Vladimir Putin, president of Russia: a second term, a different country

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For the media, Vladimir Putin’s second inauguration was a long-awaited pretext for some attempts to peer into the nation’s immediate future.

To tell the truth, the evaluations and forecasts didn’t turn out to be all that bright; moreover, the May 9 terrorist bombing at the Dynamo stadium in Grozny, which led to the death of President Akhmad Kadyrov of Chechnya, evidently added some gloomy tones to the picture being painted.

All the same, as many media reports noted, the inauguration ceremony itself appeared fairly routine.

The speech Putin made after being sworn in took less than ten minutes – and, as the Vedomosti newspaper noted, “in parts it was almost word-for-word identical with his speech from four years ago.” In 2004, the president’s “overriding” commitment is to “preserve the state”; in 2000, it was to “safeguard Russia,” says Vedomosti. This time, the head of state promised to “work actively, openly, and honestly” (four years ago, he promised to work “openly and honestly”). In 2001, Putin said he was aware that “in Russia, the head of state has always been, and always will be, the person who is responsible for everything.” On May 7, 2004 he noted that “we often repeat” that “in Russia, the head of state has been and will be responsible for everything.”

All the same, says Vedomosti, there was a change of emphasis in the president’s speech. At the start of his first term, Putin declared his goal: “To make our Russia a free, prosperous, wealthy, strong, and civilized country, of which its citizens are proud and which is respected worldwide” – and in order to do this, the people should “be united.”

Now, four years laters, “we” – according to the president – will “do everything” to ensure that “all people can use their talents.” And to ensure that “a real multi-party system” is developed, “individual liberties of citizens are strengthened,” people “can get a good education, and decent social and medical care,” and “live comfortably and be able to leave the results of their own labors to their children,” and “be able to take pride in the authority of a strong but peace-loving country.”

The president was clearly in an optimistic mood; he emphasized that “together, we have managed to achieve a great deal,” and although “in 2000 many problems seemed simply unsolvable,” since then “we” have managed to achieve “a high growth rate for our economy” and “overcome a complex ideological confrontation,” and “are gradually becoming a united nation.”

Actually, the experts interviewed by Vedomosti were not entirely in agreement with the president’s assessment of the situation.

In particular, former economy minister Yevgeny Yasin and former finance minister Mikhail Zadornov “spoke with one voice,” as Vedomosti put it, in claiming that some things were obvious in 2000: most of the economy’s problems – the 1998 crisis, non-payments, foreign debt – were solvable.

Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Moscow Center says the president’s problems were most likely linked to the growing tendency for de-centralization of power in the country and the “extreme influence of lobbyist groupings on decision-making in politics.”

Neither do the experts share Putin’s optimistic evaluation concerning his own achievements. Ryabov is concerned about “the disappearance of political players who are independent of the state from the political scene.” Yevgeny Yasin rebukes the president for “tightening the screws” in the media “and cleaning-up the mutual relations with the business” to a considerably greater extent than “was actually required for political stabilization.”

There are inaccuracies in the foreign policy either: Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the presidium of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council, notes that “tension aroused in the relations” with the EU and China by the end of the first term in office.

On his part, Yevgeny Yasin is certain that the government should have prepared reforms in education, healthcare and the pension system more scrupulously.

However, says Vedomosti, the government hopes that in the message to the Federal Assembly, which is being drawn up now, Putin will specify the tasks he’s set.

Anyhow, noted political consultant Alexei Makarkin, the unity of nation, which the president thinks is achieved gradually, “will come handy to him during the upcoming unpopular reforms in public utilities, the energy spheres and cancellation of the social benefits.”

As reported by the media, as over past four years, the rating of president’s popularity still remains one of the constants in Russia.

According to Vremya Novostei, “our nation loves Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin” – independently of economic indicators, achievements in international policy and, in general, apart of the overall state of affairs in the country.

As summarized by the VTsIOM following its ordinary public opinion poll, the answers of respondents are striking the pollsters by their uniformity.

Putin is the only politician, who is trusted by 58% of Russians, sociologists say. Slightly below that (48%) trusted him at the start of his first term in office. Over his first year as president, the popularity rating of the head of state somewhat fell (to 41%), then grew to 48% and hasn’t diminished since then.

Given the fact that some in the country are dissatisfied with the economic course Russia is following, no drastic alterations in the assessments of citizens have been registered; notorious political scandals, which occur in Moscow from time to time, pass above the majority of the population like waves across the ocean – “they are not touching the mass of our society,” says Vremya Novostei.

