PUTIN’S CHOICE: A DRIVE TO THE WEST, AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF RUSSIA’S NOSTALGIC DRIFT INTO THE SOVIET PAST

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When President Putin was asked about whether the Russian elite and the general public supported Russia’s “pro-Western choice”, he answered as follows: “What the Russian government is doing today is dictated not only by the political philosophy of the Russian leadership. Russia’s current actions are dictated by its domestic circumstances and by the mood of the public.” (Quote from interview transcript in the “Kommersant” newspaper.)

The question was asked by an American journalist at a news conference in Moscow on November 10, part of the lead-up to the presidential summit. Putin stated that most Russian citizens wish to live in a country where “democratic institutions function effectively”. Moreover, he said most Russian citizens perceive Russia as “a natural component of contemporary civilization”; not only at the level of relations between states, but at the individual level as well. “The overwhelming majority of Russia’s citizens wish to live in a free-market society… They wish to have access to all the advantages of a normal modern democratic society,” the president emphasized.

Then the journalist who had asked the initial question (“Kommersant” didn’t name the journalists individually, only saying they were “chief correspondents from the Moscow offices of leading US media outlets”) explained that there is talk in media circles of some dissatisfaction with Putin’s policies, not only among the public in Russia, but even within Putin’s own administration.

As the American journalist put it, it is said that Putin “is continuing along the same path which Gorbachev started to travel in the Soviet era, followed by Boris Yeltsin – who moved toward the United States, but received very little in exchange.”

“Kommersant-Vlast” magazine elaborated on this topic, saying it would be superficial to assume that America and Russia have been drawn closer together by Osama bin Laden. In fact, the terrorists only created an opportunity for drawing closer, which Russia wasn’t slow to take up, with its customary flair. Not only was Putin the first world leader to telephone George W. Bush on September 11, but he also immediately declared that Russia was prepared to take part in the anti-terrorist coalition being assembled in Washington. Then he made another effective move – converting the “mouldy old military assets of the former USSR” (the bases at Lourdes and Cam Ranh Bay) into a new “credit of confidence”.

And yet, says “Kommersant-Vlast”, Putin – despite the unprecedented leap in his approval rating in the West – “might fall into the old trap which caught his predecessors Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who ran toward the West with open arms, but received much less in return than they expected”. “Kommersant-Vlast” uses the term “Gorbachev-Yeltsin syndrome”, also mentioned in a “Newsweek” article which noted that “the position of the West’s favorite actually brings little except pain”.

Besides, according to Professor Peter Rutland from the Russian Studies Center at Harvard University, the present “optimism of the Russians” is based on an incorrect understanding of the nature of the anti-terrorist coalition. Rutland stressed that the US needs only a temporary tactical alliance. Naturally, the concessions to the members of the alliance are “strictly measured”; moreover, the US may make such concessions only in order to resolve some specific problem. While the Russian “self-sacrificing enthusiasm” and the readiness to make more and more sacrifices on the altar of the new friendship may in fact turn to be absolutely futile.

At the same time, Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and the main favorite of the western public called 1991-2001 a “lost decade” in his articles published in the “Novaya Gazeta” paper.

According to Gorbachev, “the celebration of the communism death have been on for too long, and as a result the country has lost sight of the complexity of the world, its issues, and contradictions…. The necessity to build a new more fair world order has been forgotten”. On September 11 the world was abruptly brought round and the “reality occurred to be a nightmare”. Mikhail Gorbachev believes that that day was “a payment for the lost time in a sense”.

According to Gorbachev the fight against terrorism cannot be brought down to military activities only, “The longer the war is the more hard it will be to maintain the unity of the ‘big coalition’.” Besides, the escalation of the conflict is likely to create a threat of involving country with nuclear potential into the conflict, for instance Pakistan.

That is why the former USSR president calls to “urgently get concerned about the situation in the world and to look at it soberly, plus to put on the agenda the question of ruling the planet and creation of adequate super-national institutions as well as reforming of the existing ones.”

Mikhail Gorbachev is greatly convinced in his geopolitical recommendations, still the passage on the “lost decade” and on the selfishness of the West that made use of the disappearance of the “Soviet threat” was the most impressive.

