Russian politics after the elections: new variations on old themes

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In the wake of Vladimir Putin’s “overwhelming victory” at the presidential election (as described by Moskovskie Novosti chief editor Yevgeny Kiselev), articles devoted to Putin’s plans for his second term have been divided into two basic categories.

Conceptual analyses about the fate of the nation and society have been joined by more specific reports on the first steps taken by “Putin II,” accompanied by the authors’ speculations regarding the possible consequences of these steps.

The most popular topic has been the ongoing state administration reforms – a key issue for the president, according to Kommersant-Vlast magazine.

In fact, Kommersant-Vlast explains, now that the elections are over and the prime minister has been replaced, the president has at his disposal “a hierarchy of political power strictly shaped to suit his personal demands.” This is undoubtedly convenient: there is no need to waste time coordinating interests and searching for compromises. However, this perfectly-tuned instrument for implementing policy does have one significant disadvantage: it is by nature incapable of showing initiative. Moreover, it is capable of functioning “only if constantly supervised (virtually on a day-to-day basis) – or rather, constantly prompted from above.” This is undoubtedly arduous, and not at all suited to the president’s character, according to Kommersant-Vlast.

Therefore, it has become necessary to offer some incentives for state officials to show initiative – “within permissible limits, naturally.” One such incentive, according to Kommersant-Vlast, is the enhanced political role of ministers in the new government; especially since the new prime minister (thus far, at least) is playing more of a representative role. “All the big issues in the government – the redistribution of state functions among new ministries, taxation, forecasting – are not being decided at the Cabinet offices, but at the most important ministries: the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, and the Finance Ministry.”

Economic Development and Trade Minister Herman Gref has the support of Dmitri Kozak, who is now responsible for “the unity of the executive branch.” Gref is the one who insisted on expanding the role of ministries at the expense of the prime minister’s powers.

Gref won: these days, Cabinet meetings frequently discuss documents which Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov has not been shown until the very last moment. This is what happened on March 25, for example, when the Cabinet discussed the economic development program to 2007. Fradkov was not familiar with the document: the night before the meeting, Gref and his closest aides hastily edited the program in accordance with the president’s expressed wish for more ambitious rates of growth to be ensured.

Kommersant-Vlast observes: “Such a thing would have been simply impossible when Mikhail Kasianov was prime minister; the question would have been resolved a week in advance.”

It should be said that everyone is generally satisfied with this state of affairs: the political ministers don’t want an authoritative prime minister – “an authoritative president is quite enough.” And the prime minister isn’t even trying to take on all the functions of running the government as yet: “He is clearly content to be overshadowed.”

The president is also satisfied, it seems: the Kremlin has the final say in important decision-making, while the prime minister will be held accountable for any possible failures in future.

So there hasn’t been much media discussion about the fate of the Fradkov government, which will have to answer for unpopular reforms. However, reforms in the presidential administration have generated far more contradictory evaluations.

Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal says: “The reshuffles among Vladimir Putin’s team in the Kremlin matter far more than the replacement of Kasianov with Fradkov.”

As everyone knows, the presidential administration essentially “steers” all of Russian politics. Observers had expected some sensational reassignments and appointments; some even spoke of the whole team being replaced. However, according to Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, the reforms at the administration have turned out to be strikingly similar to the Cabinet reforms: “In the Cabinet, at least the boss was replaced. Not here, however.”

Contrary to all predictions, Dmitri Medvedev has retained his post as head of the administration: “He never gets in anyone’s way, and neither does he shape events.” Medvedev now has two deputies: Igor Sechin, one of the “siloviki” (security and law enforcement people), responsible for the internal order and functioning of the Kremlin staff; and Vladislav Surkov, a “liberal,” who will use that staff “to continue steering whatever can still be steered in Russia.” Essentially, says Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, the president has left everything as it was, taking account of the fact that his administration had handled the challenges of his first term successfully, overall. Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal explains: “Most importantly, the presidential administration has managed to maintain the president’s approval rating and entrench the regime of his personal power.” Now some new horizons are opening up before the presidential administration; above all, preparing a change of leadership four years from now: “In other words, preparing the machinations which will be presented as a change of leadership to Russian citizens and the international community.”

Moskovskie Novosti comments that under the current circumstances, with a fine-tuned system of governance, there is no pressure on Vladimir Putin to replace his staff hastily. “The presidential administration performed well during the elections, but it is not yet time to seek scapegoats or reward those who have performed outstandingly.” This process can well be postponed: “Sacrificial lambs may yet be required once the intoxication of victory passes.”

Kommersant-Vlast says: “The presidential administration now has a modest technocrat manager of its own, with two deputies: one clever, the other loyal.” Everything else remains unchanged: “The presidential administration will continue to prepare all the most important political proposals for remodelling the nation, while the government will attempt to implement these solutions by economic means.”

