Enemy at the door?

                                   (This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

In an attempt to sugarcoat the poor performance of the United Russia party in the Dec. 4 Duma elections, its supporters argue that the party’s results conform to “European standards.”  Although there are several reasons to question this argument, one stands out: In mature European democracies, parliamentary elections are usually run “on issues.”  In contrast, the just-concluded Duma election campaign was essentially issue-free.

The bulk of the blame goes to United Russia itself. Having failed to formulate a coherent, modern-day ideology, the party largely relies on its association with the executive branch of Russian government – hence United Russia’s efforts to take credit for every “achievement” paid for with budget money. Yet, its electoral opponents hardly fared any better: none of the six political parties participating in the elections alongside United Russia has succeeded in designing an election platform attractive to voters. Instead, with United Russia’s ratings steadily falling, they preferred to sit on the sidelines and watch the party of power lose its mandate with the Russian voters.

In particular, the topic of foreign policy almost never came up in the election debates.  Two factors could account for this omission. First, Russia is not at war, and there are no major armed conflicts on the country’s borders. Absent a clear threat to Russia’s national security, Russians – just like their counterparts everywhere – prefer to stick to domestic issues.

Second, foreign policy in Russia is an exclusive domain of the executive, normally the matter of interaction between the presidential administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – except that in 2008, a third player was added to the mix: the office of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In this arrangement, the role of the Duma in defining the country’s foreign policy remains almost purely symbolic and is usually limited to approval of foreign treaties.

International issues may come back to the forefront of public discussion during the presidential campaign, which is now underway, and this discussion seems to have been already initiated by the leading candidate, Vladimir Putin.

In part, Putin’s interests in foreign affairs could be driven by tactical considerations.  The public demand for Putin’s marquee achievement, stability, seems to be diminishing, and simply picking up President Medvedev’s “modernization” banner could be problematic: Putin may be asked why it’s him, not Medvedev himself, who’s running for president. Until a dominant election campaign theme is formulated by Putin’s advisers, he might have no other convenient topic but discussing Russia’s relations with the outside world.

And this isn’t a hollow topic, as anxiety is growing in Russia over the issue of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. Russia genuinely considers future deployment of anti-missile defense systems in Europe as a serious threat to its security, and the Kremlin sees no reason to hide its concerns from the public.

While the attention of Russian officials to the problem is quite understandable, it’s the tone of their responses that sounds somewhat troubling.  Speaking at a meeting in support of United Russia on Manezh Square in Moscow on Dec. 12, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, warned of the danger of Russia becoming “easy victim” at the hands of some (unnamed) hostile “forces in Europe.”  Of course, it’s easy to simply dismiss yet more anti-Western vitriol from the perennially hawkish ambassador if not for the fact that the day following the Manezh meeting, Rogozin joined the leadership of Putin’s election campaign.

Putin himself caused a stir by accusing the United States and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally in inciting the protest actions in Russia that erupted in the wake of announcing the Duma election results.  According to Putin:

[Clinton] set the tone for some [opposition] activists inside the country and sent them a signal.  They heard the signal and began active work using the support of the U.S. State Department.”

It’s almost inconceivable that Putin doesn’t understand the absurdity of this accusation. Yet the image of the enemy at Russia’s door is likely to resonate with many in the country, where mistrust for the United States still runs deep 20 years after the Cold War formally ended.  Interestingly, Putin’s point of view was enthusiastically endorsed by the leader of the Communist party – and, incidentally, Putin’s rival in the presidential race – Gennady Zyuganov who called the opposition’s meetings “an Orange leprosy” organized by the “American secret services.”  There is no doubt that the subject of foreign interference in Russia’s domestic affairs will feature prominently in the election debates.

Putin’s harsh anti-Western rhetoric could be a cold shower for those who just a couple of months ago told us that “[t]he possible election of Putin as the president of Russia will not signify a fundamental change in the direction of U.S.-Russia relations.”  They might still be right: Putin the president may well reject verbal excesses of Putin the candidate and return to pragmatic approach to foreign policy so characteristic of his first presidential term.  But in politics, words matter – even if told in the heat of election campaigns.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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22 Responses to Enemy at the door?

  1. Pingback: Political Campaign Expert » Blog Archive » Enemy at the door? |

  2. Dear Eugene,

    I agree with much of this. United Russia has no ideology and no rationale for its existence other than to maintain itself in power and that is its problem.

    Just one point: Are you sure about the quote from Zyuganov? As I cannot read Russian I cannot read the Kommersant article. However if the comment is the one attibuted to Zyuganov by Lebedev of the LPDR following the party leaders’ meeting with Medvedev the KPRF website has said that Lebedev completely misquoted what Zyuganov said and has accused him of carrying out a “provocation”.

