Vladimir Putin’s new political initiatives: the 2008 Concept

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In the words of Yevgeni Kiselev, editor-in-chief of Moskovskiye Novosti, Vladimir Putin’s asymmetrical political response to the terrorist attack has made quite a stir both in Russia and in the West. Kiselev starts his article in Moskovskiye Novosti with a quotation from The Washington Post, which names the president’s political initiatives “an unambiguous step towards tyranny in Russia” which “cannot be justified as part of the war on terrorism.”

The Washington Post has no doubts that “Putin has had these plans ready for months” and “is cynically using the horrific terrorist attack in Beslan as his excuse.”

The quotation continues, “nor is there any complexity or fuzziness about the significance of Putin’s actions. Putin is imposing dictatorship the old-fashioned way, in the manner of a Ferdinand Marcos, an Anastasio Somoza or a Park Chung Hee.”

Putin’s initiatives even made Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin break the silence. However, his statement was sufficiently vague.

For a start, in the above issue of Moskovskiye Novosti Yeltsin warned his unwillingness for giving political comments and discussing the actions of those who came to power after him: “I have the opportunity to deliver the thoughts and ideas which bother me personally to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.” In opinion of Yeltsin, this is the “correct and civilized path in the relations between the country’s former and incumbent presidents.”

Nevertheless, straight away Yeltsin expresses certainty that the measures passed after Beslan “will suit the course of democratic liberties which have Russia’s most precious achievement over the past decade.”

Besides, Russia’s first president is sure that “we” cannot presume to reject “the letter and the spirit of the Constitution which the country adopted at the nationwide referendum in 1993,” at least because “the suffocation of liberties, curtailment of the democratic rights is the victory of terrorists,” while only a democratic country could be successfully countering terrorism.

The press noted unusual tactfulness of Yeltsin’s statements and Kommersant newspaper conducted a quick poll entitled “What did Boris Yeltsin imply?” among politicians and political consultants”.

As was expected, the opinions vary drastically.

United Russia offered the simplest version. Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Pekhtin recalled that Yeltsin has always been an adherent to the resolute actions “which is why he supports Putin in his resistance to terror and putting the country in order.”

The communists doubted the accuracy of this interpretation. Viktor Ilyukhin told Kommersant that Yeltsin “would unlikely speak if he were in absolute agreement.” Ilyukhin has no doubts that the first president’s statement “is critically colored,” but adds that most likely Putin “considers no one’s criticism, which is a matter of image and self-esteem.”

Boris Nemtsov (chairman of the board of directors of Neftyanoi company as represented by the newspaper) described the situation in the cheerful way that isso typical of him: “Yeltsin hints that the Constitution is being threatened, but due to some circumstances he is unable to criticize Putin to the same extent as I can.”

Boris Berezovsky, who had earlier addressed Yeltsin to comment on the situation via Kommersant, has been in his assessment accurate like a mathematician and pragmatic as an oligarch. “The form is ambiguous, but the content is undisputed: he is opposed to Putin’s actions since the latter is ruining the Constitution. The ambiguity of form is clear – if Putin is breaking the fundamentals of the Constitution he is also capable of breaking the remaining commitments and altering the clause on Yeltsin’s immunity via the parliament under his control.”

Kommersant says that the ambiguity of Boris Yeltsin’s statements has been deliberate: “The undisputed support for a new reform would mean that the first president is actually rejecting everything he had made in the 1990s. As resolute consideration of Putin’s actions as that would be, for Yeltsin it would be the equivalent of confessing his mistake in selecting his successor in 1999.” The first president seems to be unprepared for the former and the latter.

“If Yeltsin actually wanted to support and vindicate Putin it would be in the newspapers that do not belong to theYUKOS owners who are being prosecuted by the authorities,” Vedomosti entered the debate.

In the newspaper’s opinion, Yeltsin has used a technique “from the arsenals of British delicacy – if necessary expressing his firm faith that one is not going to blow one’s nose into the curtains and won’t forget to take a silver spoon out of a pocket that was put there absent-mindedly.” It is evident that claiming “firm faith” is unnecessary when no doubts exist. However, Yeltsin evidently has doubts, stresses Vedomosti, which is why he addressed his warning “to the one who had perceived the country’s tragedy as a long-awaited excuse for strengthening one’s power at the expense of others’ freedom.”

