THIS WEEK’S STORIES AND ISSUES: RUSSIA’S RESPONSE TO THE EXTRADITION OF MILOSEVIC; "PUTIN IS NO LONGER FEELING SELF-CONSCIOUS"; THE PEOPLE AND THE ELITE ARE VERY CLOSE

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If the media is to be believed, Russia is just about the only country in the world to respond with an outburst of indignation to Slobodan Milosevic’s extradition to face the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

As the “Kommersant” newspaper points out, in commentary from politicians and journalists the most frequent word has been “betrayal”. Even Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who always stresses that the handover of Milosevic is Yugoslavia’s internal affair, still noted that this action will not promote stability in Yugoslavia, and “plays into the hands of separatists in Kosovo and Montenegro”.

Of course, the Duma also had its say. At the insistence of Alexei Mitrofanov (LDPR faction) the deputies adopted an appeal to the Yugoslavian government to refrain from hasty decisions made “under strong pressure from without”.

The “Vremya Novostei” newspaper ran a detailed report on the international conference of donor nations, which resolved to grant Belgrade $1.25 billion to restore its economy. The extradition of Milosevic was the main – if not the only – condition for getting the money; actually, no one was bothering to conceal this. European Commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinen told “Vremya Novostei”: “The will of the Yugoslavian government to comply with international law on the prosecution of war criminals is part of the package of conditions set out by the international community.”

“Vremya Novostei” says Belgrade faced particularly great pressure from the United States, the nation which controlled the granting of the loan. The European conference participants admitted off the record that “without the United States there would be no money”: if a decision on Milosevic should be delayed, the Americans could block the participation of the World Bank, and “Europe can’t afford to rebuild Yugoslavia on its own”.

The absence of any attempt to camouflage the link between getting the loan and the former dictator’s fate drew a mixed response even from largely pro-Western Russians.

One of these was noted author Vladimir Voinovich, a long-time resident of Munich, who spent many years working with Radio Liberty. In his column in the “Izvestia” newspaper, Voinovich stated that the handover of Milosevic “may not be a crime, but is certainly an error – and, it would seem, a very dangerous error”.

This action, says Voinovich, expresses “not only a lack of confidence in Yugoslavia’s capacity to see that justice is done on its own territory, but an insult to the people of Yugoslavia”. Essentially, “those who say that Milosevic was sold for money are right”.

Voinovich recalls the recent public response to General Troshev’s proposal to set a bounty on the heads of Chechen separatist leaders (this has not yet been taken up, and “Arbi Barayev was killed for free”). The case of Milosevic “exemplifies the same idea in its worst form”: Yugoslavia, a sovereign state, “has faced pressure to hand over one of its criminals, and this humiliating condition has been accepted in a doubly humiliating form – for money”.

Voinovich goes on to say that the humiliation of an opponent, if he is too cruel and arrogant (like Hitler, for example) can sometimes serve as a useful historical lesson. However, “the Yugoslavians do not deserve such a lesson, and their response to it is still unknown”. (Voinovich notes that the union of Serbia and Montenegro is hanging by a thread, and the Milosevic scandal could be just the blade to cut this thread.)

At the same time, “Kommersant” reports that some Yugoslavian newspapers consider that Milosevic’s extradition to face the tribunal in The Hague could turn him into a martyr – especially since the constitution of Yugoslavia prohibits handing over citizens for trial in foreign courts.

On the contrary, some others say the former dictator’s fate now looks brighter: “the verdict of the international tribunal will be a good deal more lenient than the penalty he might expect to receive in his own country”.

Radio Liberty journalist Vitalii Portnikov, writing in the “Vedomosti” newspaper, highlights the words of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who said that President Kostunica was fully informed about the extradition of his predecessor, but considered it necessary to distance himself from this in order to save face. As Djindjic put it, Kostunica simply “doesn’t want to take in any information which is at odds with his world-view”.

Portnikov notes that such political blindness has been cultivated – and is still being cultivated – by many leaders in Moscow.

Mikhail Gorbachev just didn’t want to know about sappers in Tbilisi or tanks in Vilnius: “Happy man – he wouldn’t even have found out that he was no longer president if he hadn’t had to announce his resignation.”

Boris Yeltsin, in whose imagination “Russia already looked like an economically developed, democratic, wisely-governed state” the history of which couldn’t possibly include a war in Chechnya or tanks firing on the parliament building… “Happy man – he would have gone on forever thinking he could do no wrong, if he hadn’t had to make a fine speech announcing his resignation.”

By the time Yeltsin handed over power to Putin, the “denial disease”, to use Portnikov’s term, had a grip on virtually all of Russia’s political elite. This is evidenced by the response in Russia to the extradition of Milosevic: “Russia’s politicians and journalists desperately didn’t want to admit what was happening.” What’s more, they were misleading the Russian public with their assurances that the Serbs were united in opposition to their government’s actions.

