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Steve LeVine on Russia's Upcoming Election, Oil, and U.S.-Russian Relations

The Schwartz Fellow talks with Andrés Martinez about how Putin has maintained his grip on the electorate for so long.
March 1, 2012 |

In 2008, Schwartz Fellow Steve LeVine illuminated the pernicious, corrupt, and often dangerous politics of “new Russia” in his book Putin’s Labyrinth. This week, LeVine sat down with New America Vice President Andrés Martinez to discuss Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s current role in the protests pulsating through the streets of Moscow, and whether he’ll win Sunday’s presidential election.
To understand the evolution of the current uprising, it’s crucial to look at Putin’s position four years ago. Back in 2008, Russia’s oil wealth had freshly greased the gears of Putin’s Kremlin (he was Russia’s president from 1999-2008). The regime carried out targeted assassinations and tolerated large-scale human rights violations.
Not much changed when Dmitry Medvedev was elected president in 2008: Medvedev is widely seen as a mouthpiece for the former president. Until this past fall, most Russians seemed indifferent to the incestuous Putin and Medvedev partnership and the regime’s despotism. Some experts have attributed that apathetic attitude to the implicit social contract between Putin and the citizenry: As long as Putin maintained Russia’s high standard of living and relative stability, the electorate kept quiet about his censorship tactics and political goals.   
But Putin’s September announcement that he planned to run for a third term as president sparked unrest in the country. In December, protests continued after parliamentary elections that were decried worldwide as fraudulent. LeVine explained why Putin's announcement so upset Muscovites in an article last December.
LeVine, who is also the author of Foreign Policy’s The Oil and the Glory blog, makes an important point about these protests during the discussion: They aren’t a domino effect of the uprisings that overthrew regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.
“Russians came out into the streets not as an outflow of the Arab Spring, but [from] indignation over Putin’s presumptuousness in deciding ‘I’m coming back to the Kremlin and putting in motion all of the political steps to make that happen’,” LeVine explains. Watch the full video above for a discussion about how oil wealth plays into Putin’s power, the state of the Russian-U.S. "reset" pact, and how long Putin can maintain his hold on power.

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