The first sensational developments in Putin’s second term: the president’s "Teflon coating" is eroding

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According to the Russian media, the sensational statements Vladimir Putin made during his visits to Tashkent and Astana (first about the fate of YUKOS, then about the real danger of “Saddam’s terrorism” for the United States) set out the essential priorities of Putin’s domestic and foreign policy for his second term.

No one asks why the Russian president suddenly decided to support George W. Bush on the most topical issue – the cause of the invasion of Iraq. The press evaluated Putin’s statements as an attempt to intervene in the election layout in the US: an independent commission investigating the circumstances of September 11 terrorist attacks in the US recently announced that there is no evidence of Saddam Hussein’s involvement in these crimes. In addition, the US does not have evidence of his relations with Al Qaeda. In other words, the invasion of Iraq lost the justification, and George W. Bush – realistic chances to be elected in the presidential campaign.

The Kommersant newspaper noted that no one expected such support. The last meeting of the independent commission was in progress when Interfax, which referred to “a reliable source in a Russian special department,” said that the commission’s conclusions were not at all correct because they were based on incomplete information.

It turned out that the Russian intelligence service informed the US about the Iraqi special services’ preparations for terrorist acts in the US in early 2002.

Meanwhile, no one reacted to that report, and Vladimir Putin decided to express his opinion regarding this topical issue.

The Russian president announced that Russia informed Washington about plans of Saddam’s special services. He noted that “George W. Bush thanked the head of one special service for this helpful information personally.”

The Vremya Novostei newspaper says that these thanks might be announced during Sergei Ivanov’s visit to the US in April. As a rule, Valentin Korabelnikov, chief of the Central Intelligence Service, escorts the defense minister in such trips. The newspaper says: “It is possible that he was the chief of one of the special services whom George W. Bush thanked.”

Putin’s statements produced an impression on the world because Russia always opposed Washington’s military activities in Iraq. According to Vremya Novostei this change of the position means that Moscow “does not want to reopen old wounds of disputes over Iraq.” In addition, the Kremlin has allegedly determined its attitude to the impending presidential election in the US and “decided to support George W. Bush.”

However, Kommersant notes that Washington’s unwillingness to accept such assistance was a more unexpected thing than Putin’s statements.

The US State Department immediately said that it knows nothing about the incidents mentioned by Vladimir Putin, and proposed to “address this question to other special services.” Ass far as the White House is concerned, its reaction was uncertain. However, this was rather a confirmation of Putin’s words than denial. A representative of the White House acknowledged “constant cooperation with the Russian government, including in the intelligence sector.” The source noted that “concrete intelligence issues are not discussed publicly.”

Nevertheless, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that George W. Bush’s approval rating is up again, after a protracted decline. The Pew Research Center reports that Bush would have defeated Democrat John Kerry (48% to 44%) if the presidential election had taken place last week.

According to Kommersant, the cause of Russia’s support for Bush is obvious: “It’s generally believed that the Russian government prefers a dialogue with a Republican administration rather than the Democrats, who usually focus more on human rights.”

For instance, Bush rejected the initiative to expel Russia from the G-8. Who can guarantee that John Kerry will not support this initiative?

Putin has established friendly relations with the Russian president. This is why he does not want to change anything.

In addition, Kommersant considers that it’s a very important factor that Putin made this statement precisely in Astana in the presence of Russia’s CIS allies. Kommersant says that the Russian leader hinted his colleagues that relations between Moscow and Washington are as strong that any attempts to spoil them are doomed to failure. Vladimir Putin noted that Russia combat international terrorism in cooperation with the US, and Washington will never eject this partnership. This shows who is the leader in the CIS.

However, there were other opinions. Kommersant observer Andrei Kolesnikov considers that a risk of supporting of a candidate for president of such superpower can only be justified if Russia has no doubts about the results of voting. What if John Kerry wins? Their chances are considered to be equal.

Kolesnikov says that Putin must know something the rest of us don’t know. Otherwise he would not run such a risk, even if the chances were nine to one in favor, because the remaining 10% would still be there. Kerry as new U.S. president would then be a very powerful enemy.

