THE "PUTIN MYTH" AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF AN ELECTION CAMPAIGN: NEW TESTS

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Unexpectedly, the main focus of media attention over the past week turned out to be Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation – a man who gets a fair amount of coverage as it is. The sudden collapse of his Internet project drew a stormy response in the media, even though rumors of such a possible outcome had been circulating since last autumn.

In October, Pavlovsky’s news website reported that Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller was about to be dismissed; this report was immediately denied by all official Gazprom sources. Nevertheless, as the Vedomosti newspaper emphasized the other day, the market responded to this information with a sharp drop in the Gazprom share price. According to Vedomosti, at the time Pavlovsky “publicly reprimanded his own company for violating the ethics of journalism”; and in December he announced that Strana.ru, Vesti.ru, SMI.ru and other sites were being scaled down. True enough, Pavlovsky himself – in numerous interviews – has categorically denied any link between the misinformation about Miller and his own withdrawal from these online projects.

“Our business is providing online services,” Pavlovsky noted. “We are not a media holding, this is not our core business – and, as businesspeople, we are eliminating non-core activities.”

Indeed, Vedomosti points out, Pavlovsky hasn’t made it as a businessman. His main news website, Strana.ru, cost several million dollars a year to run, but its advertising revenue never amounted to more than $3,000 a month. It is now passing into the hands of the All-Russian State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK), which has concluded that “the Kremlin’s online megaphone” has recently been on the verge of going bankrupt.

Pavlosky himself doesn’t appear in the least concerned about the fate of “his baby”; in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta he even said that he feels like “someone who’s given away a puppy to a good home”.

But Nezavisimaya Gazeta comments that the “nationalization” of Strana.ru is a significant event: the Russian media industry is on the threshold of a “mergers and expansion period”.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, there are persistent rumors of an imminent merger of two state-controlled companies – ORT and VGTRK – since there are almost no “clear conceptual differences” between the two television networks, and supporting these identical twins is costly for the state. It is said that the same fate awates the RIA-Novosti and ITAR-TASS news agencies. “In other words, the media industry is in for some major shake-ups as the elections approach.”

Kommersant claims that for the past six months Pavlovsky has been “frantically and fruitlessly” negotiating about the future of his online publications, trying “to get at least some profit out of handing over these disappointing assets to the state”.

However, despite Pavlovsky’s habitual display of optimism, the sources of Kommersant report that all negotiations were unsuccessful: “The St. Petersburg faction of Putin’s team – which views Pavlovsky as a stranger and an unneccessary player on the political field – demanded revisions and cutbacks to spending on the Effective Policy Foundation, which had been funded by friendly financial companies dependent on the Kremlin.”

One way or another, Kommersant concluded, it is evident that Gleb Pavlovsky, the “pioneer of political consulting in Russia”, is changing from a participant in political battles to a spectator.

Nonetheless, Pavlovsky found it necessary to share his views on the pre-election situation in Russia with other political analysts.

According to the Izvestia paper, in his speech at the international conference called “New Election Techniques”, Pavlovsky said: “No one will wait for 2008.” He meant that since no one doubts Putin’s victory in the next election, the main intrigues in this election will be the battle for second place. According to Pavlovsky, the winner in this battle will become the front-runner for the presidency in 2008. Pavlovsky is convinced that this time the right wing will have the advantage, not the communists, since “they are to be Putin’s heirs.”

Besides, Pavlovsky predicts that in the near future, “there will be a number of rather serious crises in Russia”. However, this is not a disaster: in part, because “rioting is a commonplace occurrence even in prosperous societies.”

According to Izvestia, other participants in the conference did not predict any rioting directly, but they are also sure that a large-scale political crisis will hit Russia in 2008-10.

Political scientist Mikhail Dymshits suggested that by that time a new generation of Russian citizens will emerge to the Russian political arena, which will be the most numerous over past 50 years. He speaks about those who were born in mid-1980s: by 2008 they will have dominate on the labor market and consequently, they will be able to influence the power.

A peculiarity of this new generation is that it is living in a different informational space at present, such as Internet, mobile communications, and so on. At the same time, this generation, according to Izvestia, “does not know about the present power system and are unwilling to know”. That is why, Dymshits explained, when these people will feel strong, they will “not only demand power authorities to be redistributed in their favor, but also will be able to whole system of the Russian power, which has been built with such difficulties over the past decade.” Many political scientists and consultants predict a destruction of the political system in the near future, it concerns even periodicals that have always been reputed for their loyalty to the regime.

The Vek weekly has lately published a special research about supporters and fellow travelers of the present authorities, about their failed hopes and possible consequences of disappointment that struck different layers of the society. In time, Russian voters supported Putin hoping that he would protect their interests, or at least would restrict the terrible abuses and arbitrariness characteristic of Yeltsin’s times.

