A Marathon Election Campaign
No. 1 2002 December
Irina Kobrinskaya

Irina Kobrinskaya is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

It became clear as early as May-June 2002 that Russia was
starting to prepare itself for the season of parliamentary
(December 2003) and presidential (March 2004) elections, even
though the elections were, then, more than a year and a half

The election campaign got off to a brisk start against a
backdrop of nervous expectation of American strikes on Iraq, a
dramatic deterioration of Russia’s relations with Georgia and
uncertainty in its relations with Belarus and Ukraine.

The coming elections arouse little interest in the West: the
presidential election is still a long way off and contains no
element of suspense since Vladimir Putin’s popularity is sky-high.
Stability remains the main feature of the political situation in
the country. However, accents have been placed and trends are
emerging more clearly in domestic and foreign policy as the
interconnection between the two is becoming ever more pronounced.
This reveals itself more clearly if one takes a closer look at the
dynamics of Russian policy. For what makes the forthcoming
elections special is the fact that it is precisely now that the
foundations of the Russian strategy for 2004-2008 are being laid in
the economy, as well as in home affairs and foreign policy, with
the latter playing a more critical role in the development of
Russia than ever before. There is a kind of review taking place of
political blocs and parties, of political alignments and public
sentiments and of the attitude of the mass media; an agenda for the
presidential campaign, a program for 2004-2008, is taking

So, the current election campaign is less about preparing for
the coming elections, as for the next four-year cycle, and this
accounts for its early start and the differences from the previous
campaigns. In the next year and a half a crucial role will probably
be played not by political technologies and tactics, but by the
development of a future strategy and the preparing of the
political, social and economic stage for getting it

The Electoral Battlefield

The parliamentary elections, though regarded as something
largely instrumental for the Kremlin, are nevertheless of
fundamental importance in ensuring continued support for its
decisions. Many of the reforms (economic, legal and military) being
elaborated and implemented require the corresponding legislation to
be passed and depend, for their success, on greater cooperation and
integration with the West. So, foreign policy becomes a key element
in the 2003 and 2004 elections and, therefore, a key element
determining Russian domestic policy.

The Kremlin has chosen foreign policy as a key instrument of
consolidation. The spate of summits in the spring (Russia-U.S.,
Russia-EU, Russia-NATO and G-8) gave a strong impetus to the
Russian elite and public opinion, indicating as it did that
Russia’s intention to become integrated into Western society is
serious and long-term, and giving a final answer to the question
“Who is Mr. Putin?” by demonstrating that he is a politician in the
Western mold and that Russian foreign policy has been fully

By defining the key function of foreign policy as “creating a
favorable external environment for internal development,” the
authorities are at the same time trying to complete the
long-drawn-out process of post-Soviet self-identification, and to
resolve what are still considerable differences over:

— the model of internal development;

— the choice of policy with regard to the external world;

— the choice of a modernization strategy and definition of
industrial policy in the context of integration into the
increasingly globalized economy.

There has been a substantial shift in terms of assessing the
model of internal development. More and more analysts feel that the
question of what type of regime we have is secondary, while the
effectiveness of the powers that be in reforming the country in the
short and medium term is crucial, and that includes the reforms
commonly described as democratic and legal, that is, tending to
restrain arbitrary rule.

It is a paradox noted by both experts and journalists that in
democratic Russia there is more room for opposition to Putin, a man
who is firmly committed to cooperation with the West.

The shifts in assessments are partly due to the changes in the
wake of the September 11 terrorist acts in the U.S. As Russian
observers have noted, the fall-out of the tragedy has included a
“streamlining” of judicial procedures in America, and a growing
role of the special services elsewhere. Irrational fear of terror
leads people to vote for an administration that can strike back and
protect them by all means available.

U.S. foreign policy, apparently placing its stake on military
force, and with a disdain for international treaties, is now forced
to restrict democracy and practise double standards. It has shaken
the traditional understanding of liberalism and democracy by
putting expediency first. This all poses dangers for societies with
weak democratic traditions, unsettled democratic institutions and
practices, and Russia at the moment fits into such a category.

And yet the most solid guarantee of democratic development still
remains integration with Western democracies and institutions. This
is what Vladimir Putin is doing as he struggles to overcome
differences with a significant body of the political elite over the
choice of foreign policy. In this Russia differs dramatically from
the transforming countries of Central Europe, where, despite no
little controversy over social and economic issues (especially in
connection with the forthcoming admission to the European Union),
the political elite is surprisingly consolidated on the foreign
policy agenda.