We only need to find out what the Russian president knows. This task is impossible at first sight, but looking more closely, we realize that a few events may secure Bush’s victory in the presidential race. For instance, if Saddam Hussein starts giving evidence. It is possible that that the trial of the former Iraqi leader will be launched when the election campaign in the United States enters its final phase. What if Putin knows what Saddam Hussein is going to tell?

Kolesnikov notes that Bush and a couple of people in his team probably know this as well. Putin realizes that after Saddam Hussein tells something to the world (i.e. something that almost everybody knows; the only thing that is not clear is whether Saddam Hussein has been informed of that), and confesses this, it will be possible to become the first to congratulate Bush on his second term in office.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, it is not ruled out that Putin expected that the US administration would support his “anti-terrorist effort” in Chechnya. The point is that the Chechen problem remain a topical issue for the Western media.

George Soros, a “financier and philanthropist” as Moskovskie Novosti introduces him, said in his recent article in Moskovskie Novosti that the Kremlin’s host “has made very effort to remove Chechnya from headlines.” He managed to do this by exerting pressure on “a free press.” Soros refers to reports by Human Rights Watch judging from which “the quantity of missing people in Chechnya was the highest in 2003 since the beginning of the second war.”

In the meantime, an action organized by Chechen guerrillas in Ingushetia, following Aslan Maskhadov’s warning about the resumption of active offensive operations announced on Radio Liberty, shows that the Chechen conflict has entered a new phase – a phase of a third Chechen war, as some observers say.

Zoya Svetova noted in Russkii Kuryer that Maskhadov always chooses his timing with care. This time, the matter concerns the presidential campaign now under way in Chechnya. The author noted that a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) began on Monday. A discussion of Chechnya was planned. This means Maskhadov’s statements were intended to be heard “on two fronts”: at home and abroad.

Maskhadov warned that all those who run for president are described by Maskhadov as “traitors and enemies of the people.”

Russkii Kuryer reports that unlike PACE, which rejected a proposal to organize debates on the Chechen problem, Chechnya reacted to Maskhadov’s statements immediately.

Alu Alkhanov, the Kremlin’s candidate for Chechen president, said that “Maskhadov and his patrons abroad want the situation in Chechnya to deteriorate, with more and more terrorist bombings and killings of government officials and law enforcement officers.” He noted that “there can be no negotiations with Maskhadov.”

Nevertheless, it is obvious that Maskhadov, who said in the interview that his gunmen “kill one or two Russian soldiers a day” remains an influential person in the Chechen conflict. Anyway, Maskhadov says that “the worse the harassment campaign organized by Kadyrov’s supporters becomes, the more the people of Chechnya are turning away from them. Those who have joined us recently are doing so out of despair.”

Alexander Dugin says in Vremya Novostei that a very difficult process of political settling of the situation in Chechnya was not aimed at solving only one problem. Putin had to show Russia and the rest of the world what kind of state system he intends to create. Otherwise nothing would justify such a fierce fight against the separatists.

He set out a task: “Chechnya controlled by the federal forces needs to pass Russian administrative and legal norms.” A gigantic a bloody price has already been paid for this.

Dugin says that “the conclusion of the second Chechen campaign and political processes taking place in 2002-04 is as follows: the administrative system of any Russian region is so valuable that thousands of people can be killed for it.” Kadyrov was the foundation of that construction. Russia made every effort to implement federal standards in Chechnya using Kadyrov: this was “a total mobilization of the federal government and military and administrative resources combined with the iron will of Akhmad Kadyrov who forced representatives of different clans and some separatist units acknowledge his powers, which he presented as part of Russia’s hierarchy of governance.”

Dugin says that the essence of Kadyrov’s regime boiled down to “demonstrating the fact that the Russian state system can legitimately suppress any form of the separatism.”

However, an explosion at a stadium in Grozny was a setback for the situation. It turned out that Kadyrov’s system was very fragile. Dugin notes that this is the main feature of all PR campaigns: “fast mobilization, immediate results and a respite until the next campaign.”

