THE PLOT OF THE WEEK: THE PRESIDENT AND THE MEDIA. CRITICISM OF PUTIN GAINS STRENGTH

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The main issue of the past few days – a scandal around the transaction between Media Most and Gazprom and the notorious Appendix No. 6 certified by Mikhail Lesin – clearly demonstrated a change in the tone of the media “dialogues about state power”. Even media outlets controlled by Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch, a rival and a perennial opponent of Vladimir Gusinsky, have strongly criticized the Kremlin. “NTV must stay, even if it continues to say what it is saying now,” this demand expressed by Vitaly Tretyakov, editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, can be considered common for many media including those which cannot be suspected of much sympathy toward Gusinsky and NTV. Tretyakov calls steps taken by the leadership in order to solve the problem of “NTV as an opposing political party” “unreasonable and reprehensible” and expresses the opinion that now the state administration has reached a borderline beyond which the destruction of the system of independent media becomes “not a threat, but reality”.

The newspaper Segodnya reacted to the scandal with an article entitled “Extortion as State Policy on Media”. The newspaper called Appendix No. 6 “a message from the Kremlin administration to all non-state media which dare to overly criticize the authorities.”

“In a verbal battle, the two opponents do not understand each other at all, as if they were speaking different languages,” the newspaper Izvestia remarked. “Some demand: give the money back! Others say in response: You are stifling freedom of speech. But in fact everybody understands everything.” The newspaper cites an extensive passage from Gusinsky’s interview with the Washington Post: “Imagine that you were born in a house – maybe not too large, not too good, but it is your home… There is the bedroom where your parents lived. And now you have to sell this house. A guy comes and says: I want to buy this house, I will pay a high price. We will set up a brothel in it… I do not want my home to become a brothel.” Commenting on this emotional statement by the owner of Media Most, Alexander Arkhangelsky, an observer of Izvestia, writes: “When a representative of the debtors who, in fact, agreed to sell their unprofitable business for $500 million against the offered $300 million, refers to freedom of speech, he discredits the very idea of it… In response to his romantic monologue about his parents’ house where pimps will place whores, one can always make a sarcastic remark a-la Koch: for $300 million it is impossible, but for $500 million – all right, let there be whores, or whoever.”

The main culprit who put his signature to Appendix No. 6 – Media Minister Mikhail Lesin – is not too upset about the possibility of disfavor, as the newspaper Vedomosti reports. Vedomosti quotes comments on the situation by “a senior official at the Media Ministry”: “If the leadership does not want us to be on the state payroll – it’s OK. All of us have something to do.” The newspaper maintains that Lesin’s dismissal is hardly likely, especially against the background of the information leaks that Colonel General Vladislav Sherstyuk, first deputy chair of the Security Council, may become his successor. As Vedomosti remarked, “he is one of the few in our relatively free country who know what information security means.” In comparison to him, Lesin, “a person with rich imagination and a sense of humor”, is much more understandable for the media community. Of course, President Putin may be irritated by back-slapping, but it is hard to believe that the Kremlin decided to make the new regime “steely and gloomy”.

At the same time, for President Putin who, against all expectations, has not made a statement concerning the scandal between Koch and Gusinsky, an attempt to “command” the media may be a matter of life and death. On the threshold of a new political season, the weekly Vek holds, the president cannot boast of any serious political assets.

Despite all attempts to create a strong presidential command chain, the creation of the position of presidential envoy has not yet brought any significant fruit. A political machine in the form of the “president’s party” has not been created yet – Unity remains “a mechanism for parliamentary voting” without the necessary organizational structures and charismatic leaders. “The only thing left is to create an information command chain”. However, this attempt has not been successful so far: the Kremlin, as well as Putin himself, does not need a scandal around NTV, along with a scandal around ORT, especially against the background of the media raising “the Berzovsky issue”, a new wave of compromising materials on the “Family”, and rumors about a quarrel between the president and part of his retinue. Still, possibly all rumors about the upcoming “reform” of the Kremlin team are a strong exaggeration of hardly discernible trends, but, in the opinion of Vek, there is no smoke without fire. Even if these suggestions do not have any real grounds, the fact itself of their emergence is a characteristic symptom.

“The Lone President” – this is the way the magazine Expert calls Putin in an article devoted to the distribution of forces at the start of a new political year. “The task set before the head of state remains the same,” the magazine writes. “It is still acute, despite Putin’s high rating and energetic actions during the first months of his rule.” This task, as the magazine holds, consists of two parts: strengthening of Putin’s own team and gradual dissociation from the “political force which helped the president climb on the Olympus and now (not without a reason) considers him its “agent”. The force in question is, of course, the “Family”.

