Yet another "orange revolution" phantom in Russia: Mikhail Kasianov!

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The next presidential election campaign has begun! This was the unanimous conclusion drawn by the media last week, following a much-publicized statement from Mikhail Kasianov to the effect that he may run for president in 2008.

Publications of various political shades got down to analyzing the former prime minister’s potential presidential chances, and the consequences of his demarche in terms of the layout of the main forces on Russia’s political stage. A key topic of interest was the true purpose of Kasianov himself and whoever might be standing behind him.

“The first thought that comes to mind when considering Kasianov as a presidential candidate: he’s not exactly what Russia needs – there are all kinds of objections to him. The second thought: well, is anyone entirely unobjectionable?” says Kirill Rogov in the Vedomosti newspaper. In any case, wouldn’t it be better to figure out what Russia really needs from a new president, before doing anything else?

First of all, says Rogov, he needs to be truly new. The monetization scandal, as well as recent opinion polls, “clearly show that the present administration’s mandate for carrying out reforms has been greatly devalued, at least, if not completely exhausted.”

What’s more, says Rogov, the mistakes accumulated over the past five years (as well as “certain personal traits of Vladimir Putin”) are making the Kremlin base its policy “not only on certain strategic objectives, but also on the tactic of covering up those mistakes.” As a consequence, certain “details” inevitably turn into “key issues around which all of politics revolves.” That is the whole purpose of rotation of power, according to Vedomosti: getting rid of this unnecessary baggage.

Vedomosti emphasizes that this is precisely why the new head of state cannot be another “successor,” or “a new television celebrity created by PR consultants.”

According to Kirill Rogov, this is not about the inevitability of compromising materials (and not about Kasianov’s notorious nickname of “Two Percent Misha”): “There are no more compromising materials. So much effort has gone into persuading us that we’re all guilty of something or other, and therefore we don’t have any rights in our own country, that no one responds to that tune any longer.” Indeed, it’s hard to take compromising materials seriously when “the state’s law enforcement activities are used as a means of redistributing assets and dealing with dissent.”

More likely, says Vedomosti, the former prime minister’s major task is to prove that he is “different” – “nobody’s protege and has no intention of lining his own pockets.” This is surely a hard task.

Meanwhile, Vedomosti attempts to formulate more specified requirements for the presidential candidate: “He mustn’t be a hysteric or a messiah who is leading us out of the dark into the light or saving us from a calamity,” since, says the newspaper, neither the blessing “light,” nor a global calamity is threatening us in the immediate future.

Further on: the new president must act reasonably in the system of “balances and counterbalances:” “we’ve had enough of the ‘hierarchy’ which has been smoothly transforming into an oprichnina.”

A more concise formula would be quite modest: the third Russian president “must be able to improve without ruining.”

According to the author, “this is the task which the incumbent president is failing to handle.” To all appearances, Mikhail Kasianov is not utterly hopeless in this respect.

“Kasianov is a fresh person in politics. Despite his entire powerful background he has never been a politician in the ideological sense. He can now become such by picking up the values which the incumbent authorities have thrown into a gutter,” Kompaniya magazine says enthusiastically.

According to the magazine, these values include “democracy as the fundament of the social-political relations and private capitalism as the basic principle of economic development.” Thus, thinks the magazine, Kasianov has a real chance “to become president of the victorious capitalism.”

“The current authorities are not relying on basic democratic values and is adhering to the course, which affects the social and economic development of Russia. The government is ineffective… Needless to say about anybody’s work specifically; the system is wrong and the changes are going wrong either,” Kompaniya cites the former prime minister’s statements at the press conference of February 24, the presentation of MK-Analitika company, a new place of Kasianov’s employment.

“It is symbolic and symptomatic,” says the magazine, that Kasianov’s statement was delivered on the day of Vladimir Putin’s meeting with George Bush in Bratislava. The summit passed on a friendly note outwardly, but the media summarized that violations of democratic rights and liberties in Russia are becoming more urgent for the West. As is widely known, this was displayed in the annual report of the U.S. Department of State four days after the Bratislava summit.

As reported by Kommersant, in this report Russia was for the first time included into the list of countries where the human rights problems are most urgent. Until now, this list was almost unvarying, and included such dictatorships as North Korea, China, Cuba and Iran.

