WAR IN IRAQ AND ELECTIONS IN RUSSIA: JUST AS COMRADE STALIN PRESCRIBED

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While the war in Iraq has retreated slightly from the front pages this week, it still remains one of the big topics for the Russian media.

“Kommersant-Vlast” magazine did the figures: during the first week of the war, there were 1,432 articles about it in 22 national newspapers and seven magazines.

In 256 (18%) of these, the actions of the United States and Britain were described as aggression. However, only 14% of the articles covered battles or armed clashes. A significantly higher number (30%) were devoted to oil.

According to “Kommersant-Vlast”, casualties of the war were mentioned in only 14% of the articles, and destruction in only 8%. The Russian press has even less interest in the fate of the Iraqi people: the term “civilians” was used in only 5% of the articles.

However, it is well known that television has more influence on public opinion than the newspapers do. And images captioned “Iraq War” never left the screens. The attacks on Baghdad and Basra, their consequences, reports of missiles gone astray, the wounded in Iraq’s hospitals (none of them bearing any resemblance to Saddam’s cut-throats), anti-war protests in Europe and the United States itself – all this has had an impact.

Not surprisingly, a VTsIOM poll reported in the “Vremya Novostei” newspaper reveals that over half of respondents believe the war in Iraq could escalate into a world war.

“Vremya Novostei” notes that President Putin has been fairly restrained in his comments on US actions in Iraq; contrary to the expectations of the radicals, he only described the start of the military operation as “a big mistake”.

Nevertheless, according to “Vremya Novostei”, the consequences of that mistake will have to be dealt with by others besides President George W. Bush.

Firstly, says “Vremya Novostei”, the Russian military lobby will undoubtedly not lose this opportunity to demand a further rise in status for the security and law enforcement agencies, as well as drastic increases in defense spending.

What’s more, Russian political parties – especially United Russia and associated centrist groups – “might suddenly realize that the tricolor needs some extra red”.

And overall, an upswing in anti-American attitudes in the lead-up to elections could cost Russia dearly – after all, Putin’s pro-West foreign policy agenda is known to have been his main trump card, at least in the eyes of the more competent part of the Russian elite.

However, as “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” notes, “it seems that even in Soviet times we never saw such consistent, pervasive anti-Americanism”.

Of course, Russia has no intention of ending strategic partnership with America, says “Vremya Novostei”; but pursuing such policies while a wave of “americaphobia” sweeps the country will be substantially more difficult.

“NG-Regiony” (a supplement to “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”) reports that the rise in anti-American attitudes is being reported virtually nationwide. True, things haven’t gone as far as they did during the war in Serbia: people aren’t burning American flags or volunteering to fight. The protests are taking more unusual forms.

For example, in a number of Russian cities – from Taganrog to Kstov – various providers of services are making demonstrative statements about refusing service to US citizens – providing any US citizens are in the area, of course.

So far, lacking any opportunity to express their objections directly to anyone from the US military, Russian citizens have only been producing graffiti insulting the United States.

There have been a few anti-war demonstrations (in Kazan, Krasnoyarsk, and St. Petersburg), but they were very small. Despite being alarmed by the start of the military operation, Russian citizens are clearly taking the approach summed up by a headline in “Izvestia”: “This isn’t our war.”

“Kommersant-Vlast” attempted to answer this question: why, when VTsIOM polls show 85% opposition to the war, there are no public protests in Russia like there are in Europe.

“Kommersant-Vlast” points out a Russian historical tradition: people don’t turn out on the streets to demonstrate on their own initiative, but only when called upon to do so by “the party and the government”. As noted above, the Kremlin is holding back from issuing any such calls. So are the political parties, as it turns out, for all their interest in what might be some very advantageous pre-campaign PR.

A source in the United Russia party staff, who prefers to remain anonymous, told “Kommersant-Vlast”: “Essentially, we are the president’s party. And the Kremlin is describing the war as a violation of international law, not as aggression. In other words, if we called on people to demonstrate against it, we would be letting the president down.”

The Communists have made some attempts to protest against the war in Iraq, but these have not been very successful. According to Ivan Melnikov, deputy chairman of the CPRF central committee, it would be futile to count on large numbers of people taking to the streets right now: “At the moment, people have no great desire to demonstrate about international issues: everyone is more concerned about Russia’s domestic problems.” Moreover, the opposition, which always complains about difficulties in obtaining permits for demonstrations, fears that in the present situation – “when the president has taken a cautious stance towards the United States” – permits would simply be denied.

The democratic parties are even more neutral.

Sergei Ivanenko, Yabloko faction leader in the Duma, considers that Russian citizens clearly are not inclined to take part in demonstrations. Ivanenko said: “In order for a demonstration to take place, people have to want to demonstrate. Meanwhile, the government is being very cautious in its opposition to the war, and the latest polls show that citizens are cautiously supporting the president’s policies.”

