THE PRE-ELECTION POLITICAL HOLIDAY SEASON: A STORMY WEEK IN JULY

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In its Monday edition, the “Gazeta” newspaper discussed a theory proposed by “one of Russia’s most extraordinary news analysts”, Leonid Delitsyn: based on a study of online sources over the past few years, he has posited that the average interval between major “news events” is 13 months. The apartment building explosions in Moscow happened 13 months after the default of 1998. Then again, the interval between the Moscow explosions and the sinking of the Kursk submarine (and the Ostankino TV tower fire) was only ten months. But the September 11 terrorist attacks took place exactly 13 months after the Kursk disaster and the Ostankino fire. Then the Moscow theater hostage-taking came 13 months after September 11. According to this theory, another emergency situation should be due in November this year. But the Tushino bombings have happened in July… Maybe the theory is wrong, or events are accelerating in the current circumstances. Or there could be a more sinister explanation: the bomb blasts at the Tushino rock concert may not be the last terrorist attack – maybe something even bigger and more frightening awaits us this autumn.

“Gazeta” goes on to point out that a third wave of terrorism struck Moscow with the start of the second campaign in Chechnya. Therefore, Muscovites should be prepared for further shake-ups now. “Gazeta” says: “Experience shows that saboteurs usually enter Moscow in several groups, which may not even be aware of each other’s existence.” For example, last autumn it was learned that besides the Dubrovka theater hostage-taking, the guerrillas also planned to take over the Moscow House of Youth, the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, and even the Duma building. The authorities maintain that these plans were foiled by the law enforcement agencies. But even if that was the case, it can be assumed that the two female suicide bombers who died at Tushino were not the only ones. Moreover, says “Gazeta”, some of their accomplices are probably still in Moscow now, since it isn’t likely that the terrorists themselves brought in their own explosives. “And if that is true, we should be ready for more acts of sabotage in the immediate future.”

The “Vremya Novostei” newspaper says it’s obvious that Chechen separatists have definitely chosen suicide bombing as their major tactic. The special services reported in spring that Shamil Basaev had formed a special brigade of female suicide bombers, known as “black widows”. In May and June, there were a number of suicide bombings in Chechnya. After that, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev noted the possibility of a “Palestinian scenario” developing in Russia; although he described this as unlikely. However, says “Vremya Novostei”, the Tushino blasts have shown that the Palestinian scenario has become a grim reality for Moscow.

“Nezavisimaya Gazeta” quotes General Boris Mylnikov, head of the Anti-Terrorism Center. Speaking a few days before the Tushino bombings, he said: “It is practically impossible to guarantee that a terrorist attack involving a suicide bomber can be prevented.”

“Nezavisimaya Gazeta” was told by “sources among senior officers from the Main Internal Affairs Directorate” that although it would be almost impossible for terrorists to get a KamAZ truck loaded with explosives to a crowded public place in Moscow, it would be entirely possible to do this using an ordinary Gazel or Zhiguli car. Police barricades would be unable to prevent that.

Moreover, as “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” points out, only a few days ago Moscow saw a police corruption scandal, with six officers of the Moscow Crime Police being arrested. “These were the specialists in countering the illegal trade in firearms and explosives, the people investigating recent cases of terrorism like the McDonald’s bombing and the Dubrovka theater hostage-taking.”

“Vremya MN” continues the theme by saying that the leaders of a nation at war usually come out and tell the people directly: we are at war. But it’s different in Russia. Here, we are told every day that the military operation in the Caucausus is over and peace is being restored. Daily casualties are glossed over. “We are not at war; the war is silently corroding the nation from within.”

According to “Vremya MN”, it’s unlikely that those who were really behind the Tushino bombings will ever be identified. “The paradox here is that anyone, from any side, could have ordered this terrorist attack.”

The Tushino blasts probably shouldn’t be linked to Chechnya’s elections; as far as the Kremlin is concerned, Chechnya’s elections are already over – yet terrorist attacks continue. “Vremya MN” says the federal government is probably sincere in wanting to stop the war in Chechnya (especially as federal elections approach), but it doesn’t know how to do so. The situation in Chechnya is deteriorating with every passing day. It’s worth noting that there were no terrorists involved in the first war in Chechnya; they only appeared two years after the start of the second round.

