Last week, for the first time since Vladimir Putin came to power, the press started talking of a “crisis of loyalty” at the top, and the start of a new round of media warfare in Russia.
Alexander Arkhangelsky, an observer with Izvestia, considers that the main difference between the current (fourth) media battle and those of the past – in 1997 (Svyazinvest), 1998 (the default and the Kirienko Cabinet dismissal), and 1999 (the anti-Luzhkov campaign) – lies in the attitude of the general public.
Arkhangelsky recalls that during the first round of media warfare, television viewers “choked on the dirt, but kept watching”. By the second round, they were getting skeptical (“some sort of change of heart had already taken place”). During the third round, although they felt some revulsion, viewers still watched two oligarchs “arm-wrestling” live on air – “wearing the grey-haired journalists like gloves” as they exchanged accusations. But in the current media battle, it seems that viewers “are no longer necessary”; at least, the two largest networks, ORT and RTR, have demonstratively refused to take part.
Meanwhile, “Berezovsky’s low-circulation publications” have readily taken on the burden of explaining what’s going on, who is on whose side, and who hasn’t decided yet… Arkhangelsky thinks all this bears a great resemblance to the “Itogi” current affairs program as it was in 1999, when Vladimir Gusinsky denounced the Yeltsin regime, when pictures of Tatyana Diachenko’s house in Bavaria were shown, when Yuri Skuratov was defended – with the enthusiastic participation of “consultants, consultants, thirty-five thousand political consultants alone”.
The real story, says Arkhangelsky, comes down to this: “the same old Kremlin mysteries in a void” which have no link to “the real lives of real people”. Therefore, while people still followed Kremlin intrigues in 1999, partly by inertia, by now the public has completely lost interest.
Whether that’s true is hard to say. The media itself, in the process of enflaming emotions, has warned the public many times of “another 1937” on the way. According to Obshchaya Gazeta, the issue presently identified as “extremely significant for our whole society” is the presumed forthcoming dismissal of Alexander Voloshin, head of the presidential administration – and, it must be noted, a state official who “is most unattractive in many aspects”. Nevertheless, says Obshchaya Gazeta, in this case there’s talk of more than the top job in the Kremlin administration; there is also some sort of conspiracy with the aim of “redistributing power across all branches of government”.
According to Obshchaya Gazeta, the people who have these goals in mind are led by Nikolai Patrushev, chief of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and his deputy, Yuri Zaostrovtsev, in charge of economic counter-intelligence (the latter has become well-known as the planner of the “most well-publicized security service operations”, like the elimination of the old NTV network and attacks on the State Customs Committee). The team that’s on the offensive also includes General Prosecutor Vladimir Ustinov, with his deputies Yuri Biriukov and Vasili Kolmogorov; and within the presidential administration there are Igor Sechin, head of the presidential chancellory, and personnel director Viktor Ivanov. These “hawks” even have their own oligarch: Sergei Pugachev, head of Mezhprombank (dubbed the “Orthodox banker” by the media). Obshchaya Gazeta claims that this group’s goal is to radically redistribute the jobs at the very top.
Voloshin’s job is meant to go to Patrushev; Governor Mikhail Prusak of the Novgorod region could replace Mikhail Kasianov as prime minister; and the State Customs Committee would be headed by Yuri Zaostrovtsev himself.
As for this team’s ideology, Obshchaya Gazeta says it’s generally in line with People’s Patriotic Union of Russia dogma. Specifically, the “chekists” want the nation’s key posts – political and economic – to be held by “real Russian patriots” (or the “nationalist-oriented bourgeoisie”), rather than oligarchs or “cosmopolitans”.
According to Obshchaya Gazeta, President Putin is maintaining his favorite “above the fray” position for the time being. Presumably, his objective is to maintain his influence over both sides – the “chekist” team and members of Yeltsin’s “Family”. However, this situation can’t last forever. Putin will have to choose sides; and his choice, says Obshchaya Gazeta, will be significant not only for the president and his inner circle, but for the whole nation.
Although neither of the opposing teams is particularly likeable, one thing is clear: while there is some hope of liberal reforms continuing under Voloshin’s old guard, there’s no hope at all if the “chekists” take over. Obshchaya Gazeta concludes: “Whenever the Lubyanka secret services try to run the economy and politics, in whatever form – under Andropov, Korzhakov, or Zaostrovtsev – then civil society, about which the authorities are so concerned these days, finds itself under threat.”
