RUSSIA IN THE STABILIZATION ERA: A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION IN THE ABSENCE OF A POLITICAL CLASS

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Under the law on presidential elections, March 8 was the final day for the media to publish voting forecasts, opinion poll results, or any other research associated with the election.

It should be noted that these results have been highly contradictory of late. In particular, figures from VTsIOM-A (the Levada Center agency), the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), and the VTsIOM agency headed by Vyacheslav Fedorov have not only varied by at least 10%, but have shown contradictory dynamics in the support ratings of all presidential candidates – starting from the undisputed favorite.

There has been no less diversity in predictions of voter turnout. Some publications have assured their readers that nothing matters more to the Kremlin than voter turnout on March 14. Others have condescendingly explained that there’s no cause for concern on this point; what’s more, it would be beneath the Kremlin’s dignity to worry about turnout – there are “specially trained people” available to take care of such matters.

As usual, analysts have offered persuasive explanations of the diverse predictions (various polling agencies use different calculation methods) and fluctuations in voter support levels.

The Vedomosti newspaper reports that according to Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, a slight drop in the president’s support rating is due to “disappointment among those voters who believe that no real positive changes are taking place in Russia.” Four years ago, people voted for Putin as “the president of hope.” However, says Oreshkin, by the end of his first term in office, no convincing changes for the better were apparent: “Nothing much has been achieved in Chechnya, and we aren’t doing very well in the international arena either, and so on.”

Meanwhile, according to Andrei Ryabov from the Carnegie Moscow Center (also published in Vedomosti), all changes in the support ratings of presidential candidates are only due to the increased activity of Putin’s rivals in February. Ryabov emphasizes: “These fluctuations bear no relation to any substantial mistakes made by Putin himself.”

Actually, as the Kommersant newspaper noted, the pollsters haven’t shown much interest in this essentially no-alternatives election: only the FOM has been doing weekly polls during the election campaign. Yuri Levada’s agency (VTsIOM-A) has released poll results every two weeks, while VTsIOM and ROMIR Monitoring have done so once a month.

All the same, despite its predictable outcome, the presidential election campaign has been fairly dynamic – for the participants, at least. And by March 8 – the deadline for candidates to withdraw – there were six of them left in the race.

Ivan Rybkin, whose astonishing adventures attracted the attention of political analysts, the public, and even show business (a musical about the former presidential candidate’s notorious trip to Kiev has received a lot of publicity), eventually decided to withdraw. And he did in his very own style: immediately after receiving his candidate registration certificate (which he had to return on the spot).

According to the Izvestia newspaper, Ivan Rybkin has demostrated his resolve to pull out of the race just as often as his “firm and final” intention to keep fighting to the end.

Actually, it appears that this intention basically depended on the enthusiasm of the former candidate’s “support group.” Ksenia Ponomareva, Rybkin’s campaign manager, described her client’s position to Nezavisimaya Gazeta as follows: “In our view, it’s more important now for Ivan Rybkin not to call on people to vote for himself, but to say: Don’t vote for Putin. That’s much more important now. The regime considers that it has carte blanche to do anything at all. It needs to be told that it does not have carte blanche. The regime needs to understand that.”

It should be noted that Rybkin has never expressed himself so clearly.

In Ponomareva’s view, all the sky-high figures for the president’s approval rating do not by any means prove that the situation in Russia is stable.

Ksenia Ponomareva: “Do you think the regional leaders can be happy with the president, when he’s taken away much of their authority and constantly keeps them dependent on himself? Do you think the military can be happy with the president, when a person with a secret services background has been appointed as defense minister? And those who are usually called ‘opinion leaders’ – the people who speak out in the name of the citizenry, expressing various attitudes in society – do you think they sound very happy?”

Obviously, all these are purely rhetorical questions: according to Ponomareva, Russia’s elites are currently experiencing “dissatisfaction, formulated one way or another. But on the surface, it’s concealed by fear.”

Under the circumstances, says Ponomareva, further developments depend on people’s individual reactions: “For some people, in the course of time, fear develops into rage. For others, on the contrary, it gradually fades away.”

