THE UPCOMING FEDERAL ELECTIONS AS REPORTED BY THE CENTRAL MEDIA
The formation of the Unity bloc, which emerged fairly suddenly in the Russian political arena, remains one of the priority themes currently being discussed by the press. It is if interest that the emergence of police officer Alexander Gurov (“the well-known denouncer of the criminal world”, as Vedomosti referred to him) in the top three of the bloc’s electoral list, along with chief of the Emergency Situations Ministry Sergei Shoigu and the wrestler Alexander Karelin, was interpreted in a similar way by two papers which belong to competing political groups – Vremya MN and Segodnya headlined their articles the same way: “The Bear Has Jumped”. The allusion here is understood by Russians: at one time, Gurov became famous because of a series of interviews in Literaturnaya Gazeta in which he theorized that organized crime was entering the jostle for power. The most famous of those articles were headlined “The Lion is Preparing to Jump” and “The Lion Has Jumped”.
As for the October 2 founding congress of Unity, at which three leaders of the movement were introduced to the public (on the other hand, so far these three leaders are the only prominent activists on the federal electoral list of Unity), the media’s appraisals of it differed as radically as their appraisals of the bloc itself. The opinions of different papers turned out to be diametrically opposite even as regards the number of members of the bloc: in particular, Moskovsky Komsomolets reported that the congress “was held in a half-empty assembly hall.” The empty seats in the hall, the paper explained, had been booked for members of the Our Home is Russia (NDR) movement, but NDR has not yet decided to merge with Unity.
Vremya MN, in turn, noted that “the assembly hall of the Academy of the National Economy, where the congress was organized, was completely full.” In addition, the paper reports that NDR deputies also attended the congress, despite the fact that Unity has not yet managed to merge with that party “owing to the fact that the talks have taken too much time.” Vedomosti renders the situation with the congress in an even more complicated way by stating that Unity’s congress was organized “in unprecedented secrecy. Not a single journalist was admitted to the sessions of the congress, and the organizers did their best to prevent unsanctioned contacts with delegates after meetings. Journalists were kept in a special ‘hoarder’, from which they were later herded to the press conference under the supervision of guards.” Thus, according to the paper, the journalists simply had no chance to attend the congress itself and, correspondingly, assess the number of delegates.
To all appearances, the journalists of various papers count on their readers’ trust or the possibility that their readers ignore the publications of their political rivals.
By the way, Vedomosti also offered its own explanation of why the merger between Unity and NDR never happened: the fact is, Chernomyrdin’s bloc put forth “too many conditions,” as “a source close to Boris Berezovsky, who is participating in the founding of Unity,” told the paper.
This information – that Berezovsky is participating in the creation of the new bloc – is, of course, an open secret. From the very beginning the press was discussing the grandiose organizational work which the well-known “political intriguer” did to talk several governors into joining the new bloc. However, in an interview to Kommersant-daily Unity leader Sergei Shoigu considered it necessary to protect (rather emotionally, at that) his authorship of the new association and promulgate the idea that Berezovsky has nothing to do with Unity: “I have been traveling around the Russian regions much more frequently than Boris Abramovich! Why don’t you call Unity Shoigu’s bloc?! Tomorrow they will say that Monica Lewinsky supports the creation of this bloc… Everybody wants me to start vindicating myself. Well, I will not do so. I am simply telling you that it is not true.”
