This Sunday, Russia will go to the polls to vote for a new president.
Well, when we say new, perhaps we mean old. Vladimir Putin, currently Russia’s Prime Minister, is widely expected to return to the position he held from 2000 to 2008, and many see the current president, Dimitry Medvedev, as little more than a puppet for the former KGB strongman.
However, the election is important, in that for the first time within the Putin period, a significant opposition movement has sprung up after accusations of corruption in December’s parliamentary elections — thousands of protestors have hit the streets, an anti-corruption lawyer has become a figurehead, and even the owner of the New Jersey Nets is getting involved.
With that in mind, we asked 11 experts – will anything actually change after March 4?
Ivan Tchakarov is the chief economist at Renaissance Capital, the leading independent investment bank operating in Russia, the CIS, Central and Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and other high-opportunity emerging and frontier markets.
'We think that Putin (assuming he wins the Presidency as broadly expected) will be more reform-oriented than generally perceived for two key reasons.
'First, critical macroeconomic challenges, including the uncomfortable prospect of running twin deficits by 2014-2015, are compelling the country to reform. The twin-deficit problem (fiscal and current account) lays bare the need to improve Russia's business climate in order to attract the requisite foreign financing. Putin understands that his political survival depends him pressing ahead with admittedly cautious reforms. Reading the leaves on authorities' intentions is a perilous game, but in our view, a new and more open frame of mind is now taking hold in the Kremlin.
'Second, the additional incentive to open up the political system created by the recent protests only adds to our optimism that Russia is set on a course to becoming a much more democratic and less corrupt country, in line with its growing income levels. Despite the fact that the protesters are a minority, they have the capacity to set trends and form public opinion. The central thesis of the high probability of Russia turning into a full democracy is only gaining strength. The greatest risk now is not of Russia becoming yet another cradle of revolutionary fervor, but of foreign investors succumbing to deeply unfounded speculations of Russia becoming an inherently unstable place, and ignoring an increasingly attractive investment case.'
Ivan previously wrote of his experiences at a meeting with opposition leader Alexei Navalny, which you can read here >
Irina Zaslavskaya is the Program Officer for Europe and Asia at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a private, nonprofit organisation established in 1987 to support electoral and other democratic institutions in emerging, evolving, and experienced democracies.
'Regardless of the final outcome, the March 4 presidential election represents the turning point in Russia's transformation since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. For the first time, the generation born after the dismantling of the Soviet system has come to the forefront of the political process in Russia, as evidenced by the impressive protest movement that emerged after the disputed Duma election in December. This highly vocal, innovative grassroots movement is a testament to the fact that the Facebook, Twitter and blogging generation is not shying away from its newly found role and responsibility in demanding accountability in governance.
'We are witnessing a new relationship emerging between the Kremlin and the Russian people, though one fraught with growing pains. For the first time in Russian history, citizens are demanding respect from their leaders and are not content simply to abstain from political discourse out of apathy, cynicism or fear when they feel their opinions are not being taken into consideration. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin may be returning as Russia's president after March 4, but he is going to lead a new country that is still finding a balance between rising citizen expectations and government accountability.
'Although the road ahead will be difficult, the process has already begun and is irreversible. The process of change was set in motion not from the top, but from the bottom strata of society, which has the potential to create demands and expectations beyond what the current authorities are willing to meet. It is an exciting time to see the hopes of so many generations of democracy-minded Russians start to materialise; the next chapter in this long-running saga will be written after March 4.'
Ann Cooper is the CBS Professor of Professional Practice in International Journalism and head of the broadcast department at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She spent five years in Moscow as NPR's bureau chief and co-authored a book on the country, 'Russia at the Barricades,' about the August 1991 failed coup attempt in Moscow.
'The conventional wisdom is, Vladimir Putin wins on March 4, with enough votes to avoid a runoff. And then, the little bit of breathing space that has been allowed to media and ordinary citizens in recent months gets closed off. Why? Because Putin would no longer need to pretend that there's some gradual movement toward greater democracy and freedom of expression. He'd be back in office, and could resume imposing his iron will on Russia.
