August in Russia: a midsummer night’s dream of politics

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It’s mid-August: the height of the holiday season. Everyone’s on vacation! The press is providing vivid coverage of Boris Yeltsin’s trip to Norway for some fishing – at the invitation of King Harald V. The last time Yeltsin visited the land of the fjords was in 1996, notes the Novye Izvestia newspaper; that was an official visit during which Yeltsin faced many unpleasant questions about the fate of Alexander Nikitin, a Russian member of Norway’s Bellona environmentalist organization. Moreover, at the time the Kremlin was concerned about NATO exercises taking place in Norway close to Russia’s border.

Times have changed. Yeltsin will fish for salmon on a Norwegian Island, sail along the coast on a 19th century schooner called the Paulina, and picnic among the fjords, with shrimp and white wine – entirely carefree.

Norwegian papers are saying that retirement has been good for Yeltsin: in contrast to past occasions, “he looks good, speaks rationally, and not only gets his facts straight, but even corrects others.” To everyone’s surprise, Yeltsin has proved to be remarkably well-informed. “When Yeltsin was shown a document stating that the first official border between Norway and Russia was established in 1826, he protested loudly: No, no! The first border agreement was reached back in 1348!” It’s hard to believe this is the same historical figure who at one time said the legendary “Chechen snipers” numbered only 38.

Actually, Yeltsin isn’t forgetting about business affairs during his vacation. According to Novye Izvestia, Yeltsin is making this family visit to Norway in order to lobby for the interests of Aeroflot and his own son-in-law, Aeroflot chief Valery Okulov: the main aim is “to help his son-in-law sign an agreement for Norwegian salmon to be shipped to Japan by Aeroflot via the Erland Airport.” Thus, it’s a traditional attempt to combine business with pleasure.

President Vladimir Putin is taking a break as well: “at least until the end of this week – or until early September, according to some reports,” says Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Putin has headed in the opposite direction from Yeltsin: to his Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi. All the same, he also intends to combine relaxation with work, and has already found time to discuss Chechnya’s upcoming presidential election with Central Electoral Commission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov. And the Kommersant newspaper reports that Veshnyakov wore a white suit, in keeping with the summer season, but Putin wore “business gray” despite the 30 degrees Celsius heat. (Ever since Putin’s historic meeting with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who took the liberty of turning up at the Kremlin without a tie, the press has carefully monitored the clothing details of everyone who meets with Putin.)

But the meeting with Veshnyakov was only the start of an extensive work schedule. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, Putin’s schedule for this week includes meetings with President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine and President Robert Kocharian of Armenia. At the end of August, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder may visit Bocharov Ruchei; and rumor has it that French President Jacques Chirac might come along. In short, the summer season of politics is at its peak.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s politicians and political analysts have been looking at the results of the first hundred days of Putin’s second term and weighing up the head of state’s political prospects.

Some very diverse opinions have been expressed: as the Vremya Novostei newspaper reports, after 90 minutes of debate at a special forum the analysts taking part still didn’t manage to reach consensus.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of the Politics Foundation, declared optimistically during the discussion that he considers the balance of the first hundred days to be positive. In his view, the authorities are being “bold and active” in carrying out the reforms which will “make Russia more comparable with the rest of the world.” Nikonov even quoted Mikhail Khodorkovsky, although he added that in his view, “Putin is more liberal than 90% of the citizenry, not just 70%.” Nikonov then proceeded to employ a metaphor: “In recent years our Russian plug has never quite managed to fit into Europe’s power-points, but these days we are making good progress on redesigning the plug.”

Mikhail Deliagin, director of the Globalization Institute, disagreed with Nikonov: “Europe’s power-points are different, and American power-points are different, and normal people don’t keep changing their plugs – they just buy an adapter.” Deliagin also resorted to metaphors, comparing the state administration reforms to an axe: “Ever since the axe-blow fell in March, the government has remained in a state of paralysis.”

Boris Makarenko, first deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, was even harsher in his criticism: “Putin’s system of governance is turning itself into a closed model, and a closed model soon becomes stupid.”

Vremya Novostei observes that the only issue on which the analysts were unanimous was the YUKOS affair. Even Vyacheslav Nikonov admitted that “the drawn-out conflict over YUKOS is fraught with negative consequences.”