These explanations, somewhat inconsistent but violent, certainly demonstrate the wish of Shoigu the political neophyte to deny any associations with the omnipresent Berezovsky. According to Moskovsky Komsomolets, this very aspiration to keep himself aloof from Berezovsky caused, for instance, Shoigu’s refusal to accept the ecological movement Kedr joining Unity. The paper notes that this decision begins to seem even more strange if we take into consideration the fact that so far “there are not so many political movements which wish to join Unity that they are lining up to do it.” It turns out that Kedr, which until recently suffered from financial problems, has managed to find a generous sponsor – owner of the Transworld Group Lev Cherny, who has started “to promote Kedr with the help of Berezovsky, and this promotion began even before the official start of the electoral campaign.” This fact made Kedr unwelcome in the eyes of Unity. Such tactics, from the paper’s point of view, are fairly justified: “In the past several months Berezovsky’s personality has acquired such prominent demonic features that the slightest connection with him is as good as a death sentence for any political project.” On the other hand, in another issue Moskovsky Komsomolets reports that, when communicating with governors, Berezovsky managed to find incontrovertible arguments which caused the regional leaders to actively join the new movement: “Rumors have it that the major thesis Berezovsky proclaimed…boiled down to the idea that if the governors did not prevent Primakov from winning the election, then some of them might well find themselves in prisons and labor colonies.” The paper goes on to explain this thesis: “Officers of the Vladivostok FSS Department told our correspondent that as soon as Nazdratenko ceases to be governor he may be arrested… It is not difficult to twist Rutskoy’s arm, either. The criminal proceedings which were instituted but later dropped against his son on charges of smuggling foreign currencies may be resumed at any moment. Ulianovsk Governor Yury Goryachev…also has a son who is chair of the regional foodstuffs association. According to certain sources, the security services may institute legal proceedings against him on charges of misappropriating state funds at any moment…and they may also avail themselves of his suspicious transactions with banks in Nizhny Novgorod, in which the association plays the key role.” This list can be continued. According to the report of Moskovsky Komsomolets, Berezovsky also attempted to find ways to pressure Samara Governor Konstantin Titov via his son, the chair of one of the regional banks. However, despite the pressure, Titov did not join Unity. “And the most decent governors, like Mikhail Prusak…have already announced that they will not actively support anyone, but will assume a position of armed neutrality.”
The press is also reporting about the pressure that was exerted on the Unity leader himself. According to Argumenty i Fakty weekly, Shoigu “was offered a choice: either go into politics to protect Yeltsin’s inner circle, or get dismissed with further instigation of criminal proceedings against him.” The paper is of the opinion that the threat to Shoigu is more than real: various rumors have long been circulating about the performance of the Emergency Situations Ministry. “For instance, there are rumors about excessively large expenditures for reconstruction efforts following the terrible earthquake in Sakhalin; abut the dubious story of the deliveries of unserviceable prefabricated houses to the Kuril Islands after the natural calamity; and about the financing of special operations in the North Caucasus, where a large sum of money allegedly disappeared for good.” According to the paper’s forecast, soon “the public may learn such things about the Unity leader that he will curse the day when he agreed to go into high-level politics.”
The media give different answers to the question of the purposes of the new bloc in the current nervous situation and the possible consequences of its appearance. Komsomolskaya Pravda takes the foundation of Unity to be a “signal to start the presidential campaign, not the parliamentary one.” The main task of the new bloc is “to cause Yevgeny Primakov maximum political damage,” for Primakov is currently the main rival of the Kremlin’s protegee Vladimir Putin.
From the viewpoint of Literaturnaya Gazeta, the new bloc has a certain potential in that “It contains many governors.” At the same time, in terms of ideology Unity is “absolutely nothing”. The movement has no ideology of its own, and Shoigu, in the paper’s opinion, is incapable of becoming a serious politician. “He was simply told what to do and started to carry out his task.” In addition the paper notes, “politicians with names such as Burbulis, Chubais, and Shoigu will not be very popular in this country, and this is the sad reality.”
On the other hand, we should note that Shoigu himself does not care about the fact that his bloc lacks an ideology of its own; indeed, he takes this to be fairly advantageous as far as attracting the sympathies of voters is concerned, about which he told the public in an interview – this time to Komsomolskaya Pravda: “Currently, people’s lives depend not on pretentious ideological novelties but on the degree of the authorities’ sanity and that of the stability of the state.” According to Shoigu, “the majority of my friends and colleagues – leaders of republics, territories, and regions” are of the same opinion. The Russian regions’ needs are a very serious argument, and it is difficult enough to compare anything to it. But there is another side to the coin. According to Novaya Gazeta, the bloc currently unites leaders of mainly depressed and donation-dependent regions, “governors who are weak and depend greatly on the Kremlin, those in need of the center’s political and financial support.” These governors “do not have enough political authority in their own regions, and their political influence is therefore limited.” This fact also casts doubt on their ability to influence the results of the elections.