The active support by the electorate who wished to see a new person in power instead of Yeltsin and his retinue turns today, when the successor has occupied the throne, into impatient expectation of “everything and now” from him. In fact, as Expert writes, it is high time people realized that the whole of the first president’s term will be devoted to “thorough work to establish himself in the administration where everything has already been shared without him.” Some even compare Putin to Stalin, Pyotr I, and Ivan the Terrible who “acted in similar conditions”.

In any case, it is evident that the president “intends to take charge of everything in the country and he needs not opponents, but tools on all levels.” The president’s loneliness, the magazine writes, became especially obvious during the August crisis. Expert cites an analytical note by the Effective Policy Foundation: “At the moment of crisis, the elite rejected the state in all shapes, the administration already knows that it has been abandoned by its elite… The state and people know that at the moment of crisis they can count only on themselves. This is a frightening and absolutely intolerable situation. On the eve of a new political year, we cannot afford to preserve it – we need some form of public initiative to change elites…” By way of such an initiative, the magazine suggests president’s direct address to people for the creation of a party or a public movement in his support.

And now Putin “methodically continues to place his people on “commanding heights”, at the same time “shaking the ashes of the past from his feet”. As Expert managed to learn, at the end of summer he strongly recommended Valentin Yumashev and Tatiana Diachenko who “did not stop trying to interfere in the president’s personnel policy” to leave the state residence in Volynskoye where the “Family” headquarters was located. Moreover, as “confidential sources” state, Putin “was tough enough to threaten them with reconsideration of his own Edict No. 1 which guarantees immunity for the former head of state and his relatives.” It is clear, the magazine writes, that in such a situation the “Family” may easily turn from Putin’s main support to his deadly enemy. However, at present, Experts states, Yeltsin’s clan and the president agreed on one point: the necessity to force Berezovsky from the political scene.

While Putin used Berezovsky’s support, he succeeded in everything, the newspaper Russkaya Mysl writes: “artificial inflation of the rating, the Duma election, Yeltsin’s testament, the presidential election, and, partially, the Chechnya war.” When something went wrong with their relations, the president lost his luck: “the war reached a total deadlock, once-obedient governors began to argue, a bomb exploded on Pushkin square, a submarine sank, and, to crown it all, Dorenko, electorate’s favorite, went mad and bit him fiercely.” It is hardly likely that there is some connection between all these events (except for the latter), but this makes people think, the newspaper holds. “If such a person as Berezovsky does not only leave President Putin, but even challenges him openly, doesn’t this mean that Putin’s phenomenon has come to an end?” Of course, despite all tricks (like transfer of ORT shares to creative intelligentsia), Berezovsky will hardly manage to preserve control over the ORT channel, the newspaper remarks. Eventually, the state will swallow the first channel, it has too much leverage and clubs – both for Berezovsky and the “creative intelligentsia”. Nevertheless, Russkaya Mysl holds, the rioting oligarch “has seriously complicated Putin’s campaign to capture media”, having opened a second front and distracting the president’s forces from fighting with NTV. However, no one can guess what objectives Berezovsky sets himself: there is a possibility that he merely wants to “drive Putin into a dark corner in order to offer him his services which the president will be unable to reject.”

If Putin who was made president by people waiting for a miracle and who uses his powers for the construction of his own command chain, finishes his reform, all branches will turn into mere subsidiaries of the presidential administration – Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. The first steps of Putin’s reform include “liquidation of independent subjects of political activity.” From now on, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes, “only one political subject must remain in Russia – the state (the executive branch). All independent financial and political groups must be subjected to the state will or suppressed.” This is the purpose of reforming the Federation Council. The Duma must become a purely decorative agency, obediently passing all bills submitted by the president. If in the course of these reforms elections and a multi-party system survive, they will be of purely formal character: “Monopolizing electronic media, distributing financial resources of the state and the largest corporations, and controlling the work of election commissions, the party of power will grasp the mechanism of endless re-election of itself and its allies.”

The newspaper warns against “groundless dreaming” those who hold that “strengthening of the command chain”, that is concentration of power in the president’s hands, is necessary for successful continuation of liberal reforms. Equality of all citizens before the law, and not its dictatorship is necessary for successful development of private enterprise. There is a danger, Nezavisimaya Gazeta forecasts, that in the course of “establishing order” the leadership may trample over positive results of reforms.

At the same time, attempts to “establish order” undertaken by the leadership do not only drown in the sea of surprises presented by life, but are openly ignored by the Russian elite which has seen much over the past decades. Izvestia, reporting that the parliament of Tatarstan set the presidential election for December 24, whereas Mintimer Shaimiev’s term expires only in March 2001, call this step “a primitive trick” which makes it easy for him to break the constitutional prohibition to run for a third gubernatorial or presidential term. “Putin the Terrible”, the newspaper writes, frightened the whole of regional leadership with his reforms and it rejects even its legal right to be elected for a second term in office (five governors have already done so). However, Shaimiyev calmly implements his plans to stay at the head of Tatarstan for another five years. Moreover, he is “so sure that Moscow will swallow his third term, that even did not return from Antalia where he is spending his vacation”. Taking into consideration that the Tatarstan president is the informal leader of the regional elite, “his behavior serves as a sort of signal for all regional presidents and governors – it is possible to preserve unlimited powers even under dictatorship of the law.”

