Spotlight on Russia. The Question of 2012
Eighteen months from now, on March 11, 2012, Russia will hold what is still officially referred to as an “election” for president. Few doubt that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who left the Kremlin in 2008, but remained in power, wants to regain his old job (notwithstanding the latest Levada Center poll showing that only 27 percent of Russians want him back as president). Just this week, during the annual meeting of the Valdai Club, Mr. Putin repeated his line that it is “premature” to talk about 2012, but then, out of the blue, reminded his audience that “U.S. President [Franklin] Roosevelt was elected four times.” If this is indeed Mr. Putin’s goal, it means that his presidency would last until 2024 (two six-year terms from 2012). Such a scenario — as not only opposition leaders but, increasingly, the general public acknowledges — will be a disaster for the country.
Russia’s opposition will have to make a difficult choice about 2012. Some anti-Kremlin activists argue for a boycott. Participating, in their view, will mean conferring legitimacy (including international legitimacy) on a fraudulent vote. Others recall that “elections” in Yugoslavia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Moldova (2009) were, to begin with, not much more democratic than in today’s Russia, yet they became turning points in the history of these countries. In every case, it was the fact of the stolen election that led to mass protests and the toppling of authoritarian regimes. It is difficult to imagine these protests without the presence of opposition candidates.
The only practical motive for a boycott in Russia was removed with the abolition of the minimum turnout requirement in 2006. As Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky noted during his presidential campaign in 2007–08, boycotts “play into the hands of the regime, which can claim that it has no opponents.” Around the same time opposition leader Boris Nemtsov called boycotting a “stupid decision” since “people ignore elections not just because they are against Putin, but because they are lazy or are away visiting friends.” “Nobody will notice such a ‘boycott,’” he added.
If the democratic opposition decides to field a candidate against Mr. Putin in 2012, there are several likely contenders. Boris Nemtsov, a former (successful) regional governor and deputy prime minister, will clearly be in play. Mikhail Kasyanov, Mr. Putin’s first premier who now opposes the Kremlin, has recently indicated he would be prepared to run. So has veteran liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky, who finished third behind Vladimir Putin and Communist Gennady Zyuganov in the presidential election of 2000.
In 2008, in an atmosphere of domestic apathy and international acquiescence, Russian authorities simply removed Mr. Bukovsky and Mr. Kasyanov from the presidential ballot, clearing the way for Mr. Putin’s anointed successor, Dmitri Medvedev. But 2012 will not be 2008. Mass anti-government protests are mushrooming all across Russia. It was a thousands-strong rally in Kaliningrad that compelled the regime to sack its unpopular governor of the region, Georgy Boos. Sustained public pressure, coupled with close international attention, may well force the Kremlin to register the opposition candidate in 2012. After that, all will depend on Russian voters’ ability to turn their growing discontent into action.