April 22, 2013, Democratic Perspective hosted Pat Willerton, associate professor of political science at the University of Arizona. Willerton’s focus is on Russian culture and politics, having spent a great deal of time in the country before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We used this opportunity to learn more about this former ally, enemy, and current friend.
Willerton explained that, following the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia faced a “quadruple revolution.” It not only faced dramatic upheavals in its political system and economy. The collapse of the USSR also led to a social revolution and a new national identity. Compare that to the difficulty we’ve had in the U.S. in dealing with just one of those issues…the Great Recession…and you get a sense of the daunting task faced by the new government.
The government, led by Vladimir Putin, has been surprisingly effective in dealing with the issues. For example, the Russian economy is stable and growing. There is a large and growing middle class, as evidenced by the expansion of large retailers such as Ikea throughout the country. The country has successfully prioritized healthcare, housing, agriculture and education, which have all resulted in improvements to the Russian lifestyle.
While Americans view Russian leadership with some skepticism, Putin was re-elected last year with 63.6 percent of the vote while the next closest candidate received only 17.2 percent. In addition, Putin’s party (United Russia) won 238 out of 450 seats in the Duma.
Willerton says that Putin is generally well-liked by Russians. They admire his forcefulness and strength, attributes that are much-admired in the Russian culture. Yet only a small percentage want to see him re-elected at the end of his current term. So it would appear that there is no dynasty in the Russian future. Moreover, Putin faces a difficult balancing act in Russian politics.
Putin must deal with competing and powerful forces that include three other political parties. The strongest of these is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation which holds 92 seats in the Duma. And, as Willerton puts it, he also must find a solution to the three biggest complaints of the Russian people – corruption, corruption and corruption.
Despite these concerns, Willerton is understandably optimistic about the future of Russia and its relationship with the US. Likely you will be, too, after you listen to his interview.