The Union of Right Forces has its own motives for showing restraint. Boris Nemtsov told “Kommersant-Vlast”: “We might oppose the war in Iraq. But at the moment we have no wish to be part of the general anti-American hysteria.”

Nemtsov agrees that America is posing a threat to the sovereignty of all nations; but he considers that in condemning America’s foreign policy, “it is important to avoid going to ludicrous extremes”.

Thus, as “Kommersant-Vlast” concludes, practically all the parties are blaming the president for their own inaction. The loyalist parties are prevented from calling people out on the streets by the lack of any instructions to that effect from the Kremlin. The opposition is hampered by the public’s inconsistency: on the one hand, people condemn the American president’s policies, but on the other, they don’t want to let their own president down by any unsanctioned protests.

“Kommersant-Vlast” notes: “Neither Saddam Hussein nor Russian political parties are capable of shaking the people’s love for President Putin.”

According to “Novaya Gazeta” observer Andrei Piontkovsky, ever since it became clear that the American blitzkrieg in Iraq wasn’t working, “the prevailing attitude among the Russian elite – imposed via television on the rest of society – has been triumphantly malicious joy.”

Piontkovsky quotes “a Kremlin media pool correspondent” as saying that the president’s team is especially proud of the successful referendum in Chechnya against the backdrop of the US operation becoming drawn out, with many casualties among coalition troops as well as civilians.

However, while various TV polls indicate that most viewers want Iraq to win, Piontkovsky says this will not happen: “The Americans won’t go away, because now there is nowhere for them to go.” One way or another, the United States will manage to overthrow Saddam Hussein and install a pro-American regime – even though this might be more costly than the Americans had anticipated.

This is due to some serious miscalculations in both the political and military planning of the operation. And in this sense, stresses Piontkovsky, President Putin is correct to speak of the United States making “a big political mistake”.

However, Russia should be wary of the present wave of “open anti-Americanism”. This has to be understood: if America has made a mistake, it is “a mistake made by our key partner in the global coalition, whose defeat would mean a defeat for the whole coalition, which would pose a great danger for all its participants, including Russia.” This awareness is the main reason for the Russian government’s restraint in its assessment of US actions.

Unfortunately, says Piontkovsky, restraint does not come naturally to television: “That is the nature of the genre in this most important of the arts.” Rational thought is not in demand there; “the ten minutes, half-hours, or many hours of hate for the United States now sweeping from channel to channel look so much more impressive.”

Piontkovsky says all this creates the impression that Russia’s political consultants have abandoned previous efforts to use Chechnya for the purpose of consolidating society, and are preparing “a new consolidation of the nation – this time based on anti-Americanism.”

This places President Putin in a difficult position. If he ignores the rising tide of anti-American hysteria and attempts to maintain relations with the United States, this might be interpreted as evidence that he is weak and prepared to make further concessions to Russia’s powerful partner.

But if Putin goes with the anti-American flow, that would be a clear break with the stance he has taken ever since September 11. “All his opponents would immediately rush into this political breach – everyone from the Communists to that exile in London – reminding him of US bases in Central Asia, and our abandoned bases in Vietnam and Cuba, and many other ‘concessions’ made to what would now be Russia’s acknowledged Number One Enemy.”

In other words, as Piontkovsky warns, “anti-American hysteria could lead Russia into a dead end for domestic politics as well as foreign policy.”

However, as Kirill Rogov writes in the “Vedomosti” newspaper, it’s really hard not to be anti-American these days. The Russian public is annoyed by “all their conceit, and how accustomed they are to victory with few casualties on their side, and their arrogance, and their sense of superiority.”

Moreover, says Rogov, in Russia virtually no thought is being given to the meaning Americans themselves attach to the war; Russian commentary is restricted to “high-minded analysis” of “the true goals of the war on Iraq (oil, overcoming the recession, political dominance, and George W. Bush’s domestic political problems)”.

Yet if we look more closely at the official rhetoric of the US administration, it turns out that it’s by no means entirely meaningless.

The Americans claim that the old “doctrine of restraint” has become obsolete since September 11. This is because the major threat is now posed not by global superpowers, but by marginalized regimes which aim to obtain weapons of mass destruction – since that would make them invulnerable.

Kirill Rogov asks: “Would you like to see Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden – or eventually, inevitably, Shamil Basaev – in possession of a nuclear bomb?” Yet it is impossible to avert this threat within the framework of international law as it stands; all we can do is silently watch the threat draw closer.

“Vedomosti” emphasizes that this is the reasoning behind “the Bush doctrine – a doctrine of preventive, pre-emptive warfare”. “Vedomosti” describes this reasoning as “virtually incontestable”.

