POLITICS IN JULY: A PREMONITION OF AUTUMN STORMS

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In the heat of July, the press has suddenly started talking of autumn storms.

The demonstrations outside Parliament by opponents of the new Labor Code, growing into mass unrest, have given “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” occasion to declare: “The Communists are preparing for an autumn revolution.” The Communists, never known for being particularly inventive, have already come up with a new slogan: “Putin’s gang should be put on trial!” As they say, we’ve heard this before somewhere.

According to “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, which has been looking closely at the actions and plans of the Communists of late, the Communists have reached the conclusion that Putin’s policies “have a whiff of another Gaidar revolution about them”. There are seven revolutionary “theses”: the Land Code, the Labor Code, the housing and utilities reforms, education reforms, pension reforms, court reforms, and reforms to the natural monopolies. The implementation of each of these provides the left with extensive opportunities to win new supporters. Incidentally, opinion polls show that the Communist Party is already more popular than the pro-government Unity party.

Given the present composition of the Duma, there is no doubt that the government’s revolutionary plans will go ahead: despite opposition from the left, all the Cabinet’s bills are being passed in record time. It’s clear to everyone that resisting this by parliamentary methods is futile. Therefore, as “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” notes, “the Communists have only one option for remaining a significant oppositional force and not being politically marginalized: to start a row”. Preferably a public row, and not just “fighting in the streets”, but “a nationwide row, along with disbandment of the Duma and fresh parliamentary elections”.

It’s worth noting that such actions don’t come cheap; they require a fairly substantial source of funding. “It would seem that the Communist Party has already found one,” concludes “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” meaningfully.

The “Versiya” weekly has no doubt about who has the greatest stake in seeing that there are disturbances this autumn. The article entitled “Berezovsky’s Plan” tells how the former oligarch intends to fight the regime which rejected him.

Putin’s major asset is his sky-high popularity rating. However, there is also a danger hidden here: as “Versiya” explains, “70% popularity is a wonderful indicator for elections, but the danger of a wave of public anger is very great”. The overly-high level of trust in the regime is based on expectations which are too great, and in this situation any misstep or error by the regime could play a fatal role. “This autumn, Berezovsky intends to shake the people’s trust,” claims “Versiya”. A number of issues could be used for this purpose: rising prices, power cuts, the regime’s inability to cope with the increasing frequency of man-made disasters, a government crisis, continuing dismissals in the military and police force. In this new stage of the battle, Berezovsky is not relying on conflicts within the elite or political power ploys; he is preparing to arouse “the embittered, exhausted, disillusioned people” against Putin.

In other words, this autumn we can expect an act of provocation against the regime, in the form of a popular uprising. “Versiya” says Putin has a tendency to fall for provocations, judging by impressions from the Ljubljana summit, where President Bush sang Putin’s praises and led Putin “to make dramatic statements and get caught up in an arms race which is beyond Russia’s means”.

The most dangerous scenario would be if the regime attempts to quell possible disturbances through the use of force: “This would really be a civil war, in which Putin would rely on the loyalty of newly-appointed generals and ministers, while Berezovsky would rely on the hostility of embittered old functionaries and the force of popular rebellion”.

Having painted this disheartening picture, “Versiya’s” chief editor Rustan Arifdzhanov concludes: “I don’t know who will win, but I know Russia will be the loser.” Therefore, says Arifdzhanov, this autumn a choce will be required – as in the presidential elections of 1996 – maybe not the best choice for the nation, but the only possible choice. It won’t even look like “Putin or Berezovsky”; it will be “Putin or war”. According to Arifdzhanov, the issue may no longer be limited to quarrels within the political elite; it could be a matter of saving the nation.

Meanwhile, the writer Vasilii Aksenov has expressed quite a different opinion about Berezovsky in a recent interview with the “Vremya MN” newspaper. In Aksenov’s view, public opinion in Russia is unfair to Berezovsky: “He is a great Russian patriot.” This makes him very different from all those who have “raked in the money” in “Russia’s sudden gold rush and total lawlessness”, and are now simply enjoying life. But Berezovsky, deep down, “only wants… to part with all his money”. According to Aksenov, Berezovsky has “a Byronic urge for self-expression”: “He aims to play a role in the nation’s spiritual and cultural development, including its political development.” Aksenov attributes all of Berezovsky’s many political ventures to these somewhat irrational motives.

