Long live PR!

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“What can it mean?” That’s the question which has haunted all politicians, analysts, party functionaries, and journalists ever since the Unity faction decided to support the Communists on the vote of no confidence in the Cabinet.

The Segodnya newspaper asserts that now, a year after starting work on its new state power hierarchy, the Kremlin “has decided to carry out some large-scale tests, choosing the Duma as a testing ground”. From the start, Unity faction leader Boris Gryzlov has had no doubts that the Duma will be disbanded as a result of the no-confidence vote maneuver; his deputy, Franz Klintsevich, predicted that elections could be held as early as September, with an inevitable triumph for Unity. Besides, Gleb Pavlovsky – to whom many ascribe the idea of disbanding the Duma – declared that Unity’s move was made by order of the president, who has decided on this method of “dealing with the parliamentary crisis created by the Communists”. Pavlovsky is sure that the Communists are losing public support, and in the next elections they will get considerably fewer votes than last time; this would make it possible to increase the Duma’s “level of loyalty”, and it would start to support all the government’s initiatives without exception.

But Segodnya is skeptical about this reasoning; it’s clear that the Duma is already quite loyal. The Kremlin and Unity have other motives: “a number of interested oligarchs” from circles close to former president Boris Yeltsin were most displeased when the Duma (due to the Communist faction) voted to strike out a list of enterprises subject to privatization this year from the Cabinet’s bill on redistributing additional budget revenues. The Duma in its present form does not suit the former “Family”, rather than President Putin.

According to Segodnya, the no-confidence vote is just a diversion; during an election campaign, there would be an opportunity to quietly sort out all problems with privatization of the natural monopolies – Russian Joint Energy Systems, the Roads and Transport Ministry, Gazprom, and the Atomic Energy Ministry. Andrei Ryabov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, told Segodnya: “These interests are being supported by the exporters’ lobby group, which wants fresh elections and is resurrecting the myth of the Communist threat.”

Meanwhile, it turns out that contrary to Gryzlov’s claims that the no-confidence motion originated in the regions, ordinary members of the Unity faction are not at all enthusiastic about the Duma being disbanded. This is understandable enough, if we recall that prior to the 1999 elections, regional Unity candidates were selected at random, from among people who had never distinguished themselves politically. For them, Duma seats were a stroke of luck – and of course they don’t want to part with them.

On the other hand, it’s understood that Unity will not oppose the president’s will – that is, as long as his will is clearly stated. Unity faction member Alexander Chuev told Segodnya: “If the president really has some serious concerns about the Cabinet’s performance, we are prepared to support the vote of no confidence; but he must give us at least some sort of sign, a political hint – otherwise it would look like we’re opposing the president by voting with the Communists.”

The Communists were most enthusiastic about Unity’s decision at first. Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that Gennady Zyuganov thanked Boris Gryzlov for his support, and called on all other Duma factions to follow Unity’s example. The Communist leader’s reaction was understandable, since Unity’s intentions boosted the Communists’ credibility for voters (“the Cabinet is so hopeless that even the pro-government faction will vote to dismiss it”). What’s more, the Communists believe they could pick up even more Duma seats in fresh elections, and many non-communist politicians agree with this view. For example, Alexander Shokhin, who chairs the Duma Banking Committee, has grave doubts about Unity’s claims that it would collect 35-40% of the vote, leaving the Communists with no more than 10-15%. Alexander Mitrofanov (LDPR faction) considers that the influence of the Communists is growing, and the current political games could lead Russia to a “Moldova outcome”.

According to the sources of Obshchaya Gazeta, the script for disbanding the Duma was developed by the presidential administration – and it was the administration’s own idea.

The arguments presented to President Putin by Alexander Voloshin included fears that the present Duma, despite all its loyalty, might yet oppose reforms to the pension system, land ownership, and especially housing and communal services. The Duma’s loyalty is likely to decline as the next scheduled parliamentary elections approach; and the peak of its oppositional activity will occur in 2003, a year which will be difficult for many reasons. (As Boris Gryzlov has repeatedly pointed out in his public statements, 2003 – as well as being a parliamentary election year – will bring Russia “several other misfortunes”: widespread infrastructure breakdowns leading to a drop in industrial output and an increased likelihood of man-made disasters, as well as the first substantial scheduled repayment of foreign debts – $17.5 billion – with “the prospect of a sovereign default”.)