Then again, as the Izvestia newspaper notes, this forum of political analysts at the Media Center didn’t seem too concerned about Putin’s first hundred days as such. The analysts were more interested in what the political landscape will look like by the time of the next parliamentary and presidential elections. Everyone agreed, with concern, that at present the political stage in Russia remains closed, and instead of dialogue between the authorities and the citizenry there is only “propaganda through one gateway”: thus, the preconditions for the emergence of any significant “successor” to Putin simply don’t exist.

But Vremya Novostei points out that the analysts are all sure Putin’s political career will not end in 2008.

Mikhail Deliagin was the most skeptical on this point: “No, a person doesn’t make such titanic efforts just in order to vacate the chair afterwards.” In Deliagin’s view, “even if we aren’t facing an eternity of Putin, we certainly aren’t facing only four more years.”

Deliagin was contradicted by Vyacheslav Nikonov, who pointed out that former heads of state in Europe often go on to hold other important posts; so after Putin steps down as president, he might become prime minister, for example.

But Boris Makarenko disagreed with Nikonov, saying that there cannot be two centers of political power in Russia – a president and a prime minister. So in 2008, we should expect to see a re-run of Operation Sucessor.

The discussion was rounded off by Gleb Pavlovsky, who said that once Putin is no longer president, he will still remain the leader of the nation, “and the new head of state will have to measure up to Putin.”

Pavlovsky explained his views in more detail in a lengthy interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

In Pavlovsky’s view, Putin’s main problem at present is his lack of real support among the political class. “What do we have now? We have President Putin, and then we have a vast rabble – in the bureaucracy, the media, and business – who claim to act in Putin’s name, but lack any mandate from the people and pursue their own entirely mercenary goals.”

Corruption in Russia, according to Pavlovsky, has progressed to a qualitatively different level: now it is “no longer a phenomenon, but a class.” Ties of corruption permeate the state bureaucracy from top to bottom: “This is a huge stratum, involving millions of people. Our political future will be determined by the extent to which our society and political forces succeed in resisting this.”

So far, as the YUKOS affair has shown, the corrupt are skillfully making money “by taking advantage of inside information obtained via their positions in state service, in an entirely criminal manner.” Of course, says Pavlovsky, “they are scoundrels. But Putin can’t separate the state from the scoundrels all on his own.” When a political community “is passive and also corrupt, a leader is forced to wait.”

Pavlovsky believes that in the YUKOS affair, Putin has run up against “a weakness in non-party leadership”; rather than “a coalition of interests, there has been an explosion of incoherent emotions which provide no political support and need not be taken into account.”

At present, says Pavlovsky, “we can discern the start of a battle with those who seek to convert their personal loyalty to Putin into capital.” However, according to Pavlovsky, “this will not be a battle of the liberals versus the security and law enforcement people (siloviki). Why should they fight each other? While the siloviki are sending people to jail, the liberals can play with on the stock market with frozen shares.” And that’s basically what is now happening to YUKOS.

Meanwhile, rather than developing productive political ideas, the political class is offering Putin “a mixture of insults and nonsensical hints about Putin’s alleged intention to bring back totalitarianism.”

Pavlovsky categorically denies any such accusations against the head of state: “If he did want to do that, I assure you that given the present state of our society, he wouldn’t encounter any strong objections.”

Pavlovsky points out that Putin has seen two convincing examples of “the inferiority of totalitarian systems” – the Soviet Union and East Germany. So Putin is well aware that while the mobs are “breaking into offices and pissing on secret files,” the masters of those offices are doing deals and redistributing portfolios.

According to Pavlovsky, the problem with the Russian citizenry today is that it displays “a paralysis of will, along with the wish to retain the role of onlookers in politics.”

Among those adopting this dangerous stance is the Kremlin’s party itself, United Russia: “it is still a self-contained, politically helpless organization without any political personnel reserves.”

And there is no source of new political personnel: “What does a young man find if he joins United Russia in the hope of pursuing a regular career in state service? A sign saying ‘Closed’ – with everyone off claiming pieces of property. So he’ll turn away and go into business. So later on, the state will be forced to approach the private sector for new personnel again. And the private sector will supply them – along with lobbyists” – that is, with the prospect of further corruption.

