KLAIPEDA - If you were to pay attention to the Lithuanian media, upon hearing the sequence of the trending news - the Russian Duma elections, Lithuanian wrangling over the state budget and the troubles of Snoras - you would probably start wondering why the news line-up is such, and not another.
Is the extended hype only over the subject of Russia? Or was it partly fuelled by the recent OSCE Vilnius conference which, for some, will be remembered for the heated exchange between the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergej Lavrov, following Clinton’s remark on the elections as “neither honest, nor fair.” The Russian foreign chief rose quickly to chide the U.S. for applying “double standards.”
With the elections over and Russia getting prepared for the presidential elections, Lithuanian media simmers with assessments on what the Russian future may hold for Lithuania. How will Russia handle the street protests? Will the local pro-Kremlin administration crack down on the protesters? If so, what will the role of Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin’s two rulers, be? Most importantly, perhaps, will be how the Russian shake-up impacts Russian-Lithuanian relationships. And what stance Lithuania should take with the unrest?
Lithuanian political analysts agree unanimously : Eastern tensions, spiralling to crackdowns and bloodshed, do nothing good for Lithuania and the region on the whole. “Just notice one fact: with the unrest in Russia quite small and quiet, this news is the top story of Lithuanian TV and most commercial TV channels. Imagine, God forbid, if the protest rallies turned into crackdowns, how many frenzied political appeals they would ignite from the Lithuanian political spectrum. They, as well as no reaction at all to the possible events, would do nothing good for Lithuania,” says Kestutis Girnius, the well-known Lithuanian political analyst (he also has a column with TBT).
He adds: “However, I think having Putin elected as president, the unrest will fade away. Not because of Putin, but because the protests, unlike the Arab-spring mass rallies, do not have a single leadership – they are very sporadic, coordinated through social media.”
Girnius says that, with Putin and, likely, Ziuganov, the Russian Communist leader, and Zhirinovski, the eccentric chairman of the Russian Liberal Democrats on the presidential ballot, many people fearing the latter two’s Communist-era nostalgia, will likely back up Putin.
“Putin for many Russians is still seen as a strong-handed post-Soviet era leader, who has united the country when it mattered most. Being charismatic, well-spoken and close to the grassroots because of his often urban dictionary, Putin stands the best chance in the presidential elections. With all possible scenarios, he suits Lithuania’s interests most for one significant reason - Lithuania has known him for quite a while. With Ziuganov and Zhirinovski at the wheel of Russia, the anti-Baltic and anti-Lithuanian rhetoric, no doubt, will flow freely,” Girnius said to The Baltic Times.
The political analyst, who has spent most of his time overseas, disagrees with those counterparts who speculate that the allegedly rigged vote-triggered protests can evolve into an Arab-like Russian Spring.
“Those who try to draw a line between the Arab world and Russia should take a close look at the votes’ distribution among the Russian elections’ party participants. Truly liberal parties, like Javlinski’s Jabloko, have not overstepped the 7 percent barrier, which would give Duma seats. Only a Jabloko-like party, or similar liberal party, which, unlike Ziuganov’s Communists and Zhirinovski’s Liberal Democrats, is not linked to the Kremlin, can rally thousands of people. Both Ziuganov and Zhirinovksi belong to the same Kremlin rulers’ axis, and they both pose no threat to the tandem of Putin and Medvedev,” the political analyst points out.
Girnius, however, notices that a number of influential well-to-do Russians dissatisfied with the current disposition of Kremlin power might coalesce into a strong liberal movement in the future. “With no buds of it seen yet, it, obviously, will take a while,” says Girnius.
He draws another line between the Arab Spring and Russia – the position of the military and militia. “The power structures seem to be very pro-Putin in Russia. For many highest-echelon generals, Putin is the only guarantee of the Russian superpower. In Egypt, Tunis or even Libya, the military’s and police’s unity was broken up, not in Russia. I do not think the Russian oppositionists, Nemcov and Javlinskij, are capable of getting the power structures on their side. The whole Russian opposition, frankly, is not united, and that it is its biggest weakness,” Girnius emphasized.
Mecislovas Laurinkus, the ex-ambassador and former head of the Lithuanian State Security Department, notes in his commentary to the daily Lietuvos Rytas that Russians, who have strongly supported Ziuganov’s Communist Party in Duma elections, have, in fact, voted against the current Russian capitalism and liberalism, which they consider to be the source of all evil.
“How does the foreign policy of all four major parties that claimed Dumas seats differ? Only by one thing – radicalism. What Zhirinovski thinks about Lithuania, makes no sense to repeat. Both Zhirinovski and Ziuganov will pursue the presidential bid, and it still remains unclear whether the West will not start supporting Putin in the race,” says Laurinkus.
He adds: “Seemingly the thinking part of the Russian population has just now seen the outcome of their weak civic activity. It goes out onto the streets and is clamouring for change, but it is too late now, as democratic Russia, for many years, would wake up only before an election, having not worked with the populace. It would lead to wiping it [the thinking part] off the political map. This democratic Russia could brave itself for a crucial battle during the presidential elections, however, there is no time for a wide-spread movement to be established. Russian history’s flywheel has moved backwards,” notes the former ambassador.
