The central election article of the past several days was certainly Acting President Vladimir Putin’s interview with Kommersant. Putin has finally started to speak: in an extensive article (at least for Kommersant, the paper that usually is noted for its brevity) the mysterious acting president finally answered numerous questions about his relations with the special services, his work with late Anatoly Sobchak, about the Caucasus war, about the prospects for Chechnya, about his work in the government, etc. Mr. Putin’s answers were specific, he explained the psychological motives of his actions, gave the particulars of the circumstances in which those actions were taken, etc. However, the feeling of Mr. Putin being a mystery did not disappear because of that article. We should say that the role of mystical coincidences in his fate is extremely great. For instance, when a schoolboy Mr. Putin made an attempt to attract interest of the special services to his person. Of course, he failed. He was told in KGB that they did not favor personal initiative in questions of collaboration. However, later on everything worked exactly as he desired: people from KGB found him and offered him to work for them.
Mr. Putin was a fairly successful KGB officer (despite all that the press has been writing about his career as a security officer). However, after serving for several years he came to realize that “this system has no future”. Therefore, Mr. Putin returned from Germany not to the Moscow-based central KGB department but to St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, according to the acting president, he managed to retire from the service only at a second try, after the 1991 putsch, and only with help of Mr. Sobchak. By the way, KGB okayed Mr. Putin’s decision to assume a post in Mr. Sobchak’s office (at that time the latter was mayor of St. Petersburg). After Mr. Sobchak was replaced in his post (according to Mr. Putin, “that was a direct intervention of the special services and law enforcement agencies into the political struggle, into the election campaign”), Pavel Borodin, who before that had been on a nodding acquaintance with Mr. Putin, suddenly called the latter and offered him a new job. After all, Mr. Putin had to relocate to Moscow to become deputy head of the Russian president’s household department and later on senior deputy chief of the Presidential Administration.
After that a very strange twist happened in Mr. Putin’s life: he, a retired KGB colonel, was offered the post of chief of the FSS, the major successor to KGB. In fact, Mr. Putin returned to the service which he had once spent so much effort to leave. In the new post Mr. Putin’s career was even more successful than before – as is known, shortly after that Boris Yeltsin offered him the post of prime minister and then named him as his successor.
If we focus exclusively on the outline of this story it resembles a Christmas fairly tale. However, in the aforementioned article the acting president gives innumerable particulars of each situation in his career, describes all his reactions to one event or another, gives fairly justified motivations of his decisions, and from that viewpoint everything starts to appear absolutely trustworthy.
For instance, the appointment as FSS director came as a sheer surprise to Mr. Putin, “Do you really think somebody asked me what I wanted?.. I cannot say that I got excited over this appointment. I had no desire to repeat the entire story with KGB again.” As for the appointment as prime minister and the acceptance of the role of Mr. Yeltsin’s successor as Russian president, here Mr. Putin’s consent was already absolutely conscious, “It was as if I had decided for myself that that was it, that my career was about to finish with that appointment, but my historical mission – I know it sounds grandiloquently but it is what I felt – that my mission would consist in settling that situation in the North Caucasus.” And when Mr. Yeltsin decided to resign from his post and conveyed this decision to his successor, at first Mr. Putin did not express any enthusiasm and only noted that he was being offered “rather hard a fate”. However, later on, since Mr. Yeltsin was waiting for his response, Mr. Putin decided that “my fate is developing in such a way that I might as well work for a while at the highest possible level in this country, to work for this country. Of course, it was absurd in that situation to refuse and say that I would rather prefer to sell newspapers on the corner.”
On the other hand, we would like to argue that Mr. Putin was far from trading in papers before his ascend to the higher power. However, in general the logic of the acting president’s reasoning appears understandable, and the impression even forms that we have learned something about “the Iron Putin” (the headline of his article in Kommersant) from that interview. At the same time, at the very end of the article, when the reader has gotten relaxed to the limit and is feeling himself “on friendly terms” with the acting head of state, Mr. Putin suddenly and shortly – not at all in the manner of his previous vast arguments answers “I won’t tell you!” to the question about what Russia is to expect after the presidential election (“Do you really want to change everything and everyone”, was the exact wording of that question). And – the spell gets instantaneously broken – for some unknown reason the reader immediately realizes that Mr. Putin’s versions of all the events in his life are fairly conventional, and that the chief candidate for president is wishing – quite deliberately – to remain “a black box”, at least until the election.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin’s mysteriousness, which is currently being so much spoken about, and the vagueness of his position continue to interest the media. And since the media find it improper to admit several days prior to the election that they are absolutely “uninitiated”, especially when the matter concerns the candidate with such a great popularity rating, the press offers its readers all possible explanations of Mr. Putin’s reservedness (or of the vagueness of his election program) and also shares its observations of the acting president’s election campaign.
