Commentary

Russian Elections and Syria

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

Vladimir Putin has, surprising nobody, won Russia’s presidential elections, returning to the office after his stint as prime minister. It was the first of many elections taking place this year whose outcome can affect the delicate web of diplomacy and international action in the Middle East. As one of Syria’s last remaining friends, Putin’s election can have a determining effect on Assad’s future – particularly if unrest over rigged elections diverts his attention.

The importance of Russia’s support for Syria is the subject of  Hussein Shobokshi’s article in Asharq Alawsat: “Russia’s unremitting defense of the al-Assad regime, supporting and protecting the ruling system with all manner of means, methods, ordnance and intelligence, together with Iran's issuance of threats and intimidation via its sectarian religious tongue as well as its political and economic wings, not to mention its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, are all breathing life into the Assad regime....Russia believes that the overthrow of the al-Assad regime is a joint European-US conspiracy, seeking to impose Western hegemony over the entire region....The Russians believe that any victory secured by the U.S. against the al-Assad regime in Syria would be equivalent to returning to Iraq through the window after walking out - at a considerable loss - through the door.”

In the run-up to the presidential elections, Russia’s Putin had also been explicit about his opposition to any attack on Syria or Iran: “Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia is concerned about the ‘growing threat’ of an attack on Iran over its nuclear program, warning that the consequences would be ‘truly catastrophic’. In an article on foreign policy for publication on Monday, six days before a March 4 presidential election he is almost certain to win, Putin also warned Western and Arab nations against military intervention in Syria….On Iran, he said that ‘the growing threat of a military strike on this country alarms Russia, no doubt. If this occurs, the consequences will be truly catastrophic. It is impossible to imagine their real scale.’”

To allay any fears that Moscow’s stance on the Syrian regime would change after the presidential elections, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov released a statement eagerly posted on the Syrian Sana news website: “Moscow’s stance towards the situation in Syria is not temporal, rather it is based on the principle of inadmissibility of force interference in Syria's affairs.... The statement stressed that Russia's stance in regard with solving internal conflicts in other countries are based on the international law and the UN Charter and, first of all, the inadmissibility of foreign interference, especially of a forceful one. The Russian Foreign Ministry stressed that the stable Syrian settlement can be achieved only on the basis of a broad national dialogue within which only Syrians will decide on the future development of their government.”

Across the region however there was little enthusiasm for Putin’s third term. The UAE’s The National editorial believes that the “Rubber-stamp poll bodes ill for Russia…. Vladimir Putin did not need to rig Sunday's election. We may never know if he really did....The question now is whether despite his popularity among many Russians, he will be a liability because of the recent season of protests, not to mention two recent controversial elections....Stability, Mr. Putin's main selling point, is now his greatest liability as tens of thousands of protesters have shown their willingness to take to the streets. The fear is that Mr. Putin will fall back into old patterns. That would mean few reforms within Russia, and little change in foreign policy — particularly in Syria, where Moscow's support is a decisive prop for the regime. On Friday, Mr. Putin told foreign newspapers that he would not ‘tighten the screws’. But does he know any other way?”

On Al Jazeera, Joshua Tucker begins with an important observation: “It is worth noting that the only one of Russia's regions in which Putin failed to secure a majority of the vote was Moscow.... This, in turn, raises what may turn out to be the defining question of Putin's next term: how much support does he need in Moscow to continue to rule effectively? Regardless of whatever questions one may have about the extent to which official vote totals reflect Putin's true popularity, it is probably uncontroversial to claim that he is less popular in Moscow than he is in the rest of the country. So the question remains: is there a limit to how far Putin's popularity can plunge in Moscow, or is he somehow buffered by support in the rest of the country?”

Finally, an editorial and an op-ed on Khaleej Times discuss the broader implications for the region and the world of Putin’s election. First, in an editorial, the authors caution that “From the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States to the Arab Spring brewing across the Middle East, Russians have done a lot of cherry picking. Human rights to political opposition are issues that concern the common man squarely. It is these issues that Putin has to keep in view as he embarks on a journey back to Leningrad. The presidential result, irrespective of how fair it had been, would leave a sour taste until the discrepancies in the parliamentary vote are taken care of. The administration cannot just sit idle and celebrate the euphoria of presidential duel.”

And in an op-ed, Mahir Ali calls Putin’s victory a ‘stunt,’ adding, “A more democratic and less repressive Russia would indeed be welcome. Putinism isn’t exactly totalitarianism, but that has more to do with post-Soviet verities than with Putin’s intentions. There was greater political diversity under the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev…. That’s largely because the Gorbachev era was all about change, whereas the age of Putin has largely been about continuity…. For whatever it’s worth, the Russian opposition must focus on a social-democratic alternative to the incumbent. A focus on attainable redistributive justice may indeed turn the tide in time for the Bolshevik Revolution centenary in 2017.”


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