Which of these categories applies to Ivan Rybkin himself? That’s up to his patron and sponsor, Boris Berezovsky, who has received a fairly unexpected March gift from his protege. As Izvestia reports, when Rybkin withdrew from the race, he informed the media with great pathos that his decision “doesn’t mean I am dissociating myself from Boris Berezovsky. That will never happen. Never!”

Now Beresovsky will have to decide what he’s supposed to do with such loyalty.

Then again, as Kommersant reports, the London exile has already made a statement to the effect that participation “in an illegitimate election is completely pointless.” Thus, his failure with Rybkin has prompted Berezovsky to support the election boycott idea: the out-of-favor oligarch, who until now has declared that he was resolved to test his strength against the incumbent president one way or another, now considers a boycott to be “the only way to resist the authorities.”

Ivan Rybkin himself is also saying that a boycott “appeals to him more than any other option.” Berezovsky’s loyal friend summed up his fairy-tale election campaign as follows: “I don’t want to run like a rabbit in front of the president’s motorcade.”

How has it come about that Vladimir Putin has essentially “pushed out” all his rivals (not only Rybkin the deserter, but all the others still on the front line) from the political arena?

The Moskovskii Komsomolets newspaper offers its own answer to that question: “This has nothing to do with the television networks or the FSB. The point is that Putin meets the real demands of society.”

According to Moskovskii Komsomolets, the incumbent president represents the impressions of most Russian citizens about a better future – and he represents them so fully that “others, from Grigori Yavlinsky to Gennadi Zyuganov, simply can’t find any room for themselves on the field.”

It turns out that Russian citizens want a great deal. On the one hand, they want the achievements of the Yeltsin era preserved (freedom of choice in education, employment, travel abroad, and an abundance of consumer goods). On the other hand, voters are evidently nostalgic for erstwhile impressions of a strong nation, and a strong political regime which all its opponents have to reckon with.

But these attitudes are not at all bloodthirsty. Moskovskii Komsomolets observer Alexander Budberg explains: “Citizens don’t want to see people being jailed en masse, or any barbaric behavior. Still, they do want the oligarchs to be brought into line, since they’ve seen that if this isn’t done, the whole nation might be lost.”

What’s more, Russian citizens are deeply disturbed about the gulf between rich and poor, “which it has become acceptable to display.”

Finally, what the majority of citizens want most is a peaceful life without any shake-ups. “Being able to make plans for the future. Everyone really wants to make money and enjoy the money they make. They don’t want to keep expecting sudden misfortunes to take them unawares.”

In short, says Moskovskii Komsomolets, consumer society values have finally triumphed in Russia.

Moskovskii Komsomolets comments that it’s not surprising to note that the roof collapse at the Transvaal water park shocked the public much more than the Moscow subway bombing: “After all, terrorism has already become an accustomed, unavoidable evil. But a roof collapse – that’s an unexpected tragedy, and the thought that such things can happen is disturbing.”

According to Alexander Budberg, Putin is ideally suited to the aspirations of a society where the main ambition is to change the quality of life.

Moskovskii Komsomolets explains: “Thus, we can state that until the majority of people sense some changes for the better, in terms of their own wallets, the demands people make of the regime will remain unaltered. Neither will any new demands be made of the president. The rise of different, truly popular, leaders will only become inevitable when the era of survival and ‘everyone’s initial accumulation of capital’ approaches its end.”

Then again, Moskovskii Komsomolets does not deny the possibility that many voters might be prepared to support leaders who are really prepared to talk seriously about the problems that really concern the public: the state of affairs in the military, the condition of the police force, the state’s observance of its own laws, and so on.

Similarly, some popularity could be gained by a political party with some independent political ideas, or at least a less servile party than United Russia. Moskovskii Komsomolets notes: “Romantic as this may sound, honesty and principles might actually get results.”

However, says Moskovskii Komsomolets, in order for that to happen, voters need to be sure of some things: “That the politician in question is not accepting money from someone. That the politican is not attacking the regime simply in order to play out somebody else’s script.” According to Moskovskii Komsomolets, none of Putin’s rival candidates meet these criteria at present.