    • Dear Alexander,

      You’re absolutely right: I did use the quote from the Kommersant where Zyuganov’s words were presented through Lebedev. Zyuganov later clarified that when speaking about “orange leprosy” he meant not the participants of the Bolotnaya meeting, but their organizers: Kasyanov, Nemtsov and the like. He nevertheless didn’t repudiate his assertion that the meeting was inspired by the U.S. secret services.

      Honestly, I don’t consider his clarification as a game-changer.

      Best,
      Eugene

  3. Dear Eugene,

    Viz Zyuganov’s comments, are you quite sure about this? I have just checked the KPRF website and though it is very difficult for me to read in a machine translation they seem still to be insisting that Zyuganov’s comments are being misrepresented by hostile journalists and that he was specifically referring just to Kasyanov and Nemtsov and presumably the PARNAS group. In an earlier comment on their website (now taken down) they seemed to be rejecting the suggestion that Zyuganov was attacking the demonstration itself.

    Anyway, I do not think this detracts from the overall point in your article with which I basically agree though I would say that Clinton gave Putin a gift by her comments which of course he put to use.

  4. Dear Alexander,

    Your machine translation is correct, and this is a version I seems to refer to in my response to you. The following appears to be the KPRF’s “official” response:

    http://kprf.ru/otvet/100386.html

    However, it’s hardly possible to figure out now who said exactly what. Take a look at the picture taken from the meeting:

    http://kremlin.ru/news/13979

    There is no Lebedev there, only Zhirinovsky. So Levedev interpreted what Zhirinovsky told him what Zyuganov said. Go figure!

    As for Clinton and Putin, I agree: if I didn’t know that this is absurd, I could have imagined that the two of them play as a team.

    Best,
    Eugene

  5. zed244 says:

    Hi, Eugene (I promised to read your blog more frequently, didn’t I ? :)
    “..mistrust for the United States still runs deep 20 years after the Cold War” – I am just trying to think of a single incident which would have worked to dissipate the mentioned “mistrust”
    (see also my comment in your latest post)

    Cheers

  6. Anonymous says:

    Well, I feel that the “reset” was a step in the right direction. A right “single incident,” so to speak:)

    • zed244 says:

      sure – although it (the “reset”) was more like a change from an orthodox stance to a southpaw – hoping to confuse the opponent and perhaps surprise him with an unexpected cross

      Cheers

  7. Alex,

    Respectfully disagree. I watched the “reset” from “inside.” Trust me, it was a sincere attempt by Obama to improve the Washington-Moscow dialogue. By ascribing to Obama a desire to “confuse” Medvedev, you vastly overestimate Obama’s sophistication in foreign affairs.

    Cheers,
    Eugene

  8. zed244 says:

    Well, if we had no differences, we would not need to communicate : )
    (this imho is one the undocumented characteristic differences between anglo-saxon & Russian cultures)

    my view about Obama (“take 2″) is here http://zed244.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/where-does-the-russian-government-sit/

    Cheers

  9. Anonymous says:

    Sincere attempt bt Obama? Well, maybe. I’m not sure, since I’m Russian, so I’d take your view as insider. But there is one very important concession. It may have been attempt by OBAMA and his trusted confidantes, but from how it have gone – certainly NOT by entire or even majority of US power structure. Too much internal opposiotion, which is demonstrated by Obama’s inability to held up much of his promises as C-in-C (i. e. ABM freeze or at least downscale, Jackson-Vanik – foreign policy, Guantanamo – domestic policy) I believe it’s due to major differences between power structure concepts of Russia and US. In Russia power-wielding politicians held money and capital hostage to their wishes (Khodorkovsky and Berezovsky come to mind as manifestations), whereas in US situation is reverse – big money hold politicians hostage to their whims ( Supreme Court ruling against limitations of political funding by companies band lawful lobbying, for example).So in essence Russian politicians is manuevering between other politicians, so, returning to forerign policy they, if they’re dominant, could execute their agenda without interruption of big business, latter being warned of severe consequences of such interference. In US C-i-C ( in my view) have to trad his path between big corporations first, and, as such corps are not few, they’re colliding interests might outright paralyze any political initiative. Just a comparison. Putin is alone(virtuially) on political playground and his decisions are final and can not be interfered by big business ( more other way around, recently he ordered corruption checks on all companies in energy secto. next day CEOs of said companies start leaving their jobs). In US model as I see it, Obama is interfered not only by his political rivals, but by plentiful of transnationals as well. He can’t please everyone and pretty much can’t force anyone to shut up. So iof his proposed course of action is going against current consensus within Big Money, even if it IS necessary from public or state standpoint it will not live long. Just my IMHO. Sorry if it all kinda stream-of-mind-ish.

