As the presidential campaign in Russia takes shape, surprises start coming in. Firstly, Vladimir Putin, widely expected to win the March 4 vote, may agree to take part in televised debates with other candidates. Should this happen, the debates will become a milestone of post-Communist politics in Russia. No previous president has ever taken part in an open debate with opponents.
Boris Yeltsin first refused to take part in this open contest in 1991, stating he had nothing to discuss with Communist Party stooges, which was at the time considered to be the right move. But he did the same thing in 1996, claiming that he would not condescend to arguing with his main rival, the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who “represented the forces of “red revanche.”
In fact, Mr. Yeltsin was afraid he would lose, since he had become deeply unpopular with the Russians at the time. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev followed suit, refusing to take part in debates. Without the main contenders, debates degenerated into dull shows with increasingly lame candidates mouthing banalities and trying not to overstep the invisible boundary, which allows critique of the abstract “vlast” – Russian for “state authority” - but does not permit touching upon the main personalities (like Putin), their collaborators or allegations of corruption at the very top.
I took part in the 2004 televised debates as a member of a panel of journalists. They were marked by a real apotheosis of absurdity. The then speaker of the upper house of parliament Sergei Mironov was running for president on a platform of … supporting Vladimir Putin for president. Being Putin’s appointee to Russia’s third most important constitutional position, Mironov was serving as a “back up” candidate, in case others decide to withdraw from the race and make it invalid. Of which there was never a single chance.
Veteran politicians who, come election year, take part in presidential elections, are old warhorses and know the rules of the Kremlin game very well: nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the grotesquely misnamed Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia; Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist party chieftain for nearly two decades; and Grigory Yavlinsky, once the standard bearer of Russian liberalism, now tired and disillusioned. They have been fixtures for the last fifteen years. Zhirinovsky ran as early as 1991. No one ever expected them to win.
No one expects any of them to win against Vladimir Putin this time: them, or the newcomer to the electoral scene – billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. But the tone of the candidates has changed.
Mironov, who by now has lost Putin’s full support and was removed from his senate speaker post, is proposed as a presidential candidate by his “A Just Russia” party. It was an unremarkable, tame, Kremlin-controlled gathering, but still it had enough fresh faces to attract a massive vote by the urban middle class, who on December 4 were seeking an outlet for their anger with the pro-Putin “United Russia.” Mr. Mironov promised, if elected, to liberalise elections law and hold new parliamentary elections in a few months after the presidential vote. Mr. Zyuganov, whose party also benefited massively from the December protest vote, went further, saying he would reduce the presidential term from six to five years and limit one person’s tenure as the head of state to two terms.
It is conceivable that Messrs. Prokhorov and Yavlinsky will say the same things. Actually this takes further electoral reforms that were already proposed by President Dmitry Medvedev in December. These falls short of the more radical demands from the massive rallies held in Moscow last month, which implicitly deem both the December Duma elections and the upcoming presidential ones as lacking legitimacy due to the Kremlin’s domination over the electoral commissions, police, national TV and regional administrations. However it seems this presidential vote will go on as planned. Still, the Kremlin-chaperoned opposition would have to advance ideas which none of them would have dreamed of airing even six months ago.
If TV debates are held, this will present a new challenge to Mr. Putin. He would have to submit himself to open public criticism and questioning in front of the national audience – something he has never done before. Even if he faces the lambs rather than the wolves, the mere novelty of the situation will present new problems for Putin’s public image. If he refuses to debate he would just add to the frustration of his more clever supporters and enrage the opposition, both in and outside parliament. This could also mean that he may well be dealing with the wolves rather than lambs quite soon. It is not a very good choice for the prime minister at a time when he and his system of governance undergo a real crisis of legitimacy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.