According to “Moskovskie Novosti” observer Sanobar Shermatova, another reason why it will be hard to identify who was behind the Tushino bombings is that these explosions were fundamentally different from other terrorist attacks in Moscow and Chechnya.

Until now, says Shermatova, each case either involved a specific target (as in the Iliskhan-Yurt explosion, for example) or specific political demands (as in the Dubrovka theater hostage-taking).

Moreover, Shermatova stresses that suicide bombers never have any identification on them when they carry out their attacks; they fear the possible consequences for their families. That’s why most of the guerrillas involved in the theater hostage-taking carried false passports obtained in Chechnya. But at Tushino, this general rule was broken. What’s more, Shermatova argues that it’s hard to discern the signature of Shamil Basaev in the rock concert bombings. Attacks organized by Basaev have always been aimed at producing a major political effect. That is why he planned to take over the buildings of the Duma and Federation Council last autumn. According to Shermatova, the fact that these initial plans were changed in favor of a purely civilian target like the Dubrovka theater indicates that “somebody else interfered with Basaev’s plans”. So perhaps the same thing happened this time as well. In any event, Shermatova says that such attacks can only be prevented if answers can be found to all such questions.

It may be assumed that the papers will soon move from vague hints to direct questions. At least, it’s hard to believe now that only recently, the dominant theme in virtually all the national newspapers was the stagnation of society, general political hibernation, and a disappointing lack of news – not counting the incessant turmoil “behind the scenes”, of course.

On Monday, three newspapers published Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s interview with a television station in the city of Tomsk. The oil magnate, who had skillfully avoided making any definite assessments in the first few days of the scandal centering on his company, finally commented on all these events.

The three newspapers drew the attention of their readers to different statements by Khodorkovsky. “Kommersant” chose a neutral, businesslike quote for its headline: “I now have to visit the Kremlin more often than usual.”

“Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, which tends to comment on the government’s actions as caustically as possible, chose an appropriate quote: “We foresaw that there would be an attack on YUKOS, but we hoped it would take a civilized form.”

And the quote chosen by “Gazeta” made everything clear: “What we have here is the start of a power-struggle between different factions in Vladimir Putin’s entourage.”

In the body of the interview, Khodorkovsky was much more cautious than might appear from the above-mentioned quotes. He is obviously avoiding discussion of “slippery” issues; for example, he categorically refused to be any more specific about his reference to “different factions” in the president’s team.

On the other hand, the head of YUKOS was fairly open: “This is the start of a power-struggle which should end after the election next March. Right now, it is abundantly clear – to me, at least, though I’m not a professional political analyst – that Putin will win a second term in office. However, it remains uncertain, of course, who will make up the second echelon of his team.”

Khodorkovsky described the role of YUKOS in the power-struggle as follows: “We are not a subject in this battle, but an object: the chair, the table, the YUKOS company.”

Moreover, Khodorkovsky categorically denied participating in politics: “You see, everyone should play on their own field: economic agents on their field, and political agents on theirs. If anyone wishes to move from one field to the other, they should make the move first and take a stand second.”

In Khodorkovsky’s view, attempts to imply that he is in a confrontation with the Kremlin are even more absurd: “I’ve been working in the private sector for 15 years. If being a dissident was my calling, I’d probably be involved in that now, rather than business.”

Khodorkovsky emphasizes that the political influence of big business in Russia is greatly exaggerated, even for a giant like YUKOS: “While we are a fairly significant company and a substantial factor representing Russia in the international arena, of course we are not as substantial a force in politics as some are trying to make us out to be. This is because economic entities in Russia have never had as much political power or political influence as their counterparts in the United States, for example.”

Khodorkovsky made it clear in this interview that his intention to leave the business sector once he turns 45 does not necessarily mean he will go into politics; he described such assumptions as “speculation by journalists”. Moreover, he emphasized that he has usually been able to speak openly with Putin in their personal meetings, “maintaining a fairly high tone and standing my ground.” However, Khodorkovsky specifically stated that “the final decisions are up to the president.”