Society – for the time being – stands aside from the
president-elite paradigm. Quite in line with the popular Russian
misconception (“a kind czar surrounded by evil boyars”), it trusts
the former and detests the latter.

Putin has not yet managed to consolidate the elite and society,
and the foreign policy dimension seems to be more of an obstacle
than an aid to such consolidation. In the opinion of the most
authoritative club of the Russian elite, the Council on Foreign and
Defense Policy, or CFDP, Russia cannot afford to pursue an
excessively active foreign policy that diverts the leadership and
the elite from the immediate tasks of national revival. That is to
say, choosing foreign policy as the key campaign issue is fraught,
first, with the difficulty of securing public support for the
President’s pro-Western line and, second, though less probable,
with the possibility of deviations from that line arising from
internal political exigencies. Differences over foreign policy may
turn out to be one of the main clashes and bones of contention
during the coming political season in Russia, a season that
promises to last almost a year and a half.

Internal policy and the economic model of development are, in
many ways, prompted by the external environment and this is the
main catch for the elite, for business, for society and for the
Kremlin. The President seems to be aware of it and he has opted for
cooperation with the West as an instrument to “coerce” Russia into
the market and towards the law-governed state.

Other important reasons why the Kremlin – at least at the
current stage – is leaning towards foreign policy as the main
election theme are, first, a dearth of “success stories,”
breakthroughs in the social and economic sphere; or rather the fact
that stabilization and a certain progress with reforms are
impossible to “sell” to the public as achievements. And, second,
there are the abiding problems of Chechnya and military reform,
among others.

These topics were widely discussed last fall in the Russian
print and electronic media, most particularly in connection with
the crisis in Russia-Georgia relations.

Government, Business and Politics

The business community plays the key role in the process of
selecting a modernization strategy and industrial policy in the
context of integrating into the increasingly global economy.
Although analysts still, as of old, base their projections on the
links of the Kremlin and the government with the “family” and the
main business groups, serious changes have been taking place in
that segment of the Russian political scene. While traditionally
trying to put “their own people” in the executive power and
resorting to direct lobbying, this time business groups are
struggling not so much over being “close to the president’s ear,”
as over issues that directly affect their own interests. Not least
of these issues is the question of Russia’s entry into the WTO. In
reality such an approach is shared by those Russian entrepreneurs
who have vested interests in certain branches of industry and who
see Russia’s opening up to Western competition and standarts as
posing a threat to their own businesses, and often “gray” business

Many observers note that the business community has shifted the
whole character of the discussion on Russia’s membership of the
WTO. Although many government officials and businessmen still see
entry into the WTO as an end in itself, to be ardently supported or
fiercely opposed as the case may be, common sense is beginning to
prevail as the question increasingly focuses on what we stand to
gain from becoming a member of that organization. It is not until
the third discussion of the report of the task force on the WTO,
due by the end of 2002-early 2003, that it will be possible to
determine the distance that Russia still has to cover to become a
WTO member.

The Kremlin, for its part, has so far managed to stick largely
to Vladimir Putin’s proclaimed principle of all businessmen being
“equidistant” from the authorities.

Economic interest, effectiveness and practicability have been
adopted as the main criteria of Russian foreign policy by the
majority of foreign policy experts, and even by the traditionally
critical media. A well known economist, Alexander Nekipelov, who
does not belong to the radical reformist camp, thinks that at the
current and future stages, which will be transitional, the most
important thing is “not to look for a cure-all but to create
effective mechanisms for forming mutually acceptable compromises on
key issues of world economy, interaction of states, groups of
states, transnational and national structures and, finally,
citizens of different countries, i.e. mechanisms to achieve the
greatest degree of harmony of their interests.”

The media are practically unanimous in refusing to see Moscow’s
position on the possible military operation in Iraq as supportive
of the regime of Saddam Hussein. “Moscow is fighting not for Saddam
but for its economic interests in Iraq and for a new relationship
of genuine partnership with the U.S..” The price tag attached to
the problem is the $2-3 billion a year Russian companies have been
getting from trade under the UN’s “Oil for Food” program. Even more
important are the oil fields which Russian companies got from the
current government. If and when oil starts flowing, it could bring
up to $1 billion only in tax revenues. Guarantees of Russian
participation in the economic rebuildng of Iraq — by providing
goods, developing oilfields, etc. &mdash are of key
importance, too.

