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Analysis & Opinion
06.03.08 Forgiving And Forgetting
By Olaf Koens

BRUSSELS. Unlike the Duma elections last December, there was no sincere interest in Brussels in the Russian presidential election. Some even proclaimed Dmitry Medvedev’s victory before polling stations even opened in Russia. The European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), a newly-founded European advocacy think thank, released a report on Feb. 28 titled “Meeting Medvedev: the politics of the Putin succession,” stating that instead of rushing to embrace Medvedev, European Union leaders should agree on a joint Russia strategy and organize a series of tests for Putin’s successor. The “tests” mentioned in the report address questions of energy security, the stand-off over Kosovo, and the Iranian nuclear dossier.

Andrew Wilson, who authored the report, argued that while Medvedev might appear as a business-friendly liberal reformer, he remains the product of a political system shaped solely by elite interests and “political technologists.” He recalled the experience of 2000, when “European leaders rushed to establish their own ‘personal relationships’ with Putin’,” and explained that it “Hindered the development of a common EU policy on Russia.”

According to Wilson, “During the eight years of the Putin Presidency, the EU has failed to define and defend a common policy toward a resurgent Russia.” The report also claimed that “The last presidential election was a ‘new opportunity to coalesce around a shared strategy’. The main reason why there can be no return to the friendly relations of the 1990s was Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in late 2004 – an event whose political impact was comparable to that of 9/11 in the United States.”

Behind closed doors

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) did not send a mission of their Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to the Russian presidential election, regretting “the restrictions and limitations imposed by the Russian Federation.” The observers were only invited to Russia on Jan. 28, and by then they have already “given up” on the process as a whole. “An election is more than what happens on Election Day,” said Christian Strohal, ODIHR’s director. “What is true for every election is also true for this one; transparency strengthens democracy, politics behind closed doors weakens it.”

A delegation of the Council of Europe (COE) did observe the elections. A press release noted that the elections “Had the character of a plebiscite on the last eight years in this country,” and suggested that the people of Russia voted for the stability and continuity associated with the incumbent President and the candidate promoted by him. Andreas Gross, the head of the 22-member delegation, said that “The result is a reflection of the will of an electorate whose democratic potential was, unfortunately, not tapped.”

The COE delegation also noted that most of the flaws revealed during the Duma elections have not been fixed. In the press release, the delegation states that “The concern over candidate registration was not alleviated and equal access of the candidates to the media and public sphere in general has not improved, putting into question the fairness of the election.”

Despite the absence of traditional backing from the OSCE, the COE delegation was confident that is was able to complete its task efficiently and credibly. The report did, however, call upon the future president to have more confidence in his own country and in its democracy, by declaring his intention to welcome a bigger representation of official election observers in the future.

Europe’s politicians react

Prior to the election, some members of the European Parliament voiced discontent with the status quo. Dutch MEP Ria Oomen-Ruijten, who chaired the Parliament’s delegation to Russia, regretted the attitude of the Russian authorities. “Election observation is taking place in many countries in the world, and is neither an intrusion in the sovereign affairs of a country nor any kind of punishment.”

Others showed little interest in the poll. The Hungarian MEP Istvan Szent-Ivanyi said that “The election itself has no political importance. It is a carefully staged formal investiture of the successor already designated by President Putin.” Yet others took the opportunity to express hope that the new Russian president would expedite negotiations with the EU about a new partnership agreement and make progress on the issue of Russia’s WTO membership.

The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, congratulated Dmitry Medvedev and noted that during Medvedev’s presidency the Russian Federation and the European Union will consolidate and develop their strategic partnership. He told reporters that he personally looked forward to close cooperation with Medvedev and his administration.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among the first European leaders to congratulate Medvedev on Monday. The government spokesmen Thomas Steg said that Merkel “Looks forward to pursuing our extensive cooperation with Russia.” However, he didn’t hesitate to add that “It is without doubt the case that during the election campaign, situations arose where democratic rules were not always upheld.” Merkel will also be the first European leader to visit Moscow. She will meet both Putin and Medvedev separately.

A spokesmen of the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told reporters that congratulations were sent to Moscow on behalf of London, but a communiqu? stated that Gordon Brown would “Judge the new administration based on its actions.”

The flamboyant French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was habitually undiplomatic. “There was no competition and Medvedev’s victory was known in advance,” he said. In a later radio interview he said that Vladimir Putin’s successor was elected with “Very surprising figures, not quite worthy of Stalin, but 70 percent is not bad.” He did, however, add that “There is no question that Russia voted in its great majority for a new prosperity.” According to the French foreign minister, salaries in Russia have tripled or quadrupled since the year 2000.

The vigilant eye

An editorial stating that “Dmitry Medvedev’s election as Russia’s next president was unfair, un-transparent and thoroughly undemocratic” appeared in the London edition of the Financial Times. But the writer also noted that “He is the Russian people’s choice, and he will succeed Vladimir Putin. So the West must accept the result and learn to live with it.”

At the outbreak of World War I, the Skibbereen Eagle, a local Irish newspaper, published an editorial criticizing Russian aggression. It ended with a phrase still mentioned in journalism schools: “Let the Czar of Russia be warned, the eyes of the Skibbereen Eagle are upon him.”

Last Sunday’s Independent, a leading Irish publication, recalled those famous words, stating in one of its editorial comments that “In the 21st century, what goes on in Russia can have dramatic repercussions for Skibbereen, as well as Strasbourg and Stuttgart.” It also remarked that “Many anxious eyes will be turned on the actions of Medvedev in the years to come. And not just from Skibbereen.”
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