“A nation which is the friend not of the peoples of other nations, but of the self-appointed leaders of those peoples, will never have any real allies,” Portnikov concludes. “And a state whose leaders continue to live in a world of their own cannot escape some painful encounters with reality.” The fate of Slobodan Milosevic bears witness to this.

“Nezavisimaya Gazeta” considers that of all comments by Russian politicians on the handover of Milosevic, “the most original attempt at interpreting events” was made by the speaker of the upper house. Yegor Stroev “simply extrapolated the Milosevic case to our own country”, as follows: the handover of Milosevic is “an attempt to create a precedent for Russia, and we should beware of this”. The presidential administration told “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” that “Russia’s second most senior state official” had not been referring to the possibility of extraditing Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, or Vladimir Putin, but to the danger of Yugoslavia falling apart; but “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” still considers the Federation Council speaker’s statement worthy of special attention. “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” notes that the Kremlin is very sensitive about the issue of a federation state disintegrating, even the example of Yugoslavia – and no small role is played here by Boris Berezovsky pedalling the topic of a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity. “What else can one say, when similar predictions are made by the nation’s top regional leader?”

However, Stroev’s lack of caution can be explained by the fact that he has no chance of remaining at the helm of the Federation Council after the forthcoming elections: “When a politician is about to lose his seat, diplomacy becomes pointless.”

In a major article for “Krasnaya Zvezda”, Vitalii Tretiakov, the former editor-in-chief of “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, also addresses the issue of threats to Russia’s territorial integrity.

Tretiakov considers that given the looming conflict between the Islamic world and “Euro-Atlantic civilization” as represented by Western nations, Russia is being relegated to the role of “a buffer zone between Europe and Asia”.

In this virtually inevitable conflict, it will be necessary for the participants to find a compromise; according to Tretiakov, this could be achieved by dividing Russia. As an example, Tretiakov cites the agreement between Western ideology and Communist ideology reached at the Yalta conference, “partly at the expense of the territory of other states”.

In our time there is once again a threat of the world being redivided, and without the participation of the weakened Russia; this time, Russia will share the fate of post-war Europe – “part of it will be taken by the West, and the other part by the Islamic world”.

Tretiakov thinks the danger of this happening is very real, at least if Russia remains weak.

What’s more, the major share of responsibility for Russia’s present condition belongs with the Russian elite.

Tretiakov notes that Russian history has seen many difficult times and drawn-out conflicts which have made it necessary for leading members of the elite to leave the country. However, “never before has it been possible for the elite as a whole to wash its hands of Russia and move abroad”. Democratic liberties, including the freedom to choose one’s place of residence, are now leading to substantial losses for Russia: “The elite is now thinking: So things haven’t worked out in Russia. So what? We have the brains, the energy, and the money – we can move to the West and live there. Who will stop us? That’s a good question: who?” Tretiakov considers that in the past, the elite was more closely tied to Russia: “The elite could not conceive of itself without living in this country and with these people, no matter how hard life might be.” (Although the elite didn’t care for the people at all: “Remember how the Russian people have always been cursed for being lazy, drinking too much, etc.”) Now individuals can solve the problems of Russia for themselves quite easily: “And this is possible not just for ten people – like in the 19th century, when some well-known figures also left Russia – but ten thousand, or a hundred thousand, and almost instantly.” That’s what they’re doing – according to Tretiakov, this only exacerbates Russia’s crisis.

In an article for “Trud”, leading political scientist Sergei Karaganov also presents some strong criticism of the Russian elite: in his view, it has completely discredited itself in recent years by “supporting bad reforms or not resisting them”. Moreover, the elite has sunk into “mass corruption”. These days, most of the elite “is not willing or able to do anything”.

In this regard, Karaganov has some sympathy for President Putin: “The president has essentially found himself standing alone among the bureaucrats – with the support of the people, but without active, effective support from the elite. But it’s virtually impossible to revive the nation without broad-based individual and civil initiative.”

Another problem is closely linked to this: “The people have grown tired of corruption, arbitrary actions, lack of social protection; they want a strong hand.” The regime cannot be unaware of this desire: “So right now we ought not to criticize the president for his policies aimed at strengthening the enforcement component of the state – he inherited a ruined system of state power, and he is working under completely monstrous conditions: the economic reforms have failed, the elite is demoralized, and a significant part of the public yearns for simple ‘strong hand’ solutions.”

Meanwhile, the passivity of the elite has led to its role being practically taken over by the bureaucracy. Karaganov thinks that although there are some among the bureaucrats who are “less demoralized, more energetic, and morally healthy”, this is still not enough: “In order to revive such a huge country, what we need is social consensus and unity among the elite. This cannot be achieved by command, from the top down.”