As for Russia, authors of the report admit human rights were observed in Russia “in some spheres,” in a number of other spheres “the situation with human rights proved to be unfavorable and kept worsening.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta minutely cites the part of this report, which mentions the claims of the U.S. Department of State to the Russian democracy.

“Changes in the parliamentary election laws and a move from election to nomination by the President of regional governors further strengthened the power of the executive branch,” notes the document. Besides, the Department of State points to “media restrictions,” “a compliant State Duma,” shortcomings in recent national elections, law enforcement corruption, and political pressure on the judiciary.” Of course the report includes Chechnya, “politically motivated” trial over YUKOS, “espionage cases” against Russian researchers.

Besides, promises Nezavisimaya Gazeta, one more report will follow the report on human rights in the near future – “on Washington’s plans concerning the violators of these rights.” The length of the list of Russia’s flaws, the U.S. Department of State is very likely to use sanctions against Russia.

Meanwhile, notes Gazeta, Kasianov’s statements at the press conference of February 24 “make almost a verbatim coincidence to the opinion of U.S. President Bush, who had criticized the course of the Russian authorities on the eve of the Bratislava summit.”

Vedomosti newspaper notes in this connection that the former prime minister visited Washington in December 2004. However, Kasianov is eagerly saying that he “shared his concerns for Russian democracy with politicians and business leaders,” and his U.S. audience shared his concerns about the fact that “Russia’s development trend has changed” in the wrong direction over the past year.

At any rate, as Gazeta notes, Kasianov the sophisticated apparatchik was fairly cautious when speaking of President Putin – at least, he wouldn’t directly rebuke Putin for “changing the trend.” However, he considered it necessary to emphasize that voting in Putin’s favor in 2004 the citizens thus maintained the political course conducted at the start of Putin’s first term in office. As for the second presidency, it turned out that despite expectations of the electorate the authorities have virtually been opposed to their previous policy.

Asked what should be done now, the former prime minister cheerfully replied: “Correct our errors. And, I’m ready to take part in this work.”

According to Gazeta, the “orange revolution” phantom immediately emerged in the hall following this statement by Kasianov – in spite of his words that “Russia is not Ukraine” and the glory of Yushchenko doesn’t attract him.

According to Newsweek Russia, Kasianov’s “theses of February” open two options for him.

Becoming a new Primakov is one of them: “a former prime minister who encroached on the throne; after being defeated by Sergei Dorenko, he now heads the Chamber of Commerce and Industry – and this is the best script.”

Becoming a Russian Yushchenko is the second option: try to merge the intractable domestic democrats and prove that “everything is possible” (Kasianov’s reply to the question concerning his presidency).

Needless to say: “It seems even Russia is more resembling Ukraine than respectable Mikhail Kasianov resembles a political fighter, who is defeating the administrative resource and winning media wars,” says Newsweek Russia. However, no other candidates to play this role are evident so far.

As it turned out, many people now are willing to run for president.

As reported by Vremya Novostei, Duma member Gennadi Seleznev and LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky announced their presidential ambitions the very next day following Kasianov’s sensational statement.

However, Seleznev said that he would run for president only if he had “a powerful force” behind him; he said that a large center-left coalition would be formed within the next few months, and he would probably become its leader.

Zhirinovsky proved to be realistic this time and said that he would run for president in 2008 and expected to take second place (after Putin’s official successor, apparently); according results of a poll by Levada Center, cited by Vremya Novostei lately, Zhirinovsky now holds 2nd place on the pedestal of the political elite – right after Vladimir Putin.

However, the LDPR leader confidently predicted his victory in 2012 or 2016.

As for the upcoming presidential election, the No. 2 politician in Russia has no doubts that neither Seleznev, nor Kasianov would finally run for president in 2008. “They have no backing in the country. Kasianov has a particularly long tail of economic errors, elements of corruption.”

According to Vremya Novostei, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov was more critical in commenting Mikhail Kasianov’s presidential ambitions.

“Anyone who visits the United States for consultations before answering a question about his possible participation in the presidential election doesn’t stand a chance,” Mironov stated.