Khodorkovsky considers it unlikely that Vladimir Putin has been involved in the latest events: “In my view, our president’s style entails trying not to get involved in current processes. What’s more, although his personality is complex, Vladimir Putin is a fairly open person in such matters. If he has any complaints, he’ll state them directly.” Khodorkovsky then added: “We try to ensure that such complaints do not multiply.”

Igor Bunin, general director of the Political Techniques Center, commented on Khodorkovsky’s interview to the “Vedomosti” newspaper: “He doesn’t want to exacerbate matters, nor to dramatize the situation as Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky once did. Khodorkovsky is seeking a compromise.”

To this end, says Bunin, Khodorkovsky is trying to avoid referring to the president as a participant in the conflict, restricting participants to “certain officials in the presidential administration.”

Moreover, at a YUKOS board meeting in Tomsk, Khodorkovsky emphasized that the conflict bears no relation to YUKOS itself or its economic activities; it only involves “some individual YUKOS shareholders”. Khodorkovsky added that in his view, Russia’s political leaders have taken a “balanced” position on this issue.

Unlike Khodorkovsky, who weighs every word of his comments, the media (as might have been expected) are speaking much more plainly.

The “Vremya Novostei” newspaper says this is probably a case of a pre-election battle “by the St. Petersburg security group, with the aim of gaining control of politics and the economy in the period after the elections. Khodorkovsky’s large, wealthy company has some influential market rivals – including Rosneft, which has long been supported by the security group. This public reprimand for YUKOS was meant to be an important step in establishing control.”

“Vremya Novostei” told its readers that last Friday the Kompromat.ru website published transcripts of telephone conversations between Igor Sechin, deputy head of the presidential administration, Rosneft president Sergei Bogdanchikov, and political consultant Stanislav Belkovsky. In line with political correctness, “Vremya Novostei” expresses some doubt about these “documents of a certain nature” posted on the website; but it notes that “the transcripts are entirely consistent with what was already known, and had been discussed in the media many times, about power-struggles within Putin’s entourage.”

“Vremya Novostei” goes on to say that if we assume that these telephone conversations really did take place, “it becomes clear that the crack-down on YUKOS is only one link in the process of preparing for the elections – not only the election of 2004, but the election of 2008.”

In the conversations, “someone who sounds like Sechin” tells “someone who sounds like Bogdanchikov” about an unsuccessful attempt to draw Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov into the confrontation with YUKOS, “by frightening him with the possibility that Khodorkovsky might gain control of the Duma, and promising him the prospect of becoming president after 2008.”

Moreover, the person who sounds like Sechin emphasizes that he will “take care of the Leader”. And the person who sounds like Bogdanchikov discusses “payment terms for PR support for the operation against YUKOS” with “someone who sounds like Belkovsky”.

Media reports say that Belkovsky was responsible for a recently-published report that discussed an “oligarchic coup” and Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s presidential ambitions.

According to the person who sounds like Bogdanchikov, this PR campaign “has already had an effect on the Leader”.

“Kommersant-Vlast” magazine says: “The new oligarch-hunting season has opened. The main question is why.” After all, oligarchs these days don’t even think about starting a conflict with the authorities: “Would Mikhail Khodorkovsky risk his company’s interests for the sake of his personal ambitions? Certainly not – or he wouldn’t be one of Russia’s most successful entrepreneurs.”

While Berezovsky and Gusinsky could be condemned for being “opponents” of the regime, that description in no way applies to Khodorkovsky – “or he would not have been permitted to create the world’s fourth-largest oil company through the merger with Sibneft.” Khodorkovsky doesn’t even own a television station, says “Kommersant-Vlast”. Of course, he does have oil and he does have money; “plenty of both”. And that appears to be the real issue here.

As always, the pre-election period has raised the problem of redirecting financial channels. “Kommersant-Vlast” lists “political influence groups in Russia.”

First of all, there is the “Kremlin old guard”; these people have access to the president and long-standing links with oligarchs.

