A HOT SUMMER BEFORE A HOT AUTUMN IN POLITICS: THE ANNIVERSARY OF AUGUST 1991, THE "DEFAULT SYNDROME", AND THE NEW "ALLIANCE OF SWORDS AND PLOUGHSHARES"

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As one national newspaper noted recently, the impression that nothing happens over summer is only an illusion. Life goes on, and there are plenty of things happening. And even if events do not quite suffice to fill the countless pages of the daily papers, journalists who are skilled at making a political mountain out of any available molehill will never allow their (few, but rumor-hungry) August readers to get bored.

At the same time, the mystique of August – a month which has acquired a very ominous reputation in recent years – is making most papers lower their tone, figuratively speaking. Everyone is trying to peer ahead, into the future: past events are known, but what will happen next? There was the coup attempt of 1991, and now it is said we are in another period of stagnation. How long will it last? Or take, for example, the default of 1998: was it due to mistakes made by the government of the day, or a symptom of some kind of chronic malady of the Russian economy, one which is bound to recur?

The Vedomosti newspaper says the state of the Russian economy appears to be fundamentally different now from what it was in the pre-crisis year of 1997. Vedomosti analysts primarily note the present level of political stability, far higher that that of 1997; as well as the budget surplus, the good tax collection results, a functional structure of corporate property ownership, and so on. Finally, there is no longer a GKO bonds pyramid.

However, the same analysts point out that this is only one side of the coin. On the other side, the problem of domestic debt has now been replaced by foreign debt (at a ratio of 1:8). Everyone is familiar with the phrase “Year 2003 problem”. The media worldwide are talking about the US economic crisis, which might play the role of the Asian crisis of 1997, a fatal role for the Russian financial scenario. Moreover, says Vedomosti, it’s clear that oil prices are bound to fall sooner or later; and the consequences of that fall for the Russian economy will be enormous.

As one Vedomosti analyst notes: “The situation is very unstable; there are both positive and negative signs, and it’s not clear which will gain the upper hand.”

According to observers, the main difference between the present situation and five years ago is that now everyone is aware of the threat of a crisis. Of course, it’s still hard to say how useful the bitter experience of the past might be if another financial disaster does strike.

Leading economist Alexander Livshitz, writing in Izvestia, claims that the people of Russia have suffered indelible psychological trauma due to the crisis of 1998. He says the “default syndrome” lingers on: “People have become more nervous since 1998. More sensitive, especially to exchange rate fluctuations.” Fearful Russians seem to see the specter of a default lurking around every corner of the free market.

Livshitz’s idea is supported by the results of a poll done by the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), as reported in Novaya Gazeta. It turns out that most respondents (53%) believe Russia is recovering from the crisis of 1998, or has already recovered. But 47% are sure that another crisis is bound to happen!

Novaya Gazeta notes that the social status of respondents is correlated with their degree of pessimism: “Among the upper middle class, up to 60% of respondents are pessimistic.” Managers and highly-skilled professionals are particularly gloomy about the future, even though many of them managed not to lose most of their pre-1998 savings. This would seem to be a manifestation of the so-called “default syndrome”.

However, there is also plenty of evidence that the people of Russia are capable of remaining self-possessed, despite all panicky forecasts. The Novoe Vremya magazine cites some interesting results of polls done by the Monitoring.ru agency. When asked what they would do if they suddenly acquired a large sum of money, 23% of respondents say they would take a vacation abroad. That is the second most popular choice, after buying an apartment (37% of respondents). The third most popular choice is buying a good car. In other words, despite all prophecies of doom, “everything is normal”. That was the headline used by Novoe Vremya for this article.

The media have already expressed amazement at the way Russian vacationers are still heading for Black Sea beach resorts, hard-hit by recent natural disasters. Such footage has been all over the television channels in recent days. Novaya Gazeta observer Boris Kagarlitsky says: “It shouldn’t be surprising; these people have already paid for accommodation and return journeys, and they’ll have their vacations, no matter what. It’s a culture of survival.”

Indeed, it would be hard to beat the people of Russia at what is called “the culture of survival”. Moreover, the ranks of those preparing to take vacations in areas recently hit by flooding are growing: vacation prices there are currently the lowest in the region. Kagarlitsky notes: “As they used to say in Soviet times – such a people cannot be defeated.”