Obshchaya Gazeta also considers that holding early parliamentary elections would be important for President Putin – since candidates would mostly direct criticism at the executive branch during the campaign, he would prefer the presidential election to precede parliamentary elections. “In 1999, all parties and movements targetted Yeltsin – which didn’t bother Putin at all. But next time they will be criticizing Putin, and that’s dangerous.”

If Duma elections are held in 2001, Putin would run for re-election over a year before the next parliamentary elections. Therefore, says Obshchaya Gazeta, if the current Duma maneuver succeeds, it would benefit the president.

However, it is said that Sergei Shoigu unexpectedly become aware of the Kremlin’s intrigues – and he was not at all pleased at the way his party was being used. The Kremlin’s secret plan was revealed.

In the Vedomosti newspaper, Vitalii Portnikov points out that the president can’t possibly want a Cabinet dismissal right now: “If the Kasianov Cabinet is dismissed now, before any major and visible transformations in the economy, at a time of relative stability – then the responsibility for the inevitable subsequent problems will rest with the president, not with the ministers he fires.” Portnikov is sure there’s a simple explanation for the whole intrigue: ” Several cliques have formed around President Putin, and they’re all trying to take advantage of their closeness to the head of state in order to push their own political and financial agendas.” He notes that early elections are primarily sought by those who hope to make a great deal of money from the campaign, while also demonstrating that they’re indispensable to the president. Those who aim to preserve the status quo, and who are satisfied with the Kasianov Cabinet and the Duma, would not benefit from early elections. “Between these two camps of potential image-makers and real managers is the swamp of Putin’s closest associates, who don’t always give their boss the most sensible advice. And at the peak of this teeming Klondike of intellectual energy is the president.” The lack of clarity in Putin’s actions only encourages such “senseless, illogical, poorly-planned and ultimately farcical situations” in Russian politics, Portnikov concludes.

So according to analysts, the no-confidence vote saga is completely unrelated to the Cabinet’s performance; it should rather be viewed as a tactical PR move – yet another behind-the-scenes intrigue, and one which is not very well planned.

At the same time, we can’t say that only the Communists are dissatisfied with the Cabinet’s performance at present – at a time when there are no apparent economic disasters. Herman Gref, the “main state reformer”, says 2000 was Russia’s most successful year in the past decade, and we have now returned to the level of 1994. This drew some barbed comments from Mikhail Leontiev in Kompania magazine: “As we know, 1994 was not noted for flourishing development – on the contrary, it was most unsuccessful.” Leontiev believes that such statements by Gref can only be linked to “the fact that his own job is on the line” – there is no other explanation for them.

Leontiev doubts the validity of Gref’s statements: it’s understood that Russia’s relative economic stability is due to favorable trade circumstances, “which are independent of the Cabinet’s will or intentions” – especially of the reform-minded ministers. The present Cabinet has nothing to boast about; although tax reforms are always cited as an achievement of Kasianov’s Cabinet, Leontiev considers that these reforms “reveal the Cabinet’s complete impotence”. (Leontiev notes that the point of any tax reforms is to expand the reach of taxation by cutting taxes. Nothing of the kind has happened in Russia yet; thus far, cutting taxes is only leading to less tax revenues being collected.) “Russia is facing the prospect of qualitative degradation,” says Leontiev. Paradoxically, there is only one consolation: since the Cabinet is working poorly and not getting much done, the damage it does to the economy is considerably less than it would have been if the reformers had made intensive efforts to move in their chosen direction.

Moreover, Leontiev points out that “one gets the impression that the Cabinet is completely uninterested in issues outside the framework defined by the specific interests of various groups within the Cabinet.” It is also worth noting another difference between now and 1994 – the present “Cabinet of reformers”, unlike its predecessor, can’t afford to waste any time.

There has been no less media skepticism about Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok’s statement that 2000 was “our most successful year in social terms.” Segondya featured an interview with Tatiana Maleva, a member of the research council of the Moscow Carnegie Center. Maleva considers that in terms of social policy, 2000 was simply a wasted year.

Maleva explains that most economists prioritize economic growth, as a prerequisite for social reforms and improvements in the social sphere. “Unfortunately,” says Maleva, “Russia’s experience in 2000 is evidence in favor of the opposite point of view: that the most important factor for social reforms is political will, which is still lacking at a time when the economy is doing well.”