“Vremya MN” observer Leonid Radzikhovsky writes, “Putin is currently abruptly changing the Russian foreign politics. Unlike Gorbachev he is not waving flags saying ‘The new course’ but quickly and in silence, military-like is moving to the west.” Moreover, according to Radzikhovsky, Putin has much more chances than Yeltsin and Gorbachev. “First, Russia is overall a western country at present, although without western ‘political correctness marasmus’.” Besides, according to the “Vremya MN” observer, the West at present is interested in strong Russia as in a “gendarme for Asia”, since for the first time the West felt weak facing the Islamic world. The new pro-western politics is “the real independent Putin’s politics”, stresses Radzikhovsky. That is why it is absolutely clear that the “president is looking for proper people for HIS politics”. This is the explanation of the sudden autumn intensification of the State Audit Commission – General prosecutor’s Office tandem. From the standpoint of Leonid Radzikhovsky, the old Yeltsin’s elite was in fact against real integration into the western economy. Radzikhovsky stresses, “Patriotism – or protectionism – is the best shelter for a thief. It was vitally important for these people to remain monopolists during distribution and swallowing the Soviet economy.” Moreover, at present the situation has hardly changed, “There is still something to share in Russia, and in fact the Russian political-economic elite is absolutely unwilling to have a serious inflow of real foreign investments and competitors.” According to Radzikhovsky, this is one of real reasons for aversion for Putin’s new policy.

That is why the president is looking for “his” people. However, the way this is being done produce a very bad impression.

As is know any Russian czar who wanted to introduce some changes had to fight with his subordinates, and the czar won only in case he had someone to lean on. As the “Vremya MN” observer concludes, “So far it is unclear who Putin plans to lean on.”

Experts and analysts are still discussing the question of political support for Putin’s reforms and their social basis.

Famous politician and Duma deputy Vladimir Lysenko thoroughly analyzes the whole Russian political spectrum. According to him, at present the most serious changes take place in the center, where a new party of power has formed. At the same time, according to prior experience all “parties of power” need presidential support to remain influential by the next parliamentary elections. However, the president is in no rush to tie himself with obligations to the Unity and the Fatherland.

The question of supporting the presidential policy is still open – if speak about supporting sensible and ideological support, not about administrative delight about the opening personal prospects.

Overall, Lysenko concludes, “the post-Yeltsin society is ever less favorable for political parties than during Yeltsin’s times”.

Referring to the data of “numerous polls”, the author stats that today over 40% of Russians do not want to vote for any political party. “The country is tired, the people are indifferent. At present the main value is order and stability, not democracy and freedom.” Besides, it is more traditional for the Russian society to support the power and not political parties.

The “Obshchaya Gazeta” newspaper informs that at present there are about 80 officially registered political parties in Russia. The seven most significant parties have their factions in the State Duma. However, is any of these parties able to form an apparatus of its own and to realize its own program? From the standpoint of deputy Director of the Center for political consulting Boris Makarenko, the present party of power is not a real party, despite its almost unlimited “elite resource”. It is just a “manipulated pseudo-party, that are totally controlled by the non-party executive branch of power.”

As for the Communist Party, from the viewpoint of Boris Makarenko, despite all the attempts to change its program, it is in fact incompatible with the present political system. “It is only able to organize unimaginable chaos. Do you think such a party is able to rule?”

An expert of Mikhail Gorbachev’s foundation Vladimir Solovei puts a more cardinal question: does the Russian society need political parties?

According to Solovei, it is normal that the Russian authorities have always restrained formation of the political system in the country, “No power needs rivals. At best, it may need groups of support that it forms from time to time.” While real parties appear not by order from a boss, but from “the bottom”, as a result of people’s demands. The expert of Gorbachev-foundation states that today there is no such a demand in the country, “Look at the results of any poll: parties are the least respected institutions.”

In fact, at present both the Russian publicity and the elite are strongly yearning for ORDER and CONTROL. In turn, order and control usually lead to toughening of the power, which does not contribute to development of the party pluralism.

