Who will rule Russia after March 2?


MOSCOW (JTA) – Although it’s hard to tell by the unusually bare streets here, it’s still winter in Russia. This year, however, instead of piles of snow, the streets of the Russian capital have been blanketed by election posters.

In every public space, posters extol Russians to cast their ballots on March 2 in a presidential campaign derided by observers and most voters as a fait accompli.

In one poster, a smiling family is pictured sledding down a white hill with the message, “Everyone in the family to vote, together!” Even metro cards have been stamped with the Russian national emblem and a reminder to riders to do their civic duty.

It’s not much of a contest, however.

With Russia’s popular but term-limited president, Vladimir Putin, having anointed First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his successor, Medvedev is all but assured a landslide victory.

Part of this is due to Putin’s enormous popularity. Indeed, even some of the regime’s harshest critics concede that Russians’ standard of life has improved significantly during Putin’s eight years in the Kremlin.

With Russia’s tiny opposition largely being excluded from the process – no major opposition candidates have even been allowed to register – the carefully stage-managed vote for Putin’s successor is being seen as a referendum on Putin’s rule.

Putin has declared that he will head the Medvedev government as prime minister – an indication that he doesn’t plan to cede power.

So while there is little question about the election’s outcome, there are many unanswered questions about the transition of power, such as it is, its long-term impact on Russia and, for Russia’s Jews, its impact on their community.

In many ways the fate of Russia’s Jewish community over the past eight years generally has mirrored that of Russians. No comparable period in Russian history has had as much security, stability and growth of Jewish communal life. Life for Jews here has improved even as political dissent has become more treacherous in Russia.

Michael Savin, a spokesman for the Russian Jewish Congress, praised Putin for helping restore Jewish communal life but refused to answer any political questions.

“The diversity of Jewish life in Russia serves as a proof that the policy of state-directed anti-Semitism has vanished into the past,” Savin said.

The main questions facing Russians – Jews and non-Jews – is how power will be divided between Putin and Medvedev, and will the Russia that Putin has forged survive without him at the helm?

During his tenure Putin “accumulated both formal and informal authority,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “Now that he’s handing over the formal authority to Medvedev, what happens to the informal part?”

Under the Russian constitution, the president is commander in chief of the Russian armed forces and responsible for setting the direction of foreign and domestic policy. The role of prime minister traditionally has been quite weak, but Putin himself has made clear he intends to wield significant influence from his new post.

Putin will be leaving office at the pinnacle of his popularity and power. According to a recent poll by the Levada Center, an independent Moscow-based research organization, Putin’s approval rating in January was 86 percent.

Although Medvedev enjoys high approval ratings, too, little is known about him. Medvedev’s main appeal seems to stem from Putin’s endorsement and the tremendous resources thrown behind his campaign by the state.

“Right now Medvedev is certainly not his own man; his nomination is not due to his own political campaign,” Lipman said. “It’s due to the fact that Putin hand-picked him and offered him to the public and to the elite as his choice. This is the way that people perceive him.”

Medvedev has made almost no major policy speeches during the election cycle, and coverage of him on state-controlled media is constant, glowing and vague. The 42-year-old law professor is said to be a reformer, but on foreign policy issues he has uttered little more than vagaries about increasing cooperation with the West.

Russia’s election campaign has been widely criticized in the West both for the use of state-controlled media to advance the party of power’s candidate and the exclusion of opposition figures.

For the second time in four months, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe announced that its monitors will boycott a Russian election due to restrictions on the number of observers allowed in the country and the duration of their stay. In December, the OSCE did the same with elections for Russia’s Duma.

“The restrictions that were imposed on us by the Russian authorities basically forced us not to send an observation mission for the upcoming elections,” said OSCE spokesperson Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher.

Medvedev will face three opponents in the election, none of whom is capable of mounting a serious challenge. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, perennial also-ran Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the little-known Democratic Party’s Andrei Bogdanov were the only candidates allowed to register. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, a strong critic of the Kremlin, was disqualified for allegedly submitting forged signatures.

The don’t-rock-the-boat message from the Kremlin seems to have been picked up in the Jewish community as well. Of Russia’s three major Jewish communal organizations, only the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which has thrived here due to what many see as its leaders’ connections in the Kremlin, was willing to discuss the political situation with JTA.

The federation’s Rabbi Berel Lazar praised Putin for combating anti-Semitism, promoting interfaith dialogue and strengthening the country. Asked about Putin’s supposed rollback of democracy and human rights, Lazar blamed the West.

“I think that the West in general doesn’t really understand Russia all the way,” he told JTA.

“I’m not saying that everything here is the best, but the country needs a different kind of leadership and not necessarily the kind you have in America today,” Lazar said. “To try to apply the same standard to Russia is not a good idea.”

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