Never swap horses in midstream

Continuïteit is belangrijk bij de komende presidentsverkiezingen in Rusland, abrupte veranderingen moeten vermeden worden. Dat zegt Victor Barabash, professor aan de Peoples’ Friendship University van Rusland, in een interview.
Interview with Victor Barabash, PhD, professor, head of mass communication department of Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia
How important are the upcoming elections?
The upcoming elections are very important. It’s not about expecting some surprise or intrigue. The winner is already determined. But the real question is whether the new president will be able to fortify the progressive course initiated by Putin and implemented during his 8-year rule. This course is highly innovative with positive results widely observed. Since by the Constitution Putin is deprived of the opportunity to continue this course, it’s very important that no abrupt changes happen. That’s why the principle of succession is needed at this very moment. In this respect I’d like to quote a famous proverb: “Never swap horses in midstream”.
How would you describe the present political system in Russia?
The political system is a democracy though noted for some specific features. Russia is a big country with 89 federal subjects. Excessive democratization might be ruinous and lead to the country’s collapse. Only strong centralized power can preserve the stability and integrity of Russia, the multinational and multiconfessional country of a long heroic past and deeply rooted traditions. That’s why the political standards and patterns promoted by the West can not always be applied to Russia. Russia has started building a civil society where people are able to keep a check on the power of government officials.
This can be obtained through developing a multi-party system, independent media, civil associations and unions. All the above mentioned components of the civil society should fortify the integrity of Russia. Of course we should take into account that certain old-time vestiges remain dominant: general mistrust of all politicians and political ignorance. That’s exactly why people are strongly encouraged to go to the polls and cast their vote since it’s their civil duty.
Medvedev is believed to become just a figurehead president, incapable of taking independent political decisions. Putin will continue to rule the country even occupying a new position (Prime minister, for instance). Do you think this scenario will come true?
As president Putin declared at a recent conference, he is not going to meddle with decisions of the new president and to be the power behind the throne.
Medvedev might not be as charismatic as Putin, but in fact he didn’t have enough possibilities to realize himself. And probably the very moment has come when he is a bud just ready to burst.
More importantly, Medvedev himself has repeatedly announced that «…it is absolutely necessary to follow the present policy. And of course, there is no point in changing it now, when we can observe the positive results of our work». But the fact that he will continue Putin’s course doesn’t necessarily mean an inability to exercise his own policy. It just testifies that this political direction is the best and the most potent one.
What about election newcomer Andrei Bogdanov? Is his running for presidency a serious political pretence or just a farce?
Unfortunately, I’m not quite familiar with  his political program as, I guess, the majority of Russian people. Moreover, he is the only one who runs for president as an independent candidate. And his party failed to overcome the 7% barrier (raised from 5% before parliamentary eletions in December 2007) and didn’t make it to the Duma. Actually the lack of political background means that he did nothing for the country and for the people.
Anyway, it is obvious that one person without a political party and a clear political strategy can’t deal with such a big country as Russia. Even taking into account his statements and his recent behavior, we can make a conclusion, that it is more a performance than a real political activity. So we can regard it as a side effect of a genuine democracy.
How do you see the future of the major opposition parties of liberal democrats and communists represented by Zhirinovsky and Zuyganov after the presidential election? Will they find their place in the one-party system that is being built in Russia?
I’m strongly convinced both parties will continue to work and prosper in the future. They exercise a very important function – they form political opposition. In the framework of the Constitution, these parties criticize the present government thus keeping it in check and preventing power abuse. Opposition parties are meant to ensure a necessary balance for the political process. But I’d like to point out the difference between the two parties. The communists, who traditionally used to count on elderly people brought up in the Soviet Union and committed to its ideology, have recently discovered a huge potential in the youth electorate. They have started attracting young people, which shows a serious ambition to develop their political positions. They are fighting for their future. If the communist party is based on ideas, the liberal democrats are a one-man show party fully masterminded and directed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. As long as he remains popular the party will come along. Personally I have strong doubts that should he step aside the party will survive.
Is it problematic that the OSCE is not sending election monitors?
I know that this issue has been widely discussed recently. In this question I fully support our president’s position. According to Putin, inviting international monitors is a right, but not a duty. Russia has fulfilled all the commitments concerning international control of the voting procedure. Monitors from key international organizations have been invited in the framework of legal norms. But certain observers announced they wanted to arrive one year in advance. What for? Putin called such strange claims “hotelki” (“wanties”).
Since last summer it has been rumored that the presidential election might trigger a financial crisis in Russia. Some analysts foresee the upcoming collapse of the dollar. Since most Russian people traditionally continue to keep their savings in the American currency, such forecasts represent a huge threat. What is your opinion?
I think that such rumors are deliberately initiated and spread by certain banks. People are induced to stop keeping money under the pillow and start investing it. For example, in 2007 “Vneshtorgbank” launched a large-scale advertising campaign encouraging people to purchase its stocks. I guess the fear of the upcoming financial crisis served as an additional impulse to lead
people right to the bank doors.
Putin decisively dismissed all allegations concerning devaluation and denomination. The new leadership will do all in its power to eliminate any possibility of a crisis.
Ruble strengthening is evident since the country’s economy is developing at a high pace. That makes it more profitable to keep savings in rubles rather than dollars.
What is Putin’s course?
The main formula of Putin’s course is quite simple and is perfectly clear to all Russian people. His ultimate goal was building a powerful and centralized state with a strong economy and a stable policy. To be popular and beloved by his people, Putin’s successor will have to continue this course. To say more, there are no economic factors that might require to change it. The current general situation in our country leaves no other reasonable alternative than moving in the chosen direction. Putin also proved that the government can ensure order. It was really important after the nineties, when the country was seized with chaos and corruption. At that time nobody but Putin managed to do away with it. So it is quite obvious that people appreciate his efforts and his personal dominance.
Putin has substantially improved the image of Russia on the international stage. Do you think Medvedev will manage to fix these results?
It’s true that since Boris Yeltsin’s rule the reputation of Russian leadership has been raised to a higher level. It would be a mistake to exclusively attribute this fact to Vladimir Putin. Of course, he is the one to have made the largest contribution. Putin has mastered the art of public speaking and he knows foreign languages. He is known for a firm and wise rhetoric. For example, I remembered his brilliant reply to Mrs Clinton. With a touch of a commonplace sarcasm she asked Putin how he could have a soul if he had worked for KGB. Putin fired back in a most composed way that first of all the president must have a good head on his shoulders that will let him see clearly the strategic interests of his country.
Will the elections have a consequence for the relationship between Russia and the West?
It will not deteriorate, for sure, because we have neither economic no political reasons for aggravation. For example, the latest visit of Medvedev to Europe resulted in the signing of a number of agreements. Basically, agreements on gas and oil cooperation are believed to be a new milestone in history. This cooperation is sure to be very fruitful, especially now, when Poland has lifted veto on signing a new agreement between Russia and the EU.
Now the standoff between our country and the West is replaced by partnership. We are trying to develop a long-term cooperation that will be mutually advantageous and equal in rights. The Russian leadership is open to cooperation and ready to help anyone, but Russia has always been committed to respecting the letter of law. That’s the reason why Russia has yet to accept the independence for Kosovo since the Russian leadership considers it a violation of international law.
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