Like many other papers, the “Vek” weekly has taken note of the unusual increase in the political activity of the Communists this summer; “Vek” is sure that the Communists are thereby showing the regime that they are prepared not only for decisive action, but also for potential parliamentary elections.

During Putin’s time in power, says “Vek”, the Communists have noticeably evolved: “The Communist Party was mostly statist in the Yeltsin era, but now it has become a socially-oriented force.” These changes can be easily explained by the nature of Putin’s power, based on patriotic principles which were previously the monopoly of the left, as well as the liberal course of the current reforms.

What’s more, “Vek” says that a relative increase in social tension this autumn is being predicted by all opposition forces in Russia, irrespective of their political orientation – from Boris Berezovsky to Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinsky. Still, “Vek” considers that the Communists have a better chance than any other opponents of the regime – given their traditional solidarity and party discipline, and also because they have a developed regional branch network and smoothly-functioning infrastructure.

However, it’s not quite as simple as that. “Vek” has no doubt that the Communists are harboring much more elaborate plans than a straightforward protest against radical reforms. Putin, who has never been “a committed anti-communist” like Yeltsin, still hasn’t irretrievably lost his credibility among the left. “The Communists aren’t fighting against Putin, but for him – that is, they’re fighting for the opportunity to influence the choice of a strategic course of development for the nation, a choice which they believe has yet to be finalized.”

It’s true, says “Vek”, that as yet it can’t be said that the president has completely linked himself politically to the liberal wing of the Cabinet and is prepared to support that group unconditionally. On the contrary, it has been suggested that Putin, while giving the liberals the opportunity to carry out reforms, does not rule out the possibility of switching to a different economic model.

“Kommersant-Vlast” magazine says the president has developed a “three-Cabinet strategy” for his first term in office. This is precisely why he is in no hurry to reshuffle Kasianov’s Cabinet, which has apparently been acknowledged as essentially unreformable: “either it should have been dismissed long since, or it will have to be left as it is until it’s possible to form a fundamentally new Cabinet.”

One theory has it that Putin plans to dismiss the present Cabinet in spring 2002. At the end of 2001 Kasianov’s Cabinet will have to pass next year’s budget, and then “answer to Russian citizens for the usual hardships of autumn and winter”. Thus, the second Cabinet – which “Kommersant-Vlast” says will be made up of radical liberal economists – will have a chance to start off with a clean slate. This second Cabinet might be headed by Alexander Voloshin and Andrei Illarionov: “the masterful head of the presidential administration will become prime minister, while the current presidential economic adviser will take the long-vacant niche held by Chubais when Chernomyrdin was prime minister, i.e. the driving force behind all the revolutionary changes.”

According to “Kommersant-Vlast”, the lead-up to the presidential election of 2004 will see a third Cabinet: “a centrist, peace-making Cabinet, which would replace the radicals”. A likely prime minister for this “Cabinet of the day after tomorrow” is said to be Sergei Stepashin, presently head of the Auditing Commission.

But “Kommersant-Vlast” says all these plans might be called off if a crisis should arise – such as an economic collapse. In that case, of course, a new Cabinet would have to be formed immediately; and subsequently the options would be limited: “either Putin decides to push through some emergency radical reforms, or he maintains a planned state economy by force”. The more romantically-inclined in the Cabinet even see a possibility of a hybrid version: “liberal reforms imposed by force”.

In any case, notes “Kommersant-Vlast”, having the Duma’s support now enables the president “to resolve all kinds of political problems which only recently had seemed to defy solution”.

Meanwhile, according to “Obshchaya Gazeta”, summer in Moscow has brought renewed rumors about the possibility of the Duma being disbanded this autumn: “And, as we know from recent history, the August vacation period tends to end with a few autumn surprises.”

