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RFE/RL: Moving Beyond Russia's Embrace

posted by eagle on October, 2009 as ANALYSIS / OPINION

October 29, 2009

Moving Beyond Russia's Embrace

by Irina Severin

Russia enjoys dabbling in the domestic politics of its neighboring countries, publicly supporting its favorite politicians and demonstrating its contempt for those whom it dislikes. But it rarely -- at least among its European neighbors -- gets the result it is seeking. The most recent example is Moldova.

The Kremlin spared no effort to support the Communist Party during the parliamentary elections in April and again in July. But the result is that the party lost power. Worse, although it retains 48 seats in the 101-seat legislature (the largest single faction), no other faction was willing to enter into a coalition with the darlings of the Kremlin. 

Now, apparently, the Kremlin is looking toward parliament speaker Marian Lupu, who defected from the Communists this summer to head the Democratic Party in the July elections and is now the ruling coalition's favored candidate for president. 

When Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was in Chisinau recently for a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), he refused to meet with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, but found time to chat with the amiable young Lupu. Medvedev went a step further in making Lupu stand out by also refusing to meet Moldova's new prime minister, Vlad Filat. He, evidently, was being punished for daring to mention the word "NATO" a couple of times.

Poisoned Chalice?

To be fair, Lupu did everything he could to attract Medvedev's attention by sending as many positive signals as he could think of. But even he was surprised at the unexpected attention he received. When Medvedev offered to pose with Lupu for photographers, the latter looked decidedly lost. 

Perhaps that was because he realized at that moment what this honor might end up costing him. After all, he must have noticed how Moscow's "yesterday man," former President Vladimir Voronin requested a meeting with Medvedev and was turned down. Voronin had to leave the country during the summit to minimize his humiliation. And one wonders if Medvedev really thought that such a demonstrative affront to the old favorite was really a good way to convince Lupu to get on board with Moscow.

Moldova's current political deadlocks stems from the fact that the four other parliament factions cannot muster the 61 votes needed to elect a president. The coalition needs eight votes, which the Communists can offer -- as the democrats offered their votes to elect Voronin as a president in 2005 to avoid early elections. Lupu has support among the Communists, but the final decision depends on Voronin.

And did Medvedev's gesture help Lupu in his uneasy attempt to build a dialogue with the Communists? After the summit, the party's official newspaper "Communist" wrote: "Marian Lupu's picture against the background of Medvedev won't help him become president." And Voronin declared unambiguously that the Communists will not offer their votes to Lupu. 

It seems the Communists have once again found the dignity that they demonstrated under Russian pressure in the 2005 elections, which they won. But the Communists have been unable to modernize themselves -- or the country that they ruled for eight years --sufficiently to gain genuine support among the electorate. This inevitably forces them to rely on Russian support and makes them vulnerable to Russian influence. 

Meanwhile, although the Alliance for European Integration continues to insist that Lupu is its candidate for president, his pro-Western partners must be somewhat confused by Medvedev's demonstration of support and are likely wondering privately what kind of political favors Russia might expect from a President Lupu. 

Basking In A Manufactured Glow

Why are politicians in the former Soviet countries so eager to have their picture taken with the president of Russia? For the most part, Russia's neighbors associate Russia with unexpected gas cuts, gas-price increases, and painful embargoes that produce misery throughout society. So there is a certain part of the electorate that seeks to avoid these punishments at any cost and wants a leader who can appease this uncontrollable force of nature. 

The size of this segment of the electorate is hard to estimate. The Kremlin has agencies in its neighboring countries, such as Eurasian Monitor (a project of the Kremlin-controlled All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion), that are working to improve Russia's image and its standings in the polls. Of course, such polls are primarily intended not to reflect public opinion, but to shape it. 

The Kremlin uses the same technique at home -- controlling the media in order to frame issues in the "correct" way and then producing polls, studies, and "expert" opinions that bolster this impression. Judging from some of the comments coming from Russian leaders, it would appear that often the rulers themselves begin to believe the storylines they craft. 

Marian Lupu, it seems, fell victim to a desire to share in the Russian leader's apparent popularity. But by doing so, he has placed his presidential ambitions in grave danger. By comparison, it seems Ukraine's Yushchenko made a rare appearance at the CIS summit precisely in order to be snubbed by Medvedev and to give his abysmal popularity rating at home a little bounce -- not exactly the result Russia was seeking.

Maybe it is finally becoming clear that politicians in the former Soviet Union can benefit more from building popular support for themselves than by trying to bask in the illusory popularity of Russian leaders. If they focus on what they can do for their own people, they will be more respected in their own countries. And by the Kremlin as well.

Irina Severin is a journalist and political analyst based in Chisinau. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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