Mironov said nothing about his own aspirations at a press conference on Monday. However, he then proposed to extend the president’s term in office to five years, but categorically objected to the idea of amending the Constitution. Mironov maintains that the existing Constitution has not yet exhausted its capacities.

In fact, Mironov gave Russia 10-15 years to establish better conditions.

Mironov believes that the transition period in Russia will take another decade or more. Mironov described the future system in Russia as “socio-humanism.”

In the opinion of Mironov, the president’s term in office should be extended to five years during this transition period to “socio-humanism.”

Sergei Mironov recalled his previous proposal to extend the president’s term in office to seven years, right after Putin’s re-election in 2004. “When I first came up with the idea, everyone thought I meant Putin – but I did not,” Mironov explained.

Meanwhile, says Vedomosti, neither a salvo of diverse criticism, nor appearance of rivals became surprises for Mikhail Kasianov. The same source explained that Mikhail Kasianov “assumed he might run for president, and he doesn’t need a false start.”

Nevertheless, lots of experts are mentioning a false start. Specifically, Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of Politics Foundation, told Novye Izvestia that “both Kasianov and Seleznev are all of a fidget.”

In the opinion of Nikonov, Seleznev now has fewer real political chances than Kasianov, because the “coalition of patriots, which is supposedly inciting him to leadership, already existed in 2003 and could obtain a result, but failed.”

Besides, the communists managed to rise on the wave of protest after the monetization of benefits. According to Nikonov, “strengthening of the CPRF means that odds of other players on the left, Gennadi Seleznev included, are virtually reduced to zero.”

As for the coincidence of statements concerning the presidency, in this connection Nikonov mentions “a chain reaction: one says, another picks it up and the third one (Zhirinovsky) developed this idea.”

Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, predicts in the same issue of Novye Izvestia that other politicians will declare their plans for 2008 “and the game of declarations of intentions starts.” As noted by Belkovsky, the electorate would perceive these declarations “as elements of political buffoonery.”

He is confident that the Kremlin “is not afraid of the former prime minister as such.” At the same time, his comments with regard to policy of the incumbent authorities couldn’t fail to be impressive: if weakness of the regime became evident even to Kasianov, who is quite loyal to the ruling elite “it means something has to be done, indeed.”

Apparently, Novaya Gazeta’s observer Yulia Latynina agrees with Belkovsky on this point.

“Kasianov’s activity is a sign that the regime is weak, just like swollen buds indicate that the spring is imminent. This also indicates that the elite is ready to rally against the regime and an extra incentive for unification,” stresses Latynina.

Moreover, says Latynina, the presidential election comes in three years: “Even if cornered, Kasianov would never propose himself as leader of the opposition with three years to go until the election. He knows he’d be eaten within three years.” However, says Latynina, the thing is that “the regime has no three years’ time.”

In general, argues the author – you can never tell. Both Yushchenko and Saakashvili – all leaders of the democratic revolutions – had arisen from the retired top officials, rather than from the bottom.” In the opinion of Latynina, this is the “style of velvet revolutions,” which is of no wonder: “This has been like in the story of Khodorkovsky. They began fighting Kasianov as an enemy – so Kasianov has become an enemy. He wouldn’t wait to his imprisonment. He attacked in response.”

As a result, explains Latynina, any case initiated against Kasianov becomes a case instituted against a political enemy. Beyond any doubts, it would make his positions firmer. “Prosecution initiated by the authorities is the only thing Kasianov misses to become a serious politician,” stresses Latynina.

Meanwhile, says Vedomosti newspaper, the democrats showed no enthusiasm concerning Kasianov’s statement.

As reported by Vedomosti, Vladimir Ryzhkov, a leader of the 2008 Committee detected “uncertainty of his own prospects” in Kasianov’s words. In the opinion of leonid Gozman, secretary of the URF’s political council, it is more important now to take preparations for the parliamentary election rather than the presidential one and “the person to consolidate the opposition doesn’t really matter.”

As for the Yabloko party, its deputy chairman Sergei Ivanenko confidently stated that Kasianov doesn’t suit to the role of the democratic opposition leader, especially since Yabloko members had voted in favor of dismissing his Cabinet in their due time.

