Global Center Stage By ANURADHA M. CHENOY*


While multi-party systems for the state Duma and Councils exist, Putin’s United Russia makes it a one-party dominated system. Opposition parties like the Communist Party and others play a role, but parties and civil society need support to become more vibrant.

The Presidential elections will take place in the Russian Federation in March 2018 with Vladimir Putin as the main candidate. He continues to dominate the political landscape since he took power after Boris Yeltsin stepped down in 2000. The obvious conclusion is that he will be the winner. An important opposition fi gure, Alexei Navalny has been debarred by the central election commission from contesting on grounds of a Russian law that forbids persons charged with serious crimes from contesting. Navalny is facing prosecution for felony and embezzlement in a corruption case. This makes the election one-sided, and has been condemned by the US and Western leaders. Russia, on the other hand, argues that the support for Navalny amounts to ‘interference’ in the Russian elections. Putin has said that Navalny should be allowed to stand, but the formal institutions need to decide. This is in keeping with Putin’s position of managing a limited democracy, continuing his super presidency and giving some weight to autonomous institutions.

The Communist Party of Russia (CPRF) will field its electoral candidate Pavel Grudunin, an influential businessman who runs his agro business empire with ‘socialist’ principles, where workers are provided freehousing, healthcare and schools. This shows that the CPRF and its retiring leader Gennady Zyuganov are now open to some change. The Communist Party is forging a unity under the idea of a left platform in state bodies.

The extreme right wing party, miss-named the Liberal Democratic Party, with Zhirinovsky, who has been running against Putin, on an Orthodox Christian and anti ‘other’ agenda, is unlikely to get much support, especially since Putin himself has a comfortable alliance with the Orthodox Church. Putin has basic support and legitimacy from the vast mass of Russian people. The popular narrative in Russia is that Putin has (i) held together the Russian State, that was threatened with further disintegration because of separatism in the Caucasus, especially Chechnya and Dagestan that he was able to resolve. (ii) dealt with threats such as terrorism and external threat of a militarised NATO on Russian borders, with a strong hand, and without threatening minorities. (iii) encouraged the revival of Christianity, funded the restoration of Churches and linked with the Orthodox Church patriarchs.

The unilateral Western sanctions on Russia after its intervention in Ukraine and ‘recovery’ of Crimea, have been used by Putin for increasing Russian nationalism. It also helped him strengthen domestic manufacturing and the economy which has not suffered as much as it was feared it would. Independent surveys show that Putin’s domestic popularity remains high despite some apparent dissent and cynicism. It is argued that the Russian political culture, by and large, still accepts these new versions of autocratic rule as the need for a ‘strong’ hand.

Putin’s re-election will mean a continuation of Putin’s policy, a stronger role for Russia internationally, and stability within Russia, though measures of controlling dissent and civil society space will also continue.

Russia has a ‘super presidency’; the Russian Constitution itself is designed in a way, where a president overrides other institutions. The role of the presidential offi ce does not refl ect a ‘balance of powers’ and separation of powers that liberal and parliamentary democracies require.

Putin, already in the last decade, put in new laws to control fi ssiparous tendencies that had crept into Russian Republics. Governors directly accountable to Putin, regulate the zones under which Russian republics (states of the federation) lie. This however also means that Russia is only quasi-federal. State power is fairly tightly controlled by the centre.

While multi-party systems for the state Duma and Councils exist, Putin’s United Russia makes it a one-party dominated system. Opposition parties like the Communist Party and others play a role, but parties and civil society need support to become more vibrant.

The Russian press and media, controlled by oligarchs, have been suffi ciently tamed and the state media remains a powerful government tool. Thus, while independent voices remain in academia and civil society, dissent in not encouraged beyond state parameters. On social indices, Russia fares as a fairly inclusive state and provides a fair amount of social services. Russia remains a state with paradoxes, but Putin has emerged as the leader with the legitimacy to reconcile contradictions.

Putin’s Foreign Policy and Russia’s Global Role

Russian foreign policy and national interest is interestingly inclusive of all earlier Russian regimes. Note for example, that the geo-political rivalry between Russia and the West crosses ideological differences and similarities. So, Soviet rivalry with the West continues in Putin’s capitalist Russia. Russia’s interest in the regional space around the Russian border, and the rivalry with the West is as dominant in today’s Russia as it was in the Soviet past and earlier. Russia’s support to many countries of the Third World, starting from India, and now independent emerging countries also has deep continuity through different phases of Russian history.

Putin’s re-election ensures continuation and strengthening of Russia seeking a greater role in the international system. This includes: viewing its role as a bridge between the West (North) and East (South); commitment to multilateralism and continued support to the building of a multi-polar world, along with China and India; increasing leverage in a multi-polar system. Putin is claiming a ‘major power status’ for Russia by: (i) Playing a role as a negotiator in regional politics that includes especially Central Asia and West Asia; (ii) Russia’s military and diplomatic role in Syria which shows that Putin cannot be ignored in any critical settlement in West Asia; (iii) Russia has systematically re-built closer ties with all Central Asian States, and built security as well as economic blocs with them; (iv) The Russian position on Ukraine and their re-taking of Crimea was popular in the country and sanctions against Russia have strengthened Putin domestically; (v) Russia has become a strategic ally of China, even while it has many contradictions with policies and has questions about China’s rise; and, (vi) Russia is building ties systematically with the ASEAN countries like Japan and others.

Russia has both closer strategic alliances with China, while contradictions and confl ict of interests remain subterranean. Strategic interests with China have been strengthened on account of: the Western sanctions on Russia; NATO’s moving closer to Russian borders; closer economic ties both at state and regional levels between republics and regions within Russia and China; increasing exchange in Rouble and Yuan, etc. It can also be attributed to Russian and Western differences on almost all Russian moves in Central and West Asia. In other words, a great chasm of different perceptions on international politics remains between Russia and the West.

Here, it should be noted that the US’s threat perception of China has increased, more so in the context of Chinese president Xi’s clear assertion that China’s economic rise is to be followed by a more assertive role in international politics. In addition, China’s claims in the South China Sea, its move on protecting interests from North Korea to Africa and China’s Belt and Roadway Initiative (BRI) all signal that China wishes to share greater power and assert its interests in the domain of international politics. While China could share this power with other claimants, it might also evidently balance Russia against its interests with the US.

So, Putin is aware, that while Russia can have a leveraging role, as China would like to use Russian lines to go to Europe. At the same time, Russia has acceded to Indian (CPEC) as it goes through areas sensitive for India.

Russia’s new and developing relations with Pakistan are because of Russian high stakes in a stable Afghanistan and Central Asia. They will not risk improving relations with Pakistan at the cost of India. But they are well aware of Pakistan’s nuisance power on their border.

Russia-India relations remain at a consistent high and with special as well as specialised relations, as evident from statements of leadership of both countries. Russia is a special strategic partner to India, and India can use Russia in dealing with many tricky issues such as Doklam, where Russia can put pressure on China. India’s military and energy tie up with Russia is also strong and mutually benefi cial. But business relations are unfortunately weak. It is here that both governments, business associations, and banking institutions need to come together to remove bottlenecks that are preventing business from growing. Indian businesses need confi dence-building in the Russian market, fi nd niche areas, and the ‘ease of business’ methodologies. There has to be a collective will and push for this. Once this is sorted out, Indian–Russian relations that are amongst the best India has with any other country, are bound to increase to newer heights.

Go to Global Center Stage

Back to Top

Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.