Novaya Gazeta takes a different view. It says both teams – the “Family” and the “chekists” – differ only in that “the oligarchs reached the finishing line through their own efforts, crushing and consuming an unthinkable number of people along the way”, while the “new people from St. Petersburg” have been “graciously given a lift in the official Volga car made available to personal friends of the president”.
Novaya Gazeta considers that “another 1937” is impossible now: “The chekists are less powerful, and Big Brother isn’t what he used to be.” A large-scale redistribution of property is likewise impossible, since any side which finds itself under attack will immediately find defenders. Therefore, “a battle will not lead to assets changing hands; it will only increase the amount of money the security services collect for escalating the situation” (examples: the battle for Norilsk Nickel, Kuzbass coal, and so on).
In any case, says Novaya Gazeta, nothing too frightening has happened yet: “All we can clearly see is vague unease among the oligarchs, disturbed by how easily the St. Petersburg team is placing its own people in the necessary jobs.” (Novaya Gazeta notes that one of the first rules in the secret services is that success depends on having the right people.)
On the other hand, it’s quite understandable that some people are upset about all this: they used to see high returns on the money they paid to tame state officials in exchange for “solving problems”, while now they have to pay contributions to the new people from St. Petersburg, for “the president’s re-election campaign”.
Most importantly, says Novaya Gazeta, although the “Covert War system” is somewhat better than the “Obvious Chaos system” which preceded it, they are both markedly inferior to a real market economy. “It’s impossible to keep an eye on everything,” notes Novaya Gazeta. “Oligarchs redistributing property, or constant clashes with oligarchs – neither is a good thing.”
Vek weekly says the main reason why members of the St. Petersburg team are unhappy is because Putin has been in power for nearly two years now, but they still haven’t managed to become really wealthy.
Despite all their efforts, they haven’t succeeded in carrying out a real redistribution of property; the people from St. Petersburg are still denied admission to “the close-knit clan of old-new oligarchs who have quickly adapted to life under Putin”.
According to Vek, the direct cause of this escalation in the power-struggles around the president has been Putin’s “rush to the West” this autumn. Among the “neo-Putinites”, as Vek calls the president’s St. Petersburg team, this has led to an “unfulfilled hopes syndrome”. As predicted, Putin has radically changed the course of Russia’s ship of state – but not at all as the St. Petersburg people had expected. But it’s these people, “loyal to Putin personally rather than to any political idea”, who are being consistently promoted to various top jobs.
This “slippery roof-top” method (as Vek puts it) has enabled Putin to entrench himself in power without major personnel shake-ups – and thus to continue with reforms in a relatively calm atmosphere.
But now – Putin’s new pro-Western course, his sudden friendship with President George W. Bush, “has placed everything in jeopardy, alarming the radicals and leading them to show semi-overt resistance and make almost open threats”.
On the other hand, Putin owes the security of position these days to a de facto alliance with “the main property-owners of the 1990s era”. And this is also Putin’s weak spot; he is unable to reward his St. Petersburg supporters as generously as Yeltsin’s supporters were rewarded in days gone by.
Vek notes that Putin’s first term in office is now half-over; as the next election draws closer, the rising discontent among the St. Petersburg team will grow more dangerous. Hence all the “offended and threatening talk – of an uprising against Putin, of whether he will be overthrown and follow in Gorbachev’s footsteps: everything is nourished with the same broth”.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta (one of the papers Izvestia referred to as “Berezovsky’s low-circulation publications”) considers the history of media warfare in post-Soviet Russia, and finds it necessary to remind readers that these have all ended in “waves of dismissals, and sometimes even the premature departure of a president”: as in 1999, when Boris Yeltsin stepped down early. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the current situation is comparable to that: “As in 1999, the conflict between two groups is not just about power, control over finances, and freedom to maneuver; there is also an ideological component.” The “Family” – or, in the terminology of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “Kremlin-1” – is characterized by liberal convictions, and believes that the nation’s idea of itself will arise spontaneously, “from the GDP figures”. But in Russia, where only the Communist Party is presently capable of satisfying a longing for ideology (as Nezavisimaya Gazeta venomously notes), this viewpoint isn’t very popular. However, it is quite suitable for the West, “which Putin has undertaken to subdue”.
Unlike their rivals, the “checkists” – or “Kremlin-2”, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta calls them – take their stand on patriotism, and are prepared to play the nationalist card: their views may be summed up by the slogan of “Russia for the Russians”. Then there’s the battle against corruption, of which there has been so much talk recently; if this is added in, such intentions become “balm for Russian souls”.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that this is “a dangerous ideology, but Vladimir Putin does listen carefully to the opinions of the people he trusts”.
