Another election campaign instead of the expected end to the political season

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According to Gazeta.ru, which London exile Boris Berezovsky recently subjected to a change of management, the “widely-accepted practice of looking at current events from the standpoint of election campaign logic” can be considered “indisputable evidence” of the anomalous political situation in Russia today.

Gazeta.ru goes on to give examples: “A sweeping media attack on Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov is underway – so it must be a means of eliminating a realistic contender for the role of Vladimir Putin’s successor. Gennadi Fadeev has been dismissed, replaced by Vladimir Yakunin – so this must be a way of promoting a new candidate for successor. A sudden outburst of activity in the slumbering media industry – this must be a way of marshaling resources for the campaign battle.”

This sort of thing is apparent everywhere: even a graduation ball for Russia’s top high school students of 2005 became part of “the president’s events program,” as Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted. President Putin’s presence at the ball was covered by all national television networks: “he spoke with the graduates for some time, and with evident enjoyment, inspiring them more than any pop star could have done.” A day earlier, Putin had even considered it necessary to visit Chekhovo, near Moscow, to see a competition for junior athletes from the CIS and the Baltic states.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta comments: “The increasing frequency of such events indicates that this age group is becoming a main target audience for Putin.”

Until recently, Putin had two favorite audiences: pensioners and veterans, as well as those engaged in science, culture and the arts. The former audience is the most numerous (Russia has around 40 million pensioners and over 25 million veterans); the latter has the most influence on public opinion.

However, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out, today’s 16-year-olds will be voters by 2008. There are 1.4 million high school graduates this year. Add in their parents, other family members and friends – and the total will be comparable to the number of pensioners and veterans.

Stanislav Belkovsky, director of the National Strategy Institute, says the Kremlin is making friendly gestures towards young people because “it has been scared by the extensive youth involvement in revolutions across the former Soviet Union.” Moreover, says Belkovsky, “the Kremlin still hasn’t been able to solve the mystery of the National Bolshevik Party – its numbers keep growing, although it has no money and attracts young supporters solely through its ideology.”

The Kremlin administration is using a simple prescription to fight this mysterious phenomenon: “Copy all the successful slogans used by opponents in projects where the Kremlin has been defeated over the past two years, and attempt to combine these slogans into something that’s pro-Kremlin.”

Ilya Yashin, leader of the Yabloko party’s youth wing, agrees: “For some reason, Kremlin officials view young people as the source of the major threat to their well-being and Project Successor 2008.” Then again, says Yashin, this isn’t surprising: “Young people are such a specific audience that if they do indeed become politicized and go out on the streets, it would be very hard to reach an agreement with them.”

Dmitri Rogozin, Motherland (Rodina) party leader and a possible presidential candidate in 2008, says the Kremlin could use its youth movement to counter any attempts by the opposition to challenge the results of the upcoming elections: “Using water cannon and tanks for this purpose would be considered unacceptable by the international democratic community. But if young people rally in the streets, that would look quite convincing – even if the young people are rounded up artificially from schools in cities close to Moscow.” A precedent has been set already: the well-known rally on Lenin Prospect organized by Our Own (Nashi), a pro-Kremlin youth movement.

“That’s the entire point of the Kremlin’s current affection for young people,” says Rogozin.

The Kremlin’s nervous preparations have been prompted by harsh reality. According to the Vedomosti newspaper, opinion poll results indicated “a slow but definite negative shift in the public mood.”

According to the Levada Center polling agency, people’s opinions of the overall situation in Russia are changing substantially. In a May 2004 poll, 48% of respondents said that things were heading in the right direction; in the latest poll, the proportion of such optimists fell to only 25%.

Then again, as Vedomosti emphasizes, negative assessments haven’t increased: 40% of respondents expressed discontent a year ago, and 39% did in the latest poll. But the proportion of undecided respondents has increased greatly.

What’s more, pollsters report a “significant decline of interest” in President Putin. The Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) reports that in its latest poll, 35% of respondents said yes to the usual question about whether they had heard any talk about President Putin, his actions, or his statements over the past week. A year ago, over half of respondents said yes to this question.

Up until January 2005, positive opinions of President Putin outnumbered negative ones; more recently, however, the number of positive, negative, and neutral opinions has almost equalized.

And some other FOM results are even more revealing: in a May 2004 poll, only one in five respondents believed that widespread protests against declining living standards and in defense of people’s rights are a real possibility. In the latest poll, 32% of respondents believe this.

Protests in January stimulated attempts to establish a new opposition movement. As the Kommersant newspaper reports, Moscow has been the location for the first meeting of an initiative group that aims to establish a united leftist front, intended to coordinate the protest rally committees that were set up in the regions in January.

At this conference, leading political analyst Boris Kagarlitsky stated that the new opposition needs “an organization prepared for conflict.” In Kagarlitsky’s view, the opposition has no right to accept the rules of the game imposed by the authorities: “What’s the point of taking part in elections? To win seats in a Duma that doesn’t make any decisions?”