In particular, the philistines proved to be unsusceptible to the war the authorities and waging against YUKOS and, on the whole, to a tension in the relations with the business. The experts tend to account for the Russians’ “permanent tenderness” concerning head of our state.

Alexander Konovalov, president of Strategic Assessments Institute is curious in evaluating this phenomenon: “In any other country the people realize that the election is a process of hiring a bureaucrat, who’ll make their lives more comfortable and stable for their money. This is always a dull casting of candidates. In Russia this is always a certain “love story.” Russia had fallen in love with Mikhail Gorbachev, then deified Boris Yeltsin. Putin has never had such a rating as Yeltsin on the tank armor. Love is not measured with rational categories.”

Therefore, it is impossible to answer the rational question – why?

What is Putin’s rating consisting of? The answer is simple: “The president is a positive figure; he doesn’t drink; he’s sexy.” Most importantly, “he is personifying a certain hope of the nation.”

“The population has conveniently distributed the role. The government is responsible for all disasters and prices, while the president is major engine for making life better,” Yuri Levada head of the independent analytical center told in his interview for Russkii Fokus magazine.

Moreover, in opinion of Levada, by the end of Putin’s first term in office the people actually realized what the president and his team were striving for – “bring the country to administrative composure.”

The efforts of the authorities are actually aimed at elimination of any competition – not in policy alone, but also in the ideology, and even in the economy. “The people support this, because it’s easier for them,” head of the Levada Center said.

They have already been convinced that no other option exists, the rest is only worse.” Unavailability of an alternative is the problem: “There’s nobody else to vote for, nobody to hope on.”

Plenty of hope existed at the start of Putin’s first term as president among politicians of various views and mere people, reminds the sociologist. The president then was quite uncertain; any tough program was out of the question. As of now, the head of state has evidently been self confident, but he still has no program, says Yuri Levada: “Everybody waits what he wants to wait from the president.”

Being more precise, being sophisticated politicians are waiting for nothing more: “However, the people still think that something should be awaited from this president and nobody else.”

This is what opinion polls indicate, says Levada: “For many times we’ve asked why Putin attracts people. A small share of respondents is certain: the president has fulfilled his promises. Over 50% are sure he’ll fulfill them. The rest are saying that they have nobody else to hope on.”

At the same time, says the sociologist, the present-day state has noticeably swerved from its initial promises, namelyа: the striving for a democratic and social state.”

In the opinion of Levada, the current state could be qualified as an administrative one. The distinction between it and democratic society is evident: “Different forces with various interests exist when there’s politics. They are clashing. In civilized countries agreements and compromises are reached.” In the administrative system, which has taken shape in Russia “there only exist orders and execution of orders; the struggle could only take place under the carpet – for influence on the superiors and for money.”

The left opposition provides for more drastic opinion about the political and economic strategy of Vladimir Putin’s second term in office.

In particular, Ivan Melnikov, deputy chairman of the CPRF’s central council made a statement for Literaturnaya Gazeta, which echoes assessments from Yuri Levada’ center: “So far the president manages to shirk responsibility for policy, aimed against the interests of the majority of citizens, but this will be ended sooner or later and the president’s popularity will collapse.” According to Melnikov, this could occur within next 18 months unless “the radical-liberal economic course, which is unacceptable for Russian conditions” is not abandoned.

The communists are repelled by both economic and political strategy of Vladimir Putin. With regard to the necessity for developing a multi-party system in the country Melnikov noted that if this process follows in the same direction, the country will have to live “under conditions of factual single-party system and authoritarianism.”

Sergei Baburin, Duma deputy chairman paid attention to Putin’s words about the unity of nation. “We are beginning to realize that the people are the working part of the nation, while the nation is something different from ethnos. Our nation unites representatives of various ethnic groups and nationalities. Eventually, we are saying about unity of the entire population, all Russian citizens before a danger, which threatens our state and society,” Baburin told Literaturnaya Gazeta.

Baburin says “incessant demographic catastrophe” in Russia under conditions of “ethnic expansion from the south and the east,” and a “military threat from the direction of the West which has approaches very close, no matter what NATO defenders may say” is the danger.

In the opinion of Baburin, all of this poses a real threat to Russia and “indeed needs the nation to unite.”

In the same selection of opinions, renowned political consultant Alexei Kara-Murza noted that Vladimir Putin’s first term in office “was likely to be dedicated to adjustment of the state machinery. We are to be shown now the way in which this machinery will follow.” The expectations vary – “this accounts for the president’s high popularity rating. Some set hopes on one thing, others – on another.”

