A NEW UPSURGE IN THE PRESIDENT’S POPULARITY RATING: "WHO ARE YOU, MR. PUTIN II?"

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This week, the media has let out the results of the opinion polls the VTsIOM had done in June: President Putin’s popularity rating (the confidence rating) has risen again to reach 77%. Nowadays, it has been just 12% lower than the popularity rating of the Turkmen president, Novaya Gazeta has caustically noted.

It is not quite clear, however, if this comparison makes sense – in Russia it is hard to fully evaluate the merits of “the father of all Turkmens,” who is ardently protecting his country not from “oppositionists” alone, but also the Russian citizens remaining there. The only fact clear is that the thing concerns a certain kind of power beyond comprehension – reportedly, for instance, Mr. Niyazov has recently labeled the Russian Duma, which had been indignant at the persecution of the dual citizens, “a rookery.”

The situation with the Russian president’s popularity rating is more materially minded. For instance, solemn reports on our president’s visit to London by a royal invitation could be the reason for a new upsurge of sympathies. The president wearing tails and a bowtie (half a tuxedo, Gazeta corrects, since practical-minded Putin hadn’t agree to wear the tails, which Russian diplomats had never used before – “and a tuxedo is worth wearing on special occasions”) and among the royal family members – how could one avoid positive emotions?

In general, coverage related to this visit was distinguished for peculiar attention of the press to some pleasant details – for instance, says Izvestia, in Edinburgh Putin was presented “an enchanting gift – his own tartan.” As the newspaper explained, each clan has “its distinctive coloring for kilts: the colors, the size of checks, the number and width of stripes.” However, no kilt had been sewn for Putin (in vain, since it wouldn’t undermine the popularity rating), “but presented him with an individual pattern of tartan.”

Besides the president’s successful appearance on the international scene, a campaign against corruption in the Interior Ministry, Boris Gryzlov (who is not an alien to the president) had declared, could have attracted sympathies of the Russians. However, opinions of experts divided in this matter. Some tend to think that this is a mere PR-action leader of the United Russia party (he is also the interior minister) had launched after during his recent press conference the president had emphatically alienated himself from those who had for long been “the ruling party.” The reputation of United Russia members had immediately faded, and the case of “werewolves in shoulder straps” appeared then like a bolt from the blue.

However, such well-reputed observer as Vitaly Tretyakov announced to Rossiiskaya Gazeta that actions of United Russia’s leaders are worth praising anyway: “Even if on the eve of the elections each dignitary of this party makes something similar to what Gryzlov had done, even if as a PR-action, I welcome such PR-actions.” “This is not PR but a real politics, which is a PR as such,” Vitaly Tretyakov emphasized.

However, Dmitry Oreshkin, director of the Merkator Group (his opinion published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta) disagreed Tretyakov: “If this had actually been Boris Gryzlov’s PR-action, he could have done it better. Catching criminals is a minister’s immediate duty.” Moreover, Oreshkin admits that the case of policemen is nothing else but a round of testing the new tough methods of the notorious “establishing order:” “First they had arrested the werewolves in shoulder straps and are now watching the public’s response. If the public is satisfied, this could entail the following step. For instance, a group illegally transporting metals or oil abroad will be found and jailed as well.” This is a new approach, indeed: no people have ever been imprisoned for such trifles so far. Even the case of Kozlenok related to embezzlement from the Diamond Fund seems to have ended with a 4-year-long imprisonment, which the defendant had actually served while the investigation had been underway.

Nevertheless, some other experts to which Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which is invariably stern for any actions of the authorities, applied have more likely agreed Tretyakov than Oreshkin. For instance, Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies, noted that being a party leader Gryzlov couldn’t have failed to account for “pre-election moments,” although a cleanup in the Interior Ministry is more significant as a fact: “Thus, the pre-election character of this action is in it being confined to the election campaign.”

Renowned deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, whom the press has nicknamed “a hope of the Russian parliamentarism,” admits an opportunity that Gryzlov actions were the once-only measure, “having some relation to the election campaign.” However, the deputy likes would wish to hope that this had marked “a long-term campaign of cleaning up our law enforcement agencies.” If so, Gryzlov’s striving fro gaining the public support for his actions is justified: “As the opinion polls show, society welcomes similar actions.”