Then there are the “St. Petersburg security people”. They don’t have money, apart from being sponsored by Rosneft or Gazprom (no small amount of money, but evidently not enough); however, they are close to the president.

Finally, there are the oil tycoons, who have a great deal of money indeed.

According to “Kommersant-Vlast”, the main claimants to financial channels are the St. Petersburg security people, of course; they are “preparing for the president’s second term in office, and are ready for a showdown with their political rivals.” Their key weapon is the Prosecutor General’s Office.

The best evidence that this description of the situation is accurate is Vladimir Potanin’s recent public repentance. This is a telling example, says “Kommersant-Vlast”: the oligarchs have no class solidarity at all. Having realized that oligarch-hunting season is now open, they are all aiming to save themselves in any way they can.

What will happen if those behind the “YUKOS affair” succeed in carrying out their plans? Members of the “Yeltsin’s Family” faction would have to prepare for dismissal; while the “St. Petersburg faction” mentioned by Khodorkovsky in his recent interview would grow stronger.

However, says “Kommersant-Vlast”, the changes will not be superficial: “Big business would find itself on a short leash. Other companies are already in a situation where they can’t take a breath without approval from local authorities.” In that event, only Chinese-style reforms would be possible.

According to “Kommersant-Vlast”, only the president can stop the St. Petersburg security faction: “But as usual, he won’t intervene until the very last moment, in the hope that his intervention will not be required at all.”

“Moskovskie Novosti” observer Dmitry Furman says all the problems currently plaguing YUKOS are a natural development. The regime is not concerned by relations between the oligarchs, or their intrigues and conflicts. However, “if any oligarch decides to get involved in public politics, the regime views this as an incursion on the foundations of its order.” The oligarch’s actions could disrupt the regime’s game of cards – by altering the planned outcome of Duma elections, for example. “Such a person must be punished.”

Punishing an oligarch is very simple. As everyone knows, all of Russia’s fortunes were made in not-entirely-legal ways – with the regime’s full approval! This places the owners of those fortunes in an extremely vulnerable position.

However, Furman says the interesting aspect is what draws oligarchs into a field of activity where they will inevitably run into all kinds of trouble.

“It isn’t hard to predict Khodorkovsky’s fate. So why did Khodorkovsky – who is undeniably intelligent, and saw what had happened to his predecessors, and knows the system perfectly well – decide to follow in the footsteps of those predecessors, going out to meet his fate? What power drew him like a moth to the flame of a candle surrounded by the charred bodies of other moths?”

According to Furman, Russia’s richest individual was driven by a basic need for self-respect. Once a person becomes so rich that further wealth can no longer make any fundamental changes to his life, he develops an urge to make his mark – not as a “Soviet man” or “serf” compelled to attend United Russia party gatherings, but as “an intellectual and a progressive Russian politician.”

Furman admit that such a motive may appear unconvincing to those who have not achieved such a level of material wealth. However, he argues that there is “a great and natural social force which begins to operate in all established elites”, leading “persons of fortune to redirect their interests” towards higher goals.

History offers numerous examples of this. A recent example was the transformation of “party bureaucrats who were fearful of everything and informed on each other” into Russia’s liberal elite that supported the changes launched by Gorbachev.

Furman goes on to say that in this context, it is worth noting the differences between Khodorkovsky and his predecessors: it’s laughable to talk about Berezovsky or Gusinsky having any convictions – they only took up the topic of human rights after losing out in behind-the-scenes power-struggles. But Khodorkovsky obviously does have real convictions: “And he has not gone into politics solely to preserve his own capital. This is the next stage of evolution.”

Thus, the drive for self-respect and law is inescapable even in the Russian elite, which is “genetically linked to the regime by their shared crimes.” But if that is the case – if objective socio-psychological laws have come into effect – then, according to Furman, there is some hope: “Twenty or thirty years from now, Russia may have developed an elite that views the present system as restrictive and degrading, just as the Soviet elite came to view the communist system as restrictive and degrading.” Dmitry Furman’s article is titled “The Moth and the Candle.”

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