Dugin says: “As a matter of fact, this is a rather painful demonstration of a crisis of the strategy of replacing politics with technological effects and PR simulations.” The Kremlin’s team achieves successes but these successes are ephemeral and ambiguous.

The whole of Chechnya depended on Kadyrov; the whole of Russia depends on Putin. Russia has only one political player. This is why this system is fragile: “There is stability, and there is its virtual clone.” Dugin says that Putin will have to choose between reality and technologies in Chechnya, and both paths are risky, dangerous and unpredictable. The same concerns Russia in general.

According to the ROMIR Monitoring agecny (its report was published by Novoye Vremya), only 14% of respondents consider Chechnya to be among Russia’s major problem; 11% of respondents think that fighting terrorism should be the focus of attention. At the same time, the majority of respondents are concerned about social problems.

Around 37% of respondents said that Putin’s priority task is to solve the problem of poverty; 34% say “he must improve the nation’s well-being.” Unemployment is another important problem which causes concern (22%).

Novoye Vremya reports that the majority of the population do not think that the law on substituting social benefits with money is aimed at developing social aid. ROMIR says that 59% of respondents criticize the leadership for this decision. At the same time, 36% of respondents support such plans.

At the same time, 46% of respondents think that reforms aimed at social protection of citizens must be a prior task for the leadership; only 28% of respondents support the current course; 22% would prefer to return to the Socialism.

According to Yuri Levada Novaya Gazeta, 49% of respondents think that the path of development for Russia after 1985 was “artificially imposed” on them.

According to a poll done by the Levada Center polling agency this May, 57% of respondents assert that they have already adapted to new conditions and 20% say that will manage to adapt in the near future. However, other responses raise some doubts about these statements. For example, 54% of respondents would like to have “a low but guaranteed wage” as in Soviet days. Only 22% are prepared to “work hard and be well paid.”

Levada says that the figures of approval of the president’s actions are rather high but, however, only 17% of respondents support all his actions.

The author stresses that there haven’t been aby positive changes in the course of Putin’s presidency. Of course, the stability was achieved and economic indices returned to the indices, which had taken place before the default of 1998. The living standard was increased too. However, the president stressed in his recent Message to the Duma, that the level of 1989 hadn’t been reached yet.

Besides, according to Novaya Gazeta, 57% of respondents asserted on the threshold of the presidential election that the population had already been “tired of waiting” for improvement of life in the country.

However, Yuri Levada considers the probabililty of the social protest to be rather low. In his opinion, there is nobody, who can organize and become the head of this protest in the present political situation.

The ROMIR Monitoring agency reports in Novoye Vremya in this connection that only 10% of its respondents support the Communist Party (CPRF); 35% support United Russia, 7% support the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), 4% support Motherland, and 7% support other parties, including right-wing and radical ones. Meanwhile, 34% of respondents take no interest in political parties at all.

“The hope of a solicitous regime hasn’t dissapeared yet,” says Yuri Levada. However, in his opinion, another important cause of the indifference toward politics concludes in the experience of survival, which was gained in the years of reforms: “Why should one oppose the unfair order if it is possible get accustomed to it?”

Russian citizens “got used to living without goods’ deficit, to going abroad and can perceive the private property and business (if it isn’t large) without any irritation” for last ten years. They think that it is enough to watch TV news for the their participation in the political life, consider Duma debates to be vain and the West to be a dangerous enemy of Russia, don’t like oligarchs and visitants, pin their hopes on “a strong arm of the president and consider him to be a chieftain.”

Of course, the government’s intention concerning monetarization of preferences aroused some nostalgia for the Soviet regime.

Kommersant-Vlast considers this idea to be “the first really unpopular proposal of the authorities.” Besides, in the opinion of Kommersant-Vlast, the leadership of the country had no choice.

In Soviet times, when all enterprises were state-controlled, nobody cared about the budget compensation for those who provided free benefits for the population. “In fact, prices for paid goods and services were insignificant and had nothing in common with the Wetsern analogues. Moreoevr, the budget was symbolic and had nothing in common with the real economic situation.”

