General Prosecutor’s Office as the ultimate weapon: is Putin preparing for a new presidential election?

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Of late, the question on the lips of all analysts, state officials, political leaders, and ordinary citizens has been: “Who’s next?” The General Prosecutor’s Office – long dormant, like a volcano (not counting a few striking but not very effective actions) – has suddenly become very active indeed. The victims are well known: Railroads Minister Nikolai Aksenenko and Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu (as it turned out later he was absolutely innocent, but he still was taken to hospital); then Duma deputy Vladimir Golovlev, whom (according to the press) the Duma extradited to the investigation; and St. Petersburg deputy Governor Valery Malyshev who was dismissed and gave a written undertaking not to leave the place. Besides, there is still the strange story with the canceled dismissal of Gazprom head Alexei Miller.

Various periodicals continue this list; in particular, they mention Security Council Director Vladimir Rushailo; deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko; Natural resources Minister Vitaly Artyukhov; Media Minister Mikhail Lesin; head of the State Customs Committee Mikhail Vanin and even General Prosecutor Vladimir Ustinov.

The governmental Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper determined the latest events as “Autumn worsening of fight for the power”. According to the paper, the issue is that “certain circles have felt strengthening of the state power on themselves and are concerned about keeping their positions”. As well as about receiving new ones.

Otherwise, Rossiyskaya Gazeta writes, it is hard to explain why the information on Aksenenko’s case is offered for public discussion, although the case on violations in the Railroads Ministry is far from being closed. The paper stresses, “All this looks like an attempt to influence the opinion and conclusions of the investigation commission”.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta suggests that the criticism of the transportation minister and his “crazy” projects, like a bridge between Sakhalin and Japan as an “attempt to stop in the very beginning all rational and prospective ideas of state officials, which could later give large dividends to the country”. According to the paper, the matter with the State Customs Committee is absolutely similar: the latter controls powerful financial currents, and “certain representatives of the Russian oligarchy do not like this state of affairs”.

As for the story with the Emergencies Ministry, the paper calls it a “cover action”. Besides, “if Putin needed new ministers, both transportation and emergency, he would find them quickly and decisively, without extra agitation.”

Finally, Putin is the president, and he has all possibilities for personnel changes.

As the Novoye Vremya magazine states, the whole situation of late is completely to the taste of the Kremlin: it never changes no matter what the team and the circumstances are. “The matter is that from time to time it is necessary to throw someone down. It is very good for the Kremlin’s labor discipline and pumping up the czar’s popularity rating.”

Now, the magazine forecasts, it should be expected that Akslenenko’s place will be taken by a “person with characteristic features of the epoch: a former KGB officer, born in St. Petersburg, Putin’s long acquaintance.”

Meanwhile, according to Novoye Vremya, it will be very hard to find a replacement for the transportation minister, who is generally believed to be a very good expert in his area. “The examples of Gryzlov and Miller prove that personal faithfulness and loyalty are not always correlated with professional skills.” The magazine states ironically that there is a danger that Aksenenko will be replaced by a person who “dealt with railroads in his childhood for the last time.” Novoye Vremya notes that it is hardly likely is the purpose of the “Kremlin pragmatists”.

Editor-in-chief of the Slovo weekly Viktor Linnik writes wrote that with the beginning of new “personnel purges” some people, first of all the victims themselves started speaking about “resuming of 1937”. “What else can they do? Over the past decade the favorite entertainment of all political and criminal swindlers, as well as their ideological servants, has been hanging out a political terror scarecrow.”

Nonetheless, further on the author does not believe there are no proofs for this theory. Viktor Linnik reminds that while being Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov promised to start fighting corruption and to free 200,000 places in Russian prisons for new prisoners. “This incautious remark cost him his political career.”