On the other hands, elite bureaucracy also pinned their hopes on Putin, as it hated “Family’s” tycoons and appointees. Patriotic security forces also joined them. Middle-sized business also supported Putin hoping that it will be able to influence the power, while in Yeltsin’s times Berezovsky and Gusinsky absolutely monopolized this opportunity.

As a result, Vek notes, despite the fact that the people like Putin, he is still the president from “a union of bureaucracy with non-tycoons and potential tycoons”. In these terms, Putin’s presidency changed very little in the country.

The only difference is that the intelligentsia finally left the political arena, while under Yeltsin this class actively fought against the communism, but them was punished for that with humiliation, poverty, and absence of rights.

In fact, the youth did not benefit at all as well. On the one hand, younger generations like active, healthy, and adequate President Putin. On the other hand, opportunities for self-realizations for young people are rapidly decreasing. Currently, it is very hard for a young person to enter a university, to find a job – especially in provinces, to start a business of one’s own or to make a political career.

There are more disappointments. Obviously, the business class feels it has been deceived: Putin “distanced” old tycoons away, but he never allowed new tycoons to appear. “Many are invited to the Kremlin, many come there without an invitation, but no one dares to say that someone is influencing the president.”

Security structures are also discontent: they reproach the authorities for hesitation and indecisiveness in fighting against corruption as well for “unwillingness of the president to determine distinctly who are “ours” and who are alien and who are to be eliminated.” Complications of presidential politics annoy generals.

“New appointees” from Putin’s St. Petersburg team are also annoyed: they have never received any properties and the media do not miss a chance to remind about this.

Relations between the president and regions are also rather tense. Overall, if consider the situation in details, it is evident that the president hardly has any allies, he rather has temporary fellow travelers.

Another research of the National Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM), published in the Vedomosti paper is devoted to changes in moods of Russian voters. Sociologists asked respondents, “Do you feel secure at present?” It turned out that the number of optimists insignificantly increased against the last year exclusively among high school students. According to researchers, it is due to growth of wages of unqualified workers.

However, the number of specialists with higher education who feel secure has fallen from 41% to 29% over the past year. Moreover, according to VTsIOM, “non-material” factors are of greater importance now, in particular, the “layout of political forces is changing for a tougher presidential rule”, which causes concerns about freedoms and so on.

According to VTsIOM, social layers have different attitude to information. Well-to-do and educated people have a broader choice of information sources and are better able to analyze this information. That is why it is very revealing that the level of anxiety is growing in this layer primarily.

In particular, pollsters say that in June 2001, 42% of the “upper middle class” in Russia felt secure, but now there are only 13% of optimists in this layer of society.

The Argumenty i Fakty weekly presents its own standpoint on the Russian social situation.

Apparently, characteristic trends have appeared in the Russian political economy. Russian tycoons are disclosing the amount of their wealth, one after another. For instance, Oleg Deripaska, head of the Russian Aluminum company, paid almost $10 million in income tax, and Roman Abramovich, head of Sibneft, paid $18 million.

According to Argumenty i Fakty, at present, Russian tycoons have created structures which not only function and bring in revenue for their owners, but also drive the national economy forward. What will happen next? After Russian billionaires list their companies on the New York stock exchange, their capital will grow even more. Unfortunately, it means that the Russian social pyramid will become even steeper, and its base will start growing broader. This base includes the most destitute and the largest layers of the population. There is a vast gulf between them and a dozen or so billionaires. In the Western nations which Russia takes as its model, this gulf is filled by many millions of moderately well-off people, the middle class, who serve to provide social stability. Russia can only dream of having a middle class.

The Izvestia paper invited experts for a debate on: “Is there to be a civil society in Russia?” One participant, sociologist Sergey Belanovsky noted that at present there are no conditions in Russia for the establishment of civil society. According to him, a civil society is “secondary, like grass, which either grows or does not grow; at present it cannot grow because there are no resources or motivation.”

The author stressed that in Russia “the lawful economic and political activity of citizens is greatly restricted.” Belanovsky said it is not necessary to be a business owner to participate in civil society; however, owning property is always a good basis for this. The conclusion of the author is rather simple, “the term ‘civil society’, which Russia borrowed from politically correct Western Europe, still remains artificial for our country.”

The Vremya MN paper is interested in the prospects of Russia turning into “the world’s gas station” – in which Russian oil exporters are extremely interested as well. The US administration wants to decrease US oil dependence on Middle East countries, and it is considering the option of Russia, among others.

The paper explains that the US strategy is to transform the present “seller’s market” into a “buyer’s market” when the latter dictates the rules and largest importers set oil prices. In this case Russia will not benefit at all as prices will inevitably start falling.