“For KGB officers like Putin, the statement that Russia must be ruled from the top down to become bountiful and mighty is an axiom, renowned Zbigniew Brzezinski writes in the above issue of Vedomosti. He entitled his article on the political initiatives of the Russian president “Russian Mussolini.” The higher circles of Russian power have approved Putin’s initiatives as suiting the interests of the elite which is still nostalgic after the status of a great power. However, a turn towards “static centralism” shouldn’t be equated with a return to any form of the communist totalitarianism. More likely, Putin’s regime reminds Brzezinski of Mussolini’s state: the Fascist regime awakened the feeling of national mightiness, discipline and praised myths about an allegedly mighty past. This is how Putin is trying to combine the KGB’s traditions with Stalin’s methods of rule during war, with the claims of the Russian Orthodox Church to the status of the 3rd Rome and Slavophiles’ dreams about an integral Slavic state ruled from the Kremlin.

As it is known, Brzezinsky’s statements towards Russian leaders (just like those provided by The Washington Post) have not been noted for their friendliness. This time, however, U.S. President George W. Bush considered it necessary to censure the Kremlin’s policy. As noted by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, for some reason he did that in his address to Spanish-speaking Americans.

President Bush told the nation that in his telephone conversation with Putin, he expressed sorrow on behalf of the U.S. citizens for the victims of the terrorist attacks and he said that Russia’s combat with terror was a common cause. But, he also expressed his concern to the Russian president for “decisions which could undermine democracy in Russia.” Great democracies have a balance of power between central and local governments and within central governments between the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch. As governments fight the enemies of democracy, they must uphold the principles of democracy,” President Bush said.

For the first time Bush spoke of Putin’s policy in a similar manner. Thus far, criticizing the Kremlin has been the prerogative of the State Department and, notes U.S. expert Stephen Sestanovich, Russians interpreted this in the following manner: they shouldn’t treat a matter too seriously until the U.S. president delivers a public statement.”

However, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Russian Foreign Ministry has offered no official response to the new “democracy lesson” from Washington. The “diplomatic circles” explained to the newspaper that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already said every necessary word concerning this matter in his reply to U.S. State Secretary Colin Powell’s statement that Putin’s plan is a “rollback in some democratic reforms.” As it is widely known, Lavrov pointed out to Washington that the proposed reforms are Russia’s “internal affair.”

In Gleb Pavlovsky’s opinion, criticism from Washington won’t make the Russian president abandon his plans. “I think Putin is to interpret Bush’s words as the pre-electoral rhetoric. It would be strange for him to reply,” Pavlovsky told Vedomosti.

According to Pavlovsky, Putin has a good sense of similar situations since he has been in them so many times before, and he will “understand” the colleague who needs to win the election.

As reported by Vremya Novostei, this is most likely why State Secretary Colin Powell is emphasizing in his latest remarks that the USA wants to be certain that “our good friend Russia” is still “on the right path.” The article in Vremya Novostei is entitled “Russia is a friend, but is the election more precious?”

In the opinion of Vlast magazine, from the practical viewpoint the new electoral system promises no peculiar changes to the country: “Once the so called managed democracy was established, the Kremlin almost always had the men it wanted for governors elected. Neither did the presence of deputies from single-mandate districts in the Duma prevent the Kremlin from establishing in the lower house of the parliament a pro-presidential constitutional majority in December 2003.”

The governors didn’t dare object to the cancellation of the election and Boris Nemtsov already called their standing a “collective masochism.”

However, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, to all appearances the regional leaders have realized that the majority of them are not being threatened by troubles in the upcoming changes. Some of them have even received a hope for pleasant prospects.

On its part, Nezavisimaya Gazeta has divided all Russian governors into three categories.

This includes the so-called “unapproachable” – those who received their mandates (or extended them for another term) in late 2003 or early 2004 and are therefore supposed to step down simultaneously or just ahead of Vladimir Putin. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “they may reasonably expect that from the beginning of the parliamentary election campaign (from the middle of 2007, in fact) to the inauguration of the new president, the Kremlin will be much too busy to pay much attention to them.” Moreover, the future president may altogether abandon the whole idea of appointment in favor of something else. The second group is the “doomed;” it comprises regional leaders scheduled to be reelected in 2004. If they are permitted, they may outlast the president, if not – they do not really care who will succeed – whether it’s someone who is elected or someone who is appointed.

