Stories of the week: presidential message, prospects of the country, and people’s expectations

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Vladimir Putin’s long-awaited traditional presidential address to both houses of Parliament did not create a sensation. As had been expected, the main trend of the president’s strategy was the policy of strengthening the role of state.

The newspaper Izvestia found it necessary to note in its comment: “According to Putin, the state should be strong. You may question this statement, but Vladimir Putin used this idea to be elected president.”

As many analysts have noted, this message does not contain any concrete plan of activities, but unambiguously determines the general strategy of new policies. First of all, it is necessary to cure the state of weakness and irresoluteness, since these vices stultify reforms.”

Izvestia considers the key phrase and the main idea of the presidential message to be this: “The vacuum of power has contributed to a situation, in which private corporations and clans have assumed the functions of state.” This idea is elaborated upon. The matter concerns “oligarchs who are accumulating shadow influence groups and creating their own dubious security services,” and regional barons that are “testing the federal government and infringing on the federal Constitution, violating the rights and freedoms of civilians and constructing barriers to the free movement of goods, capital and services.” Thus, “an inefficient state” is considered to be the main cause of the economic crisis.

Izvestia draws a very simple conclusion: “Today, Putin’s program consists of two words: strong state.”

The newspaper Segodnya writes: “The ‘strong’ president has prescribed a course of procedures to strengthen the Russian state.” The newspaper highlights the key ideas of Putin’s message: dictatorship of law, systematic work and strong state.

The state is not the only thing that is weak in Russia; political and public structures are also weak. Meanwhile, as the president believes, “a strong state needs strong political parties.” Moreover, in his opinion, only parties and public organizations should nominate presidential candidates. Segodnya states that this idea is generally perceived as having the effect of “diminishing democracy in Russia.” According to the newspaper, “Putin was not properly understood by senators, since his message was intended for two sets of listeners: Russian citizens and the western elite.”

Moskovsky Komsomolets, on the contrary, believes that Putin made the address for “the elite of the country and not directly for the people.”

In the opinion of Moskovsky Komsomolets, this seems to indicate that Putin “is proposing that the country’s elite adapt to new circumstances. He does not intend to exterminate anyone or exile people to labor camps.” Moskovsky Komsomolets assesses the presidential program in a rather straightforward way: according to the newspaper, the only alternative to its implementation is the “complete destruction and death of the country.”

Novaya Gazeta commented on the fact that Putin was the first post-Soviet leader to provide an objective view of the situation in the country: “Earlier, such a tone was used only to describe the difficult legacy of socialism and recent blunders.” However, since Putin became the president, he has been referring instead to the “difficult legacy” of his predecessor.

According to the Novaya Gazeta, ” this “difficult legacy” has contributed to “the strange form of the president’s communication with his Parliament.” The opposition within the Duma invented the custom of annually reading a boring and long report without conducting any discussion. This situation resembled the administrative party sessions of the Soviet times, at which the former president, formerly a Communist party secretary, felt at ease. The same cannot be said about Putin, who does not have the same amount experience of a Communist party activist. At the same time, Novaya Gazeta notes that Putin’s speech “was distinguished from his predecessor’s rhetorical exercises by dynamism, straightforwardness and some impromptus that need not be translated into standard Russian.”

However, as Vremya Novostei notes, it was good that Boris Yeltsin did not come to the meeting: “he would have feel bitter to hear his successor reduce all the results of his long presidency to nothing.” Vremya Novostei is of the opinion that the advantages of the young president are “disappearing gradually.” Putin’s ability to act quickly no longer impresses anyone. He is expected to do something more. The Russian media are unanimous on this matter. Izvestia has noted, “If everything Putin said in his message comes true, we will leave in a different country.” Moskovsky Komsomolets has said, “If Putin manages to solve at least half of the problems he mentioned in his message, the life in the country will inevitably and considerably improve.” And Vremya Novostei quotes Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev: “I have not heard any bad messages in this hall yet. Messages are always good here. But their implementation is inadequate…”

However, there are different points of view on what should be considered the weak point of the current government, aims or means of gaining them. The journal Novoye Vremya has reprinted Boris Berezovsky’s interview to the journal “Spiegel.” In this interview Berezovsky says, “Although Putin was the best candidate in the presidential election, now I have found out one thing that I previously did not know. Putin is a bad strategist.” Berezovsky adds that Yeltsin was not a strategist either. But Yeltsin’s main functions was, according to Berezovsky, “to fulfill the historic mission.” Besides, there is nobody to help the new president: “People of his circle do not understand that a democratic state cannot exist without democratic freedoms. Economic freedoms are not enough.”