“The price of the issue” is something of a key phrase among
experts and journalists. The price of the issue is how much, if
anything, Russia will lose if the U.S. launches a war on Iraq; how
much oil prices will fall, if at all. Estimates vary. Some do not
think prices can fall below $18-20 per barrel because low prices
are not in the interests of the oil business in the U.S. itself.
Others, including the head of the Yukos company, Mikhail
Khodorkovsky, an ardent champion of broader cooperation with the
U.S., think that prices may drop to 14 dollars per barrel. That
would mean a collapse of the 2003 Russian budget which assumes that
the oil price will be $21.50 per barrel; the re-emergence of the
all-but-solved “problem of 2003,” that is the peak of Russia’s
payment of interest on foreign debts and destabilization of the
economy in the election year – with all the internal and external
political consequences that entails. Few politicians and experts
believe that the U.S. will take Russia’s interests into account.
Businessmen are already looking for ways to avoid losses.

Now and in the foreseeable future the business community is just
about the main internal platform on which the Kremlin can rely in
the pursuit of its foreign policy because the strongest support for
Putin’s policy of integration with the West comes from the most
successful and prosperous economic and financial circles, in
particular oil and gas companies which have a vital stake in the
development of the declared energy partnership with the U.S. and
the EU. Putin also has the backing of the members of the Cabinet
responsible for economic matters and the part of the Russian
bureaucracy that has links with business. This was highlighted
during the Putin-Bush summit in May and the Houston
Russian-American energy forum in September. Another group of
support for policies of rapprochement with the West is Russia’s
educated youth.

Changes on the International Scene

In late summer and early fall Russian foreign policy acquired a
focus. The bilateral and multilateral summits with Western leaders
that established “frameworks” and areas of interaction with the
Western community confirmed active re-engagement of Russia in
international affairs and the West’s view of Russia as a serious
long-term partner. Thereafter the Kremlin could afford to
concentrate on its relations with its close neighbors and on
dealing with outstanding problems (the Kremlin, by the way, has
realized that its geostrategic position gave it some strong foreign
policy trump cards). The shift of focus is quite logical: to pursue
an effective policy in the CIS countries, Russia should be secured
against Western accusations of neo-imperialism.

At the same time the Kremlin seems to have given up attempts to
preserve the CIS in its initial shape, and this corresponds to
public sentiments. Opinion polls indicate that only 12 percent of
respondents think the CIS has proved a viable idea. Only 16 percent
believe it is possible to revive the former USSR. But 76 percent
think it is necessary to “look for some new forms of commonwealth
with the former Soviet Republics.”

Moscow’s search for new forms began with a tough demand to its
closest neighbor, Belarus, to “make up its mind.” It is symbolic
that Putin’s position was backed by the media, by the expert
community, and not only by the political right. The President has
to give up the misguided and false game of unification,” “and has
started to calling a spade a spade.” He accused Alexander
Lukashenko of seeking to create something resembling the USSR (the
Belarussian leader actually shuns the prospect of integration). At
the August meeting, described by journalists as the most scandalous
ever, the Russian President proposed that Belarus join Russia not
as a single whole, but as eight regions. The unification schedule
was to be as follows: a referendum in May 2003, elections to a
common parliament in December, and election of a single president
in March 2004. Mr. Putin also proposed another version similar to
integration within the framework of the EU. By presenting
Lukashenko with such a hard choice, Putin hardly expected him to
jump at the offer. But, the i’s were dotted. Experts think that
Putin’s tough stand was partly prompted by the complaints of
Russian industrialists who, against all promises, were denied
access to the privatization of Belarussian industry. Comment in the
Russian media concentrated on economic issues and few people think
that there will be any real integration as long as Lukashenko is in
power – be it within a single state or along EU lines. But the
decisive issue in the integration process would be Belarus entering
the ruble zone, something which it does not oppose. It is another
matter whether the final product will be a union, a federation or a
confederation, or what role Lukashenko will play in it.

Another serious problem for Moscow is shortage of political
levers, because in recent years Alexander Lukashenko has been seen
as the Kremlin’s only political ally.

