THE UPCOMING FEDERAL ELECTIONS AS REPORTED BY THE CENTRAL MEDIA
The dismissal of the government not unexpectedly caused a great deal of comments in the press. The media seem not to have missed a single nuance of the new situation: Stepashin’s weak and strong points that caused his dismissal; Putin’s political prospects and the prospects of the country under the new prime minister, who is a former security officer; the president’s plans, both true and supposed, and the new strategies and tactics of the electoral blocs. The latest “castling” was considered to be a kind of natural calamity. As Izvestia put it, “Yeltsin has shown that he can consolidate society with a stroke of the pen: the latest dismissal was condemned by all of Russia.”
But even though everybody agreed that the dismissal was inevitable, each periodical explained it in its own way.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “Stepashin’s guilt lay in his being too meek and delicate, while the political situation demands quite the opposite qualities in a person.”
Kommersant-Daily: “Stepashin’s task was to secure the elections… The prime minister must meet the interests of the ruling party. Stepashin did not.”
Komsomolskaya Pravda: “Stepashin’s mistake was having the image of a well-bred, intelligent person… The majority of our population is, unfortunately, not very well-bred or intelligent, and people do not like to encounter these qualities in others.”
Trud offered its own interpretation of the events: the president is having troubles with his health, he may be hospitalized at any minute, and in this case all his powers would go to the prime minister. According to Trud, the Kremlin doubted Stepashin’s loyalty and his ability to prevent affairs unpleasant for the president’s circles from happening: “Stepashin’s main problem is that, like Primakov, he is too honest,” “Trud” quotes the statement of a nameless “high official”.
Argumenti and Facti offered a “commercial” interpretation of the governmental cataclysm: “You don’t have to be a genius to predict the fall of the ruble against the dollar after the prime minister is changed. So, it is quite possible that there is a plan according to which a certain group of people buys a large amount of dollars beforehand. When the ruble falls (as actually happened), the dollars will be able to be sold for a considerable sum of money. Why? To finance the electoral campaign, for instance. This sum could be really huge – about a billion dollars.”
Still, the majority of analysts consider the “iron fist” explanation to be the most convincing. According to it, the president was “desperately seeking political support”. (Novye Izvestia)
Really, as Kommersant-Daily remarked, Stepashin was replaced by Putin not for the sake of changes in economic policy: “Following the negotiations with the IMF, economic policy is already defined… Consequently, Stepashin’s dismissal and Putin’s confirmation mean that domestic policy will be made stricter.” The press suspects that the Kremlin is considering a plan which includes declaring a state of emergency followed by cancellation of the elections, and no matter how much the new head of government and the president himself assure the media, they will stick to their suspicions.
It’s true that the authorities have been given good enough reason to have these suspicions. Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Fund for Effective Policy, who is nicknamed a “power behind the throne” in the opposition media, said in his interview to Sobesednik: “Putin’s confirmation is an open signal for the forces which are ready for ‘direct actions’. In response to the direct question: “Can Putin’s appointment be considered an answer to a possible State Committee for the State of Emergency III?” Pavlovsky said, “Lately one gets the feeling that there is a certain plan to provoke the authorities to undertake anti-constitutional actions, in Dagestan, for instance. In this case, Putin’s appointment as head of the cabinet was the right step to nip such attempts in the bud.”
At the same time, the new acting prime minister, when speaking about the possible solutions to the Dagestani problem at a special meeting of the Council of the Federation, checked the senators’ reaction to the possibility of emergency measures and was satisfied: “We shall speak about a state of emergency when the need arises.”
Still, as the press remarks, the threat of a state of emergency can’t but make society nervous. Moreover, there is a possibility of serious problems for the Kremlin itself: “Such actions may cause the violent resistance not only of the opposition but of the regional authorities as well… The governors, who possess legal and actual power, would hardly agree to give their power away to presidential plenipotentiaries. In response to the president playing on the constitutional field, they may start considering themselves free of all obligations in relation to the federal center.” (Novye Izvestia)
But the president returned to the question of a state of emergency once again during his meeting with Alexander Kotenkov, his representative in the Duma. He emphasized that the situation in Dagestan is serious enough to require that a corresponding law be passed. Kommersant-Daily remarks on this issue: “If the authorities cared only for solving the Northern Dagestani problem, they could do with their present resources. Moscow did not need any emergency to be declared to start the current ‘large-scale anti-terrorist operation’. But if the Kremlin is dreaming about more serious events, like a state of emergency across the country followed by cancellation of the elections, banning of parties, and limiting the rights and freedoms of citizens, then the immaculate legal status of such decisions wouldn’t be out of place.”
