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What Putin's Latest Election Says About Russia


At a ceremony at the Kremlin today, Vladimir Putin took the oath of office as president of Russia for the third time after two previous terms. He served four years as prime minister. But while there's little doubt of his political dominance, he faces different challenges this time around, symbolized by violent clashes between protesters and riot police over the past few days. Joining us now is Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins us by phone from here in Washington. Ambassador Sestanovich, nice to have you with us today.


CONAN: And how is this new Putin presidency going to be different?

SESTANOVICH: Well, one thing that Putin can't take for granted is support or acquiescence. He has been through several months of what is in his tenure as Russia's leader a kind of unprecedented series of protests. But beyond that, he faces a new economy from the surging growth that he's had in the past 10 years. And he even faces a lot of division within the elite that has benefited most from the growth of the past 10 years. So he's got a lot of questions that he's got to address as to how he copes with those problems.

CONAN: Well, why don't we take the economy first? When he left office as president, I think 7 percent annual growth, a lot of that fueled by gas and oil. Now, it's down to about 3 percent, and you could look to those gas and oil supplies to be steadily dwindling.

SESTANOVICH: That's true. The price is high worldwide, and they are kept aloft by that. But there's no doubt among Russians that the strong growth days that kept them in the ranks of India and China and the really surging economies of Asia, that growth is over. And so now they're asking themselves what they have to do in order to address the unmet problems of the past and how they try to keep growth high in the future.

CONAN: And some of those divisions in this most recent election, Putin ran much more as a nationalist, bitterly critical of the United States, but appealing to the working class when he knows that those who benefited the most from growth in Russia appear to be those who oppose him the most.

SESTANOVICH: Yeah, that's a - it's been an interesting reversal over the past few months. Putin has not been a stranger in the past anti-American rhetoric, shall we say, but he really took the gloves off in this campaign and was accusing Secretary Clinton of fomenting the demonstrations and rode anti-American rhetoric pretty hard in order to draw out nationalist support from a new base. Putin, in a way, has a new base now going forward. And that is it's rural, it's working class, it's somewhat xenophobic. It is - it's not unknown in European politics to see people playing the race card, but Putin has done it in order to rescue himself at a moment of political uncertainty.

CONAN: We're talking with Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Russia also faces some serious demographic issues, a dwindling population. The future does not look as rosy as it might have.

SESTANOVICH: The demographic issue has been one that's preoccupied the Russian leadership for some years. There are moments where they seem to think that they - there's been an upturn in the birth rate. But broadly speaking, they're looking at a decline in the population of, you know, starting a decade or so ago, the population has dropped seven or eight million since the Soviet Union collapsed.

CONAN: And we talked about the future with Vladimir Putin. What about the forgotten man, if you will, the interregnum president, Dmitry Medvedev?

SESTANOVICH: Well, he is an interesting figure in Russian politics. A lot of people joke about him now. He's, well, humiliated really by what Putin did to him in taking his job away and saying, you know, let me drive now. The question is whether Medvedev, who is now going to be given the job of prime minister, will have any real clout in the ability to pursue the agenda that he has tried to make his own over the past four years, which is modernization, reform, ending corruption, reducing the role of the economy - of the state in the economy. Will he stick with those issues? Will he be able to push them through or will he just be a flunky of Putin?

I think in the past four years, Medvedev did have a real role in changing the atmosphere of Russian political debate, gave - he contributed to the elimination of fear, made it easier for people to express their dislike of Putinism because he was expressing in guarded ways his own dislike of Putinism. But he may not have a strong future in Russian politics. We'll have to see whether - what Putin has prepared to give him.

CONAN: And it is easy to draw comparisons, but it's a long way between the party rule of the Soviet Union days and what is going on now. Nevertheless, people worry about authoritarianism and particularly about the way the police have handled the demonstrators over the past couple of days, much more violently than they had even in the past.

SESTANOVICH: In the past few months, the police have basically gone kind of easy on big demonstrations. They arrested some people right after the elections. But then there was such an outpouring of public protest that they decided to ride with it and let the demonstrators have their head. What we don't know now is whether that's changed and they've decided to go back to no more Mr. Nice Guy. A lot of Russian commentators are saying that they think the police are trying to provoke confrontation, that they actually want to portray the opposition as radical, as violent, as marginalized. Some people in the opposition worry that in their own ranks, there are people who want confrontation. So that's one more question mark right now in Russian politics is, is this going to get nastier and more violent?

CONAN: The bleeding wound of Vladimir Putin's first term as president was Chechnya and, more broadly, rebellion in the Caucasus. Is that - that situation is far less violent now than it was then, but it is a long way from being resolved.

SESTANOVICH: Russians think of it as definitely not resolved, and they think more broadly of it isn't just Chechnya, as you say, but the North Caucasus and even the issue of racial and ethnic relations throughout Russia. A lot of big Russian cities, especially Moscow, have very large non-Russian guest worker populations, and there have been outbreaks of violence between Russian skinhead gangs and the Central Asian Caucasus guest workers. So there are now racial tensions simmering in Russian politics, and that is an extra element of anxiety for Russians.

CONAN: Just a few seconds left, but is the purpose of the next six years - the term of the presidency has been extended recently - to be re-elected six years from now? What would be success?

SESTANOVICH: Putin has, shall we say, not excluded the possibility that he may want to run again for yet another term. He is aware that a lot of people didn't want to come - him to come back this time, even amongst with his own closest collaborators. So he is not trying to drive home the point that, you know, you get 12 years of me now. He says, we'll have to see, and for a lot of people, that's a hopeful possibility.

CONAN: Ambassador Sestanovich, thanks very much.

SESTANOVICH: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations joined us by phone from here in Washington. Tomorrow, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on a new collection of his writings on race, culture and politics. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.