THE STAGNATION OF THE PUTIN ERA: THE END OF DEMOCRACY OR THE OVERTURE TO A NEW POLITICAL PERFORMANCE?

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The political season is over. The Duma has gone on vacation, having finished its season with some outstanding displays involving Duma members Zhirinovsky and Fedulov participated.

The president met with journalists before the summer political recess, as usual, apparently having realized that it is finally necessary to clarify some points.

According to media reports, 700 journalists attended Putin’s summer news conference: 230 from foreign media, 140 journalists from Moscow media, and others from the provinces. According to Gazeta, this event is the pride of “Kremlin propagandists”, who like to stress that other major worls leader, e.g. George W. Bush, do not communicate with journalists in such an informal way, or speak with the people on air as Putin did in December.

For three hours, trying to be tolerant and convincing, the president answered 48 questions: like an experienced teacher giving a lesson to excited schoolchildren. According to Vremya Novostei, there were no provoking questions among them, and the answers were calm and simple too.

A question about prolongation of the term of presidency was asked. On the one hand, Putin said that five years would be better. H said, “Two times for five years would make the situation more stable” (as Gazeta has quoted him). However, the president does not intend to change the length of the presidential tenure. This measure will require amendments to the Constitution, “which is much worse than the four-year term.”

The president does not intend to enter any political parties (which seems unfortunate for United Russia). He also noted diplomatically that he has not made a decision on running for re-election so far – but if he does, he will be independent of any parties.

As for the Cabinet, it is doing well, whatever its critics may say. “I’d like it to perform better, but on the whole, the government’s activities should be considered satisfactory,” the president said.

Another sensitive question was that about the “government of the parliamentary majority”. He formulated everything here rather cautiously too. He said, “The head of the government should be approved by the State Duma. But it is impossible to do it if the candidate for prime minister is not supported by the majority.” Putin noted that there is nothing new about it.

In general, the meeting with journalists gave the impression of a group therapy session. He even appealed to journalists not to demonize tycoons. He said, “If this issue is viewed from the optimistic side, we’ll see that if large companies are working within the framework of law, they are working for the benefit of the country. They develop the economy, create jobs, and develop new technologies to some extent.” Moreover, such companies may serve as an example for other sectors of the economy in a way. “From this point of view, they certainly affect the nation’s economy and politics.”

However, radical attempts of tycoons to influence Russian politics for their own benefit are certainly negative. Putin noted philosophically that from his viewpoint, “the well-known ‘equidistancing’ of various representatives of big business from government agencies is still in place”. As for those who are displeased with this situation, the president said that some of them are gone already.

This was the most caustic statement made by Putin at the conference. Others were made in an optimistic tone.

For instance, Putin spoke about doubling the GDP in the next decade: “If you ask for money, ask more, and you’ll be given as much as you ask.” The same concerned tasks: “It is necessary to set substantial and far-reaching goals: in that case, we may make a little progress.” Thus, not everything is so mysterious and scary as it seemed in the beginning.

“The main conclusion which the president’s press conference was intended to convey is that the situation in Russia really is stable,” notes Vremya Novostei. Anyway, the issue of stability was the central one at the conference, and Putin commented on all innovations from that perspective.

This is not surprising, since it is stability that was expected from Putin after the era of Yeltsin’s “curves” and “shifts”.

The social order has been fulfilled: stability seems to be evident. Over the past few months, even rather considerable economic growth has been noticed, as if it was dated for the election campaign.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a permanent opponent of the government, has called this growth a sensation. According to calculations of the State Statistics Committee, the growth of the GDP in the first quarter was 6.8%. This is a very large figure, since economic indexes in January-March are usually the lowest in the year. If the tempo remained at the same level, this year could set a record and could be compared with the year 2000, i.e. the year of the post-crisis restoration.

However, the tempo started to dwindle in April notwithstanding the experience of the past few years. The newspaper concludes that this fact means that the unprecedented figure was not a result of the government’s sequential efforts. This was just a result of a favorable but occasional set of circumstances.

Indeed, the increase of oil prices at the start of the year should not be forgotten, as well as the increase of the rate of the euro and reduction of import from Europe as a result of it. These factors created favorable conditions for Russian producers.

Besides, the official statistics solemnly declared the increase of people’s incomes by 15%. However, Vremya Novostei experts have noted that 15% is an exaggeration caused by the imperfectness of methods used by the State Statistics Committee and that the actual figure is 10%. This figure is caused by the increase of incomes of trade.

However, there are two circumstances that sadden the picture.

First, as the newspaper Vedomosti has noted, there are no grounds for thinking that the development of the economy by inertia will continue to be as successful, at least in the midrange prospect. Oil prices will inevitably decrease. The country still faces the serious task: “to upgrade competitiveness of processing branches of industry.” This implies inevitability of painful structural reforms.

Vedomosti stresses that “the main resource of the government is still Vladimir Putin’s personal popularity, and it has not dared to exchange it for ‘hard’ reforms”. Probably this exchange will take place after the elections, provided their results will make it possible for the president to control the Duma.

