READING THE PAPERS LIKE TEA-LEAVES

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Not an administrative reform but rather “an administrative revolution” – thus, the magazine Itogi believes, the first stage of the transformation started by Russian President Vladimir Putin should be called.

The impatience of the first days of Mr. Putin’s presidency, when the press was unanimously guessing whether or not the new head of state would decide on certain radical measures to change Russia’s political system and was already rebuking him for sluggishness and the lack of political will, has by now already been replaced by watchfulness, skepticism, and ominous premonitions.

In particular, Itogi is not certain that the president attempt of “taking part of power from the regions and giving it to the center” will be a success and that “President Putin’s much-talked-of decree on presidential representatives” will put an end to governors’ arbitrariness. “For in Russia it is more important who and in what way uses a decree than what exactly that decree prescribes.”

There is hope that the new decree will render the regional leaders’ lobbying capabilities somewhat weaker, but it in no way encroaches on the very system of lobbying. The magazine quotes Mikhail Afanasiev, an expert with the Nikkolo-M Center for Political Consulting, who has no doubt that the plenipotentiaries in regions appointed by the president will soon grow to become major lobbyists. As far as the governors are concerned, they will “yet more actively promote their protegees to the Duma and will certainly make sure that the Federation Council comprises ‘their’ representatives”.

In general, Itogi is of the opinion that the president’s decree on seven federal zones is forcible, “It is difficult to understand why this decree did not become subject to a wide discussion. In the given case, the president’s ‘surprise attack’ style is absolutely ungrounded.”

Segodnya, which, like Itogi, belongs to a group of media owned by the Media-Most holding, believes that the “Sturm und Drang” tactics chosen by the president is justifiable as long as the effect of surprise lasts. The new president is trying to act sternly and unequivocally, “he is intent on simultaneously handling the governors, the oligarchs, Chechen guerrillas, etc.” However, to successfully act in all the directions at once a politician should possess vast resources and a serious political experience. The paper does not believe the Putin administration has either. All the problem are being handled in a tested administrative manner, “Apparently, the new president takes public policy to be a waste of efforts and means.”

Andrei Ryabov, an expert with the Carnegie Center, is quoted by Segodnya as saying that the Kremlin’s current behavior serves as evidence of “vertigo from progress” and also of “the old Yeltsin team” trying to extract the maximum profit from the situation of absence of a stern resistance to the state power. “The so-called Inner Circle desires to preserve the podgy political arena in which it acts as the only consolidating group which is fully aware of its interests.”

On the other hand, Mr. Ryabov is convinced that the “Blitzkrieg” tactics are unjustified. “The state power will at first make a great number of enemies and open numerous fronts, and then will be forced to retreat in all directions.” Such a development is the safest guess as regards the administrative reform, “The governors will attempt to drive the battle into the trenches, to protract the process by means of coordination procedures, so the first effect from the attack will wear off and the attack itself will be exhausted.”

Noteworthy is that the Duma deputies in their aspiration to meet halfway with the president agreed to consider President Putin’s initiatives “with increased speed” (the expression by Vremya MN) precisely at the moment when the governors asked the president not to hurry with changing the principle of forming the upper house of Parliament. Naturally, the regional leaders could not be fairly satisfied with the creation of the State Council (rather a decorative body, at any rate not possessing any real authority), so the governors “started to work with single-mandate deputies”. According to Alexander Kotenkov, the president’s representative in the Duma, the governors even stooped to direct threats, all for the only purpose of “wrecking the president’s initiatives or at least hampering their adoption”. On the other hand, Vremya MN holds the opinion that, despite all the significance of the regional lobby in the lower house of Parliament, “it will hardly change the Duma’s major wish, namely not to quarrel with the president”. “The Federation Council is assuming the stance of creeping confrontation with the Duma”, the paper concludes.

Kommersant reports the president’s meeting with the governors on the occasion of introducing to them Lieutenant General Konstantin Pulikovsky, the president’s plenipotentiary in the Far-Eastern Federal Zone. The paper notes an ever-growing mutual irritation between the participants of the political process.

On the one hand, the governors have started their “subversive work” in the Duma in hope for wrecking the laws unwanted by them with help of single-mandate deputies controlled by them. On the other hand, Alexander Kotenkov, the president’s representative in the lower house of Parliament, has resolutely intervened and threatened the regional leaders with criminal prosecution. Practically all the central papers and TV channels quoted him as saying that after the adoption of the laws “legal proceedings will be instigated against at least 16 governors”, and many other governors will be prosecuted later on.

In this situation President Putin played the classical role of the “good cop” mending the harm caused by Mr. Kotenkov, the “bad cop”. The president stated that he believes the governors who, according to him, “are aware of the reforms’ aim”, and that the talks about the confrontation are being triggered by “agents provocateur aiming at splitting society”.

On the other hand, Kommersant does not think that the regional leaders will give up their tactics of silent sabotage, “They will simply become more cautious.”

Meanwhile, Obshchaya Gazeta holds the opinion that the confrontation with the governors may only deprive President Putin of “the regional elites’ administrative resource, one of the pillars upon which the presidential power rests.” Furthermore, the governors may turn to be a sheer “fifth column” for the president as regards the process of reinforcing the hierarchy of power, “The regional leaders are fairly capable of disagreeing with the president regarding the Chechen operation, the most painful issue for him.”