According to Kommersant-Vlast, as a result, the regime collapsed “because it was impossible to give benefits any more. There was a shortage of goods in the preferential distribution centers and there was nothing in ordinary stores.

When market reforms were started, the budget became real and goods and services became paid, it was unknown who would compensate the expenses of state entreprises for social charity. State enterprises coped with their tasks but, however, in the opinion of the magazine, the problem became political: directors of these enterprises didn’t refuse to to work free of charge but demanded different preferences, including political ones.

According to Kommersant-Vlast, this was one of the basic reasons for conversion of social benefits into monetary form. Moreover, the state decided to increase the number of social expenses.

“The reform should be considered to be radical. The government deprives suppliers of medicines and of services of suburban railway transport of opportunity of saying that they provide for the social policy of Russia. The price of it is 171.8 billion rubles. On the contrary, the government can stress now that it maintains its aggrieved citizens and owes nobody anything, ” the magazine says.

Somehow or other, this action can provoke some new strain in Russian society. “Vladimir Putin was called a ‘Teflon president’ during his first term. But now we are seeing some erosion of the president’s Teflon coating: the social recipe being cooked in Putin’s frying pan has a rather corrosive effect,” says Profil.

The president’s approval rating has held steady around 70% for a long time. However, there were some observers, who asserted that Putin ruled over the country only in accordance with polls. If he can’t meet expectations, he substitutes “virtual constructions of the Soviet type” for these expectations.

Nevertheless, the present head of the state was “a president of hopes.

As for today, all the polling agencies are registering some decline in his popularity.

According to the Levada Center polling agency, 55% of respondents trusted the president in late March, 48% in late April, and 43% in late May.

The Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), usually loyal to the presidential administration, is more pessimistic this time: it found confidence in Putin to be 40% at the end of March, 36% in mid-May, and 30% in early June. Moreover, according to Profil, a 25% rating is considered to be a critical turning point for a politician.

Vladimir Putin has always taken care of his rating and this fact is not a surpise. Equidistance of oligrachs, suppresion of governors, loyal parliament, tax reform and other things were possible thanks to the mandate, which had been given by the population to him. However, in the opinion of political scientists, the process of “decomposition of Putin’s majority” has already begun.

Moreover, in the opinion of Profil, the beginning of unpopular social reforms was gave a powerful incentive to it. Nothing can help in this situation. Neither expression of anger at Fradkov, who isn’t being considered to be a self-dependent person, nor president’s statements that citizens would support everything if to explain everything properly.

Of course, there is also some inertia of the public support. However, the president has enjoyed it for five years. In opinion of the magazine, it is a wonder that Putin managed to enjoy the population’s confidence for a long time.

It can turn out that these times will become the past.

However, in the opinion of Profil, the president can choose another option for his second term.

It is rather dangerous to curtail social reforms when they had already been declared. However, there is the stabilization fund and it seems that the government is ready to resort to it for compensation of pension payments.

The magazine supposes that one won’t manage to keep 70% of confidence in this case. However, there is chance to become “second Brezhnev, under whom everything was good.”

There is also another scenario for Putin: “fighting enemies.” Damage from social reorganizations is being compensated with a victory over real or virtual enemies. The victory can be real or virtual, as it is in Chechnya, too: the problem is declared to be resolved. Afre that, everything depends on PR techniques.

In this case (as, however, in all other cases), the strengthening of the common anti-Western spirit of Russian society can go with trusting personal relations of the president with Western leaders, and, first of all, with future US president.

That is probably why Vladimir Putin is hoping that Bush will win.

According to Profil, there is also a third scenario: “I do what I should do.” Frontal carrying-out of social and structural reforms will bring the presidential rating down sooner or later. However, the magazine assumes that if the most painful part of the reforms is completed before the end of the second term, “Putin may not face the threat of becoming known as a second Chubais.”

As it was said in one of Chekhov’s plays – “if one had only known…”

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