Russian elections: Putin 4.0 at a crossroads

After Russian elections on Sunday, expect what amounts to a fourth term for Putin. But Putin 4.0 faces a tough choice. His KGB officer instincts call for tightening the grip. But Russia's future – and thousands of protesters – demand greater freedom and reforms.

Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Reuters
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin listens during a cabinet meeting in Moscow March 1. He could boost education and make Russia more attractive to foreign investors, including adopting 'good governance.' Instead, he maintains a confrontational attitude toward protesters and the West.

Only two questions surround the upcoming presidential election in Russia: Will Vladimir Putin win in the first round or the second? And how big will the post-election protests be?

The election outcome is not in doubt, but Russia’s future is. Аnd this is important for the US and the rest of the world, as Russia is the biggest country on the planet and the second largest nuclear power.

Unless Mr. Putin addresses the nation’s serious problems, which have been accumulating for 20 years, Russia may slide into stagnation similar to what the Soviet Union experienced under Leonid Brezhnev in the mid-1970s and ’80s. Or worse, it could blow up in a bloody revolt.

This will be effectively Putin’s fourth term. The first two spanned 2000-08, and protégé Dmitry Medvedev’s term was really Putin’s third.

Extraordinary luck, stemming from high oil prices and the resultant cash flow, as well as prudent economic policies by ex-Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, have raised Russians’ living standard under Putin’s rule. Yet the limits of the resource-extracting economy are clear.

But instead of boosting education and making Russia attractive to foreign investment and domestic entrepreneurs, Putin and Mr. Medvedev have neglected the vital software on which the modern state runs: good governance, the rule of law, efficient bureaucracy, and personal freedom. Putin’s pre-election missives harken back to 19th century nationalism and imperialism.

Empires come at a cost. Russia’s Soviet-era infrastructure – roads, airports, and power stations – are falling apart. Trillions of dollars in capital investment are needed. But that’s not where Putin has spent the money.

Instead, he has chosen to confront the West and the Arab world over Syria and Iran. He announced a $700 billion rearmament program. He calls political opponents “jackals scavenging in front of foreign embassies” and “monkey packs,” and chillingly accused them of a planned assassination of one of their own leaders to pin the blame on his regime. He also accused Hillary Rodham Clinton and the State department of paying for recent mass demonstrations to instigate an Arab Spring in Moscow.

Anti-Americanism is rampant. The Kremlin-controlled media launched a Stalinist propaganda attack against US Ambassador Michael McFaul, ironically, the architect of the Obama “reset” policy.

Meanwhile, crony capitalism and power concentration continue unabated. Putin keeps the former Yukos oil company owner and democracy advocate Mikhail Khodorkovsky in jail. A kangaroo court in 2010 handed down a second sentence to make sure he and his associates remain out of circulation until 2017.

To avoid becoming Brezhnev 2.0, Putin 4.0 will need to stabilize Russia by diffusing discontent, addressing the nation’s modernization and infrastructure investment needs, and further integrating it into the global economy. But the first essential step is to conduct presidential elections in a transparent manner. On Sunday, it is the process, not its outcome that will matter the most.

After that, Putin will need to undertake systemic reforms based on political participation, such as elections not just of governors – which are being restored – but also of the mayors of St. Petersburg and Moscow, who are effectively appointed by the president. Maybe it is time for a new, less czar-like constitution. Single-mandate districts (as in the US and Britain), as opposed to national party lists, for the Duma elections and an elected Senate would tighten the ties between voters and elected officials, too.

Russia is too big to be ruled from the Kremlin only. Some of these steps will be taken by the Duma, but much more needs to be tackled.

Can Putin address the woeful state of courts, security services, and police? They are regarded as protection rackets and bribe-sucking “vacuum cleaners.” Reform has been promised often over the last decades, but little has changed. The militia was renamed police. New designer uniforms were issued to the cops. But that’s about it. Yet, corruption is the rot that destroys the heart of Russia and keeps all but the largest investors away.

To facilitate the anti-corruption drive, Putin needs to relinquish the tight grip of national TV channels and other media. Attacks on the free Echo Moskvy radio station must stop, along with newspaper part-owner Alexander Lebedev's crusading and muck-racking at Novaya Gazeta.Today, people can get information from social media, thus Soviet-style repression is obsolete.

International business pays a high price for the Kremlin’s heavy-handedness. When Russia joins the World Trade Organization accession, US corporations may gain access to the organization’s dispute resolution mechanisms, provided the US Congress lifts the obsolete 1974 Jackson-Vanick Amendment that ties trade to emigration. Yet given the sorry state of the rule of law in Russia, members of Congress are unlikely to remove the Jackson-Vanick roadblock without gaining a legislative tool to address Russian corruption and human rights violations.

One such bill is the bipartisan Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act, proposed by Senators John McCain (R) of Arizona and Benjamin Cardin (D) of Maryland.  It is named after a lawyer who exposed a $230 corruption scheme and died in detention, apparently as a result of torture, beatings, and denial of medical care.

The Magnitsky Act would ban most notoriously corrupt foreign officials from entering the US and allow their ill-gotten property to be seized and confiscated by US courts. Similar legislation is being debated in Canada and some European countries.

Western leaders also should demand the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other political prisoners. As was the release of Andrey Sakharov by Mikhail Gorbachev, this would be a symbolic gesture, signaling a new beginning.

Putin 4.0 faces a tough call. His KGB officer instincts and his personal reading of Russian history call for tightening the grip. But Russia’s future, its survival, and prosperity are calling for greater freedom and far reaching reforms. Without them, Russian history teaches us that repression can last only so long.

If that’s the case, Putin’s next term in office and his country’s prosperity are likely to end up in an intractable crisis, if not in a violent revolt. That would be, as the Russians say, “senseless and pitiless.”

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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