That is why “Obshchaya Gazeta” is convinced that the post-Soviet Russia is a “unique example of non-party democracy”. A non-party president, a non-party government and a “quarter-party” parliament have ruled the country for ten years. At the same time power without participation of political parties is a rude violation of the international democracy standards.

The “Argumenty I Fakty” weekly reports on the results of a poll held on the threshold of November 7 by the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM). According to the poll, 31% of respondents would presently vote for the Communist Party at parliamentary elections. While only 27% of respondents would vote for the Unity, the Fatherland, and All Russia altogether. “It is a paradox, but the popularity rating of Zyuganov’s party has not fallen down since President Putin took office in the Kremlin, when the political stability seems to have established in the country, and the economy seems to be restoring,” “Argumenty I Fakty” writes. What is the reason for the phenomenon?

President of the Politika foundation Vyacheslav Nikonov, whose opinion is cited in the weekly, believes that the real reason is the low living standard of the majority of the Russian population. Besides, it is also an influence of the Russian demographic problems: the population is rapidly growing old. “Along with the number of old people, whose whole life has been connected to the Communist Party, the electorate of the Communist Party of Russia is also growing,” explains Nikonov.

Director of the Center for Political Consulting Igor Bunin considers that the Communist Party is the only real political party in today’s Russia. The rest of the parties are either “political appendices to the presidential administration”, or “small right-wing subcultures”, such as the Yabloko movement of the Union of Right Forces. While the Communist Party is a “vast, deeply-echeloned structure with strict ideology, that claims for the role of defender the weak from the pressure of the strong, the tycoons and the government.”

Besides, Bunin reminds, the Communist Party has a speaker and a number of committees in the parliament, as well as dozens of friendly regional governors.

No wonder, a number of Russian businessmen invest means in the Communist Party, in exchange to its power resource. According to Bunin, this is the explanation of the unlimited energy of the Communists.

According to Gleb Pavlovsky, Director of the Foundation for Effective Politics, the Communist Party has the right to be called the people’s party, as it reflects one of the sides of the Russian national character, a “dream that all the issues and problems of the country will be resolved with the help of a miracle. The name of the miracle is revolution.”

Pavlovsky speculates that on the one hand the people are yearning for normal life. On the other hand, they do not believe any longer that it is ever possible. The director of the foundation states, “The Communist Party is a party of Russian nostalgia. A nostalgia for upheavals.” And November 7 is a sort of Russian Halloween, a day for casting a spell on evil spirits.

Pavlovsky says it is a Russian tradition, “Today things are terrible, let it be even more horrible, perhaps then tomorrow everything will be fine.” As Pavlovsky reminds, Gennady Zyuganov is the leader of the party that over “ten years of existence has not fulfilled a single item of its program”.

At the same time, the “Slovo” left-wing weekly in turn refers to the results of another poll held by VTsIOM, which seem to be a real sensation. The question to respondents was: “Imagine that the Great October revolution is going on in your presence; what would you do?”

As it turned out, 22% of respondents are ready to actively support the Bolsheviks! Another 19% of people would cooperate with them in some things. Overall, “Slovo” concludes, there are 41% of pro-Soviet Russians in the country! However, 24% of respondents would try “to wait, not participate in the events”, and 13% would go abroad. About ten percent of the Russians turned to be supporters of the fundamentalist-nationalist model; 15% to 30% of people are democrats (which is by the way much more than the present electorate of the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko). And no more than 5% of respondents are ready to actively oppose the Bolsheviks!

Thus, “Slovo” sums up, the Soviet viewpoint on the events of October 1917 has not changed after ten years of “re-appraisal of the values”, and still dominates in the society.

This could be considered an amazing phenomenon, if not some concrete demonstration of pro-Soviet inclinations for instance in the army. The media has long reported that the army does not perceive the new foreign politics of the leadership. And the denying of the Cuba and Vietnam military bases was very painful for the military, as well as US military presence in the Central Asia.

