The week’s stories: president’s blitzkrieg turns into a position war

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“President Putin’s first defeat”, was Kommersant’s appraisal of the results of the president’s attack on the rights of regional leaders. The Duma, which swiftly okayed the presidential bill on new principles of forming the Federation Council, and declared it was ready to override the upper house’s veto, ended up proposing to the senators that a conciliation commission should be formed to amend the bill.

As Vladimir Ryzhkov told Kommersant: “The Kremlin has considered the situation and realized that it will fail to collect even 280 Duma votes in favor of the bill.” Three amendments are expected to be made to the bill: on gradual replacement of outgoing members of the Federation Council, on appointment of new senators by governors alone, and on senators being recalled not by the president but by the bodies that delegated them.

Vyacheslav Volodin, Deputy Chairman of the Fatherland-All Russia Duma faction, at whose initiative the address to the senators was adopted, said that the Duma should “act with foresight and remember that we will have to cooperate with the Federation Council to carry out the tax reforms and other important laws”. On the other hand, Gennady Raikov, leader of the People’s Deputy group, warned that the Duma’s initiative is “an act of goodwill”, and that if the senators are obstinate, their veto will be overridden.

However, Kommersant reports that the Kremlin has taken this news fairly calmly, and notes that the president would be glad to see both houses of the Federal Assembly come to terms, but he does not intend to intervene.

The paper notes that the president’s dream of a complaisant Federation Council is unlikely to come true: if the expected amendments are approved, the situation will remain the same.

According to Segodnya’s sources, the president decided on a “truce” several days ago, after a long conversation in Kazan with President Mintimer Shaimiev of Tatarstan and President Murtaza Rakhimov of Bashkortostan. The paper says that during that conversation, President Putin allegedly told the regional leaders about his suspicion that someone within his inner circle is attempting to “deliberately cause conflict between the two houses of Parliament”.

If the Federation Council fails to make a decision on a conciliation commission by July 5, then the Duma will override its veto on the presidential bill. As for the deputies who have recently started doubting the legitimacy of the president’s tough actions against the senators, for them the Kremlin has a mild interpretation: You go ahead and adopt the bill, and after that the president will personally amend and soften it.

However, the paper notes that under the Russian Constitution, the president may either sign a bill or reject it. And if any amendments are made to the bill’s text, then it is considered a new document and must undergo the entire adoption procedure once again, which is absolutely impossible to do within whatever time is left until the parliamentary summer break.

“The basic law of Russian politics is: the person who takes the political initiative rules,” says Vek weekly. Of course, the president had a choice: he could proceed cautiously, or try to settle all problems at once.

The president opted for the former. Vek says that he did so not only because of his own certainty that such methods would be effective, but also because public opinion in Russia supports tough measures to bring about order.

Obshchaya Gazeta holds the opinion that President Putin, as the protector of the interests of a certain clan (the so-called Inner Circle), has gone even further than Boris Yeltsin. “Of course, Yeltsin did connive with his family members and his milieu, but in essence he still remained a political representative of the nomenklatura in general, and held to the good old rule of the criminal underworld: Live and let live. As for President Putin, since the first day of his presidency he has started to openly hog the common blanket.” By doing so, he has certainly provoked irritation among the elite.

However, the main thing is that President Putin, who was called on to slightly “freeze” Russia, i.e. to reinforce the system of nomenklatura capitalism, has made the elite nervous about its future by his legislative initiatives, and also by “dangerous hints at the possibility of property redistribution”. These circumstances are cited by Obshchaya Gazeta as the reason for the emergence of “a new opposition to the Kremlin”.

On the other hand, the capacities of that opposition, whose slogan is “Democracy against dictatorship”, are not very great, since “it is an opposition not supported by the people”. Obshchaya Gazeta explains that democracy of modern Western capitalism is socially-oriented democracy. “This is what makes it strong. And a democracy which sneers at the notion of social justice and pretends not to understand such terms as fair pay, working hours, unfair dismissal, exploitation, unemployment, living standards, etc., – such a caste, a nomenklatura democracy, is weak as a blade of grass. It cannot count on society’s respect and support.” The paper believes that this theory was recently supported by public attitudes to the arrest of tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. Gusinsky’s defenders appealed to human rights, “but the masses have long since become irritated at the degraded interpretation of this notion in Russia, where it has been narrowed down to a few purely political liberties.”