The journal Kommersant-Vlast, belonging to the group of media controlled by Berezovsky, also touches on Putin’s strategy. The journal says, “Boris Yeltsin was a czar by nature. He gained power in a royal way, changed favorites and like any other czar, more than once he became the hostage of his own retinue. The transfer of power to the successor was also performed in quite a royal way.” However, “the people formerly had great expectations of Putin.” The new president was at a loss immediately after taking office. “He understands apparently, that reforms are inevitable in Russia, but he does not know how to introduce them. On the one hand, it is hardly possible to employ a purely European scenario in Russia.” However, it is also impossible to fight barbarism by barbarian methods. The journal comes to the conclusion that the only solution is to combine European and barbarian methods.

Vladimir Putin himself confirmed this in his interview with the journal “Paris-Match” published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Putin says in his interview that it will take Russia a long time to get used to “all of the democratic institutes,” which is natural for the country that first lived under czar for many centuries and then lived under Communists for many years. According to Putin, it is also understandable that democratic innovations are not always understood by Russians. But the president is not worrying about this fact, since the majority of the population still support democratic reforms and the government does not see any alternative to them.

Putin said in his interview, “I don’t think centralized state power and democracy contradict each other.” As an example, he mentioned France, which is a centralized state and not even federal, but unitary. However, France is a democratic state.

Asserting that most Russians appreciate their democratic institutions, Vladimir Putin was obviously unaware of the survey recently conducted called “Russians about Russia’s Destiny in the 20th Century and their Hopes for the Future Century,” which was performed by the Russian Independent Institute of Social and National Problems. The newspaper Vremya MN published the results of the survey. It turns out that the decade of reforms greatly influenced the Russians. Some 58% of respondents denied the advantages of communism. That figure would be a positive sign for those who are undertaking changes in Russia, if 66% of respondents did not deny the advantages of capitalism as well. People’s attitude toward private property is no better. Three fourths of respondents are disappointed with the results of privatization and 40% support nationalization. At the same time, more than half of the respondents are private businesspeople, but two-thirds of Russians support the introduction of state control over business activities. Half of Russians are against the free sale of property.

According to the poll, the only positive result of the reforms is the free sale of hard currency. Most of respondents supported the idea of a “strong hand” that would establish order in the country. People of the older generation consider the “strong hand” to be strengthening of the state sector in the economy, whereas representatives of the younger generation believe that Russia should formulate a strong international policy and persuade other countries to agree with its opinions.

Analysts have come to the conclusion that the purpose of a strong state is to unite the country: more than half of the respondents displayed remarkable traits of self-sacrifice and expressed willingness to support the state’s strict economic measures for the sake of the improvement of the state of the economy.

These attitudes are combined with tolerance toward violations of the law. The number of Russians who justify their need to commit certain crimes is twice the total in other countries. Among the crimes justified by Russians are not only tax evasion and bribery, but also buying stolen goods and resistance to police.

Russians do not want their government to merely imitate western political systems. Some 40% of respondents announced that first of all, it is necessary to reject any efforts undertaken in order to copy the experience of other countries. Vremya MN comes to the conclusion: “Russians intend to go their own way again and are perfectly sure of their glorious future.”

The national mentality influences not only the solution of political problems, but the country’s economic development.

The weekly Vek asks, “Does the government understand who the Russian people are ?” According to Director of the Expert Institute Andrei Neshchadin, only 6% of Russians are self-reliant people, some 27% try to follow their example from time to time and the rest of the population completely depend on the government’s decisions.

Most Russians are able to perform their jobs, only if they are explained exactly what they should be doing. At the same time, the majority of the population places the whole burden of responsibility on the government, whose instructions it implements. That is why the Gaidar shock therapy, tested among the rational people of the West, was a complete failure in Russia.

Average Russian citizens have a mentality that is typical for inhabitants of a rural community. People with a western mindset are only found in the big cities. However, the authors of the new governmental program are oriented only to the western way of thinking. At the same time, Vek suggests that most Russians manage to avoid social conflicts on account of their rural community mentality. However, it is impossible to implement a reform program without taking factors of national psychology into account. Despite thoroughly elaborated programs, half of Russians will continue to wait for an explanation of what to do.