To all appearances, if early parliamentary elections are held, the Kremlin wants to strengthen its position substantially in the next parliament. However, “Obshchaya Gazeta” warns that these expectations may not be borne out.

Vladimir Putin was elected on a wave of public antipathy for Yeltsin’s team. In this situation, the new president had to create new mechanism of exercising power, bypassing the existing ones, a kind of “enforcer” system. Analysts warn that such a strategy could lead to the nation’s control levers slipping out of reach entirely. The elites – primarily the regional elites – which have been excluded from the decision-making process in government are capable of “accumulating a vast reservoir of protest”, which is especially dangerous if a crisis develops – for example, a crisis connected with forcible implementation of “unpopular and painful” liberal reforms.

“Obshchaya Gazeta” considers that there is every sign of “the dissolution of the centrist consensus formed a year ago”. According to opinion polls, 53% of voters don’t trust any political parties at all, including the centrist parties. It’s the political center which the presidential administration ought to worry about. Centrist voters aren’t as clear in their preferences as supporters of the left and the right. Unity, created as a party to clearly oppose the existing elite and appeal to the middle-class protest vote, especially in the regions, has now (judging by the faction’s voting record in the Duma) become an ultra-liberal political entity. Unity is like a commando team for the presidential administration, automatically implementing decisions handed down “from above”. Obviously, this doesn’t exactly boost voter confidence.

On the other hand, it probably isn’t possible to create a new political party to support the president: this idea is supported by 25% of poll respondents and opposed by 42%. Analysts believe that most voters think of Putin as being “a leader who is above parties”, so using support for the president as a resource for further party-building is unlikely to work. Analysts also mention the existence of “large, essentially vacant electoral niches” which could result in some new political formations coming into being, capable of gathering substantial support. “What’s more, not all of them will be moderate and part of the system.”

Thus, concludes “Obshchaya Gazeta”, attempts by the “pro-government party” to increase control over the Duma could lead to “a defeat for the idea of forming a stable political center”. What’s more, they could open the way “for the development of trends in Russian politics which are not part of the system, and not contollable”.

Curiously enough, Alexei Kara-Murza – an ideologue of the Union of Right Forces (URF), and author of the party’s main policy papers – thinks that President Putin is no more than “purely a function of the political layout”. If the URF can’t manage to become a truly strong party, the head of state will come under the influence of the left: “That is the logic of political power.”

The Communists have 50 million voters, while the URF couldn’t even rally behind a single candidate at the last presidential election; “this is the source of the president’s often-apparent lean to the left”. However, Kara-Murza notes that ideas and people from the right are still being used in economic policy.

The “Stringer” newspaper (said to be controlled by “the Korzhakov group”) says the URF’s candidate for the presidential race in 2004 has already been identified: Anatoly Chubais, presently head of Russian Joint Energy Systems (RJES).

According to “Stringer”, Chubais has already discussed his presidential ambitions in detail with US Vice President Dick Cheney during a visit to Seattle. Presumably, Chubais will take on the role of Putin’s main political ally in the lead-up to the 2003-04 campaign, then position himself as an independent political figure for the campaign itself. The choice of Boris Nemtsov as URF leader – despite all Nemtsov’s ambitions – is just a cover for these plans: “Nemtsov is a temporary figure, and politically harmless.” Chubais will take over the URF leadership before the elections; for the sake of this, he is apparenly even prepared to quit RJES.

According to “Stringer”, Chubais is counting on an inevitable decline in Putin’s popularity by 2004, against the backdrop of a crisis in electricity, transport, housing and utilities. However, even if the RJES boss fails to win the election, his 10-12% voter support would automatically make him one of Russia’s most influential politicians.

What’s more, says “Stringer”, Chubais isn’t the only one who is already preparing for the election of 2004. An “assault” on the president has been launched by “the generals’ group” within the Defense Ministry, a ministry which is constantly being reformed by the Kremlin. Their candidate is “the hero general of Chechnya”, now governor of the Ulianovsk region: Vladimir Shamanov.

