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Transfer of Power in Russia: Authoritarian or Democratic?

Russia holds a presidential election in less than a year. If the nominating process, campaign and vote are transparent and fair, Russians will witness an unprecedented democratic transfer of power. But some political analysts are concerned this will not happen, and that instead incumbent president Vladimir Putin will find a way to remain in office despite a constitutional prohibition against a third term. VOA's Peter Fedynsky reports.

Vladimir Putin came to power as acting president in 1999, when his predecessor Boris Yeltsin suddenly resigned. Mr. Yeltsin expressed confidence at the time that Russia would develop as a democratic nation. At a recent Moscow news conference, Mr. Putin assured skeptics that the 2008 presidential election would indeed be democratic.

"We shouldn't fuss about future elections, but as I already said they provide an opportunity for objective choice. We should provide free democratic choice,” Mr. Putin said. “I am also a citizen of the Russian Federation, and I'm proud of that. I reserve the right to express my preference [for the next president], but this will be done only in the pre-election period."

Political observers say the current favorites are First Deputy Premiers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev. Some, however, would like to see the popular Mr. Putin remain in office, despite a constitutional prohibition against a third term.

"We should have had a president like this a long time ago," said a Moscow pensioner who identified himself as Yuri. "Maybe [Putin] will run again, and if not then we will have a worthy successor who will continue Putin's work."

"It would in no way be surprising for a way to be found for Putin to extend his period in office," said David Satter, a Russian expert at a Washington, D.C., think tank. Satter, from the Hudson Institute, notes that a constitutional ban did not prevent the Kremlin leader from appointing the country's governors.

"A judicial branch of government in the hands of the presidential administration confirmed what was obviously contradicted by the letter of the constitutional provision for the election of governors,” he said.

The direct appointment of governors is but one aspect of what is called a vertical, or highly centralized, power structure in Russia. But some analysts speculate that Mr. Putin could be introducing his country's ruling elite to a degree of decentralization. Lilya Shevtsova, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, spoke at a recent Russia conference at the Hudson Institute.

"He is great at the mechanism of 'horizontality' – where all people, all groups, all institutions will balance each other: [the] Duma is being balanced by the Council of Federation; United Russia by Just Russia; Medvedev by Sergei Ivanov; and all people, representatives of power structures, the siloviki, they are balancing each other," she says.

Shevtsova cautions, however, that the balancing act could backfire after the election, leading to a harsher, more authoritarian regime.

Recent Kremlin crackdowns on independent media and political parties, as well as non-governmental organizations, are viewed abroad as moves toward authoritarianism.

Former U.S. National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski says he is troubled by that, and warns that the Russian presidential election is likely to be managed by the state.

"I hate to say this, but I think to some extent that's a step towards the eventual institutionalization of democracy. It will take time,” Brzeninski said. “But if Putin doesn't run again, that in itself is a step forward. One has to acknowledge that, even if the process of selecting his successor is not going to be generally democratic."

The Russian presidential election is set for 9 March 2008. An actual transfer of power is scheduled to take place about two months later.