Obshchaya Gazeta says that democracy is helpless without the people, “it is no match for a dictatorship which knows the subtle art of turning popular discontent to its own benefit.” Thus, as long as Russian democrats are not supported by the people, “President Putin may go on disregarding the opposition without any great risks.”

Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the Union of Right Forces Duma faction, says in an interview with Itogi magazine that the Krmlin’s recent stupidities – such as the search of Media-Most’s offices, Vladimir Gusinsky’s arrest, the story with Norilsky Nickel, etc. – have greatly contributed to the creation of a democratic coalition. “It became clear that all those actions are not a string of coincidences, but a system,” Nemtsov says. The merger of democratic forces took place when the threat of Russia turning into a police state became obvious. Nemtsov believes that President Putin “is starting to lose his sense of reality. I do not even blame him for this, for anybody in his place might lose a sense of reality, being at the pinnacle of power and with virtually unlimited authority provided by the Yeltsin Constitution.” In order to return that sense of reality to the president, in Nemtsov’s opinion, society should resist: “If all decent people, even those at odds with each other, now fail to consolidate, then we have no prospects, no future.”

Vedomosti asserts that President Putin could make a fairly good and successful US president. “He looks good in a t-shirt, arm-wrestling. He is cheerful, physically fit, and absolutely healthy.” In addition, Americans know that their incomes and well-being do not depend on their president; and that “the president is not to blame for power cuts in, say, Oregon in case of a typhoon or something.”

In Russia, everything is different. Here the president’s physical and moral image is totally irrelevant. “The major feature of the president in Russia should be his ability to kick-start the stalled vehicle of Russian reality toward progress, in a way that avoids an unpleasant response from society. Or even if there is an unpleasant response, not to be afraid of pressing on.”

Unfortunately, Vedomosti continues, Russia “has not yet reached a level of social organization and political development under which a president can be a minor figure without any distinct political will or comprehensible means of attaining his goals.” To push forward the reforms, the Russian president needs to have a high popularity rating, “his major lever of power”. This concerns not only keeping the head of state’s rating high, but using it wisely. “No doubt, effective gestures in fighing corruption are more popular than shifting the pension system from distribution to accumulation of funds. On the other hand, the latter is more humane and correct from the viewpoint of national development.” Of course, it would be enough to complete the formation of the power hierarchy by “show trials of several governors”, but such a move cannot be considered a solution to the problem. “It appears that in the case of President Putin we are threatened by a shallow and weak-willed regime, not by the alleged impending restoration of the Soviet administrative style,” the paper concludes.

However, there are also other viewpoints on Russia’s prospects under President Putin. Thus, tycoon Boris Berezovsky has once again bewildered Russian society by stating in an interview with Radio Liberty (which was reported in full by Nezavisimaya Gazeta) that he is ready to return his 49% of shares in the ORT television network to the state. “Why do I need all those attacks that are currently aimed against me, as a person directly connected to everything ORT does?” Berezovsky exclaims in irritation. “I have taken all this criticism, believing that television is one of the most important tools in the political struggle for our mutual bright future. We are now certain of getting that bright future, so I no longer need that tool.” “Berezovsky is starting to bargain with the state”, Vremya Novostei commented on the oligarch’s statements. According to the paper’s sources, the Kremlin has worked out a plan to nationalize the ORT network. As ever, Berezovsky has managed to foresee such a development and take appropriate measures, which have drawn the Kremlin’s ire: “He’s tricky! Now he can always say that he yielded ORT to the state of his own accord, and once again he will be the winner.”

Berezovsky’s team treated their patron’s maneuver more cautiously: “If everything Berezovsky asserts is more than just another multiple-move combination, then he will be bargaining on a global scale.” In exchange for ORT, Berezovsky is expected to receive “something considerable”; for instance, guarantees that the rest of his business will not be touched.

At any rate, each new action of Berezovsky’s creates a sensation; because, as a rule, it marks a new unexpected twist in the development of the political situation in Russia.

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