As the count down to Russia’s Parliamentary Election on December 2011 begins, Prime Minister Putin says the collapse of the Soviet Union is the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
Anniversary can say a lot about a country particularly one like Russia where the past is almost as unpredictable as the future. Two decades ago, in the summer of 1991, the Soviet Union fell apart. How Russia celebrates (or mourns) this event will reveal much about the country’s future.
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s Prime Minister and former President, has famously said that the collapse of the country in which he served as a low-ranking kgb officer was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. (That he owned his presidency to that “catastrophe” clearly did not matter). Portraying the 1990’s, when Russia struggled to embrace economic and political freedoms, as a decade of chaos and disintegration halted only be his coming to power has been one of the central narratives of his rule.
Combined with improving living standards, this narrative has been used to justify a shift away from federalism. A political freedom achieved in the 1990’s, including regional elections, competitive politics and independent (of the Kremlin) television, have eroded. Having consolidated enormous power in his hands, Mr. Putin can afford some charitable and nostalgic words about the 1990s, incorporating that era into the history of building Russian statehood. But whatever the rhetoric, he will celebrate the anniversary by disposing of the last relics of that period.
Russian elections are increasingly reminiscent of the Soviet era, when choice was narrowed to one candidate and one party. The parliamentary elections in December 2011 will be “won” by the Kremlin’s own United Russia party, which has no ideology or purpose other than consolidating the ruling bureaucracy. Russia’s presidential election is not due to until 2012, but its results will probably be known by the end of 2011 when Vladimir Putin will decide whether he will retake his old office or allow Dmitry Medvedev to stay for another term.
Either way Mr. Putin will hang on to power. The differences between the internet-savvy, twittering Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin, who cultivates the image of a down-to-earth, hands-on leader, are stylistic, as Mr. Medvedev himself has said, “There will be no radical changes, not because they are not needed.
Much of the Russian political class disagrees with this. The fierce fight that broke out between the Kremlin and Russia’s most powerful regional baron, Yuri Luzhkov, the Moscow mayor, proves the point.
In September Mr. Medvedev spectacularly sacked Mr. Luzhkov who had rules Moscow sine 1992, citing a “loss of confidence”.
The sacking was preceded by an ugly smear campaign across state television channels which: revealed” the massive corruption, traffic paralysis and othe problems long obvious to every Muscovite. Mr. Luzhkov, one of Russia’s most weathered politicians, who had his own presidential ambitions in the late 1990s and who managed to keep economic autonomy from the Kremlin throughout the 2000s, his back. He wrote an open letter to Mr. Medvedev accusing him of organizing a witch-hunt and (shock, horror!) being undemocratic.
Mr. Luzhkov is as unlikely a champion of democracy as the Kremlin is a fighter against corruption. Neither side means what is says, but the fight is real and will have repercussions on the political system in 2011 ands beyond. It is not a fight for or against democracy or corruption; it is one between regionalism and centralization in Russia. Mr. Luxhkov is the embodiment of a 1990s parernalistic leader who ran Moscow as his fief drawing on the support of the population. He swore his loyalty to Mr. Putin in exchange for keeping his autonomy. The deal is now off. Mr. Luzhkov quit the United Russia party, which he helped to set up, and could have a destablishing impact on the political system.
The awkward squad. When the global financial struck Russia in 2008, Mr. Luzhkov was the first to argue for bringing back regional elections something that most Russians want and the Kremlin fears. Russia’s rulers prefer a system that is reliant on obedience rather than agreements, where governors and mayors are not more than Kremlin emissaries with no independent power base. Mr. Luzhkov challenged this system.
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