The Candidate

“I think that for those engaged in politics, like myself,  the most important thing is not an office or a job; the most important thing is people’s trust.”

Vladimir V. Putin

Russia is blessed country.  It has the presidential election in less than two months, and yet its citizens have peacefully surrendered to the lull of the New Year and Orthodox Christmas celebrations.  The presidential candidates are nowhere seen or heard.  Busy with drafting election programs?  If so, no one’s election program will be more eagerly anticipated than the one presented by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

As a matter of fact, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the Izvestia daily that it was exactly what the prime minister has been doing during the vacation: hand-writing his program, to be unveiled “before February 12.”  According to a member of Putin’s campaign staff, in addition to mandatory sections on economic, social and foreign policy issues, Putin’s program will touch upon a number of hot topics, such as communal and utility sector, alcohol and drug abuse, crime, and corruption.

It’s still unknown whether Putin will take part in the pre-election debates with other candidates.  When asked about that by the journalists on Dec. 28, Putin said that he wasn’t “afraid” of the debates, but had his doubts about the very need to debate with his opponents who, in Putin’s words, aren’t “burdened with any concrete work, always demand impossible and then usually don’t deliver.

Given Putin’s lack of experience in open public discussions, his reluctance to meet face-to-face with such experienced debaters as Vladimir Zhirinovsky or Grigory Yavlinsky (should the latter be registered for the election) is quite understandable.  Obviously, defending his own record would be relatively easy for Putin: he has a lot to show for it.  However, it could be very uncomfortable for him to answer a simple, but unavoidable question: why the current president, Dmitry Medvedev, wasn’t allowed to run for re-election?

Putin has already attempted to address this question.  During an Oct. 17 interview with three major Russian TV channels, he said:

“When a country finds itself in difficult conditions, tries to recover from crisis, tries to get back on its feet, stability, including political stability, becomes very important…We need a period of stable development.”

Putin’s emphasis on “stability” isn’t surprising; surprising are the gloomy terms he used to describe the situation in the country.  The interpretation of his words would be that Medvedev wasn’t capable of ensuring Russia’s “stable development” at the time the country was trying to recover after the crisis.

Was Medvedev not the Russian president during the crisis?  Did he fail, in Putin’s opinion?

Interestingly enough, six weeks later, when officially accepting the presidential nomination at the United Russia party congress, Putin sounded more positive about Russia’s “conditions:”

“We’ve gone through very important process of Russia’s recovery; we’ve created a basis for the stable and steady development of the country.  Our goal now – is to use this basis to build a strong, prosperous and successful Russia, Russia of the XXI century.”

Is Medvedev unfit for the task of building “a strong, prosperous and successful Russia” too?

During his October TV interview, Putin was also asked whether he was going to continue reforms initiated by Medvedev.  Putin’s response was somewhat ambivalent:

“On strategic issues of the country’s development, we have the same opinion.  However, we’re not the same people, and at certain stage, Medvedev decided to liberalize some areas of our life.  [If elected president], I’m not going to make any abrupt changes to what was already done by Medvedev.  Let’s see how this is going to work.”

And later:

“We have to find the optimal political structures and mechanisms of formation of power structures.  Let’s see how the tools suggested by the president will function…And, if needed, we will be correcting them.”

However reluctantly, Putin seems to have accepted two of the three latest initiatives articulated by Medvedev in his last address to the Federal Assembly: the direct election of regional governors and the simplified rules for registration of political parties.  At the same time, Putin was visibly irritated with Medvedev’s idea of transferring of a number of federal responsibilities to the regional authorities.

Putin’s election program will hopefully shed light on which initiatives of his predecessor will be allowed “to work” and which will be “corrected.”


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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13 Responses to The Candidate

  1. Alexander Mercouris says:

    Dear Eugene,

    Another interesting comment.

    I have to say that based on his interview skills when confronting the western press and his performance in his television marathons I suspect that Putin would actually be very good in a debating forum. If he refuses to participate I suspect the reason is that he does not want to appear on an equal footing with the opposition candidates rather than due to any fear of being bested in this forum.

    Can I take up a point left over from your previous post. I was frankly depressed by your comment about the way in which the various members of the opposition cannot join together though i have to say that it certainly corresponds with my impression. It reinforces a longstanding view that I am afraid I have, which is that Russia’s liberal and democratic opposition is neither very liberal nor very democratic. It also makes me wonder whether Russia’s main problem may not be its opposition rather than its government.

    • Eugene says:

      Dear Alexander,

      I agree with you: by his personality and professional training, Putin should possess substantial debating skills. However, I doubt that he ever used them publicly. But — and here I again agree with you — the problem is that his status of a “national leader” apparently prevents him from an open discussion with “subordinates.” Unfortunately, the great tradition of Russian tzars and General Secretaries of the Communist Party finds its followers in supposedly democratic Russian presidents.