Moreover, Nezavisimaya Gazeta argues that the relative restraint being shown by the ORT, RTR, and NTV networks in the unfolding media carnage is mainly due to a fear of choosing the wrong side: which Kremlin is the real Kremlin?
However, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the state-controlled networks are generally inclined to support Kremlin-2. The TV-6 network, “despite all grievances”, might take the side of Kremlin-1. The print media are also prepared to support Kremlin-1; most of them are owned by major business empires, for whom the Putin-Kasianov-Voloshin triangle is “some sort of guarantee that no redistribution of property will start in Russia”. The Russian business world doesn’t have any such confidence in Kremlin-2, notes Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Another “Berezovsky publication” – the Novye Izvestia newspaper – has chosen a different topic for its contribution to the latest media battles. The paper has ventured to declare that Putin’s famous approval rating is being questioned more and more by those in the know.
Of course, no one has refuted the official figure of 73%. But who trusts figures from open sources when secret figures are being circulated? Especially in Russia. Citing the FAPSI agency, Novye Izvestia reports that in the Stavropol territory the president’s approval rating has already fallen to 12-18%. According to polls done by the Scientific-Research Institute at the Moscow Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences, only 2% of respondents consider that there have been any positive changes in Russia during Putin’s time in power. Around 26% of respondents are prepared to support an opposition to Putin. And 93% of respondents don’t know anything about the president’s program for transforming the nation. An even more ominous result was obtained in response to a question which “pollsters close to the Kremlin” simply don’t dare to ask, says Novye Izvestia: “Would you vote for Putin if the presidential election were held today, with the same candidates as last time?” It turns out that only 13% of respondents would support Putin now; and 51% would vote against him.
Actually, Novye Izvestia goes on to explain that the Scientific-Research Institute at the Moscow Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences used to be called the Higher Komsomol School, which automatically indicates the “leftist” orientation of both the pollsters and their audience. But even so… Even if the appropriate corrections are made, the results would still obviously be far from the official figures.
“One must admit that state policy decisions shouldn’t be based on inaccurate assumptions about universal support,” points out Novye Izvestia. “Maybe the president should order some serious research into his own popularity, with the help of some world-class independent specialists. And immediately publish the results – honestly, without omitting anything.”
And then, says Novye Izvestia, the president would finally understand that “his method of strengthening the regime of personal power is actually destroying that regime. Along with the whole country.”
Meanwhile, Boris Berezovsky – Putin’s main opponent at present – hasn’t lost his skill at political intrigue, despite being an emigre, according to Sovetskaya Rossiia. In an interview with Argumenty i Fakty, Berezovsky declares that the president is excessively concerned with his own approval rating and popular support, which only hinders efforts to get anyting done.
Berezovsky holds up Boris Yeltsin as an example for Putin, of course: Yeltsin “quite consciously expended his huge reserves of public confidence, in order that Russia might become a normal country some day”.
And that was the only correct decision possible, even if it did lead to Yeltsin losing the people’s love: “That love shouldn’t be chased, since it’s practically worthless. Surely you know: it’s just a brief step from love to hate, and that applies to dealing with the people as well as in relationships with women.”
In any event, Berezovsky himself cares nothing at all for public opinion: “I’m not interested in the opinion of the many. I’m used to taking action based on trusting my own evaluations and analyzing the arguments of others.” So Berezovsky’s current situation, he says, “is my own choice. The president did not refuse to associate with me; it was I who made a conscious decision to oppose Putin’s erroneous actions.”
In his political battles, Berezovsky intends to appeal neither to the president nor to the people; he is aiming for “those who are seeking arguments in favor of some model of development for Russia”. In other words, the opposition.
Berezovsky has no doubt that the number of people prepared to oppose Putin’s course openly will increase. He returns to the topic of mistakes made by the Putin regime in his “Letter from London to Anatoly Chubais, Alexander Voloshin, Mikhail Kasianov, and other whom the foes of Boris Yeltsin call the Family”, published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Chechnya, the Kursk submarine disaster, the erstwhile anti-Western policies, and so on – all these are examples of the president’s mistakes, says Berezovsky, and they have cost the people of Russia a great deal: thousands dead in Chechnya, the huge cost of raising the Kursk (because the president had given his word), debts not written off by the West… Of course, Berezovsky notes, the only people who make no mistakes are those who do nothing at all; although in Russia it’s long been said that only fools learn from their own mistakes. But Berezovsky doesn’t agree (even though he opens his letter with this assertion): according to the master of political intrigue, “fools are fundamentally unteachable, while those who can be taught usually arrive at the correct conclusions based on their own experience of making mistakes”. (This elaborate passage still leaves some doubts about Berezovsky’s assessment of the intellectual capacities of the present regime.)
