THE GOVERNMENT AS A RODEO RIDER: OR, WHO WILL SAVE RUSSIA? (CORRECT ANSWER: ONLY WEALTHY AND VERY UNCONVENTIONAL PEOPLE WHO ARE LIBERALS IN PRACTICE)

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The national census scheduled for early October is rather like a face-to-face meeting between the citizenry and the state; and it seems to be making its organizers seriously alarmed. Not surprisingly – after all, as Profil magazine points out, this is the same state which abandoned its citizens to the mercy of fate in the early 1990s, but now wishes to resume the role of chief arbiter of their lives. It needs information to do this, of course – the numbers and types of people now living in Russia. An entirely natural wish.

However, the project is probably doomed to fail. This is unfortunate, says Profil, since reliable census data could serve as “an unflattering reflection of the state’s social policy”. Alas: Russian citizens have clearly understood that they don’t owe this state anything – they have the legal right not only to refrain from telling the whole truth about themselves, but also to simply refuse the census-takers entry to their homes.

The government appears to suspect that the people are refusing to trust it, in advance – and government statements about the forthcoming census sound rather plaintive: the government simply “lacks confidence in its own strength (i.e. legitimacy), and thus is being too delicate”.

According to Profil, the government may even be slightly afraid of the picture the census might paint: “After all, a nation which has managed to remain half in shadow for the past decade, where hundreds of cunning methods have been invented to evade taxes and avoid the excessive attention paid by state officials to any industrial enterprise, is certainly capable of serving up all kinds of surprises.” Thus, it would make sense for the government to declare in advance that any oddities uncovered by the census are not entirely legitimate: “because the census was carried out in very difficult conditions, so its results cannot be viewed as an argument for a major review of reform plans.”

At the same time, says Profil, a perfect opportunity for obtaining morale-boosting results would be lost: “In part, this might show that Russia is neither as impoverished nor as demoralized by the decade of reforms as popular media, caught up in their incomprehensible defeatism, attempt to portray.” There is little hope of that: opinion polls indicate that at least a quarter of Russian citizens will not open their doors to the census-takers.

Profil also looks at the results of a poll done by the Public Opinion Foundation on the question of whether the situation in Russia is improving: 35% of respondents say it is. Far fewer respondents (18%) say the opposite, and 8% are uncertain. However, 36% of respondents say that the situation remains unchanged. This indicates that at least 70% of respondents do not view the state of affairs in Russia as disastrous. Still, citizens are not overly optimistic.

A different picture emerges when an attempt is made to clarify exactly who is responsible for this less than inspiring picture: who is running the show in Russia today, according to ordinary citizens? A RosBiznesConsulting agency poll got some interesting results when it asked people who makes up the elite in Russian society: 28% of respondents confidently declared that the contemporary elite is made up of members of criminal organizations. A further 23% of respondents named the oligarchs, while only 8% named politicians.

Boris Berezovsky made some curious comments on current public attitudes in an interview with Kommersant after the premiere of “The Oligarch”, a film about him. Berezovsky said that the themes addressed by director Pavel Lungin were very relevant: “The idea that rich people don’t have to be beasts, that they can be free individuals and understand what it means to have a responsibility to your country.” However, Berezovsky acknowledged that the attempt to portray these ideas had not been entirely successful.

Berezovsky said that another film had made a much stronger impression on him: oddly enough, it was “Brother II”, a cult movie on the alternative youth scene in Russia. Berezovsky said it was right on target: “It expresses the mood of the entire younger generation in Russia today.” This mood is summed up by Berezovsky in one word: revenge – “whether we want it or not”. But Berezovsky says that in real life, rather than in a movie, this revenge cannot be the work of “an out-of-control killer like in Brother II”.

This “revenge in the positive sense of the word”, says Berezovsky, can only be the work of “wealthy and very unconventional people, like the hero of The Oligarch”. Moreover, they will not do it for the sake of anyone else – not for the people – but purely for themselves. Berezovsky says: “For me, ‘the people’ is an abstract concept. It has been important for me to make Russia into the kind of country I’d prefer it to be. Others also have the same aim, but they attempt to conceal it.”