In the meantime, says Vedomosti, according to VTsIOM’s poll of January, Mikhail Kasianov enjoys the support of 4% of respondents – precisely as many as Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky has.

Irina Khakamada, leader of the Our Choice party, was the only one to tell Novye Izvestia that the former prime minister is ready to recognize his past mistakes and sever the “reputation” link to the era of Yeltsin’s rule; in the course of time he could become leader of the rightist opposition.

Khakamada belongs to the politicians, who don’t rule out that the situation in Russia may follow the Ukrainian script, “when former prime ministers have contacts and capabilities” to head the opposition. “It is just that the opposition must be stronger,” Khakamada stated.

Alexander Ryklin, deputy chief editor of the online publication Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal (www.ej.ru), says in Novaya Gazeta: “Only one point in the Kasianov incident is really interesting: is the Kremlin behind this, or isn’t it? If this is the Kremlin’s work, the intention is fairly transparent: bringing the right wing under control, since the right has become rather active of late.”

A political heavyweight like Kasianov is supposed to act as a magnet, “that is, pull together any significant forces on the right, while simultaneously disarming the other potential right-wing leaders” – especially Vladimir Ryzhkov and Garry Kasparov, along with the entire Free Choice 2008 Committee.

Ryklin says this scenario is very likely – unlike the chances of Mikhail Kasianov to become Russian president in 2008: “He has few chances, no more than 2%.”

On the whole, the storm of comments which followed Kasianov’s sensational press conference, didn’t prove to be too encouraging for the former prime minister – the majority is skeptical about his chances to consolidate the right forces and, especially more, to win, Alexander Privalov says in Expert magazine.

However, the author thinks another aspect is considerable in this respect.

“The fact that no opposition actually exists in Russia is commonplace, as well as the fact that an country needs a viable opposition (the fact which the Russian and U.S. presidents confirmed on the very day of Kasianov’s benefit),” says Privalov.

However, stresses the author, to become viable the opposition needs an opportunity to deliver public statements concerning the entire range of nationwide problems “so that these statements would arouse neither laughter, not terror,” rather than a guarantee of victory in the next election.

As a rule, this never works out in Russia, since the Kremlin is not prepared to listen to the opposed politicians calmly and is therefore “keeping them sternly on the remotest backyard.”

According to Privalov, “this is not a flawless standing; neither it is baseless,” since “knowingly marginal political forces could be let free to run without a lead only in surely settled societies, no matter what followers of the ideal democracy might say in this respect.”

As for the former prime minister, Privalov stresses that he could be treated differently, but one thing is clear: “He’s evidently neither a marginal, nor a dabbler. He knows about the state administration from his own experience – once can at least hope that speaking about “the trend of our country’s development” he understands what complicated topic he’s discussing.

Besides, adds Privalov, should Kasianov come to power, “this would at least mean no immediate disaster.” Therefore, in the author’s opinion, “it is of extreme significance that the Kremlin wouldn’t knocking him out with a spade, but would award him a chance for a display of viability – the Kremlin couldn’t think of a more suitable case of acquiring the opposition than Kasianov’s escapade.”

Moreover, a debate with Kasianov is quite appropriate from every viewpoint: he had acted as prime minister for four years under the incumbent president – “i.e. he must be considered a decent person to converse with.”

Not to mention the fact that most serious discord with such an opposition leader poses no danger to the Kremlin: “should a dispute take a wrong turn, the Kremlin would know what kind of tools to use” (labels such as “the Family,” “Two Percent Misha,” “Russia’s Yushchenko”).

On the other hand, says Privalov, participating in a substantial and at least partly liberal debate has long been an urgent necessity for the Kremlin: “It is ridiculous, but Kasianov is right: nobody has provided for an intelligible explanation why the monetization of benefits, “which has heated the social strain to the utmost in Russia,” was needed now.

Is it worth continuing to ignore the necessary phase of public debate of projects, which bear that sensitive influence on lives of the electorate?

Finally, and most importantly: even though Kasianov’s victory is doubtful, Privalov hopes he can lay the foundation for a “viable opposition” in Russia.

If that happens, the opposition may gain more promising political figures as times goes by.

The first step is the hardest!

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