Kagarlitsky was supported by Ilya Ponomarev, leader of the Leftist Youth Front, who proposed a draft declaration for the new leftist front, entitled “The time has come!”

Alexander Soloviev, a member of the Russian Communist Labor Party’s political council, stated that “media support for the first phase of civil disobedience” is among the major tasks of the new leftist front.

In the opinion of the left, another rise in social tension is expected this autumn at the very latest, “since the major reforms – in the spheres of public utilities, education and health care – are only beginning.”

Meanwhile, the Kremlin-loyal media are reporting more radical intentions among the “new left.” Itogi magazine says: “Left-wing youth, former military personnel, and opposition politicians with grievances against the authorities – they make up an explosive mixture, which could revive the revolutionary tradition of Russian political terrorism.”

Itogi maintains that the bombing along a railroad track in the Moscow region, just as the Grozny-Moscow train was passing (fortunately, without casualties), indicates that political terrorism is coming back into fashion. In the opinion of Itogi, “whoever blew up the train, it certainly wasn’t the Chechen terrorists. They have proved their skill at railroad bombings in the past: the Kislovodsk-Mineralnye Vody train blast claimed dozens of lives, and trains transporting military hardware have been derailed in Chechnya.”

The leading theory has been that “extremist organizations of a pro-fascist nature” were involved in the blast. Moreover, reportedly, the details of the explosive device and the technique used for the terrorist attack practically coincide with those used in the attempt on Anatoly Chubais’s life; the suspects in the Chubais murder attempt are former commandos from the Russian Armed Forces.

Itogi maintains it’s safe to say that our society is developing a “Kvachkov syndrome” (the chief defendant in the Chubais murder attempt).

As for the organizations which unite the “militant youth vanguard,” Itogi refers to the opinion of Dmitri Rogozin, who mentioned the Red Youth Vanguard (AKM), the unregistered National Bolshevik Party (NBP), the Russian Communist Youth League, the youth wing of Yabloko, and the For Our Motherland youth alliance.

Undoubtedly, notes Itogi, these legal and semi-legal political organizations can’t be classified as terrorists: “The things they do are more like publicity stunts than overt extremism,” although the AKM and the NBP have been suspected of excesses.

However, says Itogi, these young men cannot yet claim the role of the modern-day heirs of Savinkov and Zheliabov. But the problem is that “while the authorities crack down with full force on these underage hooligans, some far more substantial forces appear to be ripening elsewhere.”

The Interior Ministry and the FSB vary in their assessments of the number of “extremist-minded citizens”: Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev has cited official figures showing that there are around 5,000 of these people in Russia, while the FSB maintains (unofficially) that they are at least 25,000 in number. According to the FSB, most of them – up to 90% – are young men and women aged 14-25.

“They might lack knowledge and skill, but they’re already burning with desire for vengeance – and they don’t really care who becomes the target, or why,” says Itogi.

In the opinion of Itogi, there are many opposition politicians ready to aim the indignation of the youth against the authorities. At any rate, an anonymous FSB counter-terrorism unit agent told Itogi that “one in ten of them is a person with a firm credo and, as a rule, with combat experience.”

According to the FSB, there’s no shortage of ideologues -the statements of NBP leader Eduard Limonov have been cited: “The state has pushed every conceivable rival out of politics – so now it shouldn’t be surprised if someone whacks it over the head. Nobody would abandon politics or deny it, no matter how hard the screws might be tightened; other methods would be used.”

According to Itogi, “that is further proof that Russia is not the same as Ukraine; a revolt in Russia, as everyone knows, is irrational and merciless, bearing no resemblance at all to the velvet ‘color’ revolutions. So if the situation in Russia really does explode – God forbid – both the authorities and the opposition would be to blame.”

However, the Russian opposition has few chances of becoming civilized.

The latest amendments for the electoral legislation proposed by United Russia -particularly the ban on protest voting – have drawn universal outrage from opposition parties.

Yelena Dubrovina, a Central Electoral Commission member representing Yabloko, told Vedomosti that if the “against all candidates” option is removed from ballot papers, voter turnout will fall, “since people wouldn’t be able to express their dissatisfaction.”

Motherland member Sergei Butin says that if citizens wish to indicate that they don’t support any of the candidates, they should be given the opportunity to do so.

Irina Khakamada maintains that all of United Russia’s proposals “come down to the following: we have come to power and won’t leave.”

Khakamada stated at a special media briefing organized by opposition parties that if this legislation comes into force, only two scenarios for a change of government will remain: a military coup, or a popular revolt.

However, as the Izvestia newspaper reports, Khakamada admitted that “at present, there are no forces in Russia capable of doing that,” while identifying “the chief rebel” as the regime itself, and adding that “this could lead to a crisis and Russia’s disintegration within five or six years.”

URF secretary Boris Nadezhdin displayed conditional optimism: “I don’t consider this situation disastrous or hopeless. Even if electoral laws were very democratic, the outcome would still give the Kremlin-backed party control of the Duma, regardless of what that party is called, and our dear Vladimir Vladimirovich would be re-elected for a third, fourth, or fifth term as president.”