None of the social resolutions in Herman Gref’s economic development program have been implemented. The Carnegie Endowment calculates that the gap between rich and poor is now the same as it was in 1994 – incomes differ by a factor of 14. The affluent have become even wealthier over the past year, approaching their pre-crisis consumption level. The poorest groups – pensioners and state-sector employees – are slightly better off; thanks to high oil prices, the government has managed to raise their pensions and wages somewhat. But those in between – who account for almost 50% of the population – have not received any material benefits from the improvement in the economy; their standards of living have deteriorated.

Social deterioration is also connected with unemployment (currently at 10%). According to the Moscow Carnegie Center, this figure (not the world’s highest) is primarily detrimental for Russia due to the length of time people are out of work. Those who spend two years not working in their own field lose skills and become alienated; and two years is not unusual for Russia. As well as the unemployed, there are also people who are working without being paid, or whose wages are insultingly low. According to Maleva, there are 6 million such people.

Wage backlogs, which were reduced before the presidential elections last year, have been growing again since May. The state’s total wage debts have stabilized at around 40 billion rubles. Maleva points out that this money is the rightful property of 11 million workers, who have been forced to “lend” it to the economy for years, interest-free. This problem cannot be resolved without the government making an effort to do so; but it has now been moved to the back-burner, while foreign debts are given priority.

Obviously, given this situation, the Communists need not be concerned about their level of public support. Moreover, there have recently been many media reports about the left becoming noticeably younger.

Contrary to popular opinion, not only the “poor and ignorant” are becoming leftists. Obshchaya Gazeta ran a feature recently about the “new leftists”: most of whom are young, well-educated, and comfortably-off.

For example, a 25-year-old man who is a sales manager with a large company in Moscow – he is a Trotskyite. He doesn’t want to forget his proletarian roots: “My father is an ordinary driver, who lives in terrible conditions. My mother is unemployed. Can this state of affairs be considered just?” A Muscovite woman, 28, has a degree in biology and is a member of the Marxist Union: “What I find completely unacceptable is that I can’t pursue my chosen career; I have to work at a job I don’t want to do. As a biologist, I would love to work in the field of ecology; but it’s embarrassing even to mention the salaries of the scientists who are still working at the laboratory where I used to work.”

Oleg Shenin, a 28-year-old Duma deputy, doesn’t seem like a “victim of the system” at all. He has brought together a team of organizers who are working to unite about 30 leftist movements into a bloc, on the basis of which they propose to create a strong Marxist party. At present, the bloc is called the Movement for a Labor Party.

Obshchaya Gazeta quotes leading sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky, who considers that for the “new leftists”, the Communist Party is “a huge decomposing corpse blocking their path”. In Kagarlitsky’s opinion, this point of view is not unfounded; the Communist Party “retains the monopoly on left-leaning voters, although it is not actually a leftist party”.

True, the “new leftists” haven’t achieved very much yet – apart from the New Revolutionary Initiative group’s actions (for example, the bomb blast near the office of the FSB; the two NRI members convicted in that case are already being called “granddaughters of Vera Zasulich” – it seems they are destines to become something like new “holy martyrs”, so essential for a real revolutionary movement). Most exploits of the “new leftists” are simply ridiculous – like throwing tomatoes at Zyuganov, or raising their own placards on Lenin’s Mausoleum.

All the same, Obshchaya Gazeta asks: “Can we rule out a new epidemic of leftism in a nation which has only just recovered from communism?” It’s impossible to ignore that the aging supporters of Zyuganov are being replaced by a wave of “new leftists” – “young, angry, idealistic”. However, Russian politicians simply can’t believe this; they remain convinced that young people “will always keep voting for Irina Khakamada and Grigorii Yavlinsky, and always remain the support base of liberal market reforms.”

Of course, the young Marxists and Trotskyites of today are fairly harmless – they just like playing at “the heroic past”. And yet, notes Obshchaya Gazeta, “who knows – might they not give us a similar future?”

As for “His Majesty’s official opposition”, it’s being very cautious these days. This is confirmed by another article in Kommersant about the vote of no confidence (or rather, about disbanding the Duma). According to Kommersant, reporting on President Putin’s two-hour meeting with Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov: “There will be no vote of no confidence in the Cabinet.”

