PUTIN’S NEW STYLE: MODERATION AND PRECISION, AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF A "SOVIET MENTALITY" RENAISSANCE

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“Equidistance is fashionable these days,” notes Leonid Radzikhovsky in the new Itogi magazine; not so long ago, he was an observer with the defunct Segodnya newspaper.

In Radzikhovsky’s view, “politics in Russia is becoming quieter and more boring”; the only sign of development is the “gradual revelation” of President Putin. Radzikhovsky applies the term “equidistance” to Putin’s policies. Equidistance from everything – “from passionate friendship and icy enmity, from parties, from former oligarchs, from Russia’s regions (except St. Petersburg), from advisers, from ideologies, from nations and continents”.

For example, look at the area of Russian-American relations: it turns out that the skeptics were right, those who predicted no extreme measures, saying that “the new broom, even wearing a cowboy hat, won’t sweep away anything really significant”. Of course, some tension (like another spy scandal or somebody’s dramatic statements) is quite possible, but they will not lead to any strategic changes in relations: “There will be no Cold War II, but neither will there be any new boom in affection for each other.”

Radzikhovsky says this is the style of contemporary Russian politics and the current president: “If he receives Peres, he will also speak with Arafat; while Russia doesn’t shun the rogue states, Putin will certainly meet with Bush ahead of schedule.”

The same applies in domestic politics: the oligarchs have been equidistanced, “while those two recalcitrant ones who didn’t want to be equidistanced have been distanced from Putin’s Russia altogether”.

Radzikhovsky recalls that Yeltsin also had a system of checks and balances. But there’s a difference in amplitude here: Yeltsin swung so violently in either direction that “the whole system was on the verge of collapse”. But Putin’s actions are “moderate and precise: check and balance, check and balance…”

Radzikhovsky is not yet prepared to judge the results of this approach in domestic politics, but he considers it ideal in foreign affairs: “Putin will not complicate Russia’s position in the world by any drastic moves.”

However, by no means all analysts or publications share this confidence.

There have been several articles over the past few days about cooperation between the presidential administration and the leaders of Eurasia, a movement which has aroused heightened interest of late. Eurasia leader Alexander Dugin is described by Obshchaya Gazeta as the Kremlin’s officially recognized expert on geopolitical issues; the Versiya weekly says he was one of those who developed the national security concept.

Versiya presents the most incredible rumors about the Eurasia movement, among whose leaders are many well-known figures besides Alexander Dugin, who is the ideologue of Nationalist-Bolshevism and the co-founder (with Eduard Limonov) of the National Bolshevik Party.

(For example, one person who has admitted he is a member of Eurasia is Chief Mufti of Russia Talgat Tadzhuddin, famous for once smashing a bottle of champagne against the wall of a new mosque. Other members are Rabbi Avrom Shmulevich; ultra-right Israeli politician Avigdor Eskin, “Israel’s Zhirinovsky”, who has chosen Nezavisimaya Gazeta as his platform in Russia; and leading television anchorman Mikhail Leontiev – Obshchaya Gazeta calls him the president’s favorite journalist.)

What’s more, Versiya reports that the secret services are said to have funded the creation of Eurasia. It is also said to be the latest project of Gleb Pavlovsky. There are rumors that the aim of the new movement is nothing less than replacing the Interior Ministry.

However, according to Versiya, although there is some contact between Pavlovsky and Dugin, this is “probably more along the lines of personal consultatons”. As for the involvement of the secret services – Versiya says the situation still remains unclear.

The ideas of Eurasianism (which seeks to create a global center of influence in Eurasia – Russia, of course – as a counterweight to Atlantism and globalization) are indeed popular among top secret service officers today, “in the form of crude anti-Americanism”. But according to Versiya, financial support for the Eurasia movement is provided via regional branches of secret service veterans’ associations: “not only money, but also ‘necessary’ contacts, cooperation, access to relevant information – with all the consequences this entails.”

As Versiya notes, “it is no coincidence that Dugin is called the most well-informed analyst outside the government analytical groups”.

Moreover, other Eurasia leaders include: former foreign intelligence colonel Petr Suslov, “Eurasia’s second-in-command and chair of its executive committee”; Dmitrii Riurikov, former foreign affairs adviser to Yeltsin, now Russia’s ambassador to Uzbekistan; General Klokotov, former head of the strategy faculty at the General Staff Military Academy.

Alexander Dugin himself is proud of the fact that there are many secret service veterans in the movement. “They are enthusiastic, intelligent, and businesslike people – the elite of our state,” he says in an interview with Obshchaya Gazeta.