In Pavlovsky’s view, the political vacuum between the president and the citizenry has been created by “pseudo-parties that collapsed after failing to find any support in society.” These days, the leaders of those parties “are visiting America, all expenses paid, and denouncing ‘Putin’s authoritarianism’ there – even though they themselves have no authority and no ideas.”

Meanwhile, an August poll by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) indicates that by no means all the political parties are viewed as having “no authority and no ideas.” According to the Novye Izvestia newspaper, one “predictable sensation” has been the opinion of Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) voters of the LDPR faction’s performance in the Duma in its first session since the elections: 22% of respondents who voted for Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party say that the faction’s performance has fully met their expectations, and a further 15% say the faction is doing even better than they had expected. Novye Izvestia notes: “So it turns out that Vladimir Zhirinovsky has been well rewarded for withstanding a barrage of stones and old shoes during a demonstration on Teatralnaya Square.”

Left-wing voters are watching the activities of their Duma members most closely of all: 60% of respondents who voted for the Communist Party (CPRF) and 56% of those who voted for Motherland (Rodina) say they keep track of what the corresponding Duma factions are doing. But these voters are also the most disappointed: 24% and 22% say the CPRF and Motherland factions are not performing well enough in parliament.

And 57% of respondents who voted for United Russia last December now say they have no interest at all in what the United Russia faction is doing.

“Many of them aren’t even aware that such a party exists,” says Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Strategic Studies Center. “After all, at the Duma elections these people just voted for the Vladimir Putin brand-name.” In Piontkovsky’s view, those who voted for the left-wing parties are being unfair in their assessments now: “the CPRF and Motherland have actually done even more for their voters than they might have.” But their electorate, made up of “the socially discontented layers of the population,” values results: these voters believe that the CPRF and Motherland have been unsuccessful in defending their interests.

The Vedomosti newspaper quotes Alexander Prokhanov, chief editor of the leftist-patriotic Zavtra newspaper: “Information about what the CPRF faction is doing in the Duma simply isn’t reaching the people.” And this also explains why United Russia’s performance is rated fairly high (16% approval): “Pro-government propaganda depicts United Russia member Andrei Isayev, chairman of the Duma’s labor and social policy committee, as standing up for the people’s rights.” In Prokhanov’s view, “the people see that the very last of what they have is being taken away from them, and they don’t know who’s taking it away. But they do see Isayev standing up for them.”

Vedomosti points out that many analysts predicted a substantial drop in support for United Russia, since it has been responsible for getting the unpopular reforms through parliament. To all appearances, however, this hasn’t happened: United Russia voters still have a neutral or positive attitude to the party.

Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Analytical Group, says this is because most of those who consciously voted for United Russia are people who have “adjusted to life,” so they aren’t very interested in social benefits: “They expected the party to support the president’s policies, and that’s what it has been doing.”

What’s more, United Russia continues to strengthen its leadership positions. In early August, five United Russia members, joined by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, submitted a bill amending the constitutional law on the federal government. If this amendment passes, will overturn the existing ban on senior state officials, including ministers, holding leadership posts in public organizations or political parties.

As Kommersant-Vlast magazine observes, United Russia’s handlers in the Kremlin “have evidently decided it’s time to follow the example of the Soviet Constitution, which used to uphold the ‘guiding and directing role’ of one particular party.”

Then again, says Kommersant-Vlast, the proposed amendment would not oblige all Cabinet ministers to join United Russia en masse – and anyway, state officials have always been responsive to the tasks and objectives of each successive Kremlin-backed party.

However, according to Kommersant-Vlast, there is no doubt that the opportunities offered by this change in legislation will be taken up: the government’s most important decisions will be “sanctified” by the will of the party, and United Russia will indeed come to resemble the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Moreover, Kommersant-Vlast draws attention to a theory popular among many political scientists, on the subject of what Vladimir Putin might do after his second term expires: “After the 2008 election, Putin could become the leader of United Russia and the government it will form – thus in effect becoming the head of state, while the new president will be a decorative figure who is 100% personally loyal to Putin.”

All the same, says Kommersant-Vlast, United Russia might be doing itself a disservice by taking full responsibility for everything that happens in Russia.

Of course, if oil prices keep on rising, and the modest sums of money now being offered to the people as compensation for social benefits are increased, a party-based government will not face any threats. But if the economic situation deteriorates, says Kommersant-Vlast, the Kremlin may require a “scapegoat” – and United Russia would be perfectly suited to that role.

