Running Against the West

Voting is just a month away, but a landslide is already rumbling through Russia. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, whose list of candidates for the December 2 legislative elections is headed by President Vladimir Putin himself, seems well on the way to securing a huge majority in the 450-seat Duma. In fact, the latest polls this week show no other party, not even the stalwart Communist Party, surmounting the 7% barrier needed to earn seats in the new legislature. If that happens, then a few mandates will be automatically accorded the second-place party — no matter how few votes it gets — under a provision of the election law that prevents one party from monopolizing the legislative branch.

Since Putin tied his name to the party’s fate on October 1, Unified Russia officials have cast the elections as a national plebiscite on Putin personally and his policies in general. Putin’s decision to run on Unified Russia’s ticket has thrown Russia’s political scene — never very delicately balanced — completely out of whack.

With little in the way of serious opposition, Putin and his Unified Russia party have constructed an opponent that can strike fear in the electorate and yet pose no electoral challenge. But U.S. policies, too, have made this anti-Western tilt in Russia a much more viable political option.

Spin, Kremlin-Style

The Kremlin’s control of the political process is firmly entrenched, and Kremlin managers — headed by deputy presidential chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, who is roughly the Kremlin equivalent of Karl Rove — have scripted the elections scrupulously. They have doled out time on state-controlled television, given friendly advice to all the parties about whom to include and whom to exclude among their candidates, and held meetings with all the governors of Russia’s regions and with more than a thousand mayors to make sure there is no ad-libbing as the vote approaches.

However, such a high level of control is fraught with the danger of making the elections irrelevant. A poll released by the independent Levada Center late in October, for instance, found that more than one-third of Russians don’t believe the country needs a legislature at all. Clearly, Unified Russia’s plan to cast the election as a referendum on Putin is part of a strategy to avoid this problem.

Another, equally important part of this strategy is a concerted effort to depict the elections (and the March 2008 presidential election) as a choice between stability and chaos. Although the election scriptwriters must be careful not to depict the political system created by Putin over the last eight years as overly fragile, they have introduced a strong fear of instability into the campaign mix. That fear has been stoked in various ways, including the depiction of corruption, inflation, and infighting among the security services as potentially existential threats to Russia as a state. Putin and his team, in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, portray themselves as the thin line between Russia as a world power and Russia as a divided geopolitical nonentity dishing up its boundless natural resources.

Real issues, of course, do not play a role in Russian politics — at least, not in the portion of Russian politics that is played out in public. There is no serious discussion domestically on foreign-policy issues such as, for instance, the significance of the U.S. missile-defense proposals, the Iran nuclear issue, the status of Kosovo, or Moscow’s deteriorating relations with regional neighbors like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. On these questions, as on domestic issues, Putin’s course is the only option and that course is determined behind the curtain of power. On any of them, the Kremlin can and has made dramatic and unexpected reversals, all the while depicting each move as part of Putin’s course.

The West Is Not the Best

However, an artificial foreign-policy environment is being created to further stoke public fears and to enhance Putin’s status as the country’s best hope for the future. A drumbeat of anti-Westernism — mostly in the form of anti-Americanism — has been building steadily over at least the last 18 months and has in recent weeks become one of the main themes of the evolving campaign. At the end of September, Russian state television broadcast a Sunday primetime special called “Velvet.ru” that charged blatantly that the CIA is in league with Russian opposition politicians and nongovernmental organizations in a plot to foment a “velvet revolution” in Russia. The report by one of Russian state media’s most prominent journalists said the West is bent on breaking up Russia and seizing control of its natural resources.

“Velvet.ru” skillfully exploited some U.S. foreign policies that are deeply unpopular in Russia, including the Iraq war (which was depicted as an unprovoked invasion motivated solely by a desire to seize the country’s oil) and moral and financial support in recent years for opposition movements in Serbia and Montenegro, Ukraine, and Georgia.

Just a few days later, Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Federal Security Service, the main successor organization to the Soviet-era KGB, told the popular weekly Argumenty i fakti that the United States and Great Britain are engaged in a major espionage campaign against Russia, both directly and through the security services of Georgia, Poland, and the Baltic States. Patrushev claimed his agency has uncovered 14 employees and 33 agents of foreign intelligence services working in Russia so far this year. “Viewing the collapse of the Soviet Union as their achievement, they are now hatching plans aimed at the dismemberment of Russia,” he said. A Levada Center poll in October found that 30% of Russians consider the CIA a “terrorist organization,” a perception that is growing steadily and is being promoted by the Kremlin’s media machine. Such attitudes create a Kremlin-friendly context for the public to view the ongoing crackdowns against opposition figures, independent media, and nongovernmental organizations throughout the country.

U.S. Miscues

That context has already been laid out in recent years and months as a result of the domestic spinning of many actual points of controversy between Russia and the West. NATO expansion, in particular, has always been easy for the Kremlin to present in this way, as Western statements that the bloc is no longer directed against Russia but against “modern threats” have been seemingly belied by the alliance’s steady march up to Russia’s borders. The superficial nature of contacts within the format of the NATO-Russia Council compared to the fast-track membership drives of former Warsaw Pact countries and the Baltic States has long been a source of irritation to Russia. NATO overflights of the Baltic States are a periodic source of tensions, as are Western statements that the first point on the agenda for an independent Kosovo could be NATO membership. Russians, likewise, have trouble digesting efforts to step up relations between the alliance and Georgia or to hold joint exercises with Ukraine in the Black Sea.

At the same time, U.S. efforts to restrict Russian sales of weapons and high technology — particularly nuclear technology — are easily used as evidence of the supposed plot to reduce Russia to a mere exporter of raw materials, as is perceived U.S. stalling on Russia’s bid to enter the World Trade Organization. Regarding the WTO, as with other international organizations including NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Kremlin propagandists have had an easy time convincing the public that double standards prevail in the West’s relations with Russia, undermining public confidence in international organizations generally and enhancing the notion that Russia must go it alone internationally.

The ease with which the Kremlin’s election managers have exploited this anti-Western theme attests to the inherent fragility of relations between Russia and the trans-Atlantic community. The overall attitude both in Moscow and the West that the two sides can focus on common interests and resign themselves to areas of conflict is, on closer examination, surprisingly similar to the prevailing attitude of the detente period of the Cold War. The failure of both sides to develop a genuine strategic partnership — although it is far from certain whether that was ever really possible — in the post-perestroika period is now playing a large role in the institutionalization of a new authoritarian regime in Russia. This regime will soon get a resounding stamp of approval from a public terrorized by images of sabotage, chaos, and — to use Patrushev’s word — “dismemberment.”

Robert Coalson is a Russia analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).