The present authorities have approached the corruption for a very long time and very cautiously: decisive actions demanded political will. Finally, the president showed his will and his team dared to start “the tremendous machine of prosecutor’s investigations, and they did it very timely.” As Slovo’s editor writes, “The West and its usually loud about Russia media is currently up to the eyes in the Afghan issues, and they have no time to pay attention to the Russian interior problems.” Besides, the emphasized loyalty of Moscow concerning the US anti-terrorist operation “makes it much more difficult for the West to interpret the events from the traditional anti-Russian standpoints.”

From the viewpoint of the left wing the first and foremost most obvious consequence of the General Prosecutor’s Office actions is “the inevitable delight of the Russian people”.

The Russians, Viktor Lennik writes, yearn about fairness so much that they hardly believe in it at all. That is why the “first steps” in fighting against corruption have caused their sincere enthusiasm. No matter that the fight is directed against second-rate officials, and the “majority of the swindlers fell absolutely comfortable”, even a hint at anti-corruption activities allows the president who dared to make it to receive additional political scores.

“On the threshold of the next presidential election the durability stock is never excessive, even if the presidential popularity rating is stable and high,” stresses Linnik.

The topic of the next presidential elections is ever more bright in another much more radical publication of the left, the notorious Zavtra newspaper.

According to the paper, the main weak point of the incumbent president is an absence of united and professional team of his own. There are two “opposite political vectors in Putin’s team”, one of them is Yeltsin’s liberal and old Kremlin’s; another one is “administrative, security, and state-oriented”. Putin has failed to fuse them. Moreover, with the course of time representatives of these two teams “even personally more and more distance from one another, preventing Putin from working out a course of his own, which would be more adequate in the present situation.”

The president brought into power – and to senior posts – many representatives of the security services, “who have no substantial administrative and political background or experience, but have great ambitions and self-confidence”. At the same time, the reform of the political system and properties redistribution the presidential team started in the country, caused a “serious resistance from influential political elites”.

According to Zavtra, as a result Putin found himself in a rather unstable and complicated situation. That is why “it will not be accidental if the president tries to form a ‘third team’ of his own in this situation; or if he does not succeed in doing this, he could call an early presidential election at a time that suits him.”

As the Vek weekly states in the latest issue, “The Kremlin has got a chance to put the tycoons in their place.”

Vek connects the fact that the president’s actions are deviating from the “the previously-known, well-structured scenarios expected by various bureaucratic, financial, and political groups” to the new geopolitical situation.

According to the weekly, since September 11 “a certain synchronicity has arisen in the actions of the West and Moscow” – and some US analysts have assumed that Putin is acting in accordance with an agreement with President George Bush, “who has finally decided to place his bets on Putin in the Russian card game”. In saying this, Vek cites the Washington Post, which has reported that the White House “has decided to concede its former trump card in Russia to Putin: certain oligarchs who have close links with the West and have therefore remained politically powerful in Russia.”

This is the real reason behind the president’s decisiveness, and, as a consequence, of the intensive work by the General Prosecutor’s Office, which is taking action based on the results of the work of the Auditing Commission. Vek emphasizes that “the Putin-Stepashin tandem is starting to show results”.

In his interview with Gazeta, Sergei Stepashin, chairman of the Auditing Commission, has flatly denied any assumptions that collection of compromising materials was a political order from above. According to Stepashin, the reports about abuse of office, in the Railroads Ministry for example, were received four months ago: “Taking legal action is the concern of the General Prosecutor’s Office.”

At the same time, Stepashin admitted that the Auditing Commission worked with the president “very extensively”, and that a number of audits “at Rosoboroneksport, the Emergencies Ministry and other agencies” were initiated at Putin’s personal request.

Valery Yakov, a columnist at Novye Izvestia, describes all these events as “non-targeted use of the General Prosecutor’s Office.”