Nevertheless, Nadezhdin has no doubts that “20-25 years from now, a middle class will have emerged – so our children and grandchildren will live in a normal country.”

In the Moskovskiye Novosti weekly, analyst Dmitri Oreshkin says: “Even if the current elite ensures extension of its mandate by means of emasculated elections, who would believe that its victory and its right to govern are real, or that everything has been more or less clean?”

If it proves to be “less,” rather than “more,” it becomes evident that “we will face either an Independence Square scenario, like Ukraine, or an Andijan scenario.” According to Oreshkin, fair elections “are the best remedy for the orange allergy, but the authorities feel sick at the very thought of fair elections.”

Garry Kasparov, leader of the United Civic Front, told Moskovskiye Novosti that “the regime won’t rest on its laures in eliminating elections in Russia. Many discoveries still await us in terms of how this regime will arrange to reproduce itself.”

In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Kasparov explained plainly that in the 2008 presidential election the Kremlin will propose a “simple scheme,” but one that rules out any broad expression of the people’s will.

LDPR member Alexei Mitrofanov has recently proposed a theory – meaning the procedure of the president being appointed by the parliament. The LDPR’s proposals are rarely taken seriously; but in Kasparov’s opinion, that is a mistake.

According to Kasparov, the Kremlin is stubbornly seeking opportunities for Putin to remain in power: “Ensuring the election of an empty, talentless successor would require just as much strength and energy, and just as many violations of the law, as keeping Putin himelf in power. So why bother with a successor at all?”

Moreover, notes Kasparov, Putin knows this better than anyone else: “no successor can really give guarantees.”

After President Putin stated twice in April this year that he intends to step down in 2008, says Andrei Ryabov in Gazeta, the ruling elite – now mostly made up of people from St. Petersburg – found itself in a predicament, since it is not ready for “an open battle for the right to hold key posts after 2008.”

Therefore, the presidential inner circle is “seeking an institutional solution, a way of keeping Putin in power as national leader beyond 2008.”

Various methods are proposed: for instance, transition to a parliamentary republic (Alexei Mitrofanov’s script would be useful in this connection). Or amending the Constitution, which would enable the incumbent to extend his powers. Or, finally, the most decent version: creation of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, headed by Vladimir Putin – on quite legal grounds.

As for another outcome – the quest for a new successor – this problem is evidently becoming more topical.

Various St. Petersburg clans, which formed a united team during the period of struggling against the Family, are now “inclined to regard one another via the prism of rivalry.”

According to the Versiya weekly, “a clash over Putin’s legacy has begun.”

Mikhail Afanasiev of the Niccolo M agency explained to Versiya, that “there are obvious factions which are now openly struggling for the financial assets” in the president’s inner circle. This struggle may acquire political forms on the eve of the elections, however.

In Afanasiev’s opinion, the absence of well-promoted political operators is the major problem for the St. Petersburg siloviki: “They are not public people, they have no political rating. It means they will have to act via public figures.”

The options are few: the bureaucratized United Russia party will hardly be able to nominate a charismatic figure, since “the bureaucratic logic demands that the president’s subordinates wouldn’t stand out against the background.” According to Afanasiev, the liberals “are dragging out their marginal existence.” The communists will take part in the patience which they don’t play out. The LDPR and Motherland are the political operators of the Kremlin. However, Zhirinovsky is a played-out figure. Most likely, Rogozin is a potential contender for becoming the operator representing the siloviki.

But Rogozin, as of 1996, could do for the role of the “horrible future” (a phrase of Viktor Shenderovich with an interview for the Sobesednik weekly).

Against this background, Vladimir Putin could actually be elected for a third, fourth, or fifth time…

Political consultant Boris Makarenko says in Izvestia that the Kremlin is not “demonizing the opposition” without reason. According to Makarenko, the virtual scarecrow which is being constructed “mixes up everything – from Khakamada to Basayev, from ‘Western agents’ to ‘Islamic radicals'”; with the specter of an “orange revolution” soaring above all this.

However, this infernal mixture is solely designated for domestic consumption. The Russian eagle shows a different face to the West: a combination of self-reliance, democracy, and some toughness.

Vladislav Surkov, deputy director of the presidential administration (said to be the second most powerful person in the Kremlin) assured Western investors in a recent interview with Der Spiegel magazine that no serious jeopardy is threatening Russia or the authorities.

Surkov admits that the developments in CIS countries have greatly impressed “many local-scale politicians” (cited from Nezavisimaya Gazeta). He stressed though that “this is not a revolution.”

Anyway, this is not possible in Russia, because the local rebels are “on weak ground.”

However, “there will undoubtedly coup attempts (here it is, the “orange phantom”), “but will have no effect.”

As usual, the Russian authorities have two menus – one for our own people, and for the West. The closer the elections, the more drastically the course will differ.

There are vague fears that all this will result in a salad of confusion, in line with wretched Russian tradition.

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