His high rating makes Vladimir Putin “to scatter promises left and right,” emphasizes Kara-Murza, but he’ll finally have to choose which way to follow.”

The authorities could have done their choice long ago, although it is not open to everybody even now, on the 4th year of Putin’s era.

“Over past four years the elite has passed the way from nearly barefaced scoffing – “he’ll be doing what he’s told to do” in 2000 – to a winged phrase “the president has already formulated it,” the latter pronounced with the eyes bashfully cast aside (not to notice the anguish in them,” says Russkii Fokus magazine.

In the opinion of the magazine, why this has happened needs to be scrutinized. However, the entire media agencies are now obstinately repeating the statement that “we are living a different country” (either with a tint of regret or, on the contrary, with inspiration). This will become more evident by the end of the second term in office, says the magazine.

Surprises are possible here.

According to Yuri Levada, the problem of the 2008 successor is the major risk for Russia within next four years.

At the same time neither Levada, nor other analysts don’t rule out Vladimir Putin’s possible third term in office: “What could prevent him? As is said he doesn’t want now, but if the people ask…”

Diverse versions of juridical legalization of the “people’s request” are possible, some of them being widely known already.

The idea of a referendum on prolonging Putin’s term in office is still alive after all, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

A youth movement called For Stability and Order, which was denied a permit by the Moscow municipal electoral commission to start collecting signatures in favor of a referendum on extending Putin’s term to ten years, has received some sudden support from Alexander Veshnyakov, chairman of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC).

“The law forbids setting the date for a referendum while a federal election campaign is underway,” Veshnyakov said. From these words, the innovative students concluded that their application had only been premature, not pointless.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, now the youth group seeking to extend Putin’s term in office is preparing documents for a second attempt, which could be possible after June 24 – the presidential election campaign will officially end on that day after the CEC approves the aggregate financial statement and submits it to both houses of parliament. After that, nothing is supposed to prevent For Stability and Order from starting to collect the 2 million signatures required to organize a referendum.

Moreover, the public is properly prepared for this outcome in advance. Over the past four years, various newsmakers have spoken in favor of prolonging Putin’s term in office several times a year, reminds Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Here’s the story of the problem: Karelia’s head Sergei Katanandov was the first to start discussing a seven-year-long term in office for Putin as far back as March 2000.

Later on, in December 2000 the Yabloko faction issued its announcement that the Kremlin administration is feeling the deputies’ mood for preparing the corresponding amendment into the Russian Constitution.

Tyumen Governor Sergei Sobyanin supported the idea of 7 years of presidency in February 2001.

Sergei Mironov, Federation Council speaker, began speaking about extension of the president’s term in office in December 2001; since that time, he has become one of the chief and most ardent adherents to this idea.

ROMIR researchers suddenly found out in February 2002 that 66% of the Muscovites had long ago concluded that 7 years is the optimal term for president’s rule.

Deputies of the Magadan regional Duma offered the same initiative in August 2002. However, the State Duma didn’t second them then.

This topic was revived again in August 2003, thanks to Kamilzhan Kalandarov, member of the presidential human rights committee.

Later on, by the 2003 fall a notorious bill of Ivanov’s deputies, which the entire Russia kept discussing in February 2004, was submitted into the Duma. Despite the fact that the bill was declined, many regional heads supported Ivanov’s initiative – particularly, Chuvashia’s President Nikolai Fyodorov, who was considered an advanced person, spoke positively of this idea on the eve of Putin’s visit to the republic.

Putin has been refusing the innovation he has been obligingly offered so far. However, Putin’s statements on this point have been less and less categorical each time, notes the newspaper.

Moreover, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, exactly during his trip to Chuvashia in February, he indirectly admitted that the idea of extending the president’s term has a grain of sense in it: “It is clear to me why the people came forward with such an initiative, aimed at creating more stable conditions for our nation’s development: conditions in which our nation and its citizens would feel a more stable status and stable development in the main directions of policy formulated by the head of state and apparently supported by the majority of the population.”

In general, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, even if the latest initiative on this topic, proposed by students this time, is destined to fail, like many previous initiatives and many initiatives to come. However, this doesn’t mean the effort is useless, which is clear: it is important for those who pass fateful decision to keep this topic alive, so that public opinion can be prepared for any possible outcome in advance.

To all appearances, this very phenomenon was called “managed democracy” at the start of Putin’s presidency.

As is said, no sooner said than done. It’s important to say in time. To all appearances, this is not likely to be a problem.

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