      Coming back to the Russian liberals, whose inability/unwillingness to unite is legendary. I personally remember a couple of attempts to unite Yabloko and SPS. After all ideological differences seems to have been taken care of, the deals were off because Yavlinsky was categorically demanding the leadership of any united party. Ryzhkov and Kasparov couldn’t work together at the Committee 2008. PARNAS didn’t invite Kasparov to join. Later, PARNAS ejected Milov, for arguing with Nemtsov who of the two should run for president. As a result, there is no united “liberal” candidate, despite promises. And the list goes on and on.

      Yet, I stand by my conviction: Russia must liberalize its party registration system. Whether the bona fide liberal party does or doesn’t form thereafter, is the second — and a secondary — question.

      Best Regards,
      Eugene

      • Alexander Mercouris says:

        Dear Eugene,

        I completely agree with your first paragraph. It is clearly going to be some time before whoever it is who occupies the position of the country’s President feels that he or she can participate in a debate with others on equal terms without fearing that this will lead to an unacceptable loss of prestige. Having said this following the abiding principle of all our discussions, where you tend to see the glass as half empty I tend to see it as half full. The fact that things have not yet reached the point where we would like them to be does not mean that they are not moving that way and doing so moreover quite fast. Barring unexpected accidents I expect to see television debates in Russia sooner than perhaps you expect and possibly even sooner than I expect. I should quickly add by the way that I am sure that the difference between us on this and other issues is caused less by differences in temperament and more by differences in perspective. As a non Russian I can take a longer view and observing the progress that has been made I can also afford to be more optimistic.

        Turning to your comments about the liberals I am afraid that in the light of them I must reluctantly come round to your view that the only way this is going to be sorted out is if they are allowed to compete directly against each other with eventual victory going to the fittest. In the light of this I agree to your call for a liberalisation of the party registration rules, which I understand is one thing that Medvedev has now proposed and which is by the way is something I have never been opposed to. I am afraid that in the short term at least this will however mean more division not less within the liberal camp, which could make for an unedifying spectacle that could marginalise the liberals even further. Having said this the responsibility will be theirs and in the light of what you say I cannot see an alternative.

        • Eugene says:

          Dear Alexander,

          As a Russian living in the US, I perhaps too should take a longer perspective…

          What troubles me is different. As a historian, you should remember that in many respects, the Russian revolution of 1917 occurred because of completely inadequate actions of Nicolas II. My greatest fear — and, as I understand, fear of many Russians — is that by their inadequate reaction to the protests the authority are provoking further radical moves.

          Best Regards,
          Eugene

          • Alexander Mercouris says:

            Dear Eugene,

            I think the situation in Russia today and the situation in Russia at the start of the Twentieth Century are so different that I think comparisons should be avoided. Suffice to say that social conflicts then were of an entirely different order of severity to what they are now though even then it is important to remember that they only exploded into full scale revolution in conditions of World War. As for Nicholas II’s government it was unlike the government now not only in the habit of banning demonstrations and firing on protesters (as it famously did in January 1905) but it was even in the habit of planting infiltrators into the terrorist organisations that were run at that time by the various revolutionary parties as part of an attempt to control them. No one I hope is going to accuse Putin & co of doing anything like that!

            I do not think the country is remotely in the same sort of revolutionary situation that it was at the beginning of the Twentieth Century but I am fully aware of the degree to which fear within Russia of revolution and of a descent into chaos and crisis is very strong. How could it be otherwise given not just the events of 1917 but the more recent events of 1991? Many of the conservative responses of Putin and his allies are I am sure driven by the same fear. That fear was especially obvious at the time of the two demonstrations in Moscow in December. It was striking to see the nervous way in which Russian commentators responded to them Contrast this with the far more relaxed response to the recent similarly sized demonstration in Budapest.

            Precisely because I am not a Russian I do not have this fear. At some point if the country is to evolve it has to put this fear behind it. The successful way in which the demonstrations passed off is a hopefully sign that it will.

            • Eugene says:

              Dear Alexander,

              I didn’t try to compare the country’s conditions in 1917 and today. What I said — and I think this is a valid point — is that there were moments in Russian history where inadequate actions by the authorities led to horrible consequences. And running a risk of being accused by you in comparing Putin to Nicolas II🙂 — this comparison is evidently even more ridiculous than the one above — one of the problem with Nicolas II was that he did nothing for too long — until it was too late…

              Best Regards,
              Eugene

  2. Alexander Mercouris says:

    Dear Eugene,

    I am sorry to introduce this here and to go completely off topic but I do not know where else to do so. There is something about your biography that has piqued me.