However, some observers are very annoyed about these attitudes of their fellow-citizens. Valeriya Novodvorskaya writes in Novoe Vremya: “The people of Russia guard their vacation time so jealously that one gets the impression that of all the rights the Constitution gives them, the only one they really like is the right to vacation time.” Novodvorskaya sees the widespread “longing for Nirvana” as a disaster for the nation.

True enough, everyone has grown accustomed to the Christmas holiday season stretching out over half a month: first the Western version of Christmas, then New Year’s Day, then the Orthodox Christmas (January 7), and then New Year’s Day according to the old-style calendar. It’s the same story in the first half of May every year. After that, it’s summer – and if it happens to overlap with election campaigns, that’s just too bad for the elections. Novodvorskaya recalls that summer vacation habits were the main reason why Anatoly Sobchak, former mayor of St. Petersburg, failed to be re-elected: “his voters were at the beach, swimming and sunbathing”. Novodvorskaya is certain that “although there are many theories about how Boris Yeltsin was able to carry out reforms so discreetly, the real reason lies in the Russian tradition of avoiding over-exertion, even on the anniversary of the democratic revolution”.

Moreover, the democratic revolution itself – the anniversary has been marked by very modest celebrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg – and the coup attempt that was its direct cause also happened during the vacation season (“Foros” has virtually become a common noun).

Another VTsIOM poll, reported in Vremya Novostei, has indicated that only a minority of Russian citizens still view the events of August 1991 as a democratic revolution which put an end to the omnipotence of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. According to VTsIOM, only 9% of respondents see it that way. Almost half of respondents (46%) describe the events of August 1991 as an episode in the power-struggle at the top. Meanwhile, 41% say that eleven years ago they didn’t have time to fully understand what was going on; and 32% say they still don’t fully understand what happened back then. Most surprisingly of all, 25% of respondents say they can’t remember which side they supported at the time.

Around 21% of respondents consider that those behind the coup attempt were right; only 17% say that those who opposed the coup attempt were right. Almost 25% of respondents describe the revolution of August 1991 as “a tragic event, with destructive consequences for the nation and the people”.

VTsIOM analyst Leonid Sedov, commenting on these results for Izvestia, claims they indicate that the people of Russia are weary of many years of shake-ups and yearn for stability. According to Sedov, everything in recent Russian history which is linked to the name of Boris Yeltsin “has acquired negative connotations”. Over the past year, polls indicate that the number of those who take a favorable view of Yeltsin has fallen from 28% to 18%; these days, people have no desire to remember that many were once his allies.

According to Sedov, that is precisely why the government and the media “do not venture to paint a heroic picture of the events of August 19, 1991, nor to remind people that this day brought the first seeds of liberty”.

Valeriya Novodvorskaya comments on contemporary Russian attitudes in her characteristic style: “When perestroika permitted the people of Russia to travel abroad, they started taking vacations in seaside resorts all around the world.” Since then, says Novodvorskaya, Russian citizens don’t feel lonely anywhere: countless numbers of their compatriots “are treading on each other’s heels in Rome, Venice, the Holy Land, and Spain”. And this would be all well and good, “if these dear Russian citizens didn’t keep on declaring – right there, in the bus with a view of Gibraltar – that they were far better off under Communism”.

There are other opinions about “dear Russian citizens” being discontented with their lives. Valery Solovei, an analyst with the Gorbachev Foundation, says in Literaturnaya Gazeta that the state of Russian society is becoming a significant risk factor. According to Solovei, Russian society is acquiring a structure which is characteristic of the modern world. There is the First World: those with Western living standards. There is the Second World: those who are attempting to follow their example. But there is also the Third World (the poor), and the Fourth World (those who are marginalized). Solovei says that each of these worlds exists in a different space and time: “For some, this is a time of progress and joining the West; for others it is a vicious circle of a terrible present continually repeating itself, with no hope at all.”