And the results of this election, says Moskovskii Komsomolets, might only confirm once again that Russia simply doesn’t have any politicians besides Putin: “There are some people who are accustomed to considering themselves politicians. But essentially, that is no longer the case.” Putin, and those he chooses for his allies, have conclusively become “Russia’s main and only stake.”

Maksim Sokolov elaborates on this topic in Ekspert magazine: “The moral and physical obsolescence of the political class is self-evident.”

According to Sokolov, “99% of this class is now made up of two groups that are no longer young.” The first group is the remnants of the Soviet nomenklatura (Sokolov includes newly-appointed Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov in this category). The second group is “the remnants of those recruited by Gorbachev and Yeltsin: the Congresses of People’s Deputies of the USSR and RSFSR, the first reformist government, the first and second convocations of the Duma – that’s where this whole group has come from.”

There is great deal of talk, both in Russia and the West, about the security and law enforcement people now having a stranglehold on political power in Russia. According to Sokolov, this is an entirely natural phenomenon: “When more advanced and refined – civilian – forms of governance don’t work, the state discards its facade of culture and reverts to its fundamental, primal function: being armed detachments. And those detachments are naturally headed by the security and law enforcement people.”

Thus, says Sokolov, “the current triumph of the security and law enforcement people isn’t really a manifestation of anyone’s malevolence – rather, it’s a symptom of the impotence of the political class. A class that doesn’t exist.”

At the same time, Sokolov emphasizes that there is a clear demand for such a class: the latest period of destruction in Russia’s history is over, and now it’s a time for building, “with the national economy growing at a fairly respectable rate,” and “stable forms of a new existence” having replaced the era of “Sturm and Drang.” However, no replacement of the elites is happening as yet; the democratic method of doing this – by means of elections – isn’t working in Russia.

According to Sokolov, there is no point in talking about the kind of elections we see today, “replacing leadership figures solely by agreement with even more senior leaders.” Sokolov argues: “The competitive nature of elections is now mostly a pretty phrase, and the current benificent leadership has done a great deal to turn elections into an indecent side-show. Besides, such a method would require potential candidates for a new elite to have some serious will to win.”

But real passion to win power is scarce in Russia today, says Sokolov: “Some real aggression is required, some thirst for revanche – everything summed up in the phrase ‘a will to power.’ A clear message is required: I see what’s wrong, I know how to fix it, and I’m prepared to fight it.”

Those who win in such a battle may then aspire to the grand prize – and in that sense, Russia “does indeed have plenty of potential vacancies.” Meanwhile, those who aren’t prepared for a decisive battle are left to complain that a real elite is still failing to make its appearance: “It’s simply a case of places in the ruling class not being allocated on the basis of characteristics listed on some form, but on the basis of being really ready to fight, which cannot be listed on any form people fill out.”

Sokolov says it’s not surprising that Russia’s present-day elite is called “defeatist” – “for the impression that a great Russia no longer exists and will never exist again, and the future holds only quiet survival, maybe even pleasant in some ways.”

Meanwhile, many observers consider the very possibility of “quiet survival” rather problematic.

Yevgeny Kiselev, chief editor of Moskovskie Novosti, says there is a close link between the two main events of the past week: the appointment of Mikhail Fradkov, former head of the Federal Tax Police Service (FTPS), as prime minister – and the move by the Taxes and Duties Ministry to accuse Roman Abramovich, owner of the Sibneft oil company, of tax evasion to the tune of $1 billion.

Kiselev says that few people believe the Taxes and Duties Ministry’s attack on Sibneft will develop into another YUKOS affair: “Abramovich is considered to have a very powerful political resource for his defense – his very strong standing in the Kremlin.” It is also believed that the Taxes and Duties Ministry’s move has only been made in order to emphasize that everyone is equal before the law.

However, Kiselev proposes taking a look at the situation from the political standpoint, assuming that the Taxes and Duties Ministry’s move “is a signal to Abramovich that the former rules of the game are changing, and the political agenda is being corrected.”