If that happens, then in December 2007 voters might turn away from the self-discredited United Russia and vote for another party: one for which the efforts of state-controlled television channels would create an image as the defender of the rights of the common people.

In the opinion of Kommersant-Vlast, exactly who ends up replacing United Russia isn’t all that important: it could be a party led by Dmitri Rogozin or Gennadi Zyuganov or Gennadi Semigin, or some newly-formed organization. What’s important is that the Kremlin’s new party “would not be tainted by complicity in passing unpopular reforms, so it could not only replace United Russia as the nation’s leading party, but also become a reliable support base for Putin’s successor in the election of 2008.”

Needless to say, as Kommersant-Vlast points out, the Kremlin would have to “exercise a certain amount of skill in policial tactics” when replacing one party with another right before an election. But this task is well within the capabilities of the Kremlin team led by Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, “who has long since gained a reputation as a master of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering.”

More opinion poll results indicate that some political moves of this nature may indeed be required.

In a poll done by the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), reported in Vremya Novostei, only half of respondents said the hopes they had held of Putin’s presidency have been fulfilled to some extent. Thirteen percent said they never had any particular hopes. And 28% said their hopes for some improvements in the situation have been disappointed.

Vremya Novostei reports that respondents in the higher income brackets were most inclined to give the president’s performance a positive evaluation: 68% of them were optimistic. In the medium income brackets, 57% of respondents expressed approval. Among the poorest respondents, the figure was down to 40%.

These contradictory evaluations indicate, says Vremya Novostei, that there is still no consensus in our society about Putin’s policy course: some people see the president as a pro-West liberal reformer, while others see him as a “strong hand” fortifying the hierarchy of governance. One thing is clear, says Vremya Novostei: “As he implements such radical reforms as monetizing benefits, Vladimir Putin is unlikely to be able to maintain the balance between the interests of various societal groups while also retaining a high approval rating across all layers of the electorate.”

Eloquent evidence of this can be seen in the recent fall of Putin’s approval rating: according to VTsIOM, it’s down to 59%, while the FOM puts it at 48%.

Irina Yasina, program director at the Open Russia Foundation, says in the Moskovskie Novosti weekly: “What is currently happening to the social benefits system is the result of the state’s greed, laziness, and disrespect for all of us.”

Yasina emphasizes that the whole country, “even the illiterate,” is aware that oil prices are currently very high. The regime has received a “windfall,” and everyone knows that. “People might not be very clear about the exact size of the windfall, but they do understand that enormous revenues are involved.” What’s more, thanks to the efforts of state-controlled television channels, everyone also knows about the Central Bank’s growing gold and currency reserves.

“And all of a sudden – there’s this penny-pinching. Begrudging a few hundred rubles to cover the cost of medications for invalids and war veterans, whose homes are cluttered with bottles and jars of pills.” Yasina says that in a country with practically no health insurance system, “some other field for stinginess should have been chosen.”

Moreover, says Yasina, the authorities are showing “total disrespect for their own citizens” – not considering it necessary to explain their actions or the consequences of those actions. Then again, Yasina believes that “we fully deserve such disrespect”: a society that prefers not to get involved with the government’s actions eventually receives whatever the authorities consider convenient for themselves.

In the Vedomosti newspaper, leading television journalist Olga Romanova says: “The people aren’t being told anything. Either this is a preventive measure, or there’s nothing to say and no one to say it.”

The impression, says Romanova, is that “over there in the Kremlin, the Cabinet, and Bocharov Ruchei there is also dead silence – not a sound. Politicians and ministers have stopped communicating – not only with the people, but even among themselves.”

Is this only because it’s the summer vacation season? But Romanova says it’s possible that this “midsummer night’s dream of politics” may not end with the coming of autumn: “Actually, everyone benefits from the absence of both domestic politics and foreign affairs. No news – no disturbances. No objectives – no need to achieve them. No government – no criticism.”

Only Gleb Pavlovsky is having premonitions of trouble: “We keep assuming that a calm sea means it’s impossible there will ever be a strong wind. Our political system has now become accustomed to a calm sea. In this situation, only one prediction can be made: some day, the calm will be replaced by a storm.”

Then again – who knows? As Pavlovsky says, only one thing in Russia is predictable: Russia’s unpredictability.

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