There is some truth in reports that the Eurasia movement has influence on foreign affairs: Eurasia’s experts often prepare analytical briefs on various foreign policy issues for the presidential administration.

Moreover, Versiya says the movement is used by the presidential administration as a means of testing new ideas: “In order to test public response to future projects of the new regime, these ideas will first be expressed by Eurasia; some time later, after appropriate amendments in the light of public opinion, they will be proclaimed by the government.”

According to Obshchaya Gazeta, Dugin the expert often provides commentary to Gleb Pavlovsky’s Strana.ru webzine, and to the “Rossiiskii Spetsnaz” online newspaper, published with the support of the FSB.

Obshchaya Gazeta gives the opinion of several anonymous analysts about the real motives of the founders of this somewhat exotic movement; there is no consensus here. Some say that the secret services have decided to set up something like a tame party of their own, essential for various propaganda projects. Others say that Eurasia is yet another attempt to unite various voter groups under the Kremlin’s banner: after the centrists (Unity), the center-left (Rossiia), and the youth (Going Together), it is now the turn of diverse patriots.

Only one point is indisputable, says Versiya: “All these years, Dugin and his team have displayed enviable persistence in pushing their ideas to politicians, despite all obstacles and rejections. And now it’s precisely these ideas which are in great demand in the government.” Obshchaya Gazeta agrees: “Apparently, there has been a sea change in Dugin’s favor.”

But even if there has been a sea change at the top, it doesn’t apply to everything. In terms of his style of leadership and decision-making, Putin remains “the same kind of ‘reigning president’ as Boris Yeltsin was; and he could not be otherwise, given the current Constitution”, says the Vek weekly.

The Vek article goes on to describe everyday life at “the Tsar’s court”: “The president’s team incessantly snarls and fights – against itself and its component parts. All this, however, only until President Putin takes the floor and puts each member of the team back in his proper place, with gestures rather than words.”

Vek says that although “the president’s team is not what it had been expected to be, it is a real team”. This is surprising in itself, since during Putin’s first year in office, many assumed that no changes could be expected without a major personnel shake-up. It was frequently said that no progress could be expected from Putin as long as he remained “among people and connections he inherited from Yeltsin”. However, Vek says “progress is indeed being made, and the president has learned to manage without walling himself off behind a barrier of people who think exactly as he does”.

There is no such “barrier of thinkers” among the president’s team. At the same time, “Putin is no longer alone – which already represents substantial progress”.

Of course, it should be kept in mind that Putin’s current helpers are very different from the accepted definition of “team” in the United States: over there, teamwork is assumed to mean “cooperation at the level of coming up with solutions and implementing them”. The Russian version is more like the army, so to speak – not a “creative community”, only “working together to implement decisions which have been made by the president alone, though after listening to his advisers”.

Vek goes on to describe three components of Putin’s team. The first is Mikhail Kasianov and his Cabinet. “Prime Minister Kasianov has the rare ability to play second fiddle without losing his dignity, which enables him to easily become part and parcel of the Putin style of government.”

The second component is the “young Putinists”, otherwise known as the people from St. Petersburg, or the people from the security services. Vek only names Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov (still one of the security services people, even though he is now a civilian). “This second group gives internal momentum to the Putin team, just as the first group reduces this momentum according to practical needs of the nation.” Kasianov functions as a counterweight to the “excessively spirites young Putinists”.

The third component is the Kremlin bureaucracy, still ruled by Alexander Voloshin, despite the long-standing and persistent rumors about his dismissal. Actually, says Vek, this issue seems less significant than it did a year ago, when Voloshin was the only one of his kind available to the president. Now the presidential team just wants to ensure that if Voloshin does leave, he will not be replaced by anyone from the other two components: “Then the tripod principle will be preserved, and the government will remain stable.”

Vek notes that stability is a relative concept when used to describe any Russian government in our time. It will inevitably be affected by a multitude of risk factors; Vek places Chechnya at the top of the list, closely followed by world energy prices.

Of course, these aren’t the only risk factors present. Viktor Linnik, chief editor of the leftist Slovo newspaper, has devoted his weekly editorial to housing and utilities reforms. Linnik notes that this is the third time in the past decade that the authorities have tackled this massive task. Yeltsin decided against it after the Gaidar reforms in 1992. The second time around, it was disrupted by the August 1998 default. Now Putin has decided to go ahead with it – but Linnik says Putin doesn’t fully realize “how badly he has been let down by those who have planned the reforms”.

According to Linnik, the political fallout will be unequivocal: “The president risks going down in history as the leader under whom housing costs were raised for the first time in 80 years.”