Putin came to power on a wave of anti-Chechen fervor. Those behind Shamanov think Putin can only be defeated “on his own territory – Russia’s national revival”. “Stringer” claims that provincial Russians are already seeing General Shamanov as “a national-patriotic leader who’s tougher than Putin”.

In consequence, the Kremlin faces the task of “taking urgent measures to halt growing voter support for Shamanov”. This is the real reason behind the notorious criminal case against Colonel Budanov, one of Shamanov’s favorites: “This case was planned as a public whipping for the generals.” However, the court proceedings have dragged on for too long, changing from a specific criminal case to the “case of the army as liberator” and a headache for the Kremlin, which is now seeking a way of ending it “on the quiet”. Not to mention the fact that Shamanov’s well-publicized trip to attend the trial looked like a well-planned PR move.

Actually, “Stringer” considers that Shamanov is quite capable of becoming a presidential challenger by the 2004 election. Of course, the military can’t really manage such a “delicate political game” on its own. “But if the oligarchs (beaten down, but still with some political resources) get behind Shamanov, the game could work.” So here’s another scenario in which the “beaten-down” oligarchs could be useful.

“Apparently, the Kremlin isn’t too confident about a positive outcome for Mr. Putin in the next presidential election,” says “Kompaniya” magazine.

An indirect indication of such uncertainty is the president’s decision to postpone the national census from October 2002 to January 2003. Alexander Voloshin, head of the presidential administration, had this to say: “A successful census in October 2002 may not be possible. The census could overlap with the Duma election campaign.”

Parliamentary elections are actually scheduled for late 2003. Thus, the census could only “overlap” with the campaign if the Duma is disbanded ahead of schedule – apparently, in summer 2002. “Kompaniya” asked an anonymous “source in the presidential administration” for comments: “There is a lot of uncertainty at present about the president’s real level of popularity and the mood of the masses in general. Who the hell knows who might win the presidential election? But one way of getting a good prediction is to hold Duma elections a year in advance. Then it will become clear who needs to be bought and who needs to be won over.” What’s more, specialists say that the census results – which ought to be available within six months after the census – “provide very strong material for campaigning”.

So the next elections – parliamentary and presidential – are gradually becoming a running topic of discussion for political analysts and the media.

At the same time, it turns out that there is one person in Russia who knows how all the unnecessary complications, simmering passions, and huge costs associated with elections can be avoided. Everyone knows him well: Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Zhirinovsky is the only well-known politician who confidently proposes abolishing presidential elections entirely. As he says in an interview with the “Rossiya” newspaper: “It’s hard for citizens to make the right political decision when they’re under great pressure from all the propaganda, bribery, scare-mongering, and fraud associated with elections.”

In Zhirinovsky’s view, a constitutional monarchy would be much more suitable for Russia. The head of state would be known as the “Supreme Ruler of Russia”, or “Tsar”. His successor would not be a member of his family (as in a traditional monarchy, which certain people have already proposed), but someone he designates from among Russia’s prominent political figures – for example, the prime minister or chief justice of the Supreme Court, etc.

It must be said that Zhirinovsky’s ideas aren’t as utopian as they seem at first glance. There is the occasional glimpse of something familiar in his plans: “All political parties and organizations would be abolished, all elections cancelled, and bodies such as the Duma and regional legislatures would be abolished. All federal laws would be issued by the head of state, and all regional laws by regional leaders.”

As usual, it’s hard to say whether Zhirinovsky’s statements represent an attempt by the Kremlin to test public opinion, another round of self-promotion by Zhirinovsky, or the painstaking deductions of a true expert on Russian mores: “Parties, parliaments, elections – all this is inappropriate for Russia, and that’s why we’re in this mess today.” Western democracy doesn’t suit Russia, he says: “Russia must choose that which corresponds with its spirit, its history, and – of course – its requirements.”

And what if Russia does make such a choice? Would there still be a place in Russia for mostly harmless oracles like Mr. Zhirinovsky?

P.S. “Political Forecasts” is taking a summer break. Our next issue will come out on August 7. See you then!

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