Mary Dejevsky: Putin's handover of power is no charade

The potential for change under a new president should not be dismissed.

Tuesday 26 February 2008 01:00 GMT

The late February temperature in Moscow hovers around zero, and something similar could be said of popular interest in the presidential election. With only five days to go, there are posters everywhere: at the metro stations, in the bus shelters and on banners across the streets. Proudly formal, they have the eagle crest and the simple fact of the 2 March election against the background of the red, white and blue Russian flag.

But the unfortunate reality is that duty rather than interest will take Russians to the polling stations this Sunday. They voted in parliamentary elections in December; they don't have much inclination to do so again. And they know who is going to be their next president, because he has already been approved and recommended by the hugely popular incumbent, Vladimir Putin.

There is a broad consensus that with Dmitry Medvedev, who is currently first deputy prime minister, they will be in good hands. Just to reassure anyone who might have any doubts, Putin has repeatedly made clear that he would be delighted to serve as prime minister, if – if, he is careful to say – Medvedev is elected on Sunday. Nothing has been left to chance.

Yet it is a pity that neither Russians nor those outside Russia are paying more attention. For this is the first time in Russian history that power will have changed hands as the result of the ballot box. It is the first time, too, that a Russian head of state will voluntarily surrender his position in accordance with a constitutional requirement to do so. Those are both positive and epoch-making, developments.

The election can certainly be criticised. This is not a competitive election as we might understand it, because any candidate recommended by Putin would be guaranteed a sweeping majority. It could also be said that, if Putin becomes prime minister, real power is not changing hands. At his end-of-term press conference two weeks ago, he fudged a question about whether the new president's portrait would hang in his office if he became prime minister – and such symbols matter.

To conclude that the whole process is a charade, however, would be wrong. There will be an election, and someone who is not Putin will be elected in his place. Putin did not – as he easily could have done – engineer a change in the constitution that would have allowed him another term. He chose to observe the letter of Russia's post-communist constitution, which sets a maximum of two consecutive four-year terms. And he made his decision to show that no one, not even the head of state, is above the law of the land.

A third novelty of this election is that the heir apparent, as well as the other three candidates, was formally nominated by an existing political party, not a vehicle created especially for him. It can be objected that United Russia is nothing more than the party of power, or Putin's party. It can also be objected that there could, and should, have been a real contest for the nomination. Medvedev's presumed chief rival – his fellow first deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov – wisely declined to throw his hat in the ring, once Putin had given his approval to Medvedev. In form at least, though, this election is being contested by four candidates representing four parties.

And form, at least at this election, is significant. What Putin has done is bequeath Russia a constitutional system and structures that should be capable of functioning post-Putin, that do not depend for thieir durability on the popularity of one individual. That is something no Russian leader has either done, or been able to do, before. It sets a precedent, and, as such, makes it much more difficult for future Russian leaders to bend or break the constitution to their advantage.

Nor should the potential for positive, democratic change under a new president be dismissed too readily. Returning stability to Russia after 20 years of tumultuous change has been the overriding theme of Putin's eight years in the Kremlin. A concern to keep the ship of state on an even keel through the last, potentially fractious months of his presidency can be divined in all of Putin's actions and statements of recent months. Because, for all the complaints from banned or disqualified opposition candidates, the only plausible challenge could have come from within the Kremlin, and a power struggle could have endangered the stability that has given Russians a sense of the future for the first time in a generation.

Nor should the prospect of serious change be dismissed, once the transition has been completed smoothly. The language being used by Medvedev – about such concepts as freedom, the middle class, and private property – already sounds fresher and more modern than that of Putin. But he has to be careful. The outside world may hope that a new president brings change, but the message most battered Russians want to hear before their election is quite the opposite.

As I left a Moscow metro station last night, a loudspeaker was blaring non-stop propaganda, not from election candidates, but from a painting and decorating shop opposite. "Enjoy a fresh look for the spring with our new colours." More Russians than realise on this election eve may find themselves welcoming a new look that goes beyond the colour of their walls.

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