However, from the standpoint of the paper, the main problem is that Russia urgently needs modernization. An attempt to finance reforms by increasing oil extraction is dooms to create a “vicious circle of demands” – growth of spending on renewal of equipment, pipelines, oil terminals, and so on. Thus, Russia will be unable to quit its “oil addiction”. Plus, extraction of irreplaceable natural resources will considerably increase.

The paper quotes some Western analysts who say that by the middle of this century the Russian population will almost halve – it will fall to 80 million people. However, there is an opinion that Russia’s current population is too large for its present economy, based on natural resources exports. “From the standpoint of the natural resources industries, the majority of the population are useless hangers-on, who are worth very little and consequently are doomed to live miserable lives, or even die out.”

Meanwhile, there have been media reports about “the usual merger games” which democratic politicians have again started in the lead-up of elections. According to the Vremya Novostei newspaper, recently Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces exchanged the usual statements that they consider each other as their closest allies. However, the two parties do not plan to merge into a united bloc for the parliamentary elections. At the same time, democrats consider it possible to field a single candidate in the presidential election, as an opponent to Vladimir Putin.

So far, democrats have not agreed on the identity of the single candidate. Resolution of the issue is postponed until autumn. Nonetheless, it was decided to start working on a policy program for the candidate immediately, and this program is to be binding on the candidate. Deputy Yabloko leader Vladimir Lukin said: “We promoted our respected Boris Yeltsin without any platform, because he was authoritative and solid person. However, afterwards many people said that we not only enjoyed our life but also had lots of troubles.”

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the meeting of leaders of the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko was just a publicity move. From the standpoint of the URF, the main objective was achieved: they made the stubborn Yabloko party agree to consider the idea of a single democratic presidential candidate.

However, from Yabloko’s viewpoint, the main point is that the Union of Right Forces rejected its prior decision to determine this single candidate based on results of parliamentary elections. Irina Khakamada said that although the URF has not yet decided on a candidate, it will certainly not support Putin or Anatoly Chubais.

However, Chubais is still raising many suspicions. The Vek weekly commented on the Duma’s decision to postpone consideration of a bill on reforming the electricity sector until autumn, saying that this decision, which was supported by the president, was made for political rather than economic reasons.

Vek notes that Chubais has said repeatedly that if the electricity sector reforms are carried out, he will leave Russian Joint Energy Systems in 2004. The newspaper comments: “Why? It will be very difficult for such a high-level executive and politician to find another suitable job. All positions in big business are already taken. And there are only two positions in politics which Chubais has not yet held: prime minister and president. Although the position of prime minister is very influential, it is still dependent, and a prime minister can be dismissed at any time. But being president is an entirely different matter.”

Of course, currently Chubais does not have the necessary popularity; however, he is quite likely to gain this popularity by 2008. Moreover, according to expert assessments, by that time there will be a new generation of voters, for whom “the ideological and political battles of the 1990s will mean nothing.”

Vek also stresses that restructuring the electricity sector is likely to yield substantial economic gains for Chubais, which will greatly increase his political influence. Besides, the system of regional utility companies will always help its creator to find a common language with regional governments. “Observers have already noted that the Union of Right Forces has started to use professional managers and businesspeople for its party-building, rather than party activists. Apparently, this is no coincidence; the party is taking long-term political prospects into consideration.”

However, the prospects are not necessarily long-term. Andrei Piontkovsky writes in Novaya Gazeta: “The more ingenious the machinations of political consultants become, the more drab and colorless the myth created by imagemakers of 2000 becomes – the myth of a resolute macho-man leading Russia from triumph to triumph, and rapidly gaining on prosperous Portugal.”

According to the author, it was a disastrous blow to the Putin myth when the head of the Kremlin, concerned about the poor state of the Russian economy, called on Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov to set more ambitious growth targets – and in effect received this response: “Do not interfere in economic matters, Mr. President.”

Kasyanov’s answer was seen as an open revolt, while the whole “Putin myth” was based on the president’s unquestioned authority, “The revolt created a precedent which is fatal for the myth.”

Later on, there was more disobedience: “Yeltsin even made a show of his trip to Belarus for a chat with the offended President Alexander Lukashenko.” The Family made it clear to everyone who is the real master in Russia.

Putin had nothing to oppose this: the notorious former security officers St. Petersburg were barely able to “displace some of the people who were formerly milking the budget”.

Thus, says Piontkovsky, Putin faces a difficult – perhaps downright impossible – task: “breaking free and abandoning the role of mediator between two greedy teams in his entourage which are fighting each other tooth and nail.” Otherwise, he risks becoming “like the Queen of England”, who reigns but does not rule, “a figurehead whom the oligarchs or chekists (or both) may elect once again. Or they could choose somebody else.

In fact, Russia has already had the experience of a successor to the head of state being created from the material at hand, at the very last moment. And there have always been plenty of aspiring Pygmalions in Russia.

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