No details of the meeting were released; however, as Kommersant points out, “the very fact that it took place says a great deal: before voting against the Cabinet, the Communist leader consults with the person who appointed that Cabinet. Apparently, he also wanted to assure the president that he has nothing against Putin personally.” The vote of no confidence is solely due to demands from “the masses, which are numerous, but unfortunately not sensible”.

Kommersant stresses that Zyuganov still achieved his main aim: Putin finally expressed his opinion on the vote of no confidence, using Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev as a “relay station”. If Seleznev can be believed, both the initiative of the Communists and the actions of Unity came as a complete surprise for the president. Putin considers the question of confidence in the Cabinet to be “ill-timed”. Unity can only obey. But one of the most important outcomes of this meeting was the president’s reminder that he “is accessible for all Duma faction leaders, so even the most controversial issues can be discussed before a decision is made”. And this, concludes Kommersant, is what needed to be demonstrated.

On the other hand, Nezavisimaya Gazeta considers that the outcome of this Duma maneuver couldn’t be predicted even by those who “modelled” the current crisis, i.e. the presidential administration headed by Alexander Voloshin. “Too many players with varying or conflicting interests have been drawn into the Duma intrigue.”

The resulting diversity of opinions within the pro-government faction shows yet again that the structure of Unity has some positive gaps. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta puts it, two “songs” are popular in Unity. “The first of these essentially means that some Unity deputies are unhappy in the legislative branch, and would like to be part of the executive.” But others in Unity, while they don’t object to remaining in the Duma, would still like the Cabinet to coordinate its actions with them, “rather than just ordering people around”. This latter part of Unity, mostly made up of people with a background in the security services, provoked the categorical assertions of Unity leaders – in order to show the president that the Cabinet has lost the support of the most reliable forces in the lower house. Nezavisimaya Gazeta considers this version of events to be quite probable – especially given that the People’s Deputy group, guided by Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, did not support Unity – it even strongly criticized Unity, accusing it of playing “big political games”. (“Surkov is not part of the security services clique in the president’s team; moreover, it is said that he is not on good terms with some of this clique’s leading members.”)

If this version of events is accepted, it becomes clear that Unity’s goal has been achieved: the party’s publicity stunt is over, and it may now back down from “playing at disbanding the Duma”. Nezavisimaya Gazeta considers that the real outcome of this intrigue will be known by the end of March – before the president delivers his annual address to parliament.

It must be admitted that PR moves are becoming more and more fashionable – at least, they receive no less attention than real politics. President Putin’s recent online press conference aroused no less media interest than his foreign tours.

True, there was just as much skepticism as enthusiasm. For example, Kommersant quoted the president’s press secretary as saying that Putin was very pleased by his interaction with Internet users; “the audience for contacts with the president has expanded considerably”. Kommersant comments: “All this is very true. But it’s still unclear why a president with such a high approval rating would aim to expand his audience, and what exactly that audience learned from the encounter.”

The Vedomosti newspaper does not ask those questions: “Such actions always give political leaders the image of progressive, up-to-date people. By answering questions via the Internet, Putin was moving into the same category as Bill Clinton, for example, who answered questions from Americans online.” (Purely a PR move, as noted.)

However, the president did admit that due to “inherent laziness”, he doesn’t actually use the Internet; he has special assistants for that purpose, “who do this professionally, and present me with the results”. During his online interview, he answered (carefully selected) questions verbally, rather than sitting in front of a keyboard “like any common chat participant”. It’s understandable, says Vedomosti: the Internet is not a suitable pastime for a tsar.

So, when Internet users eventually become a majority in the government (right now, for example, out of seven presidential envoys only Sergei Kirienko uses the Internet), “they will still have to communicate with the president in the old-fashioned way – on paper”. In this regard, “nothing new can be expected” from Putin.

The cream of this PR move mostly went to the online newspapers which organized it, Strana.ru and Gazeta.ru, attracting many visitors to their sites.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta published the opinions of some experts who analyzed Putin’s online interaction. They believe the Internet users turned out to be people with a rather weak grasp of political and social issues. Their questions were vague and overly emotional; they also showed little understanding of the separation of powers within the government. Nezavisimaya Gazeta considers that despite his democratic vocabulary, Putin is still viewed by Russian citizens – even the progressive and liberal ones, such as Internet users – as an omnipotent “Father-Tsar”.

Actually, we don’t need any special measures or PR moves to understand that.

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