Russia weekly, a paper belonging to the group of publications under the patronage of the Moscow City Administration, called the creation of Unity a “Treptow Park operation”, referring to the park in Berlin in which stands a statue of a Soviet soldier with a rescued girl in his arms: “It may be very convenient to gamble, if necessary, on the slogan ‘The savior of people is the savior of Russia’.” In the same paper, the well-known publicist Alexander Tsipko asks himself: “How is it possible that, in the current situation of the disintegration of Yeltsin’s regime, when the president’s popularity is tending toward zero,” the Kremlin has managed to win nearly one-third of all governors over to its side? Especially given that the leaders of Muslim republics – Tatarstan, Bashkiria, and Kabardino-Balkaria – who are usually loyal to the center, this time “rebelled against Yeltsin and entrusted their fates to Primakov and Luzhkov?” What has split the governors’ corps?” Tsipko asks. He does not give an unambiguous answer to this question, but offers certain assumptions. In his opinion, the governors’ support for the Kremlin is partly connected with the tough actions of the current government against “Chechen terrorists”. Apart from that, governors are afraid that if the centrist opposition headed by Primakov and Luzhkov comes to power, “there will simply be no place left for the existence of the red opposition.” Finally, the nature of Primakov’s “statehood” apparently does not suit many governors. “We should reckon with the fact that currently statehood in Russia has various tints and colorings, and that only patriotism which corresponds best to the moods of both the regional political elites and the electorate, first of all that of the provinces, can win in the upcoming election.”
Interfax-Vremya weekly believes that the struggle between the two “parties of power” – Fatherland-All Russia and Unity – greatly simplifies the Communists’ electoral tasks: “Unity can consolidate only at the expense of the electorate of Fatherland-All Russia, and by doing this it will weaken Luzhkov’s bloc, even if only by several percentage points. And this will allow the Communists to increase their representation in the Duma.” The paper is of the opinion that the Communists must now “encourage Shoigu in every way possible, while simultaneously stocking up on popcorn to watch the fight between the two rival blocs in the near future.” Moskovsky Komsomolets likewise believes that the Communists may soon receive good news. According to the paper’s sources, we are currently observing “the formation of a rather scandalous political alliance”, namely one between the Kremlin and the Communists. The Kremlin has realized that the president’s inner circle and the Communists have one common enemy – Fatherland-All Russia – and “it is of no importance that that some think that Luzhkov is the traitor while others accuse Primakov of high treason – general hatred is still driving the Kremlin and the CPRF into each other’s arms.” The paper states that the major discovery of the past several months was that “Yeltsin has realized that Washington no longer distributes alms to the undertakers of Communism,” and therefore the main issue which used to irritate Zyuganov’s compatriots – that of reburying the body of Lenin – can easily be settled in a peaceful manner. The mediator in the negotiations has allegedly already been found, too – he is Nikolai Aksenenko. “The railroads have always been dear to the Communists,” the paper notes. Thus, “the fundamental question of the Kremlin, the one about the party of power, may finally be answered, as will be the question of money, which is no less fundamental for the Communists.” This article was published under the title “Panicked Rumors”.
It is striking that the theme of the pre-term resignation of the president and, correspondingly, that of a pre-term presidential election, has already ceased to attract the attention of the media. As Kommersant-Vlast’ weekly remarked in this connection, “It is not the explanations about why a pre-term resignation might be profitable for the president that are of greatest interest, but who profited from starting this particular rumor.” From the paper’s viewpoint, this rumor presents the ideal chance “to probe the electoral situation in the country.” Naturally, in this connection the president’s inner circle was most interested in the possible reaction of the Kremlin’s two main rivals – Primakov and Luzhkov. The former did not react in any way to the provocative rumors about the possibility of the president resigning and the presidential election being held at the same time as the parliamentary one, whereas the latter spilled the beans. Kommersant-Vlast’ states that Luzhkov’s demand that the presidential and parliamentary elections on no account coincide “could not fail to have pleased the president’s inner circle.” As a source in the Presidential Administration noted, “We understand Luzhkov’s fears, now the main thing for us is to competently use his fears for our own benefit.”