'The unconventional wisdom is, he wins on March 4, with enough votes to avoid a runoff. But the demonstrations that have galvanised opposition to him in recent months have undermined his political standing -- so much so that he would never run for another presidential term, and might well step down before his next one ends, six years from now.
'My heart hopes the unconventional wisdom is correct. But my head says the conventional wisdom will carry the day.'
'I wouldn't expect significant changes in Russia, not least because even the protest movement is really an evolutionary one, seeking gradual change, rather than a revolutionary one seeking to overthrow the government.
'President Putin will remain the most powerful person in Russia -- and, it could be argued, the most powerful single leader in the world -- but his hold on power is under greater scrutiny now than ever before. So once he's back in the Kremlin, he will seek to placate the middle class protest movement through a mixture of cosmetic reforms and selective repression, while trying to exploit the deep political fissures within its ranks. At the same time, he will follow through with some hefty spending pledges in order to insulate the population at large from the middle class protest message. That, of course, sets the stage for serious wrangling over fiscal and tax reform, which will be top on the agenda and closely watched by the business community. Here it's important whether former finance minister Alexei Kudrin returns to government. I'd expect that he won't figure in the initial post-inauguration cabinet, but that he could return amidst a likely reshuffle later in the year.
'The trouble for Putin is that making substantive -- even gradual -- changes to increase political accountability and genuinely improve the investment climate would quickly rattle the interests of powerbrokers close to him and upset the bureaucracy. In a country where institutions are weak and politics is highly personalised, that's a huge risk that Putin is likely unwilling, and potentially unable, to take. But if the protest movement can win over more of the general population, particularly out in the regions, then Putin could be in trouble. In that regard, I would watch for signs of tension between Moscow and the regions as a bellwether for whether Putin's power is slipping.
'All in all, I think we are in for a slow erosion of Putin's power and legitimacy, rather than massive upheaval. Though to paraphrase Hemingway, these things tend to happen very slowly… and then all at once.'
Bill Browder is the head of Hermitage Capital Management, which one controlled almost $4.5 billion worth of investments in Russia. He was barred from entering the country in 2005, and the death of Hermitage lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison in 2009 led to international condemnation.
'It is completely naive to think anything is going to change after this election. First of all, Putin has been in power for the last 12 years. Anyone who made the mistake of thinking Medvedev was in power, at this point, it's pretty obvious that he wasn't. If you go back and read any of Putin's speeches, he said all sorts of things that looked good on paper. But none of them have ever been implemented, and it's very clear why: because implementing real reforms would mean that Putin and the people around him could not be able to engage in all these financial crimes, which have made them so wealthy.
'The Russian government doesn't function to serve the national interest by collecting taxes and providing services as most governments do. The current regime collects taxes so that the people in the government can steal that money. They steal it either directly, as Sergei discovered when he came across a $230 million tax rebate fraud involving government officials, or they steal it through other means, like enormous kickbacks from building roads and pipelines, and kickbacks from buying equipment for hospitals. In the end, most of the money that's supposed to be spent on the people of Russia just doesn't get spent on the people.'
Tanya Lokshina is Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office. HRW recently published a report on harassment of government critics in Russia, which you can read here.
'According to reports, Putin is now less likely to become Russia's new (old) president. It is also clear that what we are seeing in Russia today is not a revolution. Russians are, however, no longer apathetic, and even Putin cannot ignore their voice.
'At HRW, we cannot take any position on who should be the new president of Russia, or any country for that matter, we do not take a view on a specific individual that should or should not be occupying that very high chair. What matters to us is for the new president of Russia to have Russia comply with its international human rights obligations. And this is something that we are going to demand from the new president of Russia, just as we have been demanding it from the current president, Dimitry Medvedev. And it is now, when they have the opportunity, they should be cautious when having to deal with this rise in peaceful, pro-democratic protests. That the authorities would not, in the end, resort to the habitual restrictive machinery, that they would actually pay more heed to human rights and fundamental freedoms, that's the best case scenario.