It is worth noting that the latest mentions of Berezovsky in the media have generally been in connection with what Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov said about LogoVAZ illegally selling 2,033 Zhiguli cars in 1994-95. Novoe Vremya magazine points out that the Prosecutor General’s Office is emphasizing that the proceeds from the sale of these cars were used to purchase luxury homes near Moscow and stakes in media companies – the ORT and TV-6 television networks and Ogonek magazine. Novoe Vremya notes that the deal was not actually against the law at the time. (Only now, in the context of substantially altered business practice, can it be classified as a machination – “and only to a certain degree”.) So if the deal cannot be called dishonest, what difference does it make how the proceeds were spent?

The whole point here, according to Novoe Vremya, is that “Berezovsky keeps trying to fight the government”. And the government keeps making a show of “fighting Berezovsky”.

In fact, Berezovsky has promised repeatedly to “produce certain ultra-secret evidence and heart-stopping arguments against the current regime”. But he’s taking his time about it. And the government keeps trying to expose Berezovsky and conclusively “cast him down into political oblivion”. But something is holding it back.

It’s an extremely strange situation, says Novoe Vremya: “The exiled oligarch is silent about the real way the government operates. And his persecutors are silent about the oligarch’s real role in creating that system. Both sides claim to have masses of compromising evidence, but this has yet to be revealed to the public.”

According to Russkii Fokus magazine, the latest harassment of Berezovsky is probably linked to his recent interview with the Vedomosti newspaper, where he spoke of his stakes in various Russian companies, especially Russian Aluminum. The oligarch (calling him an ex-oligarch is quite inappropriate, he is still an influential magnate) declined to specify the size of his stake, saying only: “Enough for me to participate in decision-making.”. Russkii Fokus puts Berezovsky’s stake in Russian Aluminum at 25%.

In general, says Russkii Fokus, “it appears that the empires of Boris Berezovsky and his besieged business partners are not crumbling – on the contrary, they are becoming ever more organized and acquiring new assets.” This growth is not confined to Russia – it also includes Georgia, Ukraine, Latvia, and even Europe. “And as if to taunt the Kremlin, Boris Berezovsky speaks almost openly of this.” Especially since each “attack” from the Russian government means another chance for Berezovsky to draw public attention to himself, strengthening his image as a “political martyr” – in short, it’s great publicity.

Russkii Fokus comments: “The only remaining question is – surely the Russian government isn’t foolish enough to be unaware of this? So perhaps someone in the Kremlin wants this to happen?”

Vladimir Makanin, a well-known author, considers that the widespread opinion about all the government’s actions having a hidden and ominous significance is just a bad habit left over from the Soviet era.

In an interview with Vremya MN, Makanin says: “The Soviet regime got us used to the idea that there was some kind of plot behind everything that happened. An evil plot. And even though the Soviet regime is gone, we’ll remain once bitten, twice shy for a long time to come.”

As for the present government, Makanin says the situation here is fairly straightforward. “The government is like an amateur rodeo rider. It’s not really in control of the horse at all – it’s just trying to avoid being thrown off. It’s twisting around, digging its heels in, waving its hands around, rolling its eyes and backside – simply in order to stay in the saddle.”

Understandably enough, in this situation the government’s actions are frequently short on careful planning and consistency; and its resources do not stretch as far as logical, precise political pirouetting or complex intrigues.

On the other hand, simply because the government is the government, all of its actions – even the least comprehensible – will find people ready to interpret them, honor them, or denounce them.

It should also be noted that a Russian oligarch can only be a “political martyr” in the eyes of the West. In Russia, even a movie based on the idea that “rich people don’t have to be beasts” will be viewed skeptically – and the attitude to rich people in real life goes without saying.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta looks at more poll results from the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM). This time, the poll followed the publication of “rich lists” in foreign media: some Russian business leaders were included among the world’s richest people. As expected, almost half (43%) of respondents who support the Communist Party admitted to hating the rich. Nezavisimaya Gazeta says this is natural enough: “They’re communists, after all.” What’s much more interesting is that around a quarter of United Russia supporters also experience class hatred for Russia’s rich. Nezavisimaya Gazeta attributes this to the fact that United Russia is seeking voters “on a part of the electoral playing field which is close to the Communist Party”. Hence the slogans of United Russia: fighting the oligarchs and regional barons.