It is also very important to know who will provide these explanations. According to Gleb Pavlovsky, “the Kremlin’s shadow consultant,” as Kommersant-Vlast has called him, the main task of the current president is to explain to the people what they have to do. According to Pavlovsky, the people accused Yeltsin for ten years of having “introduced an occupation regime,” but at the same time, they did not wish to remove Yeltsin from office. But now the situation has changed.

The voters in the last election perceived Putin as opposing the old order and it is now the people who are accelerating the process of reformation, as Pavlovsky put it in his interview. The people are telling Putin: “You started alright, but now show us what you will do next!”

Pavlovsky believes that it is necessary for the president to explain the “new rules of living.” “Putin should list the rules and like a strict teacher, he needs to describe the punishment that will be inflicted for violating the rules. If the rules stipulate that the illegal infringement on property will be punished by the beating of hands, the beating should be very painful.”

The question of redistribution of property and reconsideration of the results of privatization should not be discussed in principle. If Putin explains this, people will understand . The people will not understand if it is Berezovsky who explains this. In Pavlovsky’s opinion, this viewpoint does not imply any contradictions with the democratic intentions of the government.

Novoye Vremya shares the popular opinion that after ten years of reforms, the state needs stabilization in order “to correct and strengthen its results.” However, there is not much hope for this development of events: “It is not possible to eliminate the tension and uncertainty that characterize people’s lives.” From the point of view of the journal, “liberal economic reforms have resulted in the fact that the state owns less than 20% of that property, which it used to own. The economic reforms were performed mostly at the expense of the state’s provision of social functions.”

Currently, the authorities are trying to create a mechanism for a stabilizing model to rule the country. However, they are apparently ready to resort to installing a totalitarian regime as a “simpler regime that does not need the complexity of civilian society.”

However, in the opinion of the journal, “the totalitarian regime is sure to elicit protest from the people. Purely technical capacities of state are not enough to enable the regime to resist this process.” Public dialog and a developed structure of political relations are necessary. But at the moment, the powers-that-be tend to ignore such things. Thus, the government should be ready to confront the development of radical political movements and “spontaneous expressions of mass protest.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta connects the possible worsening of the social situation in Russia with the upcoming new stage of privatization. According to the newspaper, within the next few years, the government intends to privatize a great number of infeasible state enterprises that still depend on the state. Overall, there are about 24,000 such enterprises in the country. State Property Minister Farit Gazizullin is of the opinion that his ministry is unable to efficiently manage so many enterprises. The ministry will control no more than 1,500 strategic enterprises and all the other enterprises will be privatized during the next three years, 7,000 ones a year. This means that the unemployment may sharply increase in the near future. It is difficult to judge now how dangerous this phenomenon could be. “But the threat of destabilization of the situation is great, taking into account the fact that the number of unemployed in Russia is high enough to provoke a crisis even now.”

The newspaper Kommersant-daily informs its readers that at the meeting between the president and Central Bank President Viktor Gerashchenko, a decision was made to continue the policy aimed at strengthening the ruble.

Meanwhile, according to the newspaper, the policy of cheap dollars conveyed by the Central Bank leads not only to an increase of the country’s hard currency supply (the Central Bank buys dollars from oil exporters with newly-printed rubles), but also to the growth of inflation, since the growth of the ruble supply provokes the growth of prices. The newspaper comes to the conclusion: “Russia is an unhappy country: when world oil prices decline, all the economic indicators are negative on account of the dependence on creditors and the specter of default. When oil prices rise, the country’s money supply increases and inflation starts.” Despite all the efforts of the government, the Russian economy refuses to accept rubles. “This means that the process of economic growth, which both the White House and the Strategic Developments Center have tried to stimulate, has been delayed.” This hold-up cannot make state remember its “stimulating role in the economy.”

The newspaper Rossia, touching on the causes of growth of inflation, mentions not only the influx of oil dollars, which the Central Bank has to “sterilize” accumulating its gold and hard currency reserves, because there are still no investments in the Russian economy, but also the current president’s social policy, i.e. the regular payment and even growth of pensions and salaries to state sector employees. According to the newspaper, both the Central Bank and the government are aware of the fact that the policy of the strong ruble and the consequent inflation will sooner or later lead to a financial crisis like the one that took place in August 1998.