'Russia's leadership is already making some concessions to the protests, which we think are incredibly important. But despite these positive trends, the intimidation of critics of Putin and critics of the Kremlin has been distinctly on the rise between the parliamentary and presidential elections, and that in itself is a very disturbing signal. So on the one hand, the situation seems to be improving: they are having these protests for the first time in many years, and they are not being violently dispersed, here there are positive legislation initiatives relevant to democratic freedoms, but then at the same time, critics of the authorities have been harassed and intimidated in different ways -- pressure which is being put on independent media, discrediting things about opposition leaders is being published in state-controlled media outlets and broadcast media, and the use of pro-Kremlin youth groups in harassing and intimidating the critics of the Kremlin. There is always a possibility that following the election, the Kremlin would put more and more pressure on its critics, trying to intimidate them and to silence them, trying to discredit them in various unlawful ways -- and this is something to watch out for.'
Ben Aris is editor in chief of business new europe (bne.eu), the leading English language magazine covering emerging Europe.
'If Putin is returned as president in this weekends election then nothing will change - and that is the problem. Russia's economy has recovered nicely since the beating it took in 2008 and Putin can take a lot of credit for turning what was a basket case in the 1990s into a relatively prosperous middle income European country where life for the man in the street is now more-or-less normal. It was Putin's political stability (and high oil prices) that are responsible for this change, but Russia's economy has reached a turning point. Ironically that very prosperity has also created a middle class that has moved beyond the simply problems of surviving and are now demanding a say in governing their country. These are not the young unemployed men of the Arab Spring; these are business owners and white collar workers that have everything to loose from a violent revolution.
'At the same time the economy has been transformed. For most of the 90s Russia ran a 8% deficit and the state lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis (the 2008 crisis was Russia's sixth crisis since 1991) as it attempted to find the money to keep Russia Inc going. But by retaking control of the state owned companies and funelling the oil money into economy, as well as introducing a radical tax reform (and throwing some oligarchs who wouldn't play ball into jail) Putin got the economy going again, which was growing at an average of 6-7% for most of the naughties.
'The trouble is as Putin prepares to resume his old job this model has broken down. The heavy state spending on national champions will no longer produce growth. In the early stages of reform a 'big push' by the government is the quickest way to get a transitional economy back on its feet, but as that economy matures at some point the state's involvement starts to become detrimental, smothering entrepreneurship as the vested interests have very motive to kill off competition. Russia has reached that point now. Russia needs a new economic model. The state needs to switch from pushing its own firms to nurturing private companies. Will it happen? The signals Putin has given out are very mixed. The on going reforms to the capital market, launched in April 2008, are progressing fast and have already allowed foreign investors easy access to Russia's very attractive domestic bond market. A badly needed privatization programme has also been relaunched that is supposed to get the government out of the economy. And there is even a low wattage anti-corruption drive that is slowly making a difference. In February Putin himself called for Russia to move up from 124 place on the World Bank's 'ease of doing business survey' to 20th, which would need a reform revolution to actually achieve.
'But Putin's true intentions have been buried in the electioneering slogans. Anti-trust laws, slashing of red tape, pension reforms and most of all accountability are all missing. The liberals in the government are well aware that Russia's economic model needs a make over but so far the only new initiative Putin has offered publicly is to invest heavily in the military-industrial complex and make it an engine of growth -- a total waste of money. Politics are crude in Russia and exactly what Putin intends to do in the next 6 years as president will only become clear later this year. However, what is most likely is that Russia will muddle along as it has always done. The enormous potential of the country and the floods of oil money mean that it will continue to grow at least 4% -- well ahead of the developed markets -- while its population of 142m it is already close to becoming the largest consumer market in Europe (it over took Germany in 2011 to become the biggest market in Europe for children's goods and milk), which will pull in investment and partners, despite, rather than because, of the government.