The Vedomosti newspaper notes that many observers had predicted the dismissal of Vladislav Surkov after the parliamentary elections in December. He is now the deputy head of the administration in charge of domestic policy. Actually, Surkov’s own associates believe that the “anti-Surkov” media speculation was bought and paid for by “emigre business tycoons” whose political projects Surkov had blocked, in the course of carrying out his duties.

According to Vedomosti, leading political consultant Stanislav Belkovsky does not rule out that the “siloviki” helped Surkov keep his job, since they needed “to strengthen the counterweight to Kozak.”

Andrei Ryabov from the Carnegie Moscow Center told the Gazeta newspaper that judging by the new appointments in the administration, the president is choosing the path of compromise, not wishing to replace the elite to any substantial degree: “He doesn’t want too great a disparity in the influence of the existing factions, so he has decided to have two deputy heads of the presidential administration, equal in powers.” In Ryabov’s view, keeping Medvedev as head of the administration is evidence of “aiming for stability with no radical moves.” Ryabov says the structure of the new administration isn’t all that important: “What matters is the people, the individuals chosen for these appointments. And their identity indicates that no radical moves will be made.”

Igor Bunin, director of the Political Techniques Center, told Gazeta that the president no longer requires the previous structure of the administration, which was tailored to “a Byzantine leadership style.” These days, a “mono-centric system within the regime” has been created, in which conflicts between factions are either absent or latent.

Bunin claims that the “Yelstin’s Family” faction has essentially disappeared from the regime. Even Surkov can no longer be considered part of the Family: “Now that Alexander Voloshin and Mikhail Kasianov are gone, all the others are just Putin’s people – the distinction between Family people and St. Petersburg people has vanished.”

“What has happened to the presidential administration?” asks Yulia Latynina in Novaya Gazeta. “It no longer exists as a hub of political power alternative to the Cabinet.” Since there is no longer a prime minister with any political weight, neither is there a need for “a special body to keep the prime minister on his toes.”

Yuri Zaostrovtsev, formerly deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), has been transferred to Vneshekonombank as a senior deputy director. Leonid Reiman is no longer the communications minister. Sergei Pugachev, known as the “Orthodox oligarch,” was all-powerful only recently; but now he is out of favor in the wake of the elections in Bashkortostan: “Reportedly, there is even a ban on talking to him.”

Latynina observes that these people “used to say all over Moscow that they would soon get Kasianov dismissed, that the president had given them his word.” They “set up” the president along with Kasianov, “by spreading a whole lot of nonsense about Kasianov – like the rumor that Kasianov was planning to take over as president if voter turnout proved to be too low. And according to Latynina, the president believed them: “February 23 was a day of celebration and drinking, and slander goes down well with a glass of vodka – so Kasianov was dismissed on February 24.”

What’s more, these very same people from among Putin’s close associates “obligingly clicked the cigarette lighter to ignite the tinder-box of the YUKOS affair.” However, contrary to their predictions, the imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky did not surrender his shares. So now the whole affair has become a kind of “Chechnya in the economy.” Latynina observes: “They can’t release Khodorkovsky, and they aren’t managing to rob him outright either.”

Some time ago, an article in the Rossiiskie Vesti weekly discussed links between the government dismissal and the YUKOS affair. According to the sources of Rossiiskie Vesti, “one YUKOS stockholder now resident abroad” (more specifically, in Israel, and the newspaper immediately explained that this was a reference to Leonid Nevzlin) said in an interview that “Papa” (that is, Putin) is uncontrollable, and with Putin in power the situation for business couldn’t be worse, but “Papa” cannot be removed by political methods (with the help of Irina Khakamada, for example) – so wouldn’t it be good if “something were to happen to him.” Then the “new Papa” would be Kasianov, who has “no problems with YUKOS.” The problem, according to the stockholder, was that Kasianov wouldn’t be around after the elections either.

Predictably, the Kremlin soon heard of this. The comments were interpreted as “a broad hint that certain measures should be taken. “This kind of thing often happens in Russia,” even though “the president is well guarded.”

The Kremlin remembered what Leonid Nevzlin had said when the Swiss bank accounts of YUKOS were frozen: “That wasn’t our last $5 billion.”

There were even some specific reports: that according to information being studied jointly by Mossad and Russian intelligence, “certain YUKOS shareholders had allocated over $200 million for the needs of those prepared to assassinate President Putin.” According to Rossiiskie Vesti, rumor has it that they attempted to use the services of “an organized crime group with its roots in Dagestan.”

Moreover, Russia’s intelligence services made a point of informing their Israeli counterparts that the YUKOS stockholders who are living in Israel “may take action aimed at discrediting the Russian leadership before the international community, and could sponsor socio-political forces striving to replace the present head of state and destabilizing the situation within Russia.”