“Vedomosti” concludes that America is essentially fighting two wars at once. “One war is overt: against ‘uncontrollable regimes’. The other war is psychological and ideological: against its own civilized northern hemisphere partners, who hold the principle of equal rights sacred and firmly reject the new imperialism.”

According to “Vedomosti”, wishing for America’s defeat in the former war in the hope of thereby securing a victory in the latter is nothing other than “childishness and a clear sign of powerlessness”.

It isn’t hard to see that the views of “Vedomosti”, a newspaper expressing the interests of medium-sized and big business in Russia, are close to the stance taken by the Union of Right Forces and its leaders.

Similar views are expressed by “Kommersant”.

The general view that the United States is fighting for oil in Iraq is only partially true, says “Kommersant”. The strategic goal of the US is to rule out the possibility of any further terrorist attacks like those on New York: “The whole point is that September 11 and Mideast oil are closely connected.”

As everyone knows, modern terrorism involves the use of costly technology. The existence of an organization capable of perpetrating terrorist attacks like those on New York (the official count of terrorists directly involved is 19) requires vast amounts of money. The Americans rapidly identified the source of that money: oil from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies. The Saudis themselves no longer deny that money transferred from Saudi Arabia for “charity purposes” essentially goes towards supporting international terrorist organizations.

However, the United States cannot go to war against Saudi Arabia: “Kommersant” says this would be like shooting at the gas tank of your own car.

Obviously, financial support for international terrorists will not stop until oil prices fall. And everyone knows that Iraq’s oil reserves are comparable to those of Saudi Arabia.

In other words, according to “Kommersant”, Saddam Hussein has simply been unlucky: were it not for those oil reserves, “he would have been left alone, like many other dictators”. However, the Americans are now trying to pull out the entire chain by grasping one link: Iraq. So they will not back down from their goals: to take control of Iraq’s oil, then bring oil prices down so far that the oil sheikhs won’t be able to afford to sponsor terrorism. And, of course, to ensure that oil prices are at optimal levels for the needs of the US economy.

According to “Kommersant”, after Iraq it will be the turn of the entire Middle East: the Americans intend to ensure that no further threat to their national interests ever emerges from there. “They will have to replace another two or three inconvenient regimes, and make peace between the Israelis and the Arabs – since as long as they are fighting, no one will be at peace.” These are the plans of the United States, according to “Kommersant”.

Understandably, if those plans are carried out, the future looks gloomy for Russia; its budget revenues are significantly dependent on petro-dollars. Russia’s much-praised stability – acknowledged as the current regime’s major achievement – could be threatened.

However, says “Novaya Gazeta”, victory in the elections is more than a matter of having reliable administrative resources, sufficient money, and effective PR. It is also important to “guess the main theme of the election campaign”.

In the early Yeltsin era, that theme was stamping out privileges (if anyone remembers).

In the late Yeltsin era, it was the threat of a Communist comeback.

Putin’s first election campaign used the slogan of “Death to the Chechen terrorists!”

But now all of the above, including Chechnya, has exhausted its usefulness. The president’s team is facing a dilemma: as “Novaya Gazeta” observer Pavel Voshchanov points out, voters are essentially concerned about the same issues that concerned them a year ago, or five years ago. “The cost of living keeps rising, people have less money in their pockets, and the regime grows ever more complacent. Overall, nothing has changed.”

Clearly, new elections will require new promises to voters. However, voters have been growing more skeptical and apathetic with every year: it is feared that “the multi-colored ranks of electoral battalions” will only look like a “faceless talking horde” to voters.

A successful election campaign requires a trump card, and the war in Iraq could turn out to be that trump card for Russian politicians. That war offers the opportunity to get through both the parliamentary and presidential election campaigns “without any emphasis on domestic political issues”. It may be confidently predicted that everything will focus on one theme: the omnipotence and arrogance of America.

Voshchanov predicts: “Mildly – so as not to annoy Bush too much – Russian voters will be asked to approve a new political doctrine, essentially as follows: Russia Uber Alles!”

This means that Russia’s national interests must be reliably defended, not only from enemies, but from anti-terrorism coalition partners. “In order to achieve this, Russian capitalists will have to share a few things after all, while ordinary citizens will have to go without a few things.” What’s more, all Russian citizens, regardless of income level or social status, will have to rally around the president. “There’s no other option: the Motherland is in danger!”

Voshchanov also notes that talk of national interests is inevitably accompanied by nationalism: protecting the interests of ethnic Russians, against a backdrop of rising immigration, could become a key issue at the next elections.

Voshchanov accuses Russian politicians of incompetence: the Communists are trying to scare the public with visions of more intense social conflict, the Agrarians are predicting battles over agriculture, the Union of Right Forces is predicting increased brain-drain and capital flight if liberal reforms are not completed.