According to Yakov, even the most naive Russian citizen understands perfectly well that the “current prosecutor general would never take any step without the Kremlin’s permission, and would never permit an information leak to the media without it being sanctioned by the Kremlin’s propaganda department”; not to mention the fact that it’s people who are no longer in favor with Putin’s team who are being targetted by the audits. “By using the General Prosecutor’s Office the Kremlin has been ousting from Putin’s inner circle those politicians who are not part of the St. Petersburg team or the KGB or financial-oligarchic structures,” says the Novye Izvestia columnist. Thus, the general prosecutor is being used as a “bouncer”. It’s a paltry role, but “Ustinov doesn’t have much choice, if he wants to retain his position within this group of actors”.

However, the group is mainly preoccupied, as Yakov says, “with the constant battle for access to the president’s ear”.

Relations between the organized political groupings which make up Putin’s team are structured “according to the laws of the hen-house: you are higher if you can mess on the head of the one beneath you.” So the St. Petersburg team tries to mess on the Alpha group, while the Alpha group wants to do the same to former members of the Yeltsin clique. The KGB team has been trying to mess on all of them. “While our equidistant guarantor, wearing white with a halo around his head, towers aloofly above them all.”

According to Yakov, this very image of a “taciturn leader, who does not deign to participate in the daily routines” has recently become the main achievement of the Kremlin-based political consultants.

The role of an apathetic observer, a passive participant in various PR maneuvers, has been imposed on the master of the Kremlin. “Indeed, it isn’t clear who is the master in the house – whether it’s Putin, whom we see as a creation of image-makers, or the image-makers who depict Putin for us.”

Analyzing the story of Vladimir Golovlev, whom the Duma deprived of parliamentary immunity “for affairs connected with the check privatization, which have receded into the past long ago,” the Vedomosti newspaper poses a question: if everything has been clear to the General Prosecutor’s Office from the very beginning, why it has procrastinated for so long? Indeed, Golovlev, who has now been charged over events that took place when he headed a local committee for state property, did not manage to make it to Moscow during that time; but found refuge in the shadow of parliamentary immunity. One would necessarily pay attention to Golovlev’s fervent assurances that he is being persecuted on political grounds – for the purpose of building a party oppositional to the president, jointly with Boris Berezovsky. Apparently, the General Prosecutor’s Office “actually has invisible links to Berezovsky”, as is ironically stated by Vedomosti. It’s no coincidence that the Aeroflot case has been repeatedly revived in response to any upsurges in the fugitive oligarch’s political activities; Berezovsky’s associates are persecuted and new attempts are made to bankrupt the TV-6 network, owned by Berezovsky.

Nonetheless, Vedomosti refuses to believe that “a party with the face of Golovlev and Berezovsky” is capable of affecting Putin’s popularity rating. According to the newspaper, “it seems that the general prosecutor himself is engaged in an intricate struggle for survival,” and the criminal proceedings against Aksenenko, the search for compromising materials in the Railroads Ministry and many other initiatives are connected with Ustinov’s concern for his own fate. “If it is impossible to reveal the names of people who ordered the murders of Kholodov and Listiev, why not take up reports from aboard the Kursk submarine? This has little to do with the general prosecutor’s career, but if a career requires artificial resuscitation…” Golovlev’s case might well have been initiated by the General Prosecutor’s Office just for company.

Kontinent weekly tries to clear up the reasons why the investigation the General Prosecutor’s Office initiated at the Railroads Ministry was made public on the very same day that Unity, Fatherland and All Russia held a unification congress.

According to Kontinent, this might be the work of Shoigu’s rivals within Unity, who have repeatedly tried to oust him as party leader. Or maybe the railroads minister is facing intrigues of opponents from the parties which are merging. Perhaps the breaking scandal is just “a squabble between Shoigu and Gryzlov for control over such a profitable agency as the State Fire Protection Service. It is hard to establish the truth here – moreover, there are many similar events in other departments.

Kontinent cites online media reports of a conflict between “two old friends” – Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and President Putin. Apparenly, “the minister protested against Putin’s initiative to shut down Russia’s last strategic bases abroad, at Lourdes in Cuba and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam”. In response “he was reprimanded for slow progress on military reforms.”