The Constitution specifies that should anything happen to the president, his functions as head of state would automatically pass to the prime minister until an election can be held. In other words, at the time of the alleged conspiracy, the functions would have passed to Mikhail Kasianov. Rossiiskie Vesti emphasizes that “given Mikhail Kasianov’s caution,” no one doubts that he was unaware of any such plans. But all the same… “he is known as YUKOS sympathizer.”

Therefore, following one possible line of reasoning for events, the prime minister had to be taken out of the game immediately, before the election, and replaced by “a person without connections and with no team of his own – most importantly, an obedient person.” And that is what was done.

Another indication that the YUKOS affair has not become irrelevant for the Russian authorities comes from a recent interview in Komsomolskaya Pravda with Deputy Prosecutor General Yuri Biriukov.

Biriukov admitted that the law enforcement agencies are paying extra attention to that company in particular, because this is no routine tax evasion case – the sums involved are truly astronomical: “As you’ve probably heard, our enquiries led to the personal Swiss bank accounts of twenty YUKOS executives being frozen. The total money frozen in those accounts is over 6 billion francs, that’s around $5 billion. But all the owners say in their interviews is that it’s no great loss to them. Mere pennies – no cause for concern at all. It’s not the last of their money, they say. Well, if that’s the case, let them pay up in full.”

Following a tax audit, the Taxes and Duties Ministry presented YUKOS with a bill for $3.5 billion – for the 2000 financial year alone, so far.

However, Biriukov found it necessary to emphasize the following: “Any talk of someone deliberately aiming to bankrupt or nationalize the YUKOS company is pure fantasy.” The Prosecutor General’s Office is only doing its duty: as they say, it’s nothing personal. And the turn of the other oligarchs will come: “It’s impossible to handle all cases simultaneously. Once we’ve sorted out YUKOS, we’ll move on.”

Meanwhile, the Novye Izvestia newspaper reports that the Federation Council is working on expanding the capacities of the law enforcement agencies to take action against ill-gotten gains.

Last year, the provision for confiscating the assets of people who have broken the law was deleted from the Criminal Code. Stanislav Vavilov, chairman of the Federation Council committee for legal and judicial affairs, recently described this move as “an annoying error that ought to be remedied.”

Predictably, the Prosecutor General’s Office supports Vavilov’s initiative.

However, his proposals have drawn protests of lawyers. In particular, Alexander Barannikov, a former Duma member with the Union of Right Forces (URF), who used to submit amendments for the Crime Code into the parliament said “that in no civilized country all property in general, rather than what one has stolen, is confiscated from a person.”

Sergei Vitsin, deputy chairman of the presidential committee on issues of improving justice, has called restoration of confiscation “a relic of the Middle Ages.”

Nevertheless, Novye Izvestia doesn’t believe that Vavilov made a slip of the tongue by mentioning the topic of confiscation. His statement is a “test balloon” to check the public response, says the newspaper: “If the response is positive and the public approves these measures in a fit of hatred to bad oligarchs, it won’t be a trifle” for everybody, although oligarchs will be dealt with at the start.

This could be true. At any rate, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the person whose portrait in a barred window Novye Izvestia used as an illustration, responded to all the latest tempestuous events with a lengthy article in Vedomosti newspaper, entitled “The Crisis of Russian Liberalism.”

Khodorkovsky sees the causes of this crisis in the alienation of the liberals and business, the interests of which they represent, from the problems of the majority of Russians.

The publicistic pathos of this article is amazing. The former CEO of YUKOS rebukes the Russian liberals that conducting reforms in 1990s, they were “thought about conditions of living and labor for 10% of Russians, prepared for resolute changes in life under the circumstances of denial from state paternalism. They forgot about the rest 90%.”

Moreover, the liberal government of Gaidar and Chubais merely deceived 90% of the people, for instance by promises that a voucher would suffice to buy two Volga cars.

“Yes, an enterprising financial gambler, who has access to classified information and is able to analyze this information, could make 10 Volga cars of a voucher. However, this promise was for everybody,” writes Khodorkovsky.

Further on: the above liberal reformers “overlooked the Russian social reality when carrying out the privatization, ignoring its negative social aftermaths.” They did nothing to settle a very painful problem of devaluation of deposits in the Savings Bank, although, says Khodorkovsky, this could be possible.

In general, they did almost nothing of what was required: for instance, never took reformation of education, healthcare and public utilities in the 1990s, address support of the poor and the have-nots.

So, writes Khodorkovsky, the hour of atonement has come: “In the 2003 election, the people bid its firm and tearless farewell to official liberals. This was a spit into the abyss, which emerged between the liberals at power and the nation.”