In addition, the press assumes, the president’s illustrious thesis of doubling the GDP within several upcoming years, i.e. accentuation on the priority of the existing economic problems, could have been another, and, perhaps, the major, component of an upsurge in his popularity rating.

Novaya Gazeta writes: “The chief concern for the potential electorate is something different from the president’s successes in foreign policy, the situation in Chechnya and the freedom of speech. As the poll results evidence, the president’s position related to Russia’s economic prospects is the most interesting topic in the president’s address.”

As is widely known, Putin said in his address to the Federal Assembly that he was, on the whole, satisfied with the work of the government. During his meeting with the journalists, he evolved this idea and stressed that the Cabinet had done so much and if everything goes on like that the parameters set (doubling the GDP) would undoubtedly be obtained. According to Novaya Gazeta, this certainty in the forthcoming economic welfare has accounted for a 7% rise of the president’s popularity rating.

However, this failed to aid the Cabinet: its popularity rating remained at the level of 30%, which is not surprising since it is traditional in Russia to blame the government for everything according to a scheme “kind tsar – bad boyars.” This has always been like that, concludes Novaya Gazeta.

VTsIOM Director Yuri Levada commented on this peculiarity of public opinion in Russia in Moskovskiye Novosti. In his words, the matter concerns an original phenomenon of “division of responsibility:” in the public opinion, the president is responsible for wages rises, while the Cabinet is responsible for growth of prices. In other words, the assessment of the president’s activities first of all demonstrates the level of hopes connected with him, whereas the assessment of the work of the Cabinet and the premier shows the tension of daily situation (the same problem of the price-wage ratio, a fear to lose jobs, etc.). “Under similar circumstances, a hope for supreme power (the president) is always more stable than expectations and disappointments connected with the executive branch of power,” writes Yuri Levada.

The mater concerns the rating of hope, which was repeatedly mentioned in the press. However, the author noted, hopes are not perpetual.

The highest rate of the hopes connected with the president (the VTsIOM director called them “illusory expectations”) had fixed in a few months after he came to power, whereupon a gradual decline followed. In particular, over two years of Putin’s rule, the index of hopes for an economic upsurge and improvement of the people’s welfare (the difference between those who had and those who hadn’t this hope) had decreased from 44% to 24%.

It means, Yuri Levada is saying in his article for Moskovskiye Novosti that the “public opinion tends to assess the president’s activities not by the hopes alone, but also specific deeds,” which is a drastic turn in the public opinion.

Meanwhile, in the opinion of Komsomolskaya Pravda, Putin’s evident intention to present economic achievements as his “pre-election banner” may play a bad trick on him. “The thing is that the president had made the traditional “last valve,” protecting him from manifestations of people’s wrath, – the Cabinet – irremovable,” the newspaper is saying. Indeed, it is hardly believable that some three weeks ago dismissal of Kasianov-led Cabinet after the Duma elections was inevitable: “How is it possible to dismiss a government, which had obtained so outstanding achievements?”

In the meantime, in the opinion of the newspaper, having assumed the responsibility for the anticipated economic progress the president is running a serious risk. “On a closer look, a lion’s share of foreign investment is indirect, spent for purchase of bonds and shares issued in Russia, The Russian stock market is overheated. As soon as the situation in Europe and in the US improves (it will improve anyway), the interest rates will rise and money will be leaving Russia,” writes Sergei Chugayev, an observer with Komsomolskaya Pravda.

In the opinion of the newspaper, this is unlikely to cause a default – the Central Bank has accumulated solid reserves. However, the economy is to suffer a serious blow. “And, who will be answerable for that?” In fact, this is a purely rhetorical question.

Any representative of the political elite, Yezhenedelny Zhurnal is debating, agrees that the Cabinet under Mikhail Kasianov “is bad, not like the one needed to settle the tasks our society is facing.” However, in confidential conversations the politicians who are criticizing the Cabinet in public, are confidently admitting: despite al its faults, the present-day Cabinet is optimal, primarily because it has been “perfectly blending with the modern political situation.”