As for the newspaper Novye Izvestia, referring to surveys of FOA, the Swedish Armed Forces Scientific Institute, it gives the most apocalyptic forecast of the further development of the situation in Russia. The Swedish experts assert that the crisis of August 1998 may be repeated, since all of its main causes continue to plague the economy. Among the causes of the crisis is the concentration of social institutes in hands of an exclusively narrow circle of people, which makes the banking system unstable and difficult to predict,” as well as banks’ interest in short-term speculations that undermine long-term investment projects. Another cause of the crisis is the dependence of the Russian economy on imports and dependence of the Russian budget on fluctuations of prices at the world oil market. If a new crisis takes place, Russian regions may be easily isolated, because of the discontinuation of work on railroad transport, which, in turn, will “precipitate the disintegration and decay of the country.” According to FOA, the most likely scenario in this case will be the partition of the country into five independent parts. “Governors of the most well-to-do regions will sign agreements and subdue the governors of weaker regions.” Novye Izvestia suggests that the results of FOA’s studies refute the opinions held in Russian political circles that Russia is very important for the rest of the world and will receive assistance from the West in the event of a new financial crisis. According to FOA, the West’s anxiety about Russia’s future is strongly exaggerated, since Russia’s economic significance is minimal. FOA reports that the “substitution of Russia’s raw materials for those of other countries is possible in all fields, except for deliveries of palladium. The reorientation of economies of western countries to other markets for raw materials would take from several months to one year.”

The newspaper stresses that “the most striking result of the Swedish research” is the assertion that if Russia disappears from the world, no one will notice.

However, there are also a few positive items in the FOA survey. One of them is the idea that “the disintegration of Russia could be the result of economic shocks, but not ethnic conflicts.” Excluding the events in the Caucasus, it is impossible for the situation in Russia to develope according to the Yugoslavian scenario. Besides, Russian bandits and “cleptocrats,” according to FOA, are gradually “beginning to realize that it is necessary to introduce some rules of the game and protection of private life and property.” Stolen money is still pumped from the country, but FOA is hoping that “for the sake of saving the motherland, bandits will enter the next phase: robberies followed by investing their stolen money at home.”

Besides, Swedish analysts are staking their hopes on the unbelievably tolerant Russian population that has proven its ability to live through any crises. In any case, Russians will not escape to the West: in the event of Russia’s disintegration, Russians are most likely to continue seeking salvation inside the country.

It is difficult not to agree with Novye Izvestia, stating that this survey is exceedingly helpful for the development of “a sober idea of ourselves and our country.”

In the meantime, while Western analysts are trying to understand Russia, native ones are trying to understand their own president.

Although Putin has been ruling the country for half a year already, the question “Who is Putin?” is still topical.

Obshchaya Gazeta devotes one of its articles to analyzing Putin’s interviews and speeches and his book “In the First Person.” The results are very curious. For instance, in Putin’s pre-election interviews, his desire for power was expressed very obliquely. And after Yeltsin informed Putin about his upcoming resignation, this desire grew even weaker. During that period of his career, his fear of power prevailed over his desire for power. Putin was unsure that he would be able to properly manage his powers, that his subordinates will obey him and that he would not be rejected by some influential social forces. According to the results of the analysis, before the election, avoiding a failure was more important for Putin than gaining success. That is why he displayed much discretion in all his statements. “This is the type of behavior characteristic of an official who is used to doing everything by assent of his boss and not in the least characteristic of a leader of a nation.” After the election, the style of behavior of the new president started to change. Now the period of adaptation to the new social role is over. However, even now the president, in the opinion of analysts, needs social support.

On the other hand, he is ready to resist aggression. The newspaper states that his phrase “He who offends us, will not survive for more than three days” is a metaphor characterizing his actual behavior, rather than just a simple joke.” Besides, the authors of the article write that “Putin’s fear of power and lack of self-confidence” arouse anxiety. Psychologists assert that these features often become a good ground for the development of rancor, vindictiveness and unhealthy mistrust in people.

Vladimir Putin lacks self-confidence and also clearly dislikes communicating with foreign political figures. According to the newspaper, this may be just a temporary juvenile malaise or may develop into a hostile attitude toward the rest of the world.

However, another publication Obshchaya Gazeta cites some results of opinion polls, according to which, the president remains the most popular political figure in the country.

During the time that has elapsed since the presidential election, the people have remained confident that Vladimir Putin will manage the economic hardships (50% of respondents still think so) and crime, as 46% of interviewees have said.

According to sociologists, the president is trusted mostly by middle-aged people with average level of incomes, by the unemployed, workers, homemakers and other non-elite categories of the population that “rely on the government more than their own resource.”

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