Russia may find itself in a similar situation in its relations
with Ukraine if the authorities refuse to engage in a reasonable
dialog with the opposition (which has now sought a meeting with
Vladimir Putin). The scale of the problems will be much larger,
however. Leonid Kuchma’s positions are growing weaker not only
inside the country, but in the West, too. Kuchma’s presidency runs
out in 2004 and it is necessary to establish contacts with his
potential successors, especially since not only Vladimir Putin, but
also the current model of the Russian political regime are rather
popular in Ukraine. Worried over the problem of the transfer of
power, Ukrainian political scientists view Kuchma’s declared
intention to reintroduce a parliamentary-presidential republic as a
step backwards. They stress that, to implement reform, strong power
rather than more debate is required.

The focus of attention in bilateral relations is trade and
economic problems, ending “trade wars” and following through the
process of creating a gas pipeline consortium (with possible German
participation) – this is an issue that has gained added relevance
because plans to build a second gas pipeline across Belarus and
Poland have been rather drawn out.

Last fall acting through bilateral negotiations, Moscow managed
to make some progress on one of the most delicate strategic
problems. At the end of September Vladimir Putin and Heidar Aliyev
signed a document on delimiting the Caspian seabed. A separate
agreement with Azerbaijan, the second after the May agreement with
Kazakhstan on dividing the natural resources of the Caspian shelf,
may, according to experts, cause Turkmenia and Iran to revise their

Tough statements with regards to Georgia met with a guardedly
negative reaction in the political elite and the media. The reasons
for that are diverse. In addition to the important and very
delicate factor of close cultural affinity, a negative reaction to
the crisis in Russian-Georgian relations was a reflection of the
fact that its real causes have little to do with the relations
between the two countries. Above all, there is the “intractable”
problem of Chechnya, the extreme weakness of Eduard Shevardnadze’s
political regime and the fact that many in Moscow personally
dislike Shevardnadze, who is blamed for the main foreign policy
blunders of Mikhail Gorbachev’s presidency and of being unable to
make Georgia a viable state and a reliable partner. In addition,
many politicians and media felt that Putin’s threats to strike
terrorist bases in Georgia were addressed not so much to Tbilisi as
to the U.S., staking Russia’s claim to have the right to defend its
interests in the Caucasus by the same methods as Washington defends
its interests in Afghanistan. Most were extremely skeptical about
the ability of our military to carry out any such operation
(triggering another flare-up in the debate on military reform and
the negative role of the military in political

The aggravation of Russian-Georgian relations rekindled the
interest of experts and the media in the question of third-party
participation, above all in the settlement of conflicts in the
post-Soviet space (in the Caucasus and Central Asia). In the
broader sense, the question of U.S. participation in conflicts in
Central Asia and the Caucasus, traditional Russian spheres of
influence, is under discussion. Debate has become more lively again
over the problem of some kind of special status for semi-recognized
territories, “the post-Soviet orphans” – Abkhazia, Trans-Dniestria,
Nagorny Karabakh and Chechnya.

None of the proposed solutions to the “Chechen issue” are ideal,
but they all presuppose granting Chechnya broad autonomy. Some
experts, including Emil Pain, maintain that Chechnya can only be
stabilized if the main goal – the settlement of the conflict – is
clearly separated from the goal of gaining power, which is
impossible without an agreement among influential groups in
Chechnya, even those with whom Moscow would have no truck. At the
same time, some more realistic and better argued plans of
settlement in Chechnya have been suggested (for example, the plans
of former Prime minister Evgeny Primakov and prominent
parliamentarian Alexey Arbatov).

Kaliningrad. For all the differences, the problems of Chechnya
and Kaliningrad have much in common: there is no quick “ideal”
solution; in both cases special status is an issue, there is a
threat of secession and there is the problem of
“internationalization,” that is, involvement of third parties.
Finally, it would be hard to ensure smooth elections if these
problems remain unresolved. Shifts in the positions of Moscow and
Brussels indicate that a compromise suitable to both Russia and the
EU will be found. The problem of visas and transit, which as late
as May Moscow raised to the level of “human rights violations,” was
interpreted last fall as a “technical problem”. For its part, the
EU has proposed simplified transit documents and agreed in
principle to help build a high-speed railway line across

Yet, settlement of the transit issue does not resolve the
Kaliningrad problem. Observers note that radical calls by some
politicians in Kaliningrad to break away from Russia may cease to
be extravagant publicity stunts and become a sentiment shared by
the majority of the population. A secession of the region, the
formation of “a fourth Baltic republic” destabilizes the political
balance not only in the Baltic region, but also in the whole of
Europe, because it is easy to see that the next step of the new
entity would be to ask for some form of German protectorate (a deja
vu nightmare for Poland, a blow to the political ambitions of
France, and so on). There are two ways to avoid such a development:
to improve the social and economic situation in the Kaliningrad
Region and to deepen its integration with the European Union.
Neither solution is possible without active involvement of big
Russian business.