This was more inevitable, since in the elections the liberals were represented by Ivan Rybkin, who, “instead of a distinct political campaign, offered us a vulgar farce, which would be shameful even for the LDPR nominee,” and Irina Khakamada, who “did her best to discard her own liberal past, criticized Boris Yeltsin and laid emphasis on socially oriented state.”

It is noteworthy, says Khodorkovsky, that “without a trace of embarrassment” Khakamada announced the vote of 3.84% she collected as her great success.

Khodorkovsky has other claims to former co-leader of the URF: “I respect and highly assess Irina Khakamada, but, unlike my partner Leonid Nevzlin, I refused to finance her election campaign, since I saw alarming forms of untruth in this campaign. For instance: no matter what you might think of Putin, it is impossible – because it’s wrong – to blame him for the Moscow theater hostage-taking.”

In general, definition of the attitude of a prisoner of temporary detention cell No. 4 towards the Russian president is likely to be a key moment in the article: “Putin is neither a liberal nor a democrat, but he is more liberal and democratic than 70% of the population of our country.”

Further on: “No matter whether we like Vladimir Putin or not, it’s time to realize that head of the state is not a simple individual. The president is an establishment, guaranteeing integrity and stability of our country. Lord forbid that we see a time when this establishment collapses – Russia cannot endure another February 1917. Our country’s history dictates: bad power is better than no power.” On the one hand, these seem to be just critical remarks of the power; on the other hand – demonstration of loyalty, which wasn’t typical of former head of YUKOS.

Moreover, Khodorkovsky is certain that “an impulse on the side of the power is indispensable” to form civil society in our country, otherwise this task won’t be solvable due to its global nature.

As for business leaders, they need “to stop ignoring, especially demonstratively, the interests of the country and its people. These interests are our interests,” emphasizes Khodorkovsky.

Finally, the business part: it is necessary to “legitimate privatization,” which 90% of the population think is not fair. This requires “sharing with people” by accepting reformation of taxation of natural resources, other steps, which could be rather unpleasant for large proprietors: “It is better to launch these processes on our own, influence them and manage them, rather than fall a victim to blind resistance to the inevitable.”

Khodorkovsky writes with invariable pathos that it is not the power which needs to have privatization legitimated “to have the pleas to press on us. We need that and our children, who’ll reside Russia, walk the streets of Russian cities without dense rows of security.”

Evidently, comments Vedomosti, this point of Khodorkovsky’s essay is most essential: “Clearly enough, without reliable property rights the civil society, of which Khodorkovsky is dreaming, won’t come about. The problem is how results of privatization could be legalized without again deceiving 90% of the population is probably the biggest task for protectors of freedom.”

Kommersant newspaper is saying that some fragments of Khodorkovsky’s article fully comply with the Russian Liberalism in the 21st Century Manifesto, the Utro.ru website had published ten days earlier.

The manifesto was published under the pen name “Stepanov Yu.A.;” another website entitled Vokrug Novostei (Around News) assumed that political consultant Stanislav Belkovsky, who had been glorified by his report “Oligarchic Coup has been Prepared in Russia.” The attack on YUKOS was launched after this report had appeared (at Utro.ru website as well).

By analyzing both texts, Kommersant concluded that they have many coincidences, indeed: “on the aggregate, the article repeats ten fragments of the manifesto.”

Ytro.ru Chief Editor Mikhail Gurevich refuses to identify the source that provided the manifesto signed by Stepanov, but assumed that situation could be provoked by incumbent CEO of YUKOS Simon Kukes, “for whom it is profitable to drown Khodorkovsky,” and the idea of publication could emerge “in some political circles.”

“This whole situation is strange,” Gurevich said. “At the very least, it indicates that Khodorkovsky was forced to sign someone else’s text. No matter what happens next, Khodorkovsky is like Ivan Rybkin now – a laughing-stock, I mean.”

However, Vedomosti says that the prisoner of Matrosskaya Tishina did write the article. Stanislav Belkovsky himself categorically denies any involvement. He is convinced that “Crisis in Russian Liberalism” was written by Khodorkovsky himself, which “indicates some revision of views on his part.” Belkovsky said: “I agree with some ideas the article contains, they resemble my own views, but that doesn’t mean I wrote it.”

In his turn, Khodorkovsky’s lawyer Anton Drel confirmed that his client had been writing it for over a month, at the editorial office’s request: “The subject the condition of liberalism in Russia – Kommersant is a matter of concern to him nowadays.”

Meanwhile, the editorial office of Vedomosti denies ordering an article to Khodorkovsky.

What could be said here?

On the whole, this extensively mysterious story is typical for the current political and public life in Russia: the press has long ago noticed that each of its new plot is inevitably to acquire a resemblance of an operation carried out by the special services.

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