According to Karaganov, the main problem is that “no one wants to do anything. Not yet. Maybe some sort of new accord will start to take shape in society in a year or two, but by then we will be heading into the next presidential election, and we will once again find ourselves in that political maelstrom, and once again we will lose time.”

It should be said that analysts are starting to get seriously concerned about the political layout in the lead-up to the next presidential election. The “Rossiiskie Vesti” weekly says that a new political union may be formed in the near future, between “Russia’s two oligarchic titans” – Anatoly Chubais and Boris Berezovsky. The basis for this sensational alliance could be their shared dislike of Vladimir Putin.

According to “Rossiiskie Vesti”, Chubais had expected the new president “to nurture his own ambitions and strengthen political authority”, while Boris Berezovsky expected Putin to provide “the obvious kind of rewards for his assistance in the elections”. However, both of them were disappointed. What’s more, Putin launched his famous war on the oligarchs.

“Rossiiskie Vesti” considers that the theory of a Berezovsky-Chubais alliance deserves attention: “Berezovsky’s media outlets are already talking the language of opposition to the president.” Berezovsky, Russia’s chief intriguer, can be more effective if he uses “the energy of Chubais, his mastery of political techniques, and his exceptional skill at palace intrigues and behind-the-scenes battles”. “Rossiiskie Vesti” says the future companions “are already preparing to use the full power of their propaganda machine and the full force of manipulating public opinion in the next presidential election campaign”.

In order that the Kremlin might get a better sense of Berezovsky’s increasing activity, one of his newspapers, “Kommersant”, has published some rather confusing information about the recent sale of a stake in the Sibneft oil company. This is a 27% stake which was purchased by a group of Sibneft affiliates from the Runicom trading company for $541 million. “Kommersant” poses the leading question: who benefitted from this deal? Some analysts believe that the stake had belonged to Berezovsky: “By selling it, Berezovsky is pulling out of Sibneft completely, while the proceeds will go toward implementing his political projects – creating an opposition party, supporting the Civil Liberties Foundation and a range of media outlets.”

Other analysts say that the proceeds have been divided equally between Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich.

Then Berezovsky himself came forward to announce that he still owns half the shares in Sibneft, which have been handed over to the management of Roman Abramovich’s team. Moreover, Berezovsky stressed that the question of reducing his stake in the company hasn’t even been discussed.

However, the very next day “Kommersant” cited an Oil Information Agency report of a statement from Sibneft: Boris Berezovsky is not a Sibneft shareholder and plays no role in the distribution of the company’s financial resources.

According to “Kommersant”, these mutually exclusive statements may be due “either to a battle between shareholders for the revenues of Sibneft, or an attempt by Roman Abramovich to distance himself from Boris Berezovsky”. “Kommersant” notes that Governor Abramovich of the Chukotka autonomous district, who owns 62% of Sibneft, is considered to be one of the Kremlin’s most loyal oligarchs. “Somehow, the idea that his company is essentially financing Berezovsky’s creation of structures opposed to the Kremlin doesn’t fit in with loyalty.” “Kommersant” does not rule out that Abramovich’s team may have transferred the 27% stake from the accounts of Runicom to the accounts of other companies in order to demonstrate its “equidistance”. Neither is it ruled out that Berezovsky “hasn’t even lost unofficial control of the stake, while gaining the $541 million spent on this deal”. But none of the analysts are prepared to state anything with 100% certainty – as usual, when Berezovsky’s affairs are under discussion.

The government’s actions are also drawing some diverse assessments. “Putin is no longer feeling self-conscious as a politician, and is starting to show some individuality,” says the “Vek” weekly. “The period of ‘surveying the political landscape’ seems to be coming to an end, and the president is starting to steadily, albeit cautiously, follow a course of his own – though he still isn’t letting anyone in on the reasoning behind it.”

The Cabinet’s plan for housing and utilities reforms, and the pension reforms – these are moves which the government hasn’t been able to decide on for a long time. But now the hour has struck: as “Vek” puts it, the president, “who has never been overly concerned about his own reputation”, is now choosing to pursue unpopular measures, while taking care that “no critical mass of public disillusionment should form”.

“Vek” also sees new shades of significance in the president’s relations with the outside world: a week after the Ljubljana summit, where Putin and Bush demonstrated their mutual liking to the world, the Russian president announced that if the United States should withdraw from the ABM treaty, Russia would upgrade its Topol missiles.

What is this – “new Byzantine cunning” or “Putin’s new way of using excessive energy in calling on Russia’s main partner to enter into a responsible dialogue in order to avert another arms race?” “Vek” considers it’s the latter.

According to “Vek”, it is also important that “bursts of toughness” in the president’s actions are strictly measured: “He will not adopt a stand of general opposition to political realities, whether in Russia or abroad.”