Of course, political leaders do have to make unpopular decisions sometimes, thereby losing political support. But the risks ought to be justified. Right now, there is no guarantee that the reforms will work; Linnik goes on to pose a number of questions which provide some idea of leftist opinion on this issue. For example: “Reform is necessary. But at whose expense? That’s the big question… Are our empty pockets the only source? Have these reforms really been thought through? Who has come up with the figures for the 100% costs we will be forced to pay – and how were the calculations done? Who is being entrusted with carrying out the reforms – the housing and utilities bureaucrats, whose level of corruption is almost legendary?” And so on.

Interestingly enough, the Vremya MN newspaper (which cannot be described as leftist) takes a similar view of the housing and utilities reforms. Economic observer Alexander Deikin says: “The proposed version of reforms can have only one true goal: to resolve the budget problems, which are the government’s fault, in the usual and convenient way – at the expense of the law-abiding and lowest-paid citizens.”

Andrei Neshchadin, executive director of the Expert Institute, says in a Vremya MN interview that the housing and utilities reforms “are starting at the wrong end, and focusing on the wrong things.” Neshchadin says: “Instead of restructuring the system of delivering utilities and introducing measures to save heat and energy, there is more talk about the public paying as much as possible.” He is convinced that if the natural monopolies – Gazprom and Russian Joint Energy Systems – really get serious about saving energy, “the housing and utilities reforms will be halfway home”.

Another example of a negative media response to recent innovations: the scandal over the directive from the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which will force Russian researchers to report any contacts with foreigners.

The Izvestia newspapers recalls Soviet times, when any citizen who freely associated with “people from abroad” was immediately placed under observation by the secret services.

Academician Gennadii Mesiats, vice-president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says in an interview with Izvestia that during the transition to a market economy, the discontinuation of total surveillance over citizens swung to the opposite extreme – the absence of any surveillance whatsoever. “Information leaks about promising new scientific developments have grown to disastrous proportions in some areas.” But as usual in Russia, the battle against extremes tends to be taken to extremes.

Academician Nikolai Plate, also interviewed by Izvestia, says he has “no impression at all that increased surveillance will have an adverse impact on contacts… We host up to 6,000 foreign researchers a year… It is quite natural for the Russian Academy of Sciences to be concerned about protecting intellectual property.”

Nikolai Plate also considers that the requirement to report all visits by foreigners to laboratories or research groups is quite reasonable, although this has drawn the most protest from civil rights groups. “After all, researchers receive foreign visitors in state institutions, not in their own homes.” Hence, the heads of these institutions ought to be informed of what is discussed and what proposals are made as a result of the discussion. Academician Plate cites an example of how such matters are handled abroad, at the Los Alamos laboratory in the United States: “They have very strict controls. In order for me to gain access to that laboratory, they need to get written permission from Washington, from the Department of Energy. And I know that American researchers tell their superiors absolutely everything.”

However, by no means everyone finds these arguments convincing. The Novye Izvestia newspaper asks: “What are we dealing with here – a routine departmental directive aimed at ‘regulating external contacts’, or something more serious, something controlled by an agency outside academia?” The question remains unanswered; but the very fact that it has arisen already says a great deal: “Most of all, it is evidence of the fundamental fear experienced by citizens as managed democracy advances on all fronts.”

Grigorii Yavlinsky spoke at a public gathering to mark the 80th anniversary of the birth of Academician Andrei Sakharov. The text of Yavlinsky’s speech is published in full in Novaya Gazeta. Yavlinsky thinks the project of “managed and controlled democracy” comes from the same people who created oligarchic capitalism in Russia.

Yavlinsky notes that Russia has failed to create a socio-economic foundation for democracy and a free society over the past decade. The Yabloko leaders considers that the political course of the present government can only be termed “liberal” in the sense of “the vulgar liberalism of the 19th century”. If we look at the current understanding of liberalism, it becomes clear that there have been no liberal reforms in Russia: “Because real liberal policies focus on the liberty of the individual, the social and economic well-being of the individual. No such policies have ever been implemented in Russia.”

Moreover, real liberalism entails equal opportunities of all: it’s essential to have “equal rights in business, fair and honest competition, the capacity to resist pressure from monopolies and from the small group of people known as oligarchs.”

Yavlinsky calls for consolidation by “all reasonable democratic forces”. He thinks that everyone who wants to create a truly democratic, socially-oriented market economy “ought to draw some lessons from the past decade”.

Yabloko intends to “resist the creation of a police state and managed democracy in Russia, since this would doom Russia to hopelessly lagging behind the rest of the world”.

