Think Tank Review: During April, the Russian expert community turned its attention to the upcoming 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, focusing on the ability of candidates such as Hillary Clinton to change the dynamics of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Photo: RIA Novosti

The upcoming 2016 U.S. presidential election and the ongoing discord between Russia and the West were the main topics discussed by the Russian expert community in April. In addition, Russian experts discussed the implications of the recent Kazakh presidential election, which saw the incumbent, Nursultan Nazarbayev, swept into office with more than 97 percent of the vote.

Elections in the United States: Looking ahead to 2016

Russian experts have started to closely monitor America’s leading presidential candidates for the upcoming election campaign in 2016. Of particular interest is Hillary Clinton, the presumed candidate for the Democratic Party.

Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, is pessimistic about Clinton’s campaign bid, saying that he “does not expect a new ‘reset’ in relations, no matter who wins the elections in 2016.” Trenin does not expect any attempts from Hillary Clinton to work on reconciliation with Russia, believing it impossible in the current international political context. 

However, he believes that the Democrats have made the right choice, since they “traditionally broaden the horizons.” “Kennedy was the first Catholic, Obama the first African-American, and now obviously, it is time for a woman,” says Trenin. “Clinton has vast experience, and last but not least, the ability to raise money.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, also believes Hillary to be a promising candidate, because she has the “prominence, experience, vast potential to raise funds, and her husband Bill Clinton – a politician from God, and the best speechmaker in the United States. And finally, her gender identity.” 

At the same time, Lukyanov lists her shortcomings: an inability to communicate with some parts of the American electorate, her age and possible illness, and the ability of critics to characterize her run for the presidency as simply a re-run of the past – “Clinton-Bush – 25 Years Later.” (That is, if Jeb Bush will run for the Republicans). 

Just like Trenin, Lukyanov also does not expect any warming in U.S.-Russian relations if Clinton wins the election, because “for the Clinton team, which was formed at the beginning of the 1990s, Russia remains a constant reminder of their failures. That which at one time seemed like an unfortunate exception, now is beginning to appear as a fundamental blunder.”

Russia-West relations on the decline

A constant topic of interest for Russian analysts remains the relationship dynamic between Russia and the West, and especially between Russia and the United States. In April, these experts reasoned that the relations were growing cooler, and on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, they are saying that today it would be extremely difficult for Russia to join in a common effort with the West against a threat of the scale that German Nazism posed in the 1940s.

Thus Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, in particular, writes that, “The celebrations of the 70th Anniversary of the victory in World War II have become another clear proof of how the international situation, and the balance of power, have changed.” 

He points out that, “The days when, despite all the political and ideological differences, the celebrations stressed the ability of countries to unite in the name of the struggle against evil, are now in the past.”

Yan Vaslavsky, an expert at MGIMO, noted that in the current conditions, it is becoming more and more difficult to build dialogue, and to go back to the previous level, and not to mention the obvious – “the neglect of the most important principles of foreign policy activities, the value of keeping one’s word and guarantees.” Vaslavsky considers that the deterioration in the general atmosphere is directly linked to the U.S., and that Europe and Russia would have a chance to reach agreement, if not for the “pushy middleman.”

Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, looks at the deteriorating relations from a slightly different point of view. He considers that it is wrong to compare the current period to that of the Cold War, because “today, we do not have this symmetry: for Russia, the United States is very large and very threatening, while for the U.S., Russia is a problem of the second or even third echelon.” 

Nevertheless, the expert believes that we should not underestimate the level of confrontation, and in many respects, the current situation is much more strained than in the previous years. This is because now we have a “game without rules,” and “a conflict today is really fraught with serious consequences if all actors are not properly controlled, as well as all the forces involved in a conflict, and especially in Ukraine.”

Igor Ivanov and Dominique de Villepin from Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), noting the gradual collapse of hopes for the creation of a “Greater Europe” and an alliance with the United States, are calling for concrete measures to be taken in order to combat the crisis. They are especially appealing to the younger generation, in which experts see hope for future dialogue: 

“Let us recall the experience of France and Germany, which achieved national reconciliation after the signing of the famous Elysée Treaty in 1963,  and the establishment of the Common Department of Youth. We would like to propose the laying of the foundation for reconciliation between Russia and Europe, by creating a similar Russian-European Youth Agency, on the basis of student exchange programs, grants to authors of projects in the field of entrepreneurship and innovation, support for language training and many other measures.”

Making sense of elections in Kazakhstan

Early presidential elections in Kazakhstan – one of the closest partners of Russia in the post-Soviet space – also attracted the interest of Russian experts. In February 2015, the incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced plans to hold early presidential elections, the results of which no one doubted, either inside the country or abroad. Nazarbayev received support from 97.7 percent of the voters.

The opinions of analysts diverged. Some were convinced that the elections demonstrated real support for Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, while others have argued that these elections were fraudulent, and the outcome was predictable from the start. At the same time, the experts speculated about the motives that led the Nazarbayev to hold such early elections.

Those that believe that the election results show support for Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan include Andrey Kazantsev (MGIMO). Kazantsev said that, “The recent elections were not so much about the Kazakh people making a choice, because this was obvious, as much as a ‘vote of confidence’ to show support for their President.” At the same time, the analyst recognized that, “he did not see an alternative” among the other political figures of Kazakhstan, and in many respects, this determines the choice of the citizens.

Arkady Dubnov from Carnegie Moscow Center falls into the second category of experts skeptical of the election, noting that, “Given the “Nazarbayev Cult” that has been created in Kazakhstan, these presidential elections look like an artificial, if not forced exercise, and the turnout of 95 percent – is simply unrealistic.”

“Electoral sociology teaches us that interest in participating in elections drops significantly if the results are known in advance, and they do not have any element of intrigue.” Dubnov also noted that the decision to hold early elections was connected with the shaky position of the Kremlin, which could pull Kazakhstan into a crisis because of Russia’s own economic problems. In such circumstances, says the expert, changing a “trusted leader” seemed irrational for the Kazakh elite.

Sergey Markov of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy considers that Nazarbayev “has always been a proactive player” and the decision on early elections is a very timely move. Nazarbayev, the expert writes, “offers the best solutions, in terms of both the economy and social relations, as well as in matters of foreign policy.”

Besides this, there are his “inherent strong political will, a complex synthesis of reform policies and hard pragmatism.” According to Markov, in such conditions, and with such premises, alternatives to Nazarbayev simply do not exist.

Alexey Malashenko from Carnegie Moscow Center talks not only about the election results, which, in his view, were obvious, but also about the re-elected President’s plans to reform the political system. Malashenko talked about upcoming changes, and asked questions about when these changes would be made.

In particular, the expert questions the future existence of the Eurasian project, being promoted by Russia, and for the moment supported by Kazakhstan. In the future, the expert noted, “The fate of ‘Eurasianism’ is uncertain, in particular the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), in a renewed and post-reform Kazakhstan.”