“Vek” notes that unlike Yeltsin, Putin gives priority to domestic issues: “Although the myth of Putin as ‘the savior from the abyss’ is very conditional, it is not entirely meaningless, since it really is consistent with the president’s primary focus on sorting out Russia’s domestic affairs.”

“Obshchaya Gazeta” takes quite a different view of the government’s actions. In an article for “Obshchaya Gazeta”, Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinsky writes: “The attitude of politicians, those in power, to the Russian people is an area which has seen very little change, if any, over the past decade.”

Yavlinsky sees a particular danger in the fact that “the move to turn democracy aside” has recently been gaining “some credibility, if not justification” even with the pro-democratic part of the public. Part of society thinks everything that is happening is beneficial for Russia: “They see some sort of uniqueness, even mystery, in elements of authoritarianism.” Another part of society is not so optimistic, but considers that it’s probably impossible to change the situation, so all one can do is adapt to it.

Yavlinsky observes that among the latter group are many “quite non-communist” media outlets, which are earnestly analyzing the possibilities of life in a managed democracy.

The Yabloko leader is also sure that such reasoning is a “pseudo-intelligentsia attempt to justify the regime’s actions with the help of the myth about Russia being entirely unique, or a ‘third path’ – which may cost Russia a great deal to implement”. Yavlinsky thinks those who speak of a “retreat to the past” being possible these days are catastrophically mistaken. “While most of the criticism is being aimed at the Communists, a new right-wing nationalist force in politics is starting to form – which has much greater potential, and is much more dangerous, both in terms of having ‘fresh ideas’ and its contacts with the present regime.”

In an interview with “Komsomolskaya Pravda”, Yavlinsky says that the possibility of an abrupt swing to the right is a real threat for Russia: “It is the danger of recreating the story of Milosevic. He doomed his country by shifting far to the right, in the direction of militant nationalism.”

Yavlinsky thinks it’s inevitable that the split in society will widen still further – the split associated with the interests of the majority being ignored, the state rejecting more and more of its social welfare responsibilities (partly evidenced by the approved plan for reforming housing and utilities). It is already clear, says Yavlinsky, that “the asking price for freedom is that ownership of economically inefficient, non-transparent major assets should remain with the present owners, who gained them through the voucher program and debts”.

Meanwhile, in a country where the proportion of citizens who have adapted to market conditions is substantially lower than in the West, the concept of a “social state”, as supported by European liberals, is especially valuable. “Russian politicians today simply must realize that real political liberties cannot exist in a country where so many people are living below the poverty line, where small business and medium business are virtually absent, and the education system is deteriorating.”

Yavlinsky is addressing not only his perennial opponents in the Union of Right Forces, but the Russian elite as a whole.

Meanwhile, the “Izvestia” newspaper presents an article by Mikhail Gorshkov, head of the Russian Independent Institute of Social and Ethnic Issues. Gorshkov draws this disheartening conclusion from opinion poll results: Russia actually “doesn’t have any particular elite”. “Even with all its outward ostentation, the elite basically remains part of the masses.”

At any rate, research into the attitudes of respondents – groups of experts and ordinary citizens – to certain issues shows that similarities inevitably outweigh the differences.

Almost 34% of experts and 38% of ordinary citizens among the respondents said that the West’s attitude to Russia had improved since Vladimir Putin’s election as president.

When asked about recent political events, such as the Ljubljana summit, it should be noted that both groups of respondents gave a very similar assessment of the major issue discussed by Bush and Putin: missile defense. When asked if US missile defense plans pose a threat to Russia, 27.6% of experts said yes, and 21.1% of ordinary citizens. “Izvestia” notes that both groups see this issue as having both negative and positive aspects: “On the one hand, it is a real threat to Russia’s security; on the other, it is a stimulus for Russia to boost its military potential in response.”

There was even more consensus on some poll questions: almost half of respondents among both the experts and ordinary citizens are sure that “Russia ought to seek its own special path, a realistic alternative to the Western model of development”.

However, there are differences in assessments of Russia’s strategic capacities: half of the ordinary citizen respondents think Russia ought to aim for regaining its superpower status, or at least becoming one of the world’s top five developed nations.

The experts are more realistic: half of them think Russia is only capable of becoming one of the top ten or fifteen developed nations in the foreseeable future.

Mikhail Gorshkov says this prompts the conclusion that ordinary citizens are less informed than the experts, and are therefore more optimistic. However, it should be noted that the opinions of ordinary citizens and the elite on fundamental questions of world-view virtually coincide.

Thus, says Gorshkov, the popular notion that post-Soviet Russia has a special elite with opinions, values, and fundamental orientation very different from those of most Russian citizens can be considered a myth. That is, if we exclude “members of the clan of oligarchs” and maybe the most prominent Russian politicians. Gorshkov’s article is entitled: “The People and the ‘Party’ Are Almost One”.

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