Whether inquiring about Dmitry Medvedev or Vladimir Putin, that is an oft asked question these days.
Yes, is my ready answer.
No matter who ends up on the ballot for United Russia (the ruling party), both men are actively running. Already.
They’ll most likely settle the question before the election becomes heated, not as if the question isn’t already generating sufficient heat behind the scenes. Both are jockeying for position and at least for now careful not to step on the other’s toes–too hard.
They’ve been associates for decades and have worked together in various capacities during that time. But Russia is maturing to the point of making a choice: will it continue to be a “managed democracy” where leaders are pre-chosen by powerful Oligarchs in the shadows with the public’s stamp of approval only after the candidates been selected, or will Russia begin to emerge as a flourishing democracy?
That will be the real question in the next election cycle and Russians know it. The only two questions of import are:
1- Does the average Ivan feel a vested personal interest in the outcome, that his life will improve if his candidate is elected?
2- Does Ivan on the street feel his vote really counts, that his mark behind the curtain in the voting booth can positively impact Russia’s future?
Those are intertwinned yet separate issues. If the answer to either or both is yes, then Vladimir Putin will have a difficult time laying claim to the top spot no matter how many Oligarchs give their blessing. Knowing this, Mr. Putin is intent on grabbing his share of publicity. “Out of sight is out of mind” has never been more true than in the world of politics and so the Prime Minister is making preparations for the ninth annual live radio call-in show with the public in December. While the exact date has not yet been announced, state-controlled Rossia One and Rossia-24 television channels and Mayak and Radio Russia radio stations have already been given marching orders to carry the show on their vast Russian networks.
Mr. Medvedev meanwhile has been consistently laying out a vision for a Russia that looks far more democratic than today and a nation that would allow Ivan on the street much more of a say in Russia’s future. While he believes that needed reforms should be gradual, and in fairness so does Mr. Putin, the President would like for those reforms to come faster and more consistently.
President Medvedev is clearly aware of voter manipulation that has taken place in the recent past. At present only 5% of the country has access to electronic voting and opposition parties have legitimate concerns about the way hand ballots are counted. Electronic voting can be an expensive investment but the Medvedev budget includes plans to make meaningful improvements in those numbers.
During the Medvedev presidency, opposition parties are now guaranteed equal access to state-run media at both the federal and regional levels, a request to the president by representatives of opposition parties. Mr. Medvedev has authorized the access and is now taking on the federal electoral commissions that are responsible to monitor the implementation of these guarantees. The president has ordered that equal media access be accounted for in “real time” as measured in hours, minutes and even seconds of airtime, not only in simple declarations of compliance.
A serious point of departure between Misters Putin and Medvedev is the debate on whether opposition parties should also benefit from equal rights to use various premises for meetings and campaigning. Mr. Medvedev has stepped up his campaign for these reforms, causing some tension between the President and Prime Minister.
Another important change during the current presidential administration is that the opposition is guaranteed certain senior positions in regional parliaments. Also, the number of signatures of party supporters required for registering to participate in elections has been reduced and the threshold for allowing party representatives into all levels of parliament has been lowered to five percent of the vote.
These changes have not come easily. Mr. Medvedev introduced a package of election reforms to the Duma (Parliament) in early 2009 and it’s been a slugfest through the end of 2010. But the reforms mentioned have been won. Hopefully these changes will translate into real wins for Russian voters and those in the loyal opposition.
In remarks yesterday the president reflected on his first term by saying, I believe that political reforms should not result in chaos and the paralysis of democratic institutions; as I have stressed on numerous occasions, they must strengthen, not destroy, democracy. Therefore in the article Go Russia!, which I wrote last year, I described the method and style of these reforms: reforms must be gradual, but steady.
Our democracy is imperfect and we are absolutely aware of this. But we are still at the beginning of the road. The most important thing is that we are not standing still: we are going forward.