The