Formerly a “purely technical prime minister”, Mikhail Kasianov has accumulated a considerable political weight. As a “Duma expert” has told the journal, in the beginning, when Kasianov’s links with Yeltsin’s “family” were obvious, many observers asserted that he would be an easy prey for the St. Petersburg security agents. However, this did not happen then, and now he is too tough for them.

Furthermore, he seems to be too tough for everyone, and the president “has to count with this fact”. The journal has noted in this connection, “The president respects the strong and swift, but he certainly sees that the government is week.”

Thus, in the view of the journal, all critics of the government have their own goals: “What would Yabloko and the Communists base their election campaign on if the government’s actions appealed to them entirely?”

Representatives of large business are no more sincere when they criticize the government. A White House official has told a Yezhenedelny Zhurnal correspondent, “Actually, our magnates should not have any complaints about Kasianov.” This becomes particularly clear against the background of other possible candidates for prime minister, e.g. Herman Gref, who is viewed as absolutely impossible to agree with by tycoons. Therefore, criticism of the government pronounced by influential businesspeople is just a method of attracting the president’s attention to them.

However, this does not hinder tycoons emerge in the White House and assure, “You know, guys, we aren’t serious: actually, there’s no one better than you are.”

But the main point, according to the journal, is that the government suits the Kremlin. Alexander Ryklin, the author of the article, states, “It is quite clear today that the president does not intend to force the work on reforms until the elections. He has understandable political reasons for this. Meanwhile, it is necessary to explain it to the society in some way. A way out is to claim the government guilty of everything. However, this move may not be needed: things will depend on concrete circumstances.

The situation will be the same also after the elections. However, if the Kremlin wants to conduct more serious reforms (the leading economists of the country still insist on their necessity), it may need another prime minister, someone more ambitious that Kasianov. “Otherwise, e.g. if the Kremlin does not decide to conduct reforms, there will be no need to change the government after elections, since it suits everyone,” the journal says.

Alexei Bogaturov from Rodnaya Gazeta is of a different opinion about prospects of today’s Cabinet. In his view, Kasianov as prime minister has completely exhausted his resource in the course of Putin’s first presidential tenure.

The author says that Kasianov used to be a sort of “historic compromise” between oligarchs of the Yeltsin era and “Putin’s people”. The prime minister was supposed to inform tycoons about the president’s claims and work as their mediator for contacts with the government. In this situation, the St. Petersburg crew was supposed not to seriously attack the government and business but to permanently remind them about possible punishments for the recalcitrant ones hoping for returning to the lawlessness of the Yeltsin era. The author stresses, “From the point of view of balance, the prime minister was even a ‘more central’ figure than the president.”

However, times have changed, and priorities of the business community have changed with them. Now it is Mikhail Khodorkovsky who is viewed as the most influential business figure. He is “not only immensely rich and influential: he is the first person comparable with Chubais in his intelligence among the whales of the business world.” Probably, he is the most promising figure too.

Today Chubais is viewed nearly as a living classic of the era of construction of capitalism in Russia, the only one who miraculously survived among Putin’s open and caustic critics at the time of his being prime minister in 1999. As for Khodorkovsky, he is a person of the new generation. “Having learnt the lessons of his predecessors, he does not aspire to government. His creed is to be the creator of the government.”

Entrepreneurs of this type have a special strategy: “to find the prime minister of their own but not to rush into the noose of the prime minister’s dependence on the president.” However, people of this type need a special prime minister too. Besides, the author believes that there is no more necessity to insure business against the government: “The president will not let anyone punish entrepreneurs for old errors, and most of entrepreneurs have learnt not to make new ones.” Thus, the prime minister’s “protective function” has ceased to be the key function.

The role of the mediator for business affairs has bee abolished too. Unlike the Yeltsin era, when everyone tried to find a way to the very top, the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists exists now. This organization is viewed as the “embryo of the mechanism of the legal representation of business in the government.” However, this mechanism is not ideal, but even it now it protects large business from “the government’s misunderstanding”.