What can Putin do? He may use only edicts and “oral agreements”. However, “hard-boiled” regional heads do not care about edicts, and as for oral agreements, “for instance, that the Kremlin will turn a blind eye to a third term in exchange for the governors’ and presidents’ exodus from the Federation Council”, they contradict to the essence of Putin’s reform – to deprive regional leaders of their significance.

Gradually, criticism of the president’s actions by the press becomes louder, including such actions which were conceived as demonstration of friendliness and democratic views. Even the assessment of Putin’s presence at the opening of the Moscow Jewish Community Center was diverse.

The newspaper Vremya MN holds that this is a historic event – at least, for Russia “where anti-Semitism was state policy for many years.” Of course, there have been many changes lately: “Boris Nikolayevich went to a decorative synagogue and Yuri Luzhkov planted a few trees in honor of the brotherly Jewish people, but all that looked more like part of election campaigns.” Now Putin obviously “came with good intentions” for which reason, as the newspaper acidly remarks, even when he stated in his speech that the Federation of Jewish communities of Russia created only a year ago has already proved its necessity and constructiveness to the authorities, that is “we, in the administration, can already feel its influence”, nobody laughed.

Vitaly Portnikov from the newspaper Vedomosti comments on this issue much more definitely: “The Russian president, benevolently smiling to Rabbi Ben Lazar and other prominent representatives of the Khasid community in Moscow… This event might have been historic, if it had not been political.” Recently, Portnikov writes, a meeting between the US president and president of the Russian Jewish Congress Vladimir Gusinsky was held, during which Bill Clinton reminded those present about “great merits of the president of RJC in the cause of protection of rights of Russian Jews.” The Russian Jewish Congress, along with other international Jewish organizations (with the exception of Khasids), acknowledged Adolf Shayevich as the main rabbi of Russia. The Federation of Jewish communities of Russia acknowledges Ben Lazar as the main rabbi. For Jews, Portnikov writes, it is not a schism, but one of “ordinary community conflicts”. But when the leadership decides to support one of the opposing sides, “it immediately turns the position of Russia’s main rabbi into an analog of the Judaic patriarch”. Besides, rumors emerge that Putin attended the opening of the synagogue “not out of love for the Jews, but with the single purpose of weakening Gusinsky’s position”. Does Russia’s president need such a reputation? – Vedomosti asks. The question is, of course, strictly rhetoric.

Tankred Golenpolsky was even more harsh commenting on this issue in Yevreiskaya Gazeta. He remarked that before visiting synagogue, Putin tried to pressure main rabbi Shayevich recommending him to voluntarily resign and “promising various privileges to follow”. Thus, Golenpolsky continues, “whether the president wanted this or not, the state in his person violated the Constitution, interfering in religious relations. As potent as the president may be, he cannot appoint supreme patriarchs and it does not behoove him to contribute to a schism within one of the people of Russia, even if he does not like the head of the Russian Jewish Congress.”

Berezovsky took up criticism of the actions by Putin’s administration – this time overseas, during his visit to the USA. Although Berezovsky’s schedule included mostly business meetings, the newspaper Novye Izvestia writes, meeting participants were interested in politics, first and foremost, and Berezovsky willingly satisfied their curiosity, one more time dwelling on “strategic mistakes” made by the president. The first of such mistakes descends from Yeltsin’s times – this is the Chechnya war. “This problem cannot be solved by military means.” The second one is changing Russia’s state structure and concentration of power in the hands of the president. And the last, but not least – from Berezovsky’s point of view – is “positioning himself as confronting political and economic elites already well established in Russia.” On top of it all, mentioning the president’s relation toward media which is already a byword, Berezovsky considered it necessary to warn his listeners about the threat of authoritarianism in Russia: “Formally, the president has concentrated all the power in his hands and the leadership can do everything to a person. Now Putin wants to command the media – the so-called fourth power,” which will finally destroy the remains of democratic freedoms. Nevertheless, Berezovsky believes in the positive role of “constructive opposition” to the authorities, the purpose of which is “not to dethrone President Putin, but to assist the leadership in decision-making”. Not only those who do not agree with actions by the authorities, but the authorities themselves must admit the possibility of alternative decisions: “And the main point is that the Russian citizens must understand this as soon as they possibly can.”

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