These gloomy prognoses made by society seem to be affecting even the Kremlin itself: on Monday during a meeting with journalists, Boris Yeltsin considered it necessary to assure them that he sees no reason to declare a state of emergency. However, it’s hardly likely that these protestations have helped relax the situation. People do not believe the president any more and expect only new troubles from him. As Segodnya emotionally put it, “The country is bored to death with Yeltsin.” Still, the newspaper holds that the president realizes the extent of his notoriety and the fact that his power “is hanging by a thread of legitimacy”, which he “would cut if he took illegal steps”. That is why all the fears about a introduction of dictatorship are “sheer gibberish”: “There is a certain trifle which is needed for dictatorship – a dictator and a circle loyal to him. Russia does not have that.”
As for Kommersant-Daily, it is prepared to admit that a state of emergency is scarcely to be expected, but assumes that the regime can still be made stricter, and, what is more, considers such a development inevitable: “In the opinion of the president’s circles, Putin may well become the embodiment of the concept of the ‘iron fist’, which, according to the sociological polls taken by the Kremlin, Russian society is in such desperate need of. But to make it real, the new prime minister will have to take some really extraordinary measures, like mass arrests, public trials, and banning extremist organizations.”
Thus, it is no wonder that, against such a background, the idea of limiting the president’s powers is becoming more and more popular. This is another result of the Kremlin’s recent actions. When Stepashin was fired, Boris Nemtsov was one of the first to remember the idea of the government’s deliverance from the president’s willfulness. He suggested that a corresponding referendum be held during the parliamentary elections. Argumenti i Fakti reported on Nemtsov’s initiative in detail: “It’s high time amendments to the Constitution were made. The president of such a huge country cannot afford to change five prime ministers in half a year. And the parliament which represents all political forces cannot stay out of the formation of the government.” The government, according to Nemtsov’s idea, should be able to be dismissed only with the Duma’s consent. Argumenti i Fakti remarks, “Yeltsin won’t pass all his powers as president on to any of his successors.”
In his interview to Segodnya, Sergei Shakhrai stated that the suggestion of amending the Constitution is sure to be supported by senators, who are afraid to be reproached for their cooperation with the Kremlin: “Putin’s confirmation must be balanced one way or another. This can be achieved by means of criticizing the ‘Yeltsin anti-national constitution’… The elections may be held under the slogan: ‘Down with Yeltsin’s constitution!'” And since there are enemies of such a radical approach, there is a possibility of compromise, in Shakhrai’s opinion: “It is impossible to abolish presidency, but the president of 2000 won’t be given powers like those of the current one.”
Yeltsin’s former assistants Georgy Satarov and Mikhail Krasnov, the founders of the Indem fund, are of the same opinion. Their drafts of amendments to the Constitution suggest “distancing the president from policy” (a quotation from Segodnya). It is planned that the candidate for prime minister will be named by the Duma, and it will also be able to dismiss the government. The prime minister has the right to form the cabinet by himself and sign bills passed by Parliament before they go to the president. As for the president, his term should be prolonged to five years, and the lower age limit is to be 40 (Nemtsov, in turn, suggests an upper limit of 60 or 65). In an interview with Vek, Krasnov said that the authorities of the Indem fund hope to attract the attention of both the Duma and the Presidential Administration to this draft: “We offer a model which is flexible enough to suit all sensible political forces. It would be perfect if Yeltsin himself headed this process. He himself has said that his mission is to leave the country in a stable state.”
Not everyone considers the hopes that Yeltsin will voluntarily allow the president’s powers to be limited groundless. Literaturnaya Gazeta reminds us: “There has always been a certain trait to Yeltsin’s character: “if not for me than for no one.” LG holds that Yeltsin “wants to move the ambitions of Russian political heavyweights from the presidential battlefield to the parliamentary one.” That is why the Presidential Administration is putting so much stress on the formation of electoral blocs and the publication of materials which compromise the Kremlin’s opponents: in the end of this fight all the “political heavyweights” are to become “tainted” and deprived of the chance of becoming national leaders. The result will be the emergence of a “fragmented Duma in which it will be impossible to form even a vision of anti-Yeltsin coalition.” It would be very easy to use such a Duma in one’s own interests. “At the same time, Yeltsin’s main intention is to turn this Duma into an easily-ruled part of the Constitutional Assembly” in order to prolong his own presidential term. “How is one supposed to secure at least a year to work out the huge number of laws which would turn our current presidential republic into a parliamentary one?” LG thinks that such a turn would suit both the new senators and the ministers: “It would raise the status of everybody who belongs to the political elite. And not only the status – let us not forget about veiled financial affairs. In general, under the new configurations of power, in the new format of the political process, having serious lobbying opportunities, nobody can be expected to care about Yeltsin.”