For instance, Komsomolskaya Pravda believes that there exist no less than two separate information flows being issued form Mr. Putin. One of them, “a powerful, widespread, and deliberately ‘low-brow’, i.e. especially designed for mass TV audience,” is being formed by political technologists “called to secure the candidate’s victory in the election”. This sort of information is deliberately deprived of a distinct ideology, “its aim is to remind the electorate who is the master of the house”, to satisfy the people’s yearning for “a firm but caring hand”. This very information flow is the basis of Mr. Putin’s TV image. Another flow, “or, to be exact, a streamlet”, can be detected in “in papers and magazines for an advanced audience”. This information is contained in an interview with German Gref, who, along with his team, works out a long-term strategy of the would-be president, in statements by Anatoly Chubais (“who, by the way, is a firm liberal when it comes to economics”), who is always supporting the acting president, and in Yevgeny Yasin’s reports about the creation of the “Liberal commission”, where right-wing economists have allied together to support Mr. Putin. “Those who want to understand Mr. Putin’s ideology will do as much, and his rivals will receive no obvious trumps for their own propaganda.” Which fact, naturally, vexes those rivals very much. Mr. Putin, Komsomolskaya Pravda states, is deliberately avoiding direct blows from his rivals, “His political technologists have decided to disregard the elite’s opinion and directly address the people.” And this is a nonlosing move, “The people will not (unfortunately!) study the candidates’ economic programs, ordinary people will once again vote with their hearts.”
Similar explanations are published by Vek weekly. When responding to the numerous attacks on Mr. Putin in connection with his program’s “eclecticism”, the weekly appeals to the West’s political experience, “Not a single Western leader who has come to power in the past decade was a distinct left-wing or right-wing political activist… A skillful combination of leftist and rightist ideas has by now become a guarantee of success for any politician or political party in the West.” The paper explains the motley political settings of the acting president by the existing “social demand”, “Those speaking about the ‘eclecticism’ of Mr. Putin’s program do not want to see the main thing, namely his desire to unite various strata of the electorate around himself, to consolidate Russian society, spiritually and ideologically separated as it is.”
The weekly quotes the famous political analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov, who holds the opinion that Mr. Putin fairly skillfully combines in his program two main theses: on the one hand, “law and order” (this thesis, according to Komsomolskaya Pravda, is designed for the ordinary people), on the other hand an open liberal policy (for “advanced voters”).
“This is a normal election strategy when a political appeals not to a concrete social group but to the entire nation,” Mr. Nikonov believes. Indeed, there can be no other strategy for Mr. Putin if he really wants to win the upcoming presidential election.
Moskovskie Novosti weekly dedicated an article headlined “What is Russia Waiting from Putin?” to the correlation of “law and order” and liberal ideas in the electorate’s moods. The paper’s experts proceed from the results of opinion polls conducted by the National Center for the Study of Public Opinion (NCSPO) and make a number of interesting observations in this connection: on the one hand, the people does not know what to expect from Mr. Putin if he wins the election. On the other hand, however, it turns out that “the supporters of the Communist model pin the least hopes on Mr. Putin”. It is for this category of the electorate that the acting president presents the greatest political mystery.
According to the NCSPO sociologists, supporters of both the Western and “specific” ways of Russia’s development (the poll’s organizers failed to specify exactly what is meant by that “specific” way) are ready to consider Mr. Putin “their president”. Nevertheless, Moskovskie Novosti maintains that the acting president is enjoying the largest support among liberals: two-thirds of right-wing respondents are certain that if Mr. Putin wins the presidential election he “will do exactly what they want and how they want it to be done”.
Nevertheless, the weekly holds the opinion that these expectations of the liberal part of society the majority of whom support Mr. Putin are fraught with a serious danger for the acting president, namely the danger of overrated expectations. The paper writes that people expect much more from Mr. Putin than they once expected from Mr. Yeltsin: what the people wanted from Mr. Yeltsin was freedom, or, to be exact, a liberation from the Communist dictate. And what is now expected from Mr. Putin is for him to solve the task that proved impossible for the first Russian president, namely the task to marry freedom to law and order.