Segodnya, in turn, believes that the structure of the new hierarchy of power is already manifesting itself. The vertex of the power pyramid is the Security Council with the president at the helm, “a mighty nucleus of power” which comprises “all governors-general, security ministers, and heads of the Foreign Ministry and Finance Ministry”.

With such a layout of power, the paper notes, all the other bodies of the executive branch, including the government and even the Presidential Administration, acquire “a technical nature”. On the other hand, this also goes for the legislative branch, “The Duma is controlled by Unity, and the Federation Council is being ‘reformed’.”

As far the governors’ immunity is concerned, the president attempted to pacify the worried regional leaders by noting that privileges similar to those the members of the Federation Council currently enjoy may well be granted to them via the State Council (“the ‘buffoon’ consultative body attached to the president”, as Segodnya calls it).

However, there is difference between those privileges: the current immunity protects the senators under the legislation, whereas the State Council is not mentioned either in the laws or in the Constitution. Thus, immunity may be granted to the members of the State Council exclusively by the president’s decree. However, if the president “grants immunity by an order” this means that he may well take it back just as easy, if need be. The paper concludes, “President Putin is building a new state power hierarchy according to the classical laws of electrical engineering: to increase the current strength the sectors of an increased resistance are to be extracted from the circuit and replaced by those with a low resistance.” If everything goes according to plan, the result of these reforms will be “the Kremlin’s conductor” of the president’s decisions.

The magazine Novoe Vremya is of the opinion that in the situation in which Russia has found itself after a decade of reforms we may safely expect a certain “tiredness of freedom” among the people, the governors included. The magazine asserts that many of the governors are not at all suited by the current “freedom in poverty”, “They are ready to yield such a freedom to the federal government – naturally, along with the responsibility.” Many regional leaders would gladly trade “their primogeniture for a mess of power over the local self-government they are promised as a compensation”. In addition, Novoe Vremya does not rule out the possibility that some of the regional leaders sincerely believe that “Russia is too vast, it absolutely needs a hierarchy of power”.

A well-known political analyst Lilya Shevtsova expresses the opinion in an interview to Literaturnaya Gazeta that Russian society is down with “political conformism bordering on toad-eating”. Ms. Shevtsova holds the opinion that the Yeltsin era may be considered “a revolutionary cycle”, when, according to the good manners, it was necessary “to risk, not seek promotion”. But now Russia “has imperceptibly switched to a different mode”, the rules of the game have changed, and the political elite has turned from risk and challenge to loyalty and obedience. Self-censorship is in, “Now one may survive only by adjusting himself to the situation. Hence the ultimate, most humiliating forms of survival.”

The author believes that the unprecedented unanimity and assiduity (“and sometimes even over-assiduity,” Ms. Shevtsova specifies) Russian society has recently been demonstrating by unconditionally supporting all decisions by the new head of state can be accounted for “not even by fear but rather by uncertainty… by not knowing the extremes President Putin may go to.” So far it is too early to speak about fear of force: Ms. Shevtsova believes that “society, the intellectual elite, and the political class have started restricting themselves for fear of a painful blow which has not even been used against them yet.” In addition, the absence of a viable opposition also contributes to this situation, “We have no opposition ready to take over power. Our opposition is purely rhetorical and tame. Hence the absence of political dignity, the main source of loyalty.”

On the other hand, it would be presumptuous to maintain that there are no reasons to worry: According to Ms. Shevtsova, the Russian power, “our autocracy” has “no resources or mechanisms to settle crisis situations in a peaceful manner”. The only hope is for the new president’s pragmatism and him being a quick learner: President Putin “has no political background”, therefore he “will not make mistakes owing earlier priorities”. In addition, it is possible that the president will manage to graduate from the school of high politics earlier than his political resource exhausts itself.

Sergei Kovalev, a well-known human rights activist and a Duma deputy, states in an interview to Argumenty i Fakty weekly that President Putin should be perceived “as both the embodiment and the child of the system of favoritism”. In Mr. Kovalev’s opinion, we should take into account that such a political figure may well finish off his “playwright parents” (“Suffice it to remember Napoleon or Stalin”). Russian society obviously yearns for “a firm hand”, it demands a stern order. In response to the remark that “the Russians appear to want the power to scare them” Mr. Kovalev explains that the Russians live in a fairly dangerous situation, therefore they want somebody to protect them, “We are looking for a strong person and pinning our hopes on him. This is to be added by our servile mentality, when we believe in the Master, not in ourselves.”

“The era of democratic revolution is over,” the magazine Kommersant-vlast states. The magazine asserts that the primary task of the first year of Mr. Putin’s presidency is to overcome the post-revolutionary syndrome. The new president does not need Boris Yeltsin’s system of rule which was based on the leader’s charisma. The new state’s basis will comprise not only a system of powerful state bodies but also “powerful social institutions capable of connecting the public opinion and the state policy”. This mission will be handed out to the ruling party which is to create a new political elite. That elite, in turn, will gradually take over state power in this country.

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