The dominant emotion in 1991 was hope for change, bordering on faith in miracles; Solovei says Yeltsin managed to take advantage of this. By 1996, people were fairly disillusioned with liberal reforms, and the Communists had a chance of taking power. Yeltsin required the fear of further vast social upheavals, and the demonization of Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, in order to win the election. Solovei says that the election of 2000 was another “election of hope”, but there was no longer any faith in miracles. According to Solovei, this is the main reason why the disillusionment with Putin which is now becoming apparent is “far less widespread or deep”.

Political observer Alexander Tsipko, speaking at a round-table conference organized by Literaturnaya Gazeta, was more specific about how people are becoming disillusioned with Putin’s policies: “Putin has failed to become the master of Russia, he has failed to draw people’s minds and actions into a national cause. No cause has been found. Propaganda and empty praise are being used as substitutes.”

Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Strategic Research Center, takes a similar line in the Vek weekly. He says that over the past two months the “heroic myth” of Putin has been melting away: “He was a relative unknown who was promoted as a national hero, with the public being offered a system of myths – the strong leader sending troops to the Caucasus, reviving the economy, getting Russia off its knees, and so on.” Now, says Piontkovsky, this range of myths has been exhausted.

Meanwhile, despite all the efforts of leading “anti-Putinist” Boris Berezovsky, the West is euphoric: “They say everything in Russia is splendid, everything has been sorted out – there’s that wonderful Mr. Putin, he’s our friend and he’s keeping everything under control.”

But this peak of “Putinmania”, in Piontkovsky’s words, coincided with a period which may be considered a turning-point, to some extent. The political elite is starting to talk to the president in an entirely new tone. As an example, Piontkovsky points to Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov’s recent exchange of polemics with Putin about the economy. Piontkovsky notes: “In the Stalin era, any prime minister who did that would have been shot; in the Yeltsin era, he would have been dismissed within five minutes.”

But Putin is no Stalin, whatever the liberals might say of him; and it turns out that the Yeltsin era is gone forever. In this sense, the West’s euphoria seems justified. It’s a different matter entirely that the main threats to Putin come from Russia, not the West, according to Piontkovsky: “The real threat is that not a single one of Russia’s problems is actually being solved.”

The Novye Izvestia newspaper has published a translation of an article Boris Berezovsky wrote for “Figaro”, entitled “Fake Democracy in Moscow”.

Berezovsky says that since September 11, Vladimir Putin has been viewed as a partner by the West: a partner who is both reliable and stable, and a consistent reformer. It is thought that Putin’s Russia can do no wrong. “But does this mean that what Putin is doing is good for Russia?” Berezovsky has no doubt that Putin’s intentions are good. However, he considers it necessary to point out the contradications between “the image of innovation and stability which appears to surround Russia from the West’s point of view, and the extremely disappointing reality” which exists in Russia itself.

According to Berezovsky, all the political, judiciary, and military reforms of the Putin era run counter to the progress made under Yeltsin: all democratic reforms are being ignored in Russia these days, and Russian citizens are losing their fundamental civil liberties.

Moreover, in “betraying his democratic responsibilities”, according to Berezovsky, Putin is “betraying not only Russia, but the stability of the entire world order”. Thus, says Berezovsky, what the West ought to do in its relations with Putin is “push him toward the free and healthy development of Russia”.

Berezovsky was even more outspoken in an interview with “Business Week”: “Putin is attempting to establish an authoritatian regime in Russia. I am using my financial resources to create an opposition.”

According to “Business Week” (as quoted in Vek), Berezovsky plans “to spend $100 million on a political campaign designed to tarnish the image of the Russian president”.

Actually, attitudes in the West to Berezovsky’s political forecasts are ambivalent. According to “Die Welt”, the emigre experience is starting to have a negative impact on “the analytical abilities of this former talented mathematician”, who is now “often lagging behind events and failing to catch trends in the development of global politics”.

Leonid Radzikhovsky writes in Vremya MN: “Bitter is the bread of exile, even if one is exiled to a palace of one’s own, with a billion dollars in cash. The path of a Russian in exile is especially bitter.”

In Russia, Berezovsky was accustomed to not only being a member of the establishment, but shaping the establishment as he saw fit. But now Berezovsky must forget about his favorite political games: everyone in Russian politics has long since stopped heeding his insidious advice, while the Western establishment is closed to outsiders, especially to “Russian mafiosi”.