In this event, the appointment of Fradkov could be a very important stage in the implementation of Putin’s agenda. Fradkov spent many years in “a fairly peculiar Soviet mega-agency” – the State Committee for Foreign Trade, the major instrument of Soviet influence in the Third World.

As mentioned above, most voters aren’t expecting liberal reforms from the regime; what they want is the restoration of Russia as a great power.

Such a renaissance would be impossible without restoring erstwhile spheres of influence: “Supplying Asian and African nations with armaments, military hardware, and industrial equipment which isn’t competitive on the markets of Western Europe and America. Building new Aswan dams and Bhilai metals plants.”

Where would the money for such a large-scale program come from?

“From the oil companies, of course – Sibneft and Abramovich among them,” says Kiselev. “In this context, the figure of Mikhail Fradkov becomes significant.”

Kiselev qualifies this by noting that it’s only a theory, so far: there are no grounds as yet to claim that Abramovich’s star has set – after all, Putin owes him a great deal. Kiselev says: “Without Abramovich’s help, Putin may never have become president in 1999.”

And yet those who have already gained power inevitably start to tire of their old patrons: “First Putin rid himself of Berezovsky, then Voloshin went, and now Kasianov has gone.” In Kiselev’s view, according to this line of reasoning, sooner or later Abramovich will be the next to go.

The Vedomosti newspaper also considers that the authorities are serious this time about cracking down on the owner of Sibneft: “The current political situation is clearly not conducive to ‘phantom’ audits. After all, the officials considered friendly towards Sibneft are growing fewer and fewer in number in the halls of the Kremlin and the Cabinet.”

It’s no coincidence, says Vedomosti, that while the Taxes and Duties Ministry is “shaking the company” for failing to pay enough tax in 2000 and 2001, Auditing Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin has promised to look into Sibneft’s tax payments for 2003, and even for 2004. In an election year, it’s all too tempting to demand some extra money from a Russian oligarch “whom everyone is criticizing for buying the Chelsea Football Club,” as Vedomosti points out.

In this context, a curious remark has come from Stanislav Belkovsky, general director of the National Strategy Council and one of the authors of the notorious “The State and the Oligarchs” report.

Belkovsky told the Argumenty i Fakty weekly: “I have been informed that ever since November, YUKOS co-owner Leonid Nevzlin has been waging a campaign in the West to implicate Roman Abramovich in the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.” As a result, according to Belkovsky, “certain people in the Anglo-Saxon world” turned away from Abramovich.

Abramovich was “rather hurt and disappointed” by this. And Belkovsky finds this outrageous: “He doesn’t give a damn about his reputation in Russia, but he is concerned about what people think of him in the country with which he connects his future.” The logical implication of this statement is that now, following the Taxes and Duties Ministry’s attack on Sibneft, Abramovich’s reputation may be considered restored.

In the same interview, Belkovsky describes the oligarchs as “the state’s dependents.” He says: “They received vast state assets as a gift. But every time the authorities try to squeeze at least some money out of them for the purpose of addressing social problems, they start screaming about the bad boys beating them up for their lunch money.”

Belkovsky explains that although the oligarchs still retain their financial might and political influence via the bureaucracy and parliamentary institutions, they now have to understand this: “It’s time for them to be integrated into an economic and political model that enables the state to fulfill its social commitments to the citizenry.”

Then again, in another interview – with the Sobesednik weekly – Belkovsky speaks in a different key.

He predicts that in the immediate future, the people will face some very unpopular and “fairly traumatic” reforms – to housing and utilities, and the electricity sector.

To all appearances, it will be officially announced that the consequences of these reforms will be compensated by means of increased pressure on the oil companies. “But this would only yield some moral satisfaction for ordinary citizens,” says Belkovsky frankly. “While over the next 12 to 18 months, the wallets of ordinary citizens will be hard hit by the reforms which the Fradkov government will implement.”