At the same time, the newspaper notes that the government should not be so confident that this resource will last for long. The second circumstance is connected with this resource and it does not allow to share the optimism of the government.

According to the data of the All-Russian Public Opinion Study Center (VTsIOM) quoted by Vedomosti, the index of social spirits showing if people are pleased with their situation has been steadily decreasing for the past few months.

This is a strange result, and it looks even stranger against the background of indexes of the stable economic growth. Vedomosti explains that the dynamics of this index usually forestalls the dynamics of the economic statistics half a year ahead. People usually notice worsening or improvement of living earlier that statistics register these facts.

Currently, 70% of Russians are displeased with their situation, and two thirds of them do not hope for any improvements in the future.

At the same time, two-thirds of respondents have noticed the general improvement of the economic situation in the country. People see the economic growth but do not view it as something having to do with them. Vedomosti stresses, “We are facing the phenomenon of secret growth: indexes show it, but people do not notice this growth.”

The topic of disappointment with the government has been heard in comments on the failed vote of no confidence for the government. Observers agree that the matter concerns a propagandist action launched by Yabloko and the Communist Party to gain extra votes in the elections. Initiators of this campaign hoped for the electoral reserve, at the expense of which the parties wanted to upgrade their ratings.

Dmitry Oreshkin (the group Mercator), answering the question in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, mentions the growth of disappointment with reforms among those who are generally called the “tail area electorate” of Yabloko.

According to Oreshkin, the number of “former democrats” is increasing: these people understand that democracy exists, but they have not gotten anything from it personally. The Yabloko leader has also highlighted his dissatisfaction with the present situation, and so he is likely to be supported by those who disapprove of this situation too. The matter mostly concerns city residents, specialists, and people with a higher education who have not found their place in the new situation.

On the other hand, Oreshkin believes that the Communists are also changing the structure of their electorate. He said, “Earlier, the Communists were supported by pensioners who longed for the past, while now they have been joined by state sector employees who have realized that their salary will not be more than three thousand rubles per months and so they have no more prospects.”

Some people from the Communists’ electorate view them as a parliamentary faction struggling for their interests by parliamentary methods. Therefore, the project of the no confidence vote was a more effective propagandist action for them than for Yabloko. “They have been noticed as social-democrats but not as a party of barricades,” Oreshkin has said.

In the opinion of Nezavisimaya Gazeta experts, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov also benefited from the failed no confidence vote. According to Valery Khomyakov (from the ARPI think-tank), having gone through the test of the no confidence vote, Kasianov has changed from “a purely technical prime minister into a leading political player in Russia”.

Among the losers is certainly the United Russia party, which did not support the no confidence motion. It has been disgraced, since all its criticism of the government has been exposed as phony.

Besides, as leader of the Union of Right Forces (URF) Boris Nemtsov told a Gazeta correspondent, it sounds like a “split personality” when Boris Gryzlov, a member of the government, criticizes the government.

In his view, Gryzlov acts this way because he was appointed to his position directly by Putin: he is a minister directly subordinate to the president.

According to Nemtsov’s calculations, half of Cabinet ministers are “special” because they are from St. Petersburg (heads of the Federal Security Service, Defense Ministry, and Interior Ministry). Kasianov cannot manage such a government, it seems: it is actually controlled by the president. But politicians do not dare criticize the president, since his rating is still high. As for criticizing Kasianov, that is pointless – but not dangerous.

As for the actions of Yabloko and the Communist Party, Nemtsov called them a false start of the election campaign.

In his view, the nation is now divided into two parties: the party of losers and the party of winners. Yabloko and the CPRF are the losers. Nemtsov explained: “They are in the same coalition because Yabloko is the party of the intelligentsia that has lost the game, and the CPRF is the party of the lumpen-proletariat who have lost it.” Meanwhile, the URF has an interest in increasing the number of winners in Russia.

Vedomosti has reported that in its special manifesto the URF is calling on “well-to-do people” to vote for it.

The URF calls Yabloko, the CPRF, and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) its opponents because “the specter of pessimism is stalking Russia” due to those parties. Besides, it opposes the Russian bureaucracy and its “class party”: United Russia.

The manifesto states that bureaucrats have managed to unite: “Today we are witnessing the revenge of bureaucracy: the government vertical has led to ‘inflation of bureaucracy’, to lawlessness and arbitrariness.

Meanwhile, United Russia is taking the URF’s criticism philosophically, saying it’s rather like Ivan Krylov’s fable about a small dog barking at an elephant. According to the latest calculations, United Russia is supported by 21% of voters, while the URF is supported only by 5%. Besides, according to member of the general Council of United Russia Andrei Isaev, the right have been voting in the same way as United Russia did in the Duma on most issues. In Isaev’s view, the URF “is a bureaucracy too, it is also a government party, but this is a party of the Yeltsin government, while United Russia represents the government of Putin.”

Deputy Chairman of Yabloko Sergei Mitrokhin has said in this connection, “Bureaucracy is maintained by oligarchs, but the URF suggests that we should fight the outcome but not the cause.” Mitrokhin believes that by its manifesto the URF has finally confirmed that has become “the party of the oligarchic capital”.

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