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What to Expect from ‘Putin’s Russia’ in 2018? – Naveed Ahmad

The Russian presidential election concluded on March 18, with Vladimir Putin bagging more than 75 percent of votes. This allowed him to rule his country for another six years. Even though Putin had nothing to worry about, there was still a run-off planned for April 8 in case of a narrow margin amongst top contenders. The semantics for the elections were well in place such as an assortment of challengers, electioneering process and so on. What was missing though was proper contenders, free press and right to live after expressing one’s views?

Alexei Navalny, a Russian presidency contender for 2012, is still serving jail time for evading taxes. It is largely believed that allegations against him are politically motivated as his anti-Putin movement exhibited mass appeal to the Russian youtn. Putin is contesting against seven opponents with diverse political profiles amongst them all stands out the sole female aspirant for the Russian presidency. Ksenia Anatolyevna Sobchak has daringly stepped in against the former director of FSB (the renamed KGB post-Soviet breakup) and a family friend. Her father – Anatoly Sobchak – was Putin’s mentor back in mid to late-1990s while serving as Saint Petersburg. Ksenia carries both her glamour as well as her family’s political legacy.

She talked to the BBC about her bid for the Presidency and her conversation with Putin. “I am contesting elections for the presidency,” she told BBC, informing Putin of her bid. “He said it’s your right and your responsibility,” he answered. Ksenia shivers when revisiting Putin’s response to her. Braving personal intimidation, she is reaching out to the terrified electorate, 20 million of whom earn $180 a month and live below the poverty line. However, Ksenia is met with suspicion. His supporters allege her of betraying people by validating the electoral process. The socialite sees it differently. “I am not contesting the election to win but to be heard,” she said in an interview trying to justify her decision.

What takes precedence: the people or pride?

Democracy is generally seen as a Western concept in Russia. Only unfair it will be to generalize an idea about 145 million-strong populace. The urban youth did follow Navalny but majority considers Putin their ultimate leader. Since December 31, 1999, he has overseen an entire generation grow. They can’t imagine Russia without Putin. Their parents may not necessarily agree. However, things have been hard in Russia with the decline in oil prices along with Russia’s regional and international military engagements.  For the nationalists, Putin has been a hero who has worked tirelessly for the revival of the Soviet empire.  From South Ossetia from Georgia to Crimea from Ukraine, Moscow has gained ground. Russia’s revival of military might in Syria which came at a heavy price tops all his achievements, nonetheless. There are also further accusations that Putin might have interfering in the US elections, which saw Donald Trump coming to power.

“No one listened to us. You listen to us now,” Putin stated while cleaning ever more sophisticated nuclear weapons in his arsenal, in what was supposed to be a message for the outside world. The chest-thumping exercise brought home the nostalgic memories of superpower status. Moscow lacks the financial base as well as requisite military technology to revive the Soviet Union in one form or the other. The recent ‘victories’ on the geopolitical front have brought hope to amongst the average Russians that Putin is in on the right course to restore the lost pride.  The Sochi Winter Olympics and 2018 FIFA World Cup fit right in the narrative the former Soviet spymaster has been pushing. Nonetheless, the president controls the once furious media. Russia Today and Sputnik are 24×7 and in over a dozen languages. For the same reason partly, Moscow has ‘won’ the war on Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, invested the military assets heavily in Syria with dead soldiers being brought home at regular intervals. He was served, in person, by the Western sanctions that strengthened his narrative at home, however the common Russian man had to face inflation and economic hardships.  It seems that Putin latest victory in polls, allowing him to serve for another six years, would see a harsher version of him in terms of domestic and international policies. This would mean that dissent will be the victim number one, followed by NGOs and foreign media outlets. The Kremlin’s anxiety over NATO’s eastward expansion has resulted in attempts to ignite communal violence in countries and prop up ultra-nationalist narrative there, which seems to be backed by a strong social media campaign and team.

The backdoor superpower: real or sham?

With the changing geo-politics, it seems that Putin has his own world-order in mind, and how he would like to see that order. Globalization to him means greater Russian influence on matters concerning beyond trade. Neither Moscow is an economic powerhouse, nor does Putin aspire it to be one. Transnational security and economic bloc are and will continue to be his prime targets. The rise of Trump to power has significantly advanced his agenda, especially when the US president decided to withdraw from the Paris Accord and Trans-Pacific Partnership. The UK’s referendum resulting in leaving the European Union was a historic win. The recent elections in Italy are another development along the same lines. Turkey’s distancing from NATO definitely propels his agenda against collective security. The Kremlin needs more cracks in the EU for it to regain access to the Baltic Sea. Kaliningrad, Russia’s exclave on the Baltic shores is no more accessible via the land route through Poland and Lithuania.  This means that with the threat of NATO looming around the Russian borders and fewer friends in Europe, the Baltic Sea and the states around it would witness conflict of some sorts, both direct and indirect.

It seems that Russia’s clever and deceitful use of social media and lacunae in the democratic systems to its advantage, has eventually created or enhanced mistrust in the state institutions of the target countries, especially the USA. Employing means at cost negligible than using military might, Moscow will continue to hurt the status quo through chaos and deception. Take the example of Syria, how adversely have the UN, NATO and Arab League been hit as Russia continues its cold blood rampage across the heart of Middle East. The Obama presidency indirectly helps the team Putin, through sheer incompetence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. He let strategically important peripheral countries like Belarus, Moldova and Armenia slide back into the Russian fold. The lack of global action against Assad’s use of chemical weapons depleted the global confidence in the US, whereas Russian veto at the UN supporting Syria, along with its victories against the IS, have somehow damaged the status-quo of the previous World-Order.

The weakness of the anchoring empire — the United States – led the countries to pursue more nationalistic approach. There emerged populist leaders in Europe and elsewhere, including Japan and India. With Putin’s definite victory, the world will see more of disruption in the status quo i.e. the world order to the benefit of Russia and not the anarchist and revivalist states like Iran, India or Japan. While the Internet remains the platform for manipulation of facts and narratives, Moscow will revive its technological muscle by plugging the sophistication gap and showcasing the arsenal Putin referred to in his March 1 speech. The rise of China may well prove the anchor of global stability but does fit in the Russian Czar’s vision of a new world order which takes the lustre off the West.

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Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic based in the GCC with a career in writing on diplomacy, security and governance. Besides other honors, he won the Jefferson Fellowship in 2000 and UNAOC Cross-Cultural Reporting Award 2010. Twitter: @naveed360

 

Originally Posted: Daily Pakistan

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