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What’s Next for Russia’s Political Leadership?

December 27, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Amid election-fraud accusations and growing political turbulence, where are Russia and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin headed? Margaret Warner discusses the country's political upheaval with Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations and Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute.

MARGARET WARNER: So, where are Putin and Russia headed amid this turbulence?

For that, we turn to Stephen Sestanovich, who’s worked on Russia in the State Department and National Security Council staffs over the past three decades. He’s now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Columbia University. And Leon Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, he writes widely about developments in Russia.

And welcome back to the program to you both.

Steve Sestanovich, first parse what happened in Moscow today, Putin’s appearance. What do you make of what he said and did or announced in terms of what it says about how he’s decided to handle these protests?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, Putin was a lot less nasty about the protesters than he was last time. There weren’t a lot of really crude jokes about them.

But he plainly has tried to treat them as though they were Occupy Wall Street, you know, no real leadership, he says, no coherent program, nobody who could get anything done, not a really big crowd. He’s hoping that this will subside, that it will go away, and that the fact that he’s not really telling the truth about this movement will not really come back to bite him, because they do have competent leaders.

They don’t have a unified program, but they’ve got a lot of popular momentum behind them.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that? What did you make of him today?

LEON ARON, American Enterprise Institute: Well, he was positively tender towards the opposition, no comparison…

MARGARET WARNER: Even though he rejected their call, for instance, for a rerun of…

LEON ARON: That’s right, but at least he’s not calling them jackals scrounging for bread crumbs around the embassies, or Judases, or compare their symbols to condoms.

So, he’s ratcheting down the rhetoric. And I suppose that’s a good thing. I think, just to add to what Steve said, Putin faces two big decisions about how to handle, how to behave from now on until the election. He could pretend that nothing happened, that the protests are losing steam, and, you know, continue as before.

Or he can loosen the system up a little bit just to let still more steam out. And it seems to me that this is the latter route that he’s signaling with the speech or with his comments. Yes, the elections are — first of all, he is not giving in to the key demand that there’ll be an additional election, which, as we have seen…

MARGARET WARNER: For the parliament.

LEON ARON: … his own former first deputy prime minister, finance minister, Kudrin, said that either we have elections or there will be a revolution. I think that that may be the case.

So Putin is not giving in on that. However, he proposes that these elections be fair. Well, this is a dangerous slope — because fairness, to most opposition, if not all opposition, means the government no longer controls the television. Will they settle for anything else? I don’t know. But this to me in Russian politics today is the key definition of fairness.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see that pledge of his? He said, ah, I don’t need any kind of vote-rigging.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: He said he doesn’t want to have vote-rigging, but he wants to have the vote. He wants to have the presidential election on schedule.

Medvedev last week did something a little more far-reaching and possibly a little more dangerous. He said, we’re going to have major political reforms that affect the way elections are conducted. There is going to be free registration of parties. There will be elections for governors again, a series of changes.

And those are going to become the target for the opposition. They’re going to say, we need to apply those right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay, because he didn’t promise he was going to apply them before the presidential election.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: That’s right. The opposition now has something to focus on. You say those are good reforms. We want them now. We aren’t satisfied with the rigged elections of last month and the rigged elections to come for next year.

MARGARET WARNER: So what about the opposition? I mean, do they have — do they know where they go from here? What choice do they face in the next — they have only got ten weeks until this election.

LEON ARON: Well, they — Putin was right in sort of — in absolute terms, as it were. I mean, yes, they don’t have a single leader.

But neither did the protesters of the Arab Spring. I mean, they didn’t have a leader in Tunisia. They didn’t have a leader, a single leader or even a group of accepted leaders. That’s the thing about popular uprisings of that sort. But they have a number of very talented politicians, very popular, Alexei Navalny, whom you have see.


LEON ARON: The blogger. The defender — the woman who heads the group that defends the — tries to protect the Khimki Forest, Chirikova Yevgenia.

MARGARET WARNER: An environmentalist trying to save this forest that’s slated for…

LEON ARON: Right. And they strongly suspect that it’s all done because of corruption and so on.

There is the second — this is the younger generation, a new generation. And then there is, of course, people who were in power before, Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister, former first Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.

Next — sitting next to Gorbachev in that video was Vladimir Rozhkov, who is a very, very talented politician. So, it’s simply not true that they don’t have leaders. Now, other leaders may come up, and we never know, but I don’t think Putin should, you know, shed crocodilian tears about that.

MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Sestanovich, is it fair to say that for the March 4 election, can you conceive of any one opposition figure getting enough support to beat Putin, or is the aim just to keep him under 50 percent?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Well, keeping him under 50 percent would be a tremendous achievement. It seems remote right now, but if you start to do the math, it’s not inconceivable. And if…

MARGARET WARNER: Which — keeping him below 50?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Yeah. A number of other candidates who get 20, 15, 10 — denying Putin a first-round victory would be an earthquake in Russian politics.

But the calculations that the protesters are making and their leaders may not be based simply on that scenario. They may figure that they can get an opportunity to introduce new candidates.

Navalny, for example, has said he wants to run, he’s going to form a new political party. It’s obvious that one of the questions that will arise is, why not in this round? And once you start to have new figures who command a lot more public enthusiasm than these very impressive, but…


STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: … old faces, then the atmosphere could change dramatically. And it could be really hard for Putin to get anything like 50 percent.

MARGARET WARNER: So let me — we only have a minute left, so briefly, but do you think that Russia will move in this next ten weeks by fits and starts, but basically peacefully, to an election, or do you think there’s a plausible prospect of some kind of real eruption, either coming from the protesters or from a crackdown or a provocation generated by the government to — as a pretext for a crackdown?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: This is an opposition movement that knows that they can not afford to give the government any pretext for a crackdown.

But the government is not looking for blood and repression, because they’re worried that they can’t get the police to enforce it, that they won’t have the military on their side. We saw these pictures of the Soviet flag being lowered 20 years ago. Why did that happen? Because the police and the military weren’t willing to shoot protesters. And there is not any confidence in leadership that they could get them to shoot this time.

LEON ARON: We ought to expect some very major crises coming in to presidential elections either before or after March 4.

MARGARET WARNER: A bold prediction.

Leon Aron, Steve Sestanovich, thank you both.