Paradoxically, United Russia “is made up of those whom it is calling on the people to fight”; it is funded by Russian oligarchs and regional barons who are seeking political support.

Of course, the pro-government party doesn’t acknowledge this officially. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the difference between United Russia and other parties is that no one knows whom United Russia represents or whom it supports – other than Vladimir Putin.

The party’s main slogan – “We are for Putin” – is clearly a sure winner. Given the president’s approval rating, any political movement which says it supports him will win some votes. However, if a party reduces all its political activity to supporting any action taken by the government, that party is completely and voluntarily rejecting any kind of ideological platform at all.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta says: “United Russia views the role of political weathervane as advantageous at the moment, but that is precisely the flaw that has destroyed all Russia’s pro-government parties over the past decade.” According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, United Russia has only one goal these days: quantity. “It is seeking to attract as many supporters as possible. To expand its electorate right up to the borders of the radical left and radical right – and then work things out somehow from there.”

The face of the pro-government party determines the face of the Duma to a considerable extent.

Novoe Vremya magazine notes that every meeting of the present Duma is a real “festival of obedience”. How do today’s members of the lower house differ from their predecessors? The thought of any form of political radicalism doesn’t even enter their heads. The third Duma will never threaten to impeach the president, as its predecessor, the second Duma, did in 1999. This Duma will never threaten to mutiny against the president, as the Duma did in 1998, demanding that “the prime minister should be the Duma’s choice”. According to Novoe Vremya, Duma members are now interested in only one thing: the elections scheduled for the end of 2003. That is why they are “methodically preparing for that date (having agreed to reorient themselves to any other date, if that is what the Kremlin decrees)”.

On the other hand, the actions of previous versions of the Duma, stormy and unstable, were not always predictable, which lent some interest to Russian politics, “forcing people to pay attention – with a racing pulse – to power-struggles and the weaving of intrigues”.

But now it is clearer than ever before that the Russian parliament has never been the center of serious decision-making. “But the parliament used to be a discussion club, at least partially open to the public, where the ideas of various groups among the leaders were compared. Now these ideas are compared elsewhere, usually behind closed doors.”

Most importantly, according to Novoe Vremya, the parliament “has also ceased to be a feedback mechanism for public opinion (that is, if we assume it ever was, even partially)”.

Meanwhile, attitudes at various levels of “the hierarchy of governance” are in striking contrast to attitudes “on the ground”.

In commenting on recent protests in Moscow and Kiev, the Vek weekly has unexpectedly concluded they have something in common.

In Ukraine, public protest – taking the form of “stormy, radical insurrection” – “has been skilfully channelled against President Leonid Kuchma”. But in Russia, given the president’s high popularity rating, there can be no talk of attacks on the Kremlin: “so protests erupt like volcanoes all over the place”. There have been two recent eruptions in Moscow: the riots on Manezh Square, apparently triggered by the Russian soccer team’s loss to Japan, and clashes between leftist protesters and police on Triumph Square.

But Vek points out that the protests in Russia and Ukraine have at least two common features.

Firstly, in both countries pre-election interests are serving as the backdrop for outrage, and a powerful stimulus for it. “How do you attract voters, win them to your side, when you can’t actually offer them anything by way of real, constructive alternatives? Everyone knows how. The destructive type of revolutionary is incapable of being constructive, and has no wish to be; but such a person is no less power-hungry than a constructive revolutionary.”

Moreover, according to Vek, “the pararevolutionary outbursts in both Ukraine and Russia are amazingly well-integrated into global trends”.

Indeed, the start of the new century has been marked by another upswing of protest, one of history’s regular cycles – of the same type as the one in the 1960s which generated “the sweeping crime and terrorism of the Red Brigades on the one hand, and the spread of hippies, youth pacifism, and student protests on the other”.

Today’s protest are called anti-globalization, but the name is not all that important: “The stream of protest has begun to flow primarily because its time has come, as specified by the cycle.” The specific reasons are not really significant.