The third group consists of those on extended service (for instance Luzhkov and Shaimiev). They’ve already worked for all possible terms, and all the legal loopholes have already been used. Moreover, the abolishment of election offers them a chance to extend their rule, in case they don’t spoil their relations with the federal authorities.

As for the rest who are to be reelected in 2005-2006 by yielding the posts to Kremlin’s proteges, they won’t resist either. “There is considerable risk of being kicked out before their time, but the chances of inciting a gubernatorial mutiny is infinitesimal.” Moreover, loyalty may yet be awarded.

In this connection Yezhenedelny Zhurnal quotes Yabloko leader Sergei Ivanenko: “No wonder that all regional leaders express their ultimate support for Putin’s new initiatives – they are at least bestowed if not eternal life in their posts, then a very long life in this status. What do the new rules say? Be good at reaching agreement with the Kremlin and forget any gubernatorial terms.”

At the same time, abolition of the gubernatorial election will cost the Kremlin quite a price, notes Yezhenedelny Zhurnal: explanations will be required for Western partners, reconciliation for the dissatisfied press, some counterbalances like the abstruse Public Chamber. “It is clear that rejection of the gubernatorial election is a non-constitutional step, no matter what the Kremlin’s interpreters of the Constitution might say.”

In the opinion of Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, there’s only one explanation for the present events: “Putin has no intention to leave the Kremlin in 2008… Everything falls into place when one admits this is true.”

There are plenty of scripts which may help Putin retain his power, explains the magazine.

For instance, the Belarussian scenario: following the ultimate and definitive merger of the two states Putin and Lukashenko will get an opportunity to be nominated for new terms (the former as president and the latter as vice president). However, the popularity of this scenario worked out for Yeltsin has decreased of late.

Another theory: Putin becomes United Russia leader in 2008, forms the Cabinet and returns to the Kremlin for another 8 years four years later. In general, they are just theories.

One thing is clear though, notes Yezhenedelny Zhurnal: this won’t do away without a plebiscite and amendments for the current Constitution.

However, taking similar activities against the backdrop of the infinite chain of gubernatorial elections is risky and bothersome, the magazine thinks. If the presidential administration takes up Putin’s political prospects, it won’t have time for the regional elections – “thus they’d be abolished.”

The magazine presumes that today’s governors, many of those appointed under Yeltsin, are in for another, last historic mission – extending the term of Vladimir Putin’s rule. “This is when it’ll be possible to make way for cheerful KGB officers, undoubtedly from St. Petersburg,” concludes Yezhenedelny Zhurnal.

Russkii Kurier newspaper has found out that the presidential administration has long ago worked out some theories of the political reconstruction of Russia entitled “The 2008 Combination” and going under the motto “From Byzantine disorder to German order.”

The newspaper has been scrupulously citing the document available: “Stability guaranteed by the stiff continuity of power is the basis for continuation of the reforms. Remixing the Successor project is impossible; any drastic revision of the Constitution is undesirable. A succession of consecutive activities aimed at drastic institutional correctives is the optimal way.”

As a result, by spring 2007 it has been planned to establish a “semi-finished parliamentary republic (in conformity to the German model, which could be completed either immediately after the Duma election campaign or in spring 2008.”

It was planned to ensure results of the 2007 election “either through adoption of the legal practice of overlapping the federal and regional election campaigns or else via the appointment of governors by the president with the subsequent approval of their candidacies by the local representative bodies.”

The document keeps saying: “The tactic of balances and counterbalances must be ruled out as such – only a monolith is able to take the country to the correct course… Executive power, which is the main political tool, will only be supplemented with the public component (parties).

Moreover, it is planned to build “rigid vertical control at all administrative levels, eliminate and suppress any horizontal links” and “spot and eliminate any unsanctioned entities.”

In the opinion of Russkii Kurier, availability of this document makes up for the exhaustive explanation why Vladimir Putin has almost entirely ignored the topic of terrorism in his statement concerning the combat of the phenomenon – he has offered entirely alien proposals: “Because the advisers who are proceeding with their plans in this document think the sudden opportunity for making the main step in the adjustment of the 2008 problem cannot be missed.”