Vitalii Tretiakov, chief editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, offers a different point of view on the “managed democracy” project in an article for the Rossiia newspaper. In Tretiakov’s view, Grigorii Yavlinsky – while expressing his disapproval of this term – “is actually using the techniques of managed democracy to sort out the mess in his own Yabloko party”, though he isn’t having much success.

Tretiakov considers that there is no real opposition in Russia, and never has been; “over the past decade, those who call themselves the opposition have been those who are incapable of getting anything done”. According to Tretiakov, the aim of the opposition in Russia “is to grab power as a tool for their own ends, not as a means of developing the state”.

As for the present regime, Putin “really is someone who has decided to take charge of everything”. Being “a cynic with a good knowledge of Russian realities”, Putin understands that “taking charge of everything means taking charge of theft as well”.

As an example, Tretiakov looks at the media: “Everyone knows that some articles are written to order. These articles are published in exchange for money. How is it possible to combat this? Catch them one by one? It’s impossible to catch all of them; besides, the economic situation encourages this practice. There is only one way of dealing with it: first, take charge of everything… Once you hold this Hydra in your hands, you can either choke it or use it.” In Tretiakov’s view, this is exactly what Putin is attempting to do.

Tretiakov notes that relations between big business and government have changed drastically, as have relations between Moscow and the regional elites – Putin “is trying to distance” both groups. “Of course, Putin has to submit to certain restrictions, but he is attempting to break free of their coils and work for the benefit of the state – or at least for the benefit of any given region.”

Tretiakov concludes that if we ask how Russia’s managed democracy is doing under Putin, the answer is clear: “With Putin in power, there is more manageability, and more democracy. And more freedom.”

Meanwhile, the Inostranets weekly reports that recent poll results indicate “the widely-promoted figures about Putin’s popularity rating don’t show the full picture”. What’s more, some analysts even think it’s possible to say that “the process of disillusionment with Putin’s actions has begun”.

For example, in the latest poll by the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), the number of respondents who reported being satisfied with their financial circumstances declined from 47% in March to 29% now. Only 44% of respondents think the economy is improving (compared to 55% of respondents in March); 45% think it has remained unchanged (28% in March). In the same poll, 19% of respondents said their personal financial circumstances are deteriorating (compared to 8% in March).

Pollsters stress that the Kremlin ought to be particularly concerned about public attitudes to national security – “exactly the area in which people expected the most from Putin”. According to a recent VTsIOM poll, 21% of respondents still hope that the situation in this area will improve (a year ago, 61% of respondents held this view). The number of respondents who believe Russia’s national security capacities are declining has increased from 5% to 27% in the past year. The number of respondents who believe everything remains the same as it was in the Yeltsin era has doubled.

Pollsters note that the level of pessimism about the future of national security recorded among military personnel has now exceeded the level of optimism; if the situation remains unchanged, pollsters believe “protest in the Armed Forces will approach the explosive level”.

Poll results released by the FAPSI agency show Putin’s approval rating as down to 35%. It is even said that some regions are now opposed to the president; while Putin’s approval rating used to exceed 50% across all regions, and the protest vote used to be evenly spread out across Russia, now the situation has changed. Now there are some regions where the president’s approval rating is below 50%: the city of Moscow heads the list, followed by St. Petersburg.

Pollsters view the appearance of oppositional regions as an alarming trend for the president: with the help of disgruntled regional leaders and oligarchs, these could become “the foundation for an attack on the Kremlin this autumn”.

According to Inostranets, these poll results probably explain yet another wave of rumors about an imminent dissolution of the Duma. The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for December 2003. But that’s the year when foreign debt payments will peak, while revenues from energy exports may have declined by then. Hence, “it is thought” that it would make more sense to hold elections in more stable circumstances. Another argument in favor of this option: it would be better to have a longer interval between the parliamentary elections and the presidential election of 2004 – it would be more convenient for Putin to go to the polls “with an even more controllable Duma”.

But Inostranets points out that it’s probably too early to speak of a final decision on the timing of the next parliamentary elections; what’s more, there is the risk that they will not have the desired outcome.

The popularity of the Communist Party has unexpectedly risen to 40% in the latest polls. According to Inostranets, this is largely the “achievement” of the Kremlin, which has created “the atmosphere of a real renaissance of the Soviet mentality”.

Thus, there is the danger that all efforts will result in something very familiar, just like in the old joke: “No matter how hard you try to assemble something useful out of Russian-made parts, you inevitably end up with a machine gun.” In this case: no matter how hard you try to establish democracy in Russia, there is always the danger that you’ll end up with another version of Soviet rule.

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