And yet the real pathos in this letter lies elsewhere. Berezovsky calls on members of the “Family” to admit that they will inevitably be defeated in any confrontation with the security team. Therefore, says Berezovsky, there’s no point in waiting for pressure to be applied; it would make more sense to resign of their own accord – in order to help the president “understand his mistakes more effectively”, to preserve their own reputations, and – this is the key point – so they will be free to engage in politics. “If you’re really thinking of Russia,” writes Berezovsky, “then help it overcome the last of the most difficult barriers on its path to becoming a thriving democracy – help to create a real, strong democratic opposition in Russia.”
The close of the letter is filled with a pathos unusual for Berezovsky: “Overcome fear and false modesty, find the courage to ignore attempts to defame you; openly and clearly declare that you are honored to be a member of the great Family of the great democrat and Russian reformer, Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin.”
It’s hard to believe that any of the abovementioned figures – Chubais, Voloshin, or Kasianov – will resign in response to Berezovsky’s call, for the purpose of strengthening the anti-Putin opposition. Berezovsky probably wasn’t expecting the letter to have that effect anyway. Like all other such declarations, this letter is most likely yet another PR move, meant as yet another reminder to the West – which has made friends with Putin – of the danger “chekism” poses to Russia, and undoubtedly of how serious Berezovsky himself is about defending democratic liberties.
As Boris Berezovsky admitted in the Argumenty i Fakty interview, “all talk of altruism, or anything else supposedly done on behalf of others, is worthless: all we achieve in life is done for ourselves alone. Solely for ourselves!”
In any case, it’s clear that Berezovsky has, as usual, proved himself a genius at taking advantage of the efforts of others – in this case, of his political opponents – in order to achieve his own goals.
Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation and the Kremlin’s top political consultant, notes in an interview with Vek weekly that a personnel move such as dismissing the head of the presidential administration could “significantly destabilize the mechanism of domestic politics”. Pavlovsky believes the security services team would welcome this dismissal – especially those of them who don’t fit in with the “new twist” in Putin’s policies, and are seeking to “conceal their incompetence somehow, in the great shake-up that is to come”.
Moreover, according to Pavlovsky, the dismissal rumors might have included not only Voloshin, but Vyacheslav Surkov, Djohan Pollyeva, and the whole “team that supports and carries out Putin’s ongoing turnaround”. On the other hand, such a personnel “shake-up” would have been a “definite signal for Western investors and our Western partners that it is necessary to build a relationship with Russia very cautiously and that they should not rely on the stability of the internal situation in Russia.”
Gennady Raikov, leader of the People’s Deputy Duma faction, says with typical left-wing directness in his interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta that “the rumors of Voloshin’s dismissal are initiated by those who are willing to destabilize the nation… Boris Berezovsky is also among them, as well as the people who have left Russia and would like to see a return to the lawlessness that used to exist here.”
Overall, regardless of the real leverage behind the intrigue with Voloshin’s rumored dismissal, Berezovsky again turned out to be the one pulling the strings behind everything, in the eyes of public opinion….
However, Novaya Gazeta says that Voloshin should not be afraid of losing his position – because of the low management skills among the St. Petersburg team. “Those who understand the Kremlin bureaucracy say that so far the level of St. Petersburg teamwork is lower than the performance of those Putin inherited from his predecessor.”
At the same time, the paper admits that there have been no “such intrigues and plots, disorder and hesitations” in the Kremlin for a long time. It is said that Alexander Voloshin is very tired of this situation, especially given that the times of the government’s triumph and economic growth are over. Russia is now entering a phase of decline, and no one wants to take responsibility for it. So, Novaya Gazeta reflects, “It is not ruled out that Voloshin will voluntarily asks for some quiet job in Sberbank, or Vnesheconombank, or something of the kind, thus leaving the St. Petersburg team to answer for the inevitable decline.”
As the irrepressible Berezovsky predicts, in the near future we shall see “a completely different situation in domestic politics, one in which the president will have to think not of his approval rating or the people’s love, but of far more prosaic matters.”
Berezovsky is sure we won’t have long to wait.