The journal Expert believes that it is precisely the pro-Luzhkov media belonging to the Media-Most holding that are spreading the rumors about the resignation of the president and the rescheduling of the presidential election. According to the journal, the aforementioned media have resorted to this method of information war for preventive reasons, namely “to prevent the possibility of such developments, which absolutely do not suit Luzhkov and Primakov.” Expert is of the opinion that “The opponents of the Kremlin are acting according to the so-called principle of ‘controlled fire’, which is supposed to stop the proliferation of the real fire.”
Both journals – Kommersant-Vlast’ and Expert – remark that only one man profited from the spread of the rumors about the president’s would-be resignation. This man was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who started “to score political points owing to the fact that he agreed to play the role of at least a certain guarantor of stability in the current crucial times for this country” (a quotation from Kommersant-Vlast’). However, Putin should be the last person to be interested in a pre-term presidential election: currently, both Luzhkov and Primakov are at the height of popularity, and in case of a pre-term election they are sure to win. However, Expert thinks that sooner or later the love of the electorate must expire, and voters are sure to grow cool towards the two politicians: “This is only a matter of time. Most likely, the two leaders’ popularity will not survive until the summer of 2000.” For Putin, on the contrary, everything still lies ahead: “His myth is newborn, and time is needed to promote him.”
In general, the press’ interest in Putin is steadily growing. As Viktor Loshak writes in Moskovskie Novosti, “Only recently did Putin enter the White House as an emergency substitute for Stepashin. Few people believed then in the possibility of him becoming prime minister.” However, it suddenly turned out that Putin’s type of “anti-crisis manager” of the company called “the Russian Federation” met routine demands better than anyone else’s. “Putin is very good at making curt and tough responses to terrorists against the background of front-line communiques from Dagestan and reports about thousands of police patrols. Just imagine Chernomyrdin, Kirienko, or Gaidar in this role, and you will have to admit that all of them fall short of Putin.”
Profil journal, in turn, thinks that the “Chechen plan” is Putin’s main political project on the way to his presidency. Economic achievements are unlikely to be the merits of the current government’s performance. On the other hand, as Loshak remarks in Moskovskie Novosti, “If this country’s only problem were the calamities of the transition economy, the Kremlin might well be searching for another prime minister now, for all we know.”
Meanwhile, last week rumors emerged for the first time about the possible dismissal of Putin. However, the press, which was already taught a lesson by the rumors about the president’s resignation, no longer believes anything. Kommersant-Vlast’ is of the opinion that Putin himself might be the first person to profit from the rumors about the replacement of the current prime minister: “for the Kremlin realizes that the president’s successor may well lose the status of the suppressor of the Chechens on very short notice”, since any war requires “money and battle-worthy military units”. However, neither the former nor the latter is currently available. The organizers of the terrorist acts in Moscow and other cities have still not been found. Thus, the prime minister’s authority may easily be reduced to zero. “Meanwhile, it is necessary to advertise and promote Yeltsin’s possible successor. And the rumors that Putin is currently not on excellent terms with the Kremlin are just one method of advertisement which is no worse than any other.”
On the other hand, the president’s inner circle is not neglecting other opportunities, either. A large article by recognized Kremlin ideologist Gleb Pavlovsky published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta and dedicated to the intrigues of the Kremlin’s rivals, who allegedly portray the current president as “a malicious power-hungry maniac” and “the Kremlin Milosevic” capable of anything in order to conceal his personal political failure in that of the state, ends with words about Yeltsin the Savior, the one who rescues this country from “political marauders” searching for “a controllable politician to govern simpletons.” To oppose those people, Pavlovsky writes, “a man in his proper place is needed, and today Putin is this man.” Pavlovsky stresses, “The positive changes within the powers that be are encouraging the electorate and reviving the people’s interest in the candidates they will elect to govern themselves.” The subtitle of the article – “What Kind of Occupant of the Kremlin Does Russia Need?” – is printed over a large portrait of the current prime minister.