    I notice that you have a Ph.d in genetics from St. Petersburg State University, which you obtained in 1981. Coincidentally I was taking my degree in Modern History at London University at the same time, which involved a course on Russian history at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. As it was still the Cold War unfortunately it did not come with a course in the Russian language, which I thought strange then and remarkable today.

    Anyway one of the subjects I came across over the course of my study and about which I wrote what I now suspect was a wholly inadequate paper (which I am glad to say I have long since lost)) was “Michurinism”, the doctrine pioneered by Lysenko and imposed by the Soviet authorities when they rejected genetics. I seem to remember that one of the major victims of Lysenko was a Leningrad biologist called Vavilov suggesting that Leningrad might have been a centre of opposition to Michurinism. Lysenko was as I recall only fully repudiated by the Soviet authorities when Khrushchev fell in 1964, which would have been a mere 17 years before you took your Ph.d.

    Forgive me for asking you (and feel free to tell me if you feel that it is not appropriate for discussion here) but I cannot help wondering whether Michurinism still cast any kind of shadow in Leningrad in the 1970s. Presumably the people you must have been studying with must have been amongst the first Soviet scientists to study and teach genetics freely. Did they feel themselves pioneers? What was the atmosphere like. Did the struggle with Michurinism affect their political and ideological outlook?

    All this is a huge topic and perhaps a personal one and I repeat again what I said before about your being under no obligation to discuss any of this but if politics is your passion history is mine so forgive me for asking these questions.

    • Eugene says:

      Dear Alexander,

      This is a topic I’m always happy to talk about.

      Couple of things. Although Lysenko did use some ideas advanced by Ivan Michurin, he did it in such a twisted way that his whole anti-genetics concept should better be called — and is called in Russia now — Lysenkovism, rather than Michurinism.

      Nikolai Vavilov did establish an Institute of Agriculture in Leningrad, but he wasn’t living there. He was a famous scientist and a known public figure, so the bulk of his activities took place in Moscow, where Vavilov led (until his arrest in 1940) a lab which was later transformed in what is now the Institute of General Genetics of the Academy of Sciences. Yet Leningrad indeed was a center of opposition to Lysenko — due mostly to a Vladimir Lobashov, the head of the Department of Genetics at the Leningrad University. After genetics was virtually banned in 1948, friends arranged for Lobashov a teaching position in Syktyvkar, a town in Northern Russia. This arrangement perhaps saved his life.

      After Stalin’s death, Lysenko rapidly lost any support at the top. Adding to his demise were spectacular failure of all his projects. He went into complete oblivion by the end of the 50s, so his repudiation in the 60s was actually a death sentence to a dead man.

      Lobashov return to the Leningrad University and resumed his work. He died of heart attack in 1970(?), two years before I joined the Department of Genetics as undergrad. In contrast to many other top guns, Lobashov valued young people: his replacement was a young fellow, Sergei Inge-Vechtomov, barely over 30 and fresh from a sabbatical in California. My personal impression is that by the time I got there, Lysenkovism was such an ancient history that it in no way impacted the way genetics was taught. I do remember Inge-Vechtomov having problems with older professors at the Department. However, from my then position as undergrad, I can’t tell you whether these problems originated from some “ideological” disputes or just reflected a natural grudge elder employees often have against a new boss half their age.

      In more general sense, obviously different people studies at the Leningrad University: Putin graduated from it one year ahead of me. However, a lot of people — especially at the natural sciences departments — held definitely liberal, often anti-establishment, views. I remember that in the lab I worked, exchanging banned literature (the famous “samizdat”) between professors and students was a routine thing. In my opinion, this reflected the more liberal, more independent atmosphere Leningrad has always been proud of.

      Keeping this in mind helps explain why St. Petersburg often leads Russia in the percentage of “protest” vote.

      Dear Alexander, always count me in when rising such interesting — and, IMO, quite relevant to this blog — topics. However, if by any reason you feel uncomfortable doing it in this space, simply drop me a line at eugene_ivanov@comcast.net.

      Best,
      Eugene

      • Alexander Mercouris says:

        Dear Eugene,

        Thank you very much for this, which has been very interesting and also very illuminating.

        I should tell you that this is all quite different from what I was taught I am sure in good faith. It brings home to me how little in some ways we knew about your country at the time I was studying it. The assumption then was that Lysenko had been the dominant force in Soviet biology right up to the moment of his fall, which happened for purely political reasons. Briefly as I remember it the assumption was that he had become too closely identified with Khrushchev and that when Khrushchev fell he fell with him. There was also an assumption that he had built up a large school of followers and that some of them remained active even after his fall.

        • Eugene says:

          Dear Alexander,

          And yet, we shouldn’t underestimate the damage brought by the Lysenko era to the Russian science. Many people, including Vavilov himself, perished as a result of repressions; the whole scientific institutions were destroyed. Sure, at some point the Kremlin did say: “Ok, ok, we did a mistake. Let’s get back.” But in some sense, it was too late.