“Undoubtedly, the absence of any link between terror and the proposed reforms is striking,” writes Vlast magazine. However, the president is at a loss: on the one hand he needed a tough response to a series of terrorist acts with numerous victims. The statements by General Staff Chief Yuri Baluyevsky that Russia is ready to deliver extensive strikes on terrorist bases has formed no proper impression. Moreover, in September 2002 Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov already came out with similar statements and even gave the precise location of strikes – the Pankissi gorge of Georgia. The Nord Ost tragedy occured a month later.

On the other hand, the Kremlin has displayed no efficient method of combating terrorism. Therefore, with the aid of former achievements, the Beslan events have been used to strengthen the regime of personal power.

In the opinion of Vlast, strategically the president’s new plan “is a fundamental turn in the Russian policy.” Now, says the magazine, Vladimir Putin “has crossed the line dividing democracy that could be managed from authoritarianism.”

Until recently the actions of the authorities have been given the semblance of legality: “NTV company was seized from Vladimir Gusinsky with the aid of the Crime Code and the law on joint-stock companies. Over two-thirds of Duma deputies voted in favor of Alexandrov’s anthem in full conformity with the Constitution. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is now being tried by the legitimate Russian court which is guided by the current laws, rather than Stalin’s three.”

However, says Vlast, the Kremlin is now displaying rejection from the supremacy of traditional law, which is preferred to the law of force: “the president has decided to alter the procedure of electing governors simply because he can do so.”

Novoye Vremya magazine recalls a statement by a participant in the meeting of foreign political consultants with the Russian president shortly after the Beslan tragedy; this person concluded at the meeting that Putin has a clear idea how the country should be developed, which political system and which power structure should be chosen. “This notion has little in common with the European and American types of democracy.”

The magazine perceives this as extra proof for the fact that proposals forwarded on September 13 as a quick response to the terrorist threat were evidently prepared in advance and the moment was suitable to implement it.”

“It is blasphemous but nothing could be done – what is bad, scary and disastrous for Russian citizens has always been and is convenient for power in Russia.”

Presuming even that the president’s “intentions are clear and he’s concerned for the fate of the fatherland rather than the cause of strengthening his personal power” and “all his thoughts actually concern securing the country from terrorists by means of strengthening the power,” this doesn’t make the situation any better.

In this case, stresses Novoye Vremya, the head of state “must realize that another crazy and prolonged reorganization of power will lead to a resumed ruining of the country, not strengthening it; that this is the inevitable growth of separatism in other now calm national regions.”

Indeed, continues Novoye Vremya, this growth is now maintained by the reputation of elected republican heads. However, even if the same people remain at power as Kremlin’s appointees they’ll “lose much influence from politicians (who could only be leaders elected by the people) and they will become officials controlled by Moscow.”

According to Andrei Ryabov, member of the research council with the Moscow Carnegie Center, “appearance of 89 Zyazikovs could be the only result of another reformation of the power vertical.”

Under the “wise rule” of this factual Kremlin’s appointee Ingushetia has become a problem region in the North Caucasus.

“It could be time for the Kremlin to realize that support should be given to leaders trusted by the local population, rather than tame Zyazikovs and Alkhanovs.” This could be the only way to adjust the situation in the North Caucasus and at least try to isolate heads of terrorist gangs from the population: “Instead, it has been proposed to spread the experience of Ingushetia and Chechnya in all the other Russian regions.”

However, Profil thinks that jobless political consultants have become the only category of Russian citizens who have come to be indignant at Putin’s decision on reforming the political system.

However, the magazine notes, what could they offer against the state PR, thanks to which the country “in an instant forgot about terrorism, the Beslan tragedy, and started vigorously discussing the president’s new initiative?”

As for the ordinary voters who are tired of the absurd election campaigns, according to Profil, they are likely to uphold the Kremlin’s initiative – sparing the election…

Moreover,Novaya Gazeta notes that nowadays “the degree of the country’s alienation from the state, and that of the people’s alienation from the “superiors” reaches the record indicators of the Soviet period.”

Just like 20 years ago the power is pretending to be wise at ruling the country, just the same as the people are pretending to be gladly obeying it.

This would be a nice performance except for Beslan, Rizhskaya subway station, Nord Ost…

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