'Finally political risk is back as the middle class are not happy about being excluded from these elections. However, as they have as much to loose as the government from a violent change of regime Russia's 'white ribbon revolution' is like to be the most civilized of any of the revolutions currently sweeping the world. A war of attrition has started between the Kremlin and its detractors. Until December last year, when the first demonstrations were organised, Putin was above politics and dictated the terms of the political debate merely by saying something was important. Since the demonstrations started he has been dragged down into the process and has lost control of the debate. Still, he holds all the cards and can (and probably will) contain the protests through a mix of carrot-like social spending and stick-like smear campaigns against prominent critics. Bottom line is that Putin will walk away with this elections and Russia will continue to make steady progress, but pundits in Moscow are increasingly speculating that the cancer of his winning another six year term in 2018 are fading fast.'
Olga Oliker is a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organisation.
'The question is less whether anything will change in Russia after March 4 than how long changes will take, and what their direction will be.
'The political protests that have built over the winter season are the first shoots of a new political dialogue between public and government. Whether they coalesce into real movements and real change, as their leaders hope, is not something that can be easily predicted.
'Although any reports of election irregularity will provide new impetus to opposition movements, even without them there is a growing tide of frustration with a system that repeatedly yields elections without real voter choice. Whether the government takes real steps to fix the system, and when, will shape who emerges as viable candidates for future elections, presidential and otherwise.
'In the security realm, Vladimir Putin, the expected winner on Sunday, has made clear that he will oversee greater spending on defence and security. To date, this has not been a focus of public discontent, but it may be worth watching to see if any opposition forces take on this issue in a real way. His goals for modernization, improved transparency, and reduced corruption echo his own and others' past statements. In a system such as Russia's, where many of those in power benefit personally from the status quo, rapid progress would be surprising.
'In foreign policy, Putin has taken a consistently more hardline tone, rhetorically at least, than has outgoing President Dmitri Medvedev. If he wins, this will likely translate, at least in the near term, into continued and perhaps heightened tension between Russia and the United States. This said, with both countries eager to reiterate their desire to cooperate even as they vociferously disagree on Syria and other global issues, there will also be room for continued cooperation.'
Susan Corke is the Director for Eurasia Programs at Freedom House. Before joining Freedom House she worked for the US State Department.
'Something fundamental has shifted in the mindset of the Russian people -- they are in increasing numbers holding their government more accountable and are speaking up about the rampant corruption and lies. The wave of recent demonstrations and the slew of new initiatives to uncover corruption has surprised many in Russia. The profile of those who are coming out en masse to protest has also changed -- it is not just the dedicated though beleaguered cadre of brave human rights and opposition activists who have fought a protracted and lonely battle for democracy in Russia up until now. Now, many in the urban, educated, middle-class of Russia have joined the human rights activists to brave the cold to demonstrate that they want to live in a country where their leaders are chosen in free and fair elections. But this protest spans demographics and brings together celebrities, musicians, athletes, and laborers too. They prefer a country where rule of law, not corruption is the foundation of the system. Joined together in wearing white ribbons, they hope that change can come about in Russia in a peaceful way that will make them feel proud again of their country and free to live in a place where their rights are protected.
'What has not changed is the mindset of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as he puts himself back into the presidency.
'The day after the March 4 elections is likely to be a harbinger of what is to come. The request to hold a protest near the Kremlin on March 5 against Putin's expected return to the country's presidency was denied (less central options were suggested by city officials). Putin, however, has already provided a chilling warning that he views the protestors as enemies and foreign sponsored provocateurs -- and officials and the state media are echoing Putin's hardline. Putin's approach, however, of trying to accuse the thousands of protestors of falsifying the falsification of the election is only likely to transform the protests - which have been peaceful up to this point - into something more angry and volatile.
'After many trips to Russia over the years, the day I witnessed the first huge protest in Bolotnaya Square, Moscow, after the Duma elections, I felt positive change in the air. What is not certain is what form change will take after March 4. I am more optimistic than ever about the potential of the Russian people to seek democratic change. The opposition has demonstrated a greater willingness to work together. Investors and companies in Russia should be gravely concerned about the implications of 6 or 12 more years of corruption under a Putin 2.0 presidency; the prospects are bleak as well for economic diversification and modernization. I am also an unreformed pessimist about the Russian government. If Putin resorts to his old, brutal, and repressive tactics -- cracking down on citizens and further restricting freedoms - we will be headed for a change in Russia, in a much more dangerous and combustible direction.'
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