDS) for twenty-five years.