The main difference between Moscow and Kiev is that the Ukrainian government lack the “containment resources” required to maintain the status quo. “Thus, the problem is less urgent for Moscow. Still, the problem itself is not being solved.”

The outlook is not reassuring: “The elections are coming up – and they will take place at a time of rising opposition sentiments in society.” Thus, it is quite possible that “pre-election processes will become more radicalized” (though it would seem they have already gone far enough), and we may expect “more and more revolutionary outbreaks – left, ultra-right, and many other kinds”.

Vek points out that it doesn’t seem as if the government is ready to meet this new threat: “Aren’t we relying rather too much on President Putin’s infallibly high approval rating?”

However, those at the top are experiencing some level of unease, apparently. Some evidence of this may be found, for example, in rumors leaked to the media about the imminent replacement of Alexander Veshnyakov as chairman of the Central Election Commission (CEC).

The Vremya MN paper attempts to figure out why the Kremlin has started disliking Veshnyakov. The paper stresses, “He has repeatedly demonstrated his competence and full loyalty to the present government.” The results of all elections since 1999 have met the Kremlin’s requirements. Disagreeable rivals have been disqualified from the elections “politely and pleasantly”. Undoubtedly, the present CEC head is ready for new trials. Besides, it is obvious that Putin does not have a real alternative at the election. If we take into account the complete nationalization of the central television networks and the absence of a serious opposition, it becomes clear that “The Kremlin will win the election more easily than the war in Chechnya.” Moreover, the victory has already been won – now the authorities only have to wait for the parliamentary and presidential elections.

However, the Veshnyakov problem proves that the Kremlin is still concerned about something. At the same time, Vremya MN says, to some extent this anxiety is being stirred up by political consultants in order to “increased the value of their services – they are trying to create ‘problems’ in order to easily ‘neutralize’ them, for a high fee”.

Nonetheless, Vremya MN thinks the authorities have serious reasons to be concerned. The main issue is the expectance of a serious economic recession, for instance, if the oil prices fall as a result of the US anti-Iraq operation. In this case, the authorities may have serious problems by the time of the elections. That is why it is necessary to strengthen the Central Election Committee in advance, in order to be on the safe side.

Moreover, the government’s opponents are preparing for serious competition at the elections and the authorities will need some form of “safety belt”.

At Saturday’s congress of the Liberal Russia party, party sponsor Boris Berezovsky once again confirmed that he is planning to spend over $100 million on creating the party: “as he cannot see any other organization in Russia which is able to implement his liberal ideas.”

However, Berezovsky’s new supporter, Valeria Novodvorskaya, who has recently joined Liberal Russia together with her Democratic Union in order to “save Russia”, tried to make her associates feel a sense of shame: “We should consider Boris Berezovsky as our fellow-fighter instead of a cash cow.”

Moreover, there are serious concerns about good coordination of the “fellow-fighters’ actions”. As it turns out, Boris Berezovsky “disagrees with what is happening to Liberal Russia”. At the same time, the leaders of the party will not give up their opinions for anything, not even the offer of $100 million for party-building. For example, unlike other democrats, Viktor Pokhmelkin recently voted in favor of banning referendums during pre-election years; not because of a fear of destabilizing the situation in the lead-up to elections, but because Pokhmelkin thinks that “a referendum is not a liberal tool”. At the same time, his “comrade in arms” Berezovsky is entirely convinced that a referendum is a “most important mechanism in a democratic state, and rejection of this mechanism would lead to strengthening the authoritarian regime in Russia.”

There are other discrepancies as well. In particular, Sergey Yushenko is not prepared to support the election initiative of leader of the Union of Right Forces Boris Nemtsov. The point here is that the Liberal Russia considers the Union of Right Forces its ally, despite all disagreements. Nemtsov has proposed that the liberal forces should nominate a single presidential candidate, based on the results of the parliamentary election: the party which gets the most votes will nominate the presidential candidate.

Yushenko strongly disagrees with the proposal: he thinks the single candidate from the democratic forces should be “the person who is the most democratic and liberal in practice, not on the basis of the number of votes”. Yushenkov had no suggestions to offer about how such a candidate could be selected – but, apparently, there is such a person, and we know who he is…

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