Consequently, the presidential inner circle can take comfort – no question about paying the bill will arise. To make a long story short, LG is sure: “The idea of abolishing the presidency must be kept in Yeltsin’s political store.”
Moskovsky Komsomolets is sure that there can be no talk about a parliamentary republic in Russia: “No matter what the current candidates for seats in the Kremlin may say, if they succeed, they will do their best to keep as many political levers in their hands as possible.” Thus, the only thing left to hope for is that Yeltsin will leave “soon and relatively peacefully. And that the new president will be a little better than the previous one.”
Yeltsin’s attempt to appoint an official “successor to the throne” made some laugh and others frown (“Russia is not a monarchy, we are a democratic country and there can be no question of an official successor!”). Moscow News remarked: “All of this means that the country is not so poor as it tries to appear. One needn’t be an expert in the sphere of electoral technologies to understand what sums it will require to turn a “faceless” person into the president… On the other hand, there will be a chance to save some money, for instance by using information collected by the ministries for which this person worked loyally for quite a long time.” But there are other points of view. Komsomolskaya Pravda considers Putin’s political “facelessness” to be an advantage: “He can be given any shape, any image that will make the population vote for him.” Another advantage is that the prime minister is a former intelligence officer: “it will attract the electorate brought up on spy movies.” Yet another advantage: he is young and healthy enough, unlike Primakov. And finally, he is supported by the authorities, and the authorities are traditionally respected by Russians. “This combination of qualities is enough. If the people knew more it would impede the work of image-makers.”
Nezavisimaya Gazeta states in a more serious tone that Putin’s future will depend on his ability to solve the two main problems: that of Dagestan, in the first place, and, secondly, “consolidation of governors around the Kremlin and Yeltsin prior to the parliamentary and, especially, the presidential elections.”
As was seen last week, Putin set about both tasks with equal enthusiasm. “Large-scale anti-Islamist military actions” were supported by both houses of Parliament. And as for consolidation of the regional elite, “The method which will be used to gather all the governors under the Kremlin’s roof is simple but effective. It is called ‘inter-budget relations,'” as Kommersant-Daily put it.
At a meeting of the Siberian Agreement association the new prime minister made it clear to governors that getting transfers from the center depends directly on their loyalty to the Kremlin’s plans, “which, to put it mildly, does not coincide with the political course of the Fatherland-All Russia bloc.” His sharp disputes with Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Lebed (who is seen by many media as a candidates for prime minister) caused Izvestia to make a respectful remark: “Putin has shown that he is not a yes man (as his predecessor is said to have been).” The article about Putin’s participation in the meeting of Siberian Agreement in Izvestia was titled “The governors predict Putin’s long tenure at the helm of the state.”
Last week many periodicals wrote that the process of the formation of electoral blocs was coming to an end. Mikhail Lapshin’s Agrarians are to join Fatherland-All Russia if Primakov is put at the top of the electoral list.
Every day the press states that Primakov is on the verge of announcing his choice. The former prime minister’s hesitation made it possible for Nezavisimaya Gazeta to state that he would bring himself to join the Luzhkov-Shaimiev bloc only if he gives up his own presidential ambitions: “He will do Luzhkov’s hardest work, bring into the Duma the maximum number of representatives of various parties and movements, and will get nothing but a ‘thank you’ in return.” NG predicts that, upon getting its seats in the, Duma Fatherland-All Russia is doomed to splinter “because of the differences in the interests of its leaders”. After that Luzhkov would have nothing to offer Primakov except the post of the leader of his fraction, “and it would be a humiliation for such an important political figure to fulfil the orders of the Moscow mayor in the Duma, and he Primakov would never consent to it. And Luzhkov would never make Primakov Duma speaker, because he doesn’t want to grant real power to his possible rival in the presidential elections.”
Sergei Stepashin continues his consultations with political parties. In an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda he declared that he intends to join the people who “understand what is happening in the country and who make the destiny of the country, not their own ambitions, their first priority.” Stepashin has been invited by the right and NDR, which did not join it.
As for Segodnya, it remarked that Yeltsin has made the office of prime minister a mass profession in Russia and suggested than an electoral bloc called “Prime ministers of Russia” be created: “The idea is not so extraordinary. Each of them has a considerable ‘electoral value’, although of different kinds… In any case, we must feel grateful to the president for providing the country with a sufficient number of political leaders.”
And not only for this, but also for Yeltsin’s public promise to leave his post in a year in accordance with the law. As head of Yabloko Grigory Yavlinsky put it on the TV program Vremya, this was the main item of the president’s public statement on August 9, the day of the government’s dismissal.