Leading article: A farcical contest, and the need for a united stand

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The Independent Online

No one is exactly holding their breath over the outcome of Sunday's elections to find a new president of Russia. The winner will be the man widely known as Putin's puppet, Dmitri Medvedev. Mr Medvedev rose from the position of humble lawyer to become head of Russia's largest company, Gazprom, and then Russia's first deputy prime minister solely due to the patronage of his boss, the outgoing president, Vladimir Putin. He has been the front-runner, with opinion poll ratings of 70 to 80 per cent, since Mr Putin endorsed him as his successor last year. In Russia you do not need an election to know the name of the next president.

There is a temptation to smile at the Ruritanian nature of all this. But there is nothing funny about the decision of Europe's main election watchdog, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation, to pull out of monitoring the vote because of the restrictions imposed on it. Those restrictions are of a piece with the shackling of opposition candidates, political dissidents, human rights activists and journalists who do not work for a national media under the thumb of the Kremlin.

Some will argue that the majority of the Russian people, even if they are denied a free and fair election, seem content with a continuation of a regime which has overseen the country's strongest economic boom in a generation. Yet this is unconvincing. If Russian voters are so manifestly content for the existing regime to remain in power, why has Mr Putin gone to such lengths to prevent credible opposition candidates standing against him? The answer is insecurity. And the bellicose posturing we have seen from the Russian government in recent years on the world stage is a symptom of the same emotion.

Russia is treated like a third-rate country even now, Messers Putin and Medvedev say. Which is why Russian bombers intrude on Japanese airspace or buzz American aircraft carriers in echoes of the Cold War. They are only echoes, however. The armed forces of the reawakened Russian Bear have a fraction of the global reach and power of Soviet days. And moves such as the closing down of British Council offices have something of bluster about them. But the turning off of gas supplies and the use of trade boycotts against neighbouring states such as Georgia and Ukraine are real enough. Europe, too, is sleepwalking into an ever-growing dependence on Russia for its energy in a way which restricts our ability to criticise the Kremlin.

This need not be the case. Mr Medvedev knows that Russia requires a hefty dose of foreign investment and access to European markets if it is to address its social and economic problems: oil revenues squandered through corruption, crumbling industrial infrastructure, rising inflation, a widening gap between rich and poor and a population which cannot cope on average wages with rising living costs.

Europe has significant potential leverage here. The economy of the European Union is 15 times larger than that of Russia. Half of Russia's trade is with the EU, which considerably outweighs the amount of gas Russia provides to the EU (about a quarter of our needs). Britain is the largest inward investor in Russia. But until now, Moscow has successfully followed a policy of divide and rule, doing deals which appeal to the national interests of individual European countries. Things will only change if Europe adopts a more united front in its dealings with Russia. If that happens then issues such as democracy, human rights, respect for the rule of law at home and abroad, and greater respect for the sovereignty of neighbouring states, will become concerns that Russia's new president, and the man pulling his strings, will be unable to ignore.