He says the Russian vote serves as a warning to Lithuania, whose politicians and voters superficially evaluate the current events in the former empire, showing no right attention to the future Seimas’ makeup.
“Our Seimas is almost like a miniature Duma. Although the Communist Party is banned in Lithuania, the anti-Western propensity due to the alleged harmful ‘Western influence’ is quite widely promulgated by many of our societal and political organizations,” Laurinkus points out.
“The Lithuanian political structure is also gravitating towards Russia. The most vivid sign of that is the rapid decreasing of Seimas’ significance, as the political power is being concentrated in the hands of the president, whose direct tools of intimidation have become the Special Investigation Service and the Prosecutor’s Office,” Laurinkus maintains.
He draws more Russian-Lithuanian parallels, like the active hunt for oligarchs in both countries. “In Russia, Putin and his office, along with the help of the pro-Kremlin media, state that they have set a task to harness their oligarchs. Michail Khodorkovski has been chosen as their prey. In Lithuania, we follow the Russian hunt path, exuberantly looking for our own Khodorkovski. Like in Russia, we likely will also have four major parties fighting for parliamentary seats in the fall of 2012. There is not a big difference, which of the four will play the role of Russia’s United Russia,” Laurinkus concludes.
Tomas Janeliunas, a political analyst, says he believes the protests in Russia will die out gradually. He predicts a large voter turnout in the presidential elections. “I believe Putin’s core political base, consisting of supporters from a wide range of societal stratums, will rally behind him for the elections. I guess few doubt that Putin will claim victory, but vote rigging is possible,” Janeliunas said to The Baltic Times.
He says he does not see any democratic liberal political force able to bring a change to Russian politics.
“Most of the existing opposition is very divided. Although the Communists and Liberal Democrats align themselves as the Kremlin’s opposition, that is not the case. It will take quite a while for Russia to have a strong liberal movement or party,” says Janeliunas.
With Putin most likely going back to the Kremlin as the president, Janeliunas says the anti-Baltic rhetoric may increase. “When it comes to it, there is no necessity of a reason for it. You can always come up with one, if you want. There is not much to choose from for us, if the adverse rhetoric surfaces. Any escalation of it can possibly harm Lithuania’s interests, first of all our economic interests. Therefore, Lithuania should avoid any escalations with Russia,” Janeliunas stressed.
Radvile Morkunaite, a Europarliamentarian, compares the hacking attacks on Russian Web sites registering ballot infringements to the cybernet attack on Estonia in 2007. “The attack prompted NATO’s decision to compare this kind of attack to conventional threats of national security and establish the NATO Cybernetic Security Competence Center in Estonia. However, the hackers in Russia were not able to hack the global social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, which for Russian voters have become a main information-sharing tool in recent days,” notes Morkunaite.
She states “It is hard to shake off the impression that Russia follows in the footsteps of the Arab Spring,” a notion that Girnius disagrees with.
In describing the possible post-election developments in Russia, Ceslovas Iskauskas, a political analyst, employs the term “modernized stagnation,” signifying Russian president Medvedev’s announced course to modernize society, and Putin’s ruling method full of stagnation and repression.
Iskauskas says the Putin-Medvedev party has received 50 percent of the votes only out of inertia. He says the elections have revealed a phenomenon that is hard to explain – starkly contrasting results in some Russian regions. Chechnya, a Caucasian Russian republic, which has suffered heavily from the Chechyan-Russian war, like during the Soviet times, has brought United Russia 99 percent support. Meanwhile, the party’s performance in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad was disastrous; only 25.2 percent of the voters supported Putin’s United Russia.
Speaking of foreign policy in post-election Russia, political analysts concur with The Guardian’s notion that Putin will continue controlling it, and no one will be able to challenge him. “The fact that Putin called the breakdown of the Soviet Union ‘the biggest 20th century catastrophe’ and his intentions to found its replacement - Eurasia - capable of competing with the EU and NATO in the future illustrate that Putin accumulates power for an even more aggressive foreign policy in Europe and Asia. The Putin project will be grounded on an even larger control of energy resources. Thus the U.S. and EU endeavours to increase their influence in the “near abroad,” as well as the Baltics,” Iskauskas notes.
Another political analyst, Vytis Jurkonis, says the loss by United Russia does not mean that the political life will change in the country. “Despite the loss of a sheer majority of the seats in Duma, Putin’s party will remain the policy shapers,” says Jurkonis.
He does not think that the election outcome will change significantly the Lithuanian and Russian relationships. “Even the United Party itself states that the election results mean stability and continuity.” It is unlikely that Russia’s foreign policy could change dramatically.
With an abundance of political analysis towards Russia streaming in, the Lithuanian President’s Office is not in a hurry to assess the situation in Russia. “It is hard to expect big changes [in Russia], just because the same parties which had been in Duma before have won the parliamentary seats. Maybe we should expect, or we would like to think, that the renewed Duma will serve as a stimulus to look at the mutual relationships anew. However, we will be able to assess the situation best when the Russian presidential election is over,” Jovita Neliupsiene, the Lithuanian president’s foreign policy advisor, said to Ziniu Radijas.