However, according to Voshchanov, the real threat – not only to Russia, but to the entire Old World – lies primarily in “the rapidly-changing ethnic composition of society, whereby immigrants who cannot be integrated into society are becoming a majority, dominating the native ethnic group.” This is the underlying source of future conflicts.

Therefore, says Voshchanov, President Bush is mistaken if he considers that victory in Iraq will resolve anything: “Alas, things will only get worse. New Osama bin Ladens and Saddams will arise.” Technological progress has made the world too vulnerable, but no ways have yet been found for people of different races to live side by side in peace.

Thus, according to “Novaya Gazeta”, we can predict that nationalism will gather strength, and that “Russia is pregnant with its own equivalents of Le Pen”. With every election campaign, there is more and more demand for that particular type of politician – therefore, such a politician is bound to appear soon.

Meanwhile, the media marked three years in office for President Putin on March 26.

“Kommersant-Vlast” magazine asked some prominent politicians, business leaders, journalists, and political analysts to answer an interesting question: “What is Putin doing wrong?”

As “Kommersant-Vlast” notes, criticizing the president has been out of fashion for exactly three years – but still…

The main complaint against Putin (as expressed by Sergei Stankevich, a member of the Union of Right Forces political council) has long been known: “He has failed to form a political team of his own. He has no clear personnel strategy, and all his actions are more like tactical personnel changes than really creating a team.”

Another, no less serious reproach (this time expressed by Georgy Satarov, president of the InDem Foundation): “Putin is destroying political competition, reducing transparency in government, and restricting freedom of speech.”

Olga Romanova, a journalist with the Ren TV network: “He isn’t fighting nationalism – on the contrary, he is provoking the appearance of professional patriots and loyalists.”

Alexander Livshitz, deputy general director of Russian Aluminum: “He hasn’t defeated inflation. It’s higher now than it was in 1997. The people have their own ways of keeping count, and those figures look worse than the official statistics.”

Duma member Alexander Salii: “He was, and is, the appointee of a political group which manipulates him. Three years ago, I said that if he failed to get rid of all of them within a year, he would be a weak politician. It’s been three years, and he hasn’t done it.”

In short, it’s a comprehensive range of accusations.

Meanwhile, as poll results from the all-knowing National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) indicate – cited in “Gazeta” – the people basically haven’t changed their attitude to the president at all over the past three years. Confidence in him has only risen: in 2001, 70% of respondents fully trusted Putin, while the figure in 2003 is 74%. The number of those who don’t trust Putin has stayed steady at just under 20%.

However, not all of the president’s ratings are rising: “Gazeta” reports that 21% of respondents approved of his policy on Chechnya in 21%, but only 8% do so now. The number of respondents who believe Putin has no clear political agenda has doubled: from 4% to 8%.

VTsIOM polls show that at the start of his term in office, 29% of respondents liked Putin; now, the figure is 35%.

The “Vremya MN” newspaper comments on these results: “Of course, from the standpoint of tactical election campaign objectives, such a picture of public opinion is ideal for a repeat of what was achieved in 2000. After all, besides indicating that society is calm, it also means that the wave of positive expectations which Putin rode to power remains strong. But that is the problem: expectations are fairly fragile things.”

They are especially fragile against the backdrop of the war in Iraq. Anatoly Chubais, head of Russian Joint Energy Systems, is quoted in “Izvestia” as saying that a drawn-out war could turn into a real catastrophe for the global economy, including Russia (while the consequences of a brief war might be “bad, but not disastrous”).

However, says “Izvestia”, no Russian politician is likely to risk admitting that the real catastrophe – for Russia as well, once again! – would be if the United States lost the war.

According to “Izvestia”, that would lead not only to a global economic crisis, but, more importantly, to the collapse of the entire contemporary “value system”; followed by a rapid rise in “aggressive anti-Western Islamist attitudes” around the world.

For Russia, that would entail the risk of another Chechnya situation: “This time extending across the whole North Caucasus, together with destabilization in Central Asia, nuclear-armed Pakistan, Iran, and so on.”

Obviously, given this prospect, it would be hard for President Putin – who once called for “terrorists to be killed off in the toilets” – to count on truimphant success.

The only alternative, says “Izvestia”, is a rapid victory for the United States.

Thus, the choice is reduced to two options: “It’s something like what Comrade Stalin once described so memorably as a choice between ‘worse and worse’.”

This has not been the only Stalin quote in the newspapers recently. Virtually every newspaper has mentioned another of his famous expressions, related to the preferred methods of waging war: “With little bloodshed, with a powerful strike, and on somebody else’s territory.”

Why is it that at each new spiral of our problems, somebody can successfully quote the wise adages of Stalin?

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