          Best,
          Eugene

  3. Alexander Mercouris says:

    Dear Eugene,

    Since you have very kindly invited me to raise issues on your blog, there is one concerning which I would also be interested to hear your views though if you feel it is something you want to discuss you may also feel that it should be the subject of a post. This is the question of scientific and education standards in Russia today.

    I recently had a lengthy and friendly discussion on the Sublime Oblivion blog with someone on the subject of the international rankings of Russian universities. I said in my comments that based on the Russians I know who have been to these places my impression was that the rankings at least of the more prestigious Russian universities (eg. MGU, St. Petersburg State University etc) were much too low. In saying this I made clear that I was not oblivious to the problems in the Russian higher education sector though I pointed out to my correspondent that many of the problems that are often discussed including plagiarism and academic corruption are now also to be found in Britain to a degree that would have been unimaginable only a short time ago.

    I find this an intriguing subject for many reasons. One is that over the course of my fairly short lifetime western opinion of Russian higher education has gone from nervous awe (at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s) to indifference today. Secondly in terms of the protest movement (and by the way I totally accept the distinction you made between the liberal opposition and the protest movement in the comment to your previous post) it seems to me that the in both Moscow and St. Petersburg the higher education institutions are becoming a centre of it. I understand for example that at MGU both the academic staff and the student body in the recent elections voted heavily either for the KPRF or for Yabloko and against United Russia. Given that this is so and given that I definitely see the protest movement and the whole phenomenon of protest as an entirely positive development (though not for the reasons many others do) I am very curious about the state of the higher education institutions that seem at the centre of it.

    This is a huge topic but as someone who has actual knowledge of Russian education and possibly even contacts there I would be fascinated for your views of it and of its current standards and of political developments within it,

  4. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    This is a topic I don’t consider myself an expert in, despite the fact that I went through the Soviet Union education system and used to be a scientist. However, so much has changed since I left Russia, and honestly, I haven’t been following the developments in this particular area. Yet, just a few observations.

    First of all, I agree with you that it’s strange that the top Russian schools don’t make it even to the middle of international ranking. (I vaguely remember that MGU ranks somewhere in 150s, and StPGU doesn’t make the first 200.) Russian college students regularly win top prices in international scientific competitions. You’d at least expect that their respective schools would be ranked reasonably high. They are not. (That said, it always puzzled me which criteria were used to say that last year Harvard was number one and Stanford number two, and this year, it’s the other way around.) A friend of mine is a professor at a medical school in St Pete. He teaches courses in English to foreign students who come mostly from Africa. Sure, you’d argue that for them, this is a cheap option to get a college education. However, if this education was a total trash, they definitely could have found some “cheap” options elsewhere, not in Russia.

    I think what hurt the Russian college education system is an uncontrolled proliferation of low-quality institutions. Now, it’s very easy to establish a boutique and call it “university.” Naturally, every territory and even middle-size cities now feel obliged to have a “university” — the quality be damned. The Kremlin seems to recognize this danger and tries to preserve the elite status of the top schools. Thus, a couple of years ago, MGU and StPGU got status of “national universities” with concomitant infusion of sizable amounts of cash. I have a friend in St Pete working at the office of the president of StPGU. What he told me recently about his current operating budget was impressive.

    Another problem, as I see it, is corruption. It’s everywhere and, naturally, penetrates the educational system. The wife of a good friend of mine went to teach chemistry in a small medical college and was stricken with the widespread bribery: professors were taking bribes from students for good grades, help with papers, etc. She refused to play this game (a combination of personal integrity and high income of her husband:)) and had to quit as there was absolutely no rapport between her and other professors.

    On the positive side, the value of education is still high in Russia: all “decent” parents consider college education for their kids a must. I don’t think that sending kids to study abroad is an indicator of bad education in Russia; it’s rather a fashionable trend among people with means. I have friends whose kids got education abroad and now work in Russia and friends whose kids got educated in Russia and now work abroad — and I can’t discern any particular trend of which education makes these kids more successful.

    The last point is about educational institutions being at the center of the protest movement. Sure, large universities were always centers of free thought and (to some extent) free speech. Moreover, in my times, those combined with institutions of the Academy of Sciences (to which I belonged) were perhaps the only places where you could meet people of liberals views. I think that things have changed by now, as people with liberal views can now be seen in business, media, even in politics. Sure, the tradition goes on: remember the scandal with Medvedev’s ill-conceived visit to the MGU Department of Journalism? However, as far as personalities of protest organizers are concerned, I don’t recognize anyone explicitly connected to MGU or any other school. True though, Ryzhkov is formally a professor at High School of Economics.

    Best,
    Eugene

    p.s. I naturally didn’t risk to even touch upon the huge topic of science in today’s Russia.

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