Last week the left radical opposition “Zavtra” newspaper published an article titled “Address of the generals and admirals of the Soviet Armed Forces and the Russian Army to the president of Russia, the deputies of the State Duma, the members of the government, and the regional governors.” The authors of the address, whose names are very well known, write that today’s plans for military reforms in the country are “lies and deceiving of people”. The president and the government call reforms destruction of the army and the fleet, says the address. Consequently, they either do not realize what they are doing, or they are acting in accordance with the interests of the West. The authors of the document address President Putin, “People elected you the president not to allow to rob the country and the people, but as a hope that the order will finally be restored in the country. The president is the people’s servant and not a salesman of its treasures.”

The main idea of the address is that “the people must determine their fate for themselves.” Besides, the authors insist “not only stolen riches, but also the social achievements people used to have during the Soviet era, must be returned to them”.

Commenting on this passage, “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” notes, “This is a call for forced revision of all that has taken shape in the Russian state over the past decade….”

“Nezavisimaya Gazeta” stresses that it does not matter that all the authors of the address are retired. The ranks like Commander of the Navy, Commander of a military district or fleet; Commander of the Commando Forces; or Commander of the Anti-Aircraft Defense Forces are given for good. Besides, according to the sources of the paper, all the high-ranking authors of the document constantly contact the Joint Staff and in fact speak on its behalf. The article in “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” is titled “Generals leave to oppose the Kremlin”.

Meanwhile, according to the “Vremya Novostei” paper, which is known to be connected to the presidential administration, it is the new, more humble in comparison to the prior more ambitious plans, position of Russia that will allow it to cardinally change its relations with the West.

“So far the suggestions of Moscow on mutually interesting question have always demonstrated its intention to remain if not an opponent but at least a rival of the US and its allies in the international affairs,” writes “Vremya Novostei”.

As a result, there has never been a “positive agenda”, and at best Russia concluded agreements to save its face. Today the Kremlin does not set up tough counter-demands to the West. The new foreign politics of Russia is supposed to be formed on two major principles: denial of global rivalry with the West and alliance with the US. “Due to the tragically concourse of circumstances and decisive actions of the president, Russia will finally have a real chance to find its place in the forming international order. The objective is not to miss the chance.”

Well, the press has been correct constantly stressing pragmatism of the incumbent Russian president; as is known, politics is the art of the possible. Especially, if take into consideration that Putin’s pragmatism is highly likely to be created by his good knowledge of the real state of affairs in the country and, consequently, of its abilities. As head of the State Audit Commission Sergei Stepashin said in his interview with the “Argumenty I Fakty” weekly, it is very hard to shock the president with any figures, as “he came to the position of the prime minister from the Federal Security Service.” So it is highly likely that at present President Putin is very adequate to the situation.

Besides, as “Vremya MN” observer Leonid Radzikhovsky believes, there is still no real opposition to the presidential politics, there are only prerequisites for its appearance. The opposition may form only if the economic situation in the country worsens, for instance in case the US and the world economic recession influences Russia.

If oil prices continue falling, and the prices for Russian metals remain low, Russia will have to forget about economic growth. Radzikhovsky writes, “If living standards start falling, it will cause a real and very serious mass discontent in the country. And Putin’s popularity rating may be halved.” Then the real anti-Americanism will wake up and roar, and all will rush to push at the unstable government. In particular, Putin’s “purges” with the help of the General Prosecutor’s Office are caused by these anticipations, “One the one hand, Putin has worked out a distinct independent policy of his own, naturally he needs HIS people for its implementation; on the other hand, anticipating a storm, he is bolting bars.”

At the same time this week Berezovsky’s “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” gloatingly reported that General Prosecutor Ustinov in fact repudiated the actions of this department. Ustinov stated that the considerable list of top-ranking officials who raised the interest of his department, has in fact shrunk to two people: it is supposed to finish the case of Transportation Minister Nikolai Aksenenko and former aid of Vladimir Rushailo General Vladimir Orlov.

“Nezavisimaya Gazeta” supposes that in the near future the General Prosecutor’s Office will have to “change its attitude towards its own activities – the latest events and the reaction at them of the first persons of the state give reasons to believe that the prosecutor’s ‘blacklist’ is considerably amended from the top.”

Such information, published right at the start of Putin’s visit to the US, is worth a great deal. The inevitable question is: to what extent is the Russian president in control of the situation in his own country? Perhaps someone has lost patience already and decided that it is high time to give the “unstable government” a push?

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