    Best,
    Miles

    PS I’m consciously excluded The People from both models. At this level of power games the will of the masses is already either counted in or twisted in the way needed for power players

  10. Miles,

    Thanks for your comment. For a Russian, your understanding of American politics is quite “insider-grade” :)

    I agree with you: Obama has a lot of internal constraints to his power — and foreign policy is actually the area where US president traditionally enjoy more freedom of action than in domestic issues. I think that many in Russia underestimate this point when, for example, demanding that Obama “repealed” JV.

    On the other hand, we could argue on the extent Putin is free to execute his own decisions without consulting with others. Sure, he concurred the oligarchs “as a class,” but in the process, he created a “group of support” which now has a lot of power over Putin himself. At least, this is my interpretation of some recent events in Russia. See, for example, http://theivanovreport.com/2011/12/04/the-matter-of-trust.

    Where we totally agree is on the influence of the people as far as foreign policy is concerned. Which is a good thing here, given the degree of illiteracy of Americans on international issues.

    Best,
    Eugene

  11. Anonymous says:

    Well, I haven’t said that Putin have an absolute power, He had to consult and count in many intersts, BUT. Mosty of them are political ones. Meaning he’s playing politics by politics rulebook (if there is any), If there is buiseness interests counted in they are either secondary or tertiary or via proxy in political elite, Open lobbying by business is explicitly prohibited both by written and unspoken rules, for violation of which aforementiomned Khodorkovsky suffered, when he tried to buy up Duma. Sure, there is dozens of supporting political figures vying for more gain, but this gain is primarilly POLITICAL, the nature of which differ very much from nature of business profit. Putin and political elite of Russia at large are not forced to play in busimnessmen field by their rulebook, which is, as I see it, happening in USA. Not directly, anyway, Interests of businessmen had to be counted in, but for that count-in they have to submit to certain code of behavior, whereas in US, by my observations, it’s politician who should behave to please corps to get funding to get reelected. And the fact that Putin had to play in only one field by one rulebook of whuich he is at least co-author, he has an enormous levereage simply by narrowing down number, complexity and understability of processes he should keep under control. I guess it’s hard for a politician to completely understand, for example, accounting, which is a vital part of business. By forcing US politicians into their field, US businessmen force them to play half-blind with one hand tied behind the back…. which make them easy prey for manipulation and control. By US politicians here I mean public, elected figures, not shadow policymakers. Latter, probably understand everything pretty well, but they arent subject to public scrutiny. Putin and Russian politicians had all their senses fully operational. And, by my account that’s good. I prefer money UNDER politics than vice versa, ’cause money care only about more money by any means necessary, but politicall clout might be attained only by efficient public work – or at least, efficient appearance of such. Bottom line – in both countries the higher you get on political ladder, the less free you are to make decisions. But at least in Russia constraints are also political, which make them more understandable by those bound, when in US it’s constraints of Big Money, workings of which are dark to politicians. And the more clearer picture you got, the more competent decision you can make. Again, all IMHO, and I’m surely oversimplifying intertwines between power and money.

    Best,
    Miles

  12. Miles,

    Many people consider Sechin the second most influential person in Russia. And he’s the deputy prime minister and until recently — and perhaps still de facto — Chairman of Rosneft. And if I’m not mistaken, Zubkov is still Chairman of Gazprom. So when the two make their “political” decisions, which interests do they follow first? And both, by the way, are Putin’s top subordinates. So my point is that in Russia, the state is so much involved in business that Putin’s decisions are more often “economic” than “political” — public repudiation of oligarchs notwithstanding.

    There is no way to deny the influence of big money in politics in the US. However, the system here is more developed and more polished. Plus there are more sources of money, because ordinary people are often willing to donate money to election campaigns. (I do send money, for example, to some election campaigns.) Actually, almost 60% of Obama’s campaign money came in small (~$200) donations, meaning that they weren’t from “corporations.” That’s why Obama can afford being hostile towards the Wall Street — he didn’t get their money.

    My general point is that in ANY country, political decisions are driven by (macro)economic considerations, which are often influenced (even distorted) by lobbying activities of business and other special interests. In some countries, politicians are bought by direct bribes, in others — by campaign contributions. But I see no principal differences between countries in this respect, be it the US or Russia.

    Best,
    Eugene

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