According to Radzikhovsky, it’s hard to find a parallel for Berezovsky’s lamentable position these days – the only possible comparison is Trotsky. But Trotsky based his oppositional stance on ideology; he was a fanatic, and a tragic figure. Berezovsky is obviously a hedonist, more of a tragi-comic figure, and “as time goes by, the comic component is becoming more pronounced”.

Radzikhovsky says that Berezovsky’s Liberal Russia party is reminiscent to the underground group called the Alliance of Swords and Ploughshares in “Twelve Chairs”, the famous novel by Ilf and Petrov, right down to similar plans of action: “Hang in there. The West will help us. We rely on public opinion.”

In general, as “Business Week” notes, “As long as Berezovsky has his millions, there will be something to see.”

The Russian media continues to predict “a hot autumn in politics for 2002”.

According to Kompaniya magazine, the two-year period of stability in the executive branch is drawing to a close. The president has tolerated the ongoing opposition between the St. Petersburg and the Family teams, up to a certain point, since it enabled him to take the advantageous position of arbiter. However, citing “sources in the presidential administration”, Kompaniya ventures to claim that “Putin is now beginning to realize the futility of such a pattern of governance”. The reason is simple: “Sooner or later, the absence of an economic policy has some clearly visible results; this has happened before in Russian history.”

In this situation, two personnel scenarios are possible: either backing one of the opposing teams, or eliminating the most controversial and disliked individuals from each of them.

By choosing the first option, the president would inevitably become dependent on the winners. But any attempt to implement the second option would meet fierce resistance from both sides. Kompaniya concludes: “Most likely, the identities of the most disliked individuals are being established right now.”

Anatoly Kostiukov, an observer for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, believes it is possible that the series of potential dismissals will open with that of the prime minister. Opinion polls have recorded a sudden leap in the prime minister’s approval rating; people are starting to see him as an independent political figure. The media has already picked Kasianov as a likely rival for Putin in a presidential election – perhaps as soon as 2004.

That is why some are predicting that Kasianov might resign as prime minister this autumn, in order to start preparing for a presidential campaign.

Kostiukov points out that those who are making such predictions show little interest in Kasianov’s own opinion on the matter: “Russian political history shows that the transformation of a modest, agreeable fellow team-member into a hard-line opponent is not at all dependent on the wishes of the person involved.” This kind of evolution happens “at the whim of some higher power, frequently against the wishes and interests of the chosen victim”.

Moreover, says Kostiukov, it is quite reasonable to speak of a certain degree of public demand being involved here: “The society assigns an individual to fulfill a certain socially necessary role; and the poor individual can’t avoid it. The individual doesn’t stand a chance when faced with the technique of compelling someone to play a specific role.” Whether the prime minister wants it or not, he is already being assigned the role of Putin’s rival.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, this indicates some substantial changes in public opinion: apparently, a distinct political demand has arisen for a real alternative to Putin (in pre-election analyses, Gennady Zyuganov is seen as more of a ritual opponent). For a popular president to dominate the political playing field during his allotted eight year, and then to appoint his own successor – this situation “has ceased to seem natural, or satisfactory”.

In an article marking another anniversary of August 1991, Vremya MN points out that for those who grew up in the Soviet era, the present system “is one of complete, unthinkable liberty (as the end of the Stalin era meant liberty for the previous generation)”. But the new generation will inevitably come to be aware of how incomplete and vulnerable this present liberty is. Therefore, further crises are unavoidable: “Until a system of rotation of power is established in our society, a system enabling discontent to be systematically expressed rather than building up, these crises will be dramatic and painful.” The new generation of voters will have to move toward elections with real alternatives: “Some day, this generation will for the first time elect a candidate who is neither already in power nor designated as a successor by the person who is in power.”

Vremya MN concludes that this will be a first in the thousand-year history of Russia. At the same time, it will be the last political crisis, “since from that point there will be calm transitions of power, with different forces taking turns at the top”.

What can we say to that? Blessed are those who have faith, for they shall keep warm – or even hot, especially during a “hot autumn in politics”.

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