In any case, Kasianov has successfully played the role of the leader of the stabilization government, and now the time of the new generation is coming. Khodorkovsky is the richest businessman in Russia. Besides, he is a representatives of the energy and raw material complex, which is he most conservative branch of the economy. Rodnaya Gazeta says that this sector has been saving people and the state for 15 years. The newspaper says, “That’s great, but how long can this last?”

In the view of the paper, Putin did not tell the whole truth formulating the task of doubling the GDP. Next time he will have to say, “… also by means of extension of production in branches other than the raw material sector”.

Rosnaya Gazeta believes that the key issue of Putin’s second presidential tenure will be withdrawal from the model of the “raw material economy”. The author of the article says, “Of course, this is suicide to undermine the energy and raw material sector. But it is also a crime to reduce the whole national economy to this sector only. Even Saudi Arabia is aware of it.”

Therefore, there are three options of deciding the government’s destiny. The first one implies an appointment of “an anti-oil official to a top position in the government” and a war against oil magnates. According to the second alternative scenario, businessmen will pull their protege to the prime minister’s position again. And the third option is Putin’s compromise with supporters of Khodorkovsky. In any case, as the author stresses, the scenario will mean not Putin’s fight against Khodorkovsky but “the beginning of the struggle for a change of economic priorities.”

As for Kasianov’s personal destiny, Novoe Vremya says that it is unenviable. According to the rules of the bureaucratic game, it is the prime minister who should protect Putin and “pay all political bills”, although it is the president who makes final decisions on all ambitious projects. Besides, he should be aware of the fact that “in case of some force majeure circumstance, of which he will hardly be guilty, he will be overthrown without any hesitations.”

Novoe Vremya says that Kasianov has been playing his role so well so far that it is difficult to find a replacement for him. The journal calls him “a versatile, talented, and mysterious person”.

As for force majeure circumstance, Russian people have almost gotten used to the fact that they will emerge from nowhere and follow one another as obtrusively as the annoying summer cyclones. And if there is calm, it is called either stabilization or stagnation, but in any case it is viewed as something abnormal.

Andrei Ryabov from Vremya MN says that in the situation of political stability the Russian elite is being involved in the undercover war of “everyone against everyone”, being used to the roar of a battle.

Ryabov stresses, “The closer the elections are, the more conspicuous is the fragmentation of the governing stratum. Former groups of interests, mighty political and financial-industrial clans, which used to seem monoliths, are starting to split into small groups that start conflicting with their yesterday’s friends and all other teams.” There are a lot of examples proving this statement, including the aforementioned case of “turnskins in epaulettes”, conflicts in the security authorities’ milieu, and inability of relative political parties to elaborate uniform election strategies (for instance, the conflict between Zyuganov and Glazyev, let alone the constant conflicts between the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko). Even the Presidential Administration has allegedly lost the uniform opinion about which party should be considered the government party. This statement may be proven by the “hasty working out” of the People’s Party led by Gennady Raikov.

In Ryabov’s view, all this can be simply explained: elites feel the absence of external threats. Of course, the Russian powers-that-be were not very consolidated before. However, a certain unity was to be observed at crucial moments, e.g. in 1996, when there was a threat that the existing state of things would disappear. The author states that now there is no threat to the president and the public order. He says, “Nobody believes that the current authorities of the CPRF intends to return the country to socialism, and it does not have any chances to lead their protege to the top of the government either.” However, elites have accumulated a lot of energy during the period of stability. Meanwhile, their future still looks vague to some extent. The other day, Chubais said in his interview to Kommersant, “the fundamental question for the country in March 2004 will be ‘Who is Mr. Putin-2?'” In other words, what is in store for the country: preservation of the status quo or new reforms? Chubais asks, “To what extent will the new presidential term be used for a breakthrough?” It is noteworthy that everyone has their own idea of what a breakthrough is.

As Ryabov believes, it is because of the current suspense that “the senior authorities acquire a strong desire to involve the accumulated resources as soon as possible so that the definiteness of the future developed in the right direction.”

All this may mean only one thing: a silent summer political suspense should not be expected. The election campaign is going on.

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