Whoever took the time to watch the recent debates in the run-up to the first American primary in Iowa, could observe a whole stream of Republican candidates for president, all harbouring largely similar ambitions, dissecting each other and being vetted by the public. The drawn out one and a half year electoral campaign may be tiresome, but one simply has to remind oneself of the marvel of having such a process in the first place, particularly when compared to the tedious predictability of Russian politics. President Medvedev's announcement that he will not be running in the upcoming presidential elections - thereby leaving the field open for Vladimir Putin - is hardly surprising. It stands to reason that, notwithstanding a political tsunami, Putin will be elected president by an overwhelming majority in 2012.
The predictable electoral success of Vladimir Putin is evidence of the sclerotic state Russia finds itself in these days. The regime has manipulated the political system dramatically in the last couple of years, systematically elevating the governing party United Russia to the country's preeminent center of political power. Students belonging to its youth movement enjoy privileges at universities and businesspeople associated with the party enjoy considerable more freedom than their non-affiliated competitors. The press has been curbed and journalists daring to live up to the promises of their profession find themselves persecuted by an apparatus, which has made reining in the free press its occupation as the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 clearly demonstrated.
Politkovskaya's execution in the elevator of her apartment block has not been the only politically motivated murder in recent years. In his seminal book, The New Cold War, Edward Lucas points out that Russia is currently running more intelligence operations abroad than it did at the height of the Cold War. Russian intelligence agencies have conducted operations that sometimes were incredibly unconcerned with being opaque. Although the date will be hardly noticed, November 1st will makr the fifth anniversary of the murder of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with radioactive polonium in London in November 2006, just weeks after the death of Politkovskaya. The fact that he sought asylum as a dissident in the UK is telling of the state of modern-day Russia.
The resignation, or straightforward sacking of Russian finance minister Alexej Kudrin, who openly challenged the current president by informing him on television that he would not be willing to serve in a cabinet with Medvedev as prime minister, revealed some cracks in the relationship between Medvedev and Putin. After all, Kudrin did nothing less than openly reveal that Medvedev is a lame-duck president just days after the announcement that Putin would take over power for another eight years. The hopes fostered by many Western observers that Medvedev would be a liberal bulwark against the authoritarian tendencies of his prime minister have been dissipated.
The basic conundrum that Russia presents today is the concurrency of Russia's resurgent power posture and its endemic, systemic problems that actually undermine rather than strengthen its position. Though it is part of the unofficial economic newcomers club dubbed BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), Russia is actually the odd one out. In contrast to the other emerging economies contained in the group, its economic growth has largely been fuelled by the export of commodities, primarily oil and gas. But oil and gas reserves are not going to be there forever. Most economists point to the fact that Russia has already passed its production peak and that exports are likely to decline in the near future. Underneath the mirage produced by the resource exports, the Russian state remains sclerotic. The state's bureaucracy might not be as corrupt as it was in the Yeltsin years, but it is nowhere as efficient as it needs to be. Given the lack of the rule of law dissidents cannot rely on due process when arrested and imprisoned based on manufactured allegations. Another eight years of Vladimir Putin in power is not a prospect to be celebrated for those who would like to see Russia develop and prepare its economy for next two decades.
There is, interestingly enough, a question that has so far not been raised during the presidential debates in the United States. Whoever will enter the White House following the 2012 elections will have to face an assertive and more confrontational Russia, with a leader who will more openly challenge the West than President Medvedev during the 2008 August war in Georgia. President Obama's reset of American-Russian relations has gone nowhere. Yet, no presidential candidate, let alone the incumbent himself, has been challenged about the future of US-Russia policy. It's about time to raise that particular question.
Dustin Dehez is a historian and Senior Analyst in the Peace and Security section of the Global Governance Institute. He also reguarly writes for his own personal blog on history and contemporary politics.