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From: Peace Studies News No. 23


Vladimir Putin: Democracy, Western Relations, and Chechnya

Russian President Vladimir Putin has won a strong mandate with a first round victory in the March 26 election. In the light of Putinís leadership, Tom Angelakis (a Peace Studies research student) briefly addresses three areas of particular importance to peace studies: development of the democratic process in Russia; Russian relations with the West; and the war in Chechnya.

In previous Russian parliamentary and presidential elections the casting and counting of ballots have been conducted in a relatively free and fair manner. But, as I argued in a previous Peace Studies Newsletter after Yeltsinís 1996 victory, the election campaign prior to voting has not been free and fair, and this was also the case in this election. The so-called independent media, under normal circumstances quite critical, appears to lose all impartiality during election campaigns. Criticism about the new war in Chechnya, for example, has been practically non-existent. Worse still, the government controlled media has blatantly favoured the "party of power" during parliamentary elections, and incumbents during presidential elections. Media coverage in this election was so favourable that Putin did not run a formal election campaign, relying instead on positive media coverage of his day-to-day (albeit extraordinary) activities as President. Meanwhile, state-run media has concentrated negative media coverage on the most dangerous opponents - in 1996 it was Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party and in 2000 it was Grigori Yavlinski of Yabloka who, it was feared by the Kremlin, would steal liberal voters from Putin thus preventing him from obtaining the 50% majority he needed to win a first round victory. In this respect, Russia has made little democratic progress since the 1996 election.

In my opinion, Putinís commitment to democratic principles remains questionable, so it is doubtful Putin will make any effort to improve the behaviour of the media during his term as President. Furthermore, Putin did not present a formal election platform because, he said, he did not want it to be "chewed up and torn to pieces." But an important principle of democracy is open debate and criticism. Moreover, Putinís willingness to use extreme force against the citizens of his country in Chechnya also calls into question his commitment to civil and human rights. I am concerned that Putin may be inclined to use force against future, perhaps less violent, opposition to Moscow.

While the development of Russian democracy will remain stalled, I believe Putin will maintain cooperative relations with the West. In all likelihood, Putin will continue with Yeltsinís tactic of combining verbal opposition - to satisfy a domestic audience - with practical cooperation. Putinís background suggests he will continue with economic reform, though perhaps with the government taking a more active role in controlling the process,

(see Tomís article in the current issue of UN and Conflict Monitor available at:www.brad.ac.uk/acad/confres/monitor/mntr6_comment.html#vladimir)

Putinís commitment to cooperative relations was recently demonstrated by his decision to renew Russian relations with NATO. It is likely that Putin will push for START II ratification and begin negotiations on START III. Of course, that all depends on US and NATO behaviour, and especially whether the US decides to build a national or regional missile defense system, which would undermine the ABM treaty, seen by Russia as a pillar of nuclear arms control.

Unfortunately, the war in Chechnya will continue for some time. Russia will eventually refrain from shelling and bombing every town to rubble - if not because there are not many towns left then because international and domestic pressure will increase now that the election is out of the way. Putin will eventually negotiate with the Chechens, but only from a position of strength, and he will never agree to Chechen independence. Committed Chechen guerillas are unlikely to settle for anything less. Therefore, the conflict may evolve into ongoing terrorist activity, with small rebel attacks against Russian police and military installations and other strategic targets - such as occurred in Northern Ireland - and Russian retaliatory strikes against suspected guerilla bases. The worst case scenario is a spread of the conflict into neighbouring countries and other republics in Russia, especially if the Russian armed forces make it too difficult or costly for the rebels to operate effectively within Chechnya.

The progress of democracy, relations with the West, and the conflict in Chechnya are but three of many developments in Putinís Russia that peace researchers must monitor closely in the coming years.