The relations with the U.S. remain a key area of Russian foreign
policy. In Russia, like everywhere else, the main topic of the
foreign policy debate is the short-term and long-term consequences
of the U.S. commitment to a unilateral strategy and use of military

The “Power — Weakness” paradigm proposed by Robert Kagan in a
much-discussed article in the June issue of Policy Review has long
been a watershed issue among Russian political scientists, analysts
and journalists commenting on Russian foreign policy. Those who
consider Russia to be weak see no other way but accelerated
integration into the Western community. Those who see Russia as
“still strong” believe that it would be best for Russia to pursue
an independent foreign policy strategy.

That the “power — weakness” and the derivative “individualism —
institutionalism” paradigms are defining ones is witnessed by the
main topics of cover stories in the Russian media. Two such
examples are the Profil magazine’s headline “Solo Voyage” and the
Ekspert’s journal’s lead story “It Is High Time to Become Strong.
Should Russia Be in a Hurry to Join WTO?”

The military factor is one of Russia’s more excruciating
dilemmas. Not being able to follow its present political and
economic course and maintain its current military potential, and
having embarked on a scaling down of the military factor in
international relations in the 1990s, Russia, as indeed, Europe, is
facing a new challenge at the beginning of the century. Experts
have yet to make a full assessment of the consequences, let alone
the necessary actions in response to the new U.S. commitment to
force and the objective revival of military force as a major factor
of international relations. Most political scientists object to
that shift claiming that it leads to destabilization.

Even more of a challenge to Russia than the American commitment
to military force is the U.S. strategy for unilateral actions
because it undermines the warp and weft of Putin’s foreign policy
of integration into the Western community, the commitment to
institutionalize Russia in Western structures. Unilateralism makes
uncertain the role of the U.S. and the Euro-Atlantic community in
the future security architecture.

In effect, Russia’s lag on reform and integration into the
Western community in the 1990s resulted in the situation at the
start of this century when Russia, seeking to catch up, is
objectively in counter-phase to the unilateralist logic of the
U.S., spurred on by the September 11 tragedy. At the same time
Washington so far has proved to be a more predictable and effective
partner than over-beaurocratized Brussels. That creates a serious
problem for Russia which has committed itself to a policy of
“Europe &mdash first” and to as close integraion with the
EU as possible.

It is another matter that the motives driving Europe and Russia
to integrate are different. By uniting and strengthening its
institutions Europe seeks to keep a balance with the U.S., or at
least to preserve its identity. For Russia integration is a way “to
remain among the leaders” and an instrument for stimulating
internal reform.

It is obvious that, in spite of successes in bilateral relations
with the European powers, Russia would not be able to integrate
into the Western community or play a strong role in it without a
support from Washington.

Besides, Europe, partly because it cannot make up its mind
itself, is not yet ready to see Russia as a full fledged ally. Only
serious cooperation with the U.S. in fighting terrorism, the spread
of weapons of mass destruction, organized crime and other threats
of the 21st century, can provide Russia with credentials for
military-political partnership with Europe, and even more so with
the U.S.

Simultaneously, Moscow and Brussels, especially after the
blitzkrieg in Afghanistan, have become aware that in the
foreseeable future it is impossible to face up to new threats
realistically without Washington, just as it is unrealistic to
create new security structures, although the need for them is
becoming ever more evident because of the deepening crisis of NATO.
In practice, the Kremlin has opted for a “policy of the possible.”
This was manifested in the signing in May, in the face of harsh
opposition inside the country, of the treaty on strategic offensive
potentials, and in the position on Iraq, where Russia, in the end,
reached its goals at the UN. There was also the NATO expansion and
the Russia-EU summit last fall. At the same time, there is still a
need for Russia to come up with its own initiatives.

Some analysts see a new challenge for Russia presented by new
American national security strategy – a “clear invitation to Russia
to closer partnership” with the U.S. “which has lost confidence in
its former allies and partners.”

As it enters the third year of the third millennium, Russia is
presented with a unique opportunity to choose an optimal path for
its internal political, economic and foreign policy development.
The trends that will emerge in 2003 in the course of the
parliamentary and presidential election campaigns in Russia may be
crucial in determining the future role of Russia in the global