Robert Amsterdam is briefly quoted in the election coverage by Canada’s CTV:
Russia’s election outcome hardly in doubt Josh Visser, CTV.ca News The votes in the Russian presidential election this Sunday have yet to be tallied, but it’s a straight-up guarantee that Dmitry Medvedev is the nation’s next president. To many outside Russia, a pre-determined election seems like the antithesis to the wave of democracy that was supposed to flow over the former Soviet Union. But like Russia itself, the issue at stake is large and diverse, muddled and mysterious and just plain bewildering to the casual observer.
Medvedev is cruising through the election, with barely an election promise or speech. He has glided through the campaign on the endorsement of the mega-popular, outgoing-President Vladimir Putin.”Putin could have gotten his horse to run for president and he would have also gotten 70 per cent,” says Aurel Braun, a University of Toronto professor and author of the forthcoming book, “NATO-Russia Relations in the Twenty-First Century”.”It’s not an election,” Robert Amsterdam, a defence counsel for jailed Russian multi-billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and well-published commentator on Russia, says bluntly. “We are lying to ourselves to call it an election.”These men are hardly the only critics of the election. The Western-media that has been covering the Russian election, criticizes the “democratic process” with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The Russian media, when compared to west, is seen as stifled -government owned or owned by billionaires loyal to the Putin administration.Amnesty International recently published a damning report on the election, saying that freedom of expression, assembly and association have been curtailed leading up to the election.Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, probably the best-known of Medvedev’s opponents, spent five days in jail for leading a protest against Putin over Russia’s parliamentary elections which were held in December 2007. He called the election a farce and for his troubles has been ruled “technically ineligible to run” by the Kremlin, along with other potential candidates.The candidates who have been allowed to run, ranging from the Communist Gennady Zyuganov to the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky can be considered fringe candidates at best. When the numbers are counted Sunday, it will look like a coronation. Some polls have Putin’s hand-picked successor winning with more than 70 per cent support.In fact, Braun said, the Kremlin will probably try to boost some of the other candidates so the election doesn’t look so lopsided.On the other handBut Michael Berk, a fellow at the Toronto-based Canadian International Council think-tank, says the western media’s focus on criticizing the foregone conclusion of the election is missing the point.There are major problems with the way Putin’s administration has run the country since 2000, he says, but his popularity with Russians can’t be denied — or dismissed.”If Russians favour the continued course of Putin’s regime, whether it is authoritarian or democratic or totalitarian, then we should be more receptive and understanding to the conditions they find themselves,” Berk said.”The Russians have decided to go with survival and social order as first priorities and democratic changes in our western sense will be second priority.During Putin’s reign, unemployment has dropped significantly, the economy has averaged gains of seven per cent growth a year and foreign investment has gone up.”Compared to the mid-nineties, where the picture was bleak and everything was chaotic, it’s only natural to expect that people will support the regime that is bringing perceived improvements,” Berk said.”But what does that mean?” Braun counters. “If you have such a low base, does that really mean you are doing well?”Critics say that Putin has merely presided over an era where energy prices have skyrocketed, allowing Russian oil barons to make massive profits at the expense of the average citizen.”Yes, they are doing better than before . . . but are they building a balanced economy?” Braun asks. “Not even close.”But analysts say that Medvedev does seem to be more economically liberal than Putin and that could open a wealth of opportunities for investors. That is, if Medvedev is a president with power.Who’s the boss?Don’t expect Putin to fade into the night with Medvedev’s presidential victory. The Russian people don’t. The voters are reminded of this daily, with Medvedev’s election campaign posters prominently featuring each man with the slogan: “Together we will win.”Putin is not allowed to run for a third term by Russia’s constitution but is expected to stay on as prime minister. It’s unsure how much power he will retain but many expect him to be the real leader of Russia.While the prime ministership is a demotion, Putin’s extent of power in Russia cannot be understated. The former KGB man has the backing of military and security forces, many of the country’s elite and has allies in all the key positions.Medvedev, Braun says, simply has no power base, and will have to cautiously extend himself, without angering Putin. That is assuming, however, Medvedev wants to exert control and isn’t content with being Putin’s figurehead.”Will this be a Medvedev presidency or in reality, the third term for Putin?” Braun asks.Ch-ch-changes?Amsterdam says that claims that Putin will rule with an iron fist are “an exaggeration” and that there will be some movement of power towards Medvedev’s presidency.”More importantly, Medvedev’s changes will be to improve Russia’s reputation, which could hardly be in worse shape when it comes to rule of law,” he said.Berk agrees, saying that the Putin administration has already started to crackdown on the widespread corruption in the country. With Medvedev’s background as a law professor, he expects that rule of law will be a major file for his presidency.In terms of foreign affairs, Medvedev can be seen as a bit of a wild card. His response to the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia was less assertive than the expected Russian reaction, which many observers took as an olive branch to the West.On the other hand, Medvedev has been quoted as making a comment that seemed to be directly at U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, John McCain, in which the 42-year-old Medvedev referred to the 71-year-old senator as “semi-senile.”As Braun points out, its unknown to what extent Putin’s reach will be in foreign relations, and Western leaders could find themselves at summit meetings in the future with a Russian president with little power to make binding agreements.Canadian opportunityIf there is one area which all the experts agree is that there is a wealth of opportunity for Canadian business in Russia.”Opportunities for Canadian business are quite significant,” Berk says. “But the problem is that most Canadian businesses are not aware of that.”He adds that Canadian officials are working with the Russians on anti-corruption measures to ensure a more prosperous trade relationship in the future. But in the end, the battle against corruption in Russia will depend on the Russian leadership.And regardless, whether it’s Putin or Medvedev in charge, Russia will continue to be a major world player.”Russia is a very important player, it’s a country that extends over 11 time zones, it’s still the second biggest nuclear power and it has vast energy resources,” Braun said.”It’s an era of opportunity in Russia. The real question is the enormous potential of 145 million highly-talented and educated people with astonishing national resources. We all have a vested interest in seeing a successful, prosperous and democratic Russia.”