The same kind of ominous rumors also circulate about other security ministries; for instance, it has been recently rumored that Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov has already “packed his bags.”

It is worth noting, as reported by Kontinent, that information of this kind vanishes as suddenly as it appears – without refutations, but also without consequences. According to the weekly, this is a true sign that “the security ministries themselves are leaking the information to the media.” Furthermore, notes Kontinent, when he launched the war on terrorism, President Bush (“our friend nowadays”) explicitly said that elaborate false information would be constantly and deliberately sent out into the media during the war. Since the Kremlin under Putin is Bush’s loyal ally in the war, this is also possible in Russia.

According to Vek weekly, a clear link has become apparent over the past few weeks between political events abroad and domestic politics in Russia. Some think this proves Russia’s sincere desire to integrate itself into the Western world; while for others it serves as new evidence that Russia isn’t self-sufficient, still dependent on others.

According to Vek, having joined the anti-Taliban coalition, Russia has quickly found itself “on the verge of becoming a nation at war”. Supplying the Northern Alliance with weapons, and hence with the required instructors and consultants, is only the first step on this dangerous path. Will the Kremlin succeed in refraining from sending a “limited contingent” of Russian troops into Afghanistan? Above all, any war, even a localized war, demands unity among the elite; otherwise the war is lost before it begins.

Moreover, “money is the lifeblood of war”. Given the instability of the Russian economy, which is also burdened with a huge foreign debt, it is clear why the authorities are now concerned with securing sufficient funding. According to Vek, there are two ways of achieving this. The first is to take control over the most important monopolies (which has already been done, in part); while the second option involves “suggesting to former oligarchs that they ought to show some patriotism and share some of their profits with the Kremlin” – especially since the murky origins of all the big fortunes in contemporary Russia provide an opportunity for such hints to be successful.

At the same time, warns Vek, there are no grounds to expect that such actions will be painless and unnoticeable. However, the discontent and unrest they are eliciting are still mostly hidden: “Only the leftist parties have displayed open opposition to the president and his policies.” But any time now, the opposition might be joined by those whose financial interests have been affected – “and these people are more determined and dangerous than the Communists”.

On the other hand, “the pretext of the nation being on a pre-war footing does open up some non-trivial opportunities for dealing with mounting opposition from the elite.” Is this very far from the 1937 scenario?

However, some Russian publications sincerely consider that the worst might happen if the president turns out to be insufficiently consistent in pursuing the objectives he has set for himself.

Leading journalist Olga Romanova recollects in Vedomosti the old story about a broom which is broken up twig by twig: “It is frightening to imagine what might happen in Russia if the broom is transformed into a Soviet-era shovel, striking out with all possible force.”

Meanwhile, there is every sign of such a transformation taking place, in Romanova’s opinion. Presidential envoys have never gained real authority. Governors frankly show “their disregard of our achievements.” President Mikhail Nikolaev of Yakutia has decided to ignore the federal government’s opinion entirely (the federal government made it clear that Nikolaev should not run for a third term in office). This is just one, regional, aspect of the situation in Russian domestic politics.

To all appearances, according to Romanova, soon “we will go through another crisis point in our still-strange history”. If so, two options are possible: “either Putin makes it decisively clear that he is in control of the situation, or he will become another Gorbachev.” What would Russia be like in the event of the latter outcome?

Kontinent also cites the president’s popularity rating figures from the latest polls. The figures come from two sources. According to polls by the Public Opinion Foundation, Putin is in a better position than ever before: if the presidential election was held this Sunday, 51% of respondents would vote for Putin. Taking into account the typical voter turnout, that would mean he’d get almost 75% of the vote.

Citing certain secret polls, the Federal Agency for Governmental Communications and Information reported a sudden collapse of the president’s popularity rating: down to 45%. According to FAGCI, the previous figure was 65%.

Knowing both, one can choose a figure to one’s own liking and try to draw up one’s own political forecast in accordance with it – as well as answering that vital question: Who’s next?

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