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Recent Tensions between Russia and the West
(Released May 2008)

 
  by Fiona Allison  

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Russian Presidential Elections 2008

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The Russian presidential elections which took place on March 2, 2008, attracted worldwide attention. The focus was on the run-up to the elections and the candidates, rather than the actual outcome, which was a foregone conclusion due to the repression of the opposition candidates. Putin's chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, unsurprisingly won a landslide victory - and immediately declared Putin as his prime minister. They have merely exchanged positions; it is widely thought that Putin will be the one really in power. This signifies that relations are highly unlikely to improve, and that Russia will continue threatening the West. Outside observers of the Russian election were concerned in particular about the treatment of one of the opposition candidates; former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. A long-time denouncer of Putin's policies, Kasparov is well known outside Russia, and he appeared on a number of topical programmes in the United States before his campaign was abruptly terminated. This happened because Kremlin laws require at least 500 supporters to meet in a hall in Moscow to endorse a presidential candidate. However, Kasparov was prevented from renting a hall of sufficient size by the deadline and thus had no option but to withdraw from the elections. Kasparov had already been arrested a number of times for organising protest marches in Moscow and St. Petersburg in opposition to Putin's government. Other candidates were accused of forging signatures of their supporters and subsequently banned from standing. The remaining opposition candidates missed out on essential publicity as state-owned television channels and newspapers gave them little or no media coverage. Medvedev by contrast enjoyed much coverage, especially on the television alongside Putin. It should be noted that the Kremlin controls two out three main television channels whilst the state owned Gazprom controls the third. Two of the three Russian news agencies are also owned by the state, constituting a lack of press freedom often criticised by the West.

angry man in crowd
Sentenced to jail . . . Chess grandmaster and opposition leader Garry Kasparov

The elections had been surrounded in controversy since the decision earlier this year by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, to boycott them due to limitations imposed by Moscow. Immediately after the elections the only Western watchdog which had been able to observe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, stated that "Russia's democratic potential was unfulfilled."6 Accusations of electoral fraud also came from the runner-up, Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party, although his vote total was nowhere near that of Medvedev. The election results mean that relations with the West are unlikely to change, especially as Medvedev is regarded as Putin's puppet; effectively it will be the latter running the country.

mural on wall
A Soviet era mural in Transdniester where the Russian military remains a presence

Relations with former Republics were a key issue in the election, as many Russians resent their loss. Moscow fears that the nearby Republic of Georgia will gain a pro-Western government as happened in the Ukraine in the so-called Orange Revolution. Russia in many ways behaves towards its nearest former Soviet states as though it still controls them; it has interfered in numerous regional conflicts over territories supplying arms to their favoured side. In the case of Moldova, mentioned earlier, Russian troops supplied arms and fought for the residents of Transdniestr, even now Russian 'peace-keeping' soldiers remain in the area. Moldova is another example of a former republic heavily reliant on Russia for its energy supplies. Russia's stance towards its former Soviet territories is still criticised by Western leaders, as the Kremlin, under the guise of Gazprom, wields much power and influence over countries such as Georgia and Ukraine. It is almost as though Russia resents their political independence but still enjoys some authority by being able to control their energy supplies. On many occasions Gazprom has cut off gas supplies to Georgia (over apparently unpaid bills) to ensure the country's cooperation with Moscow. Russia has also threatened serious consequences to Europe and Georgia should the latter join NATO, an action which would further isolate Russia. Tension remains regarding unresolved conflicts over small territories between Russia and Georgia. It must be remembered that Russia is not an EU member, not an ally of the USA and not an ally of China; although this makes it a potential partner to any it also makes them a potential enemy as it stands somewhat alone.

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