It is understood that these expectations are unlikely to be justified – this problem will be impossible to solve as long as Russian society remains what it is now. So, the weekly writes, Mr. Putin has two options – either to try find a Russian formula of combination of freedom and order and, as a result, preserve “political contacts with a wide range of Russian people, especially young and energetic people”, or to “drift towards… supporters of the right-wing (free-market) totalitarism a la Stalin, Andropov, or whoever else.” We should remember, however, that “the latter option has always – sooner or later – been driving this country into a historical deadlock,” Moskovskie Novosti warns.
The magazine Itogi sees Mr. Putin’s relationships with liberals on a totally different plane. The magazine quotes in this connection “one of the theoreticians of Mr. Putin’s election staff”: “Our society is not yet prepared to fully comprehend and appreciate liberal values. No true civil society has yet been formed in this country. Therefore, we need more active state intervention into the processes that are currently going on in the economy, politics, and the social sphere.”
No wonder, the magazine continues, that the majority of right-wing politicians did not dare support the acting president in the election – save for Mr. Chubais, who “fears, and not without good reasons, that his position in the post of head of the power monopoly may shatter” and Sergei Kirienko, “who owes Putin one for having become a Duma deputy”. The magazine takes Yegor Gaidar’s position to be symptomatic – “the overwhelming majority of democratic society heeds to his opinion”. In public the leader of the Democratic Choice of Russia does not express any distinct attitude towards Mr. Putin, “but off the record Mr. Gaidar says that he does not see the new Russian leader as a person capable of guaranteeing democratic rights and freedoms”.
On the other hand, Itogi believes, Mr. Putin is not interested in liberals’ attitude towards himself, for “the opinion of such immaterial a minority might as well be disregarded”. And as for the majority of voters, it is fairly enough for them that “Mr.. Putin is a new person in power (and young and healthy, at that, which fact is especially advantageous as compared to Mr. Yeltsin), and in addition is a decisive, stern, and just authority.”
Meanwhile, Segodnya holds the opinion that “the image of a young and energetic leader, who is decent but knows how to handle problems and people” has recently changed for the worse. The paper’s interlocutors in Mr. Putin’s election staff note with sadness that now that the acting president has started to form his image himself “he has begun to somewhat deviate from the ideal image specially built for him”. Mr. Putin’s numerous journeys over the country and meetings with working collectives in the provinces make one recall the Soviet times and seem to be a sheer anachronism, especially against the background of “the US primaries currently being regularly shown on TV. Mr. Putin’s statement of Russia’s readiness to join NATO puzzled not only the Western partners in the negotiations but also the patriotic part of the Russian electorate.” Finally, the paper states, one question still worrying society is “who is managing whom – the head of state the security ministers or vice versa – against the background of the protracted operation in Chechnya?”
In another article Segodnya enumerates the evident blunders of Mr. Putin’s election campaign, such as his statement that his program is not worth publishing “because in that case it will be subjected to attacks”. By this, Deputy General Director of the Center of Political Strategies Boris Makarenko notes, Mr. Putin “has let out the secret of his election team”. Another mistake was the story with Andrei Babitsky, when the acting president at first stated that he was controlling the situation and then, during his visit to Krasnodar, said that “Babitsky was not a farmer and therefore I will not speak about him.” By the way, Mr. Makarenko notices in connection with the Babitsky case that it is unlikely that Mr. Putin does not care at all for liberals’ opinions, “If this were the case, Babitsky would still have been in custody.”
The magazine Kompania expresses the opinion in an article dedicated to the methods of Mr. Putin’s election campaign that the variety and even a certain controversy in those methods are connected with the fact that currently two PR teams at once are working for the acting president, “one of those teams is intent on using modern election technologies, whereas the second one prefers the methods of Soviet-time propaganda”. The latter is evidently winning the upper hand, at that. From the viewpoint of the final result (i.e. Mr. Putin’s victory in the election) the Soviet-era style is not as bad as it seems, “The possibility cannot be ruled out that this part of Mr. Putin’s election team is more correct in the estimation of the reality: Russian society itself perhaps has not yet gotten rid of the stereotypes of Sovgiet-time thinking.” The magazine writes that on March 26 we will finally see “whether Mr. Putin promised us all it actually had to promise”.