And that is precisely the reason for the appointment of this prime minister: an “ideal soldier,” as Belkovsky puts it, who has never displayed any individual qualities or biases. He has been appointed for this particular 18-month period; after that, the prime minister who will inevitably be the target of popular anger will have to be replaced.

In the meantime, says Belkovsky, anyone can draw “some heartening hints” from the appointment of Fradkov: those who want to see a security and law enforcement person as prime minister find Fradkov ideal – after all, his candidacy was suggested by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov himself.

On the other hand, the West has seen the promotion of Russia’s representative to the European Union as a good sign. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, this was directly stated within hours of Fradkov’s appointment by EU commissioner for foreign and security policy Javier Solana: “This choice demonstrates the significance of relations with the EU for Russia.” Media commentary in the United States has been more cautious, but generally along the same lines: “It could have been worse.”

Leading political analyst Olga Kryshtanovskaya explains in Moskovskie Novosti: “In the choice of Fradkov as prime minister, the West sees no obvious signs of another secret service agent rising to the top of political power in Russia.”

What’s more, Fradkov could even pass for a liberal: “He has handled foreign investment, the World Trade Organization, the European Union…”

But for Putin, according to Kryshtanovskaya, besides the unquestioning obedience of Fradkov, it is also important that he is not a public politician. “There can be no suspicion of this prime minister becoming a rival to Putin.”

As Stanislav Belkovsky told Sobesednik, the appointment of Fradkov may be interpreted as demonstrating the regime’s uncertainty about the outcome of the presidential election: “For some reason, Putin’s team is very afraid that voter turnout will be too low.” In Belkovsky’s view, such fears are entirely unfounded; but if turnout had been insufficient, “the president’s mandate might have been shaken.” In that event, a prime minister like Kasianov “might have turned out to be a real alternative center of power.” Now that threat has been eliminated.

Belkovsky says this is the explanation for the dismissal of the former Cabinet less than three weeks before the election, and the choice of a new prime minister “with no opinions of his own, and no charisma.”

Moreover, says Kryshtanovskaya in Moskovskie Novosti, “Fradkov’s two years with the FTPS gave him a broad knowledge base about big business tax crimes.” Undoubtedly, the Kremlin will find such a prime minister very useful after the election.

In the Versiya weekly, Leonid Radzikhovsky says: “Putin promised that his appointment of a prime minister would clarify his position, his policy line, finally answering the ‘Who is Mr. Putin?’ question. But when the ’embodiment of the policy line’ turned out to be the utterly bland Fradkov, with no political stance at all, another question arose: What is the policy line, anyway?”

According to Radzikhovsky, the answer is quite clear: “By choosing a bureaucrat who is precise in his movements, and taking the reins firmly into his own hands, and wrapping up all forms of public politics, and clearly indicating a perfectly liberal economic policy agenda, Putin has not only answered the question of who he is – more importantly, he has answered the question of what kind of person he is.”

This kind of person: “A liberal on economic issues, with the tough grip of someone from a security and law enforcement background, softly-spoken as an intelligence agent, with the common sense of a man of the people, and the European (in the everyday life sense of the term) outlook of a Soviet official who spent some years living in Germany.”

Radzikhovsky notes that this is the portrait of himself that Putin has revealed now, on the eve of his second presidential election: “Presumably, he won’t reveal any more of himself – there’s no need for it.”

This combination of qualities appeals to the people very much, as the infrequent opinion polls over the past two months have shown.

Radzikhovsky goes on to say: “Putin is gathering people like himself – Fradkov, for example, might almost be considered a clone of the president, in terms of possessing the same qualities. Clearly, there will be more and more such people among Putin’s staff. This is another area in which Putin has sent out an extremely clear message: he wants to work with the people with whom he feels comfortable. And he feels comfortable with those with whom he feels safe. And he feels safe with those he understands completely. And the people he understands completely are those who are similar to himself.”

It seems that a rather strange life awaits us after the election – an invasion of “presidential clones” who will have to take responsibility for any and all of the original’s actions.

Then again, as mentioned above, the law forbids the publication of any further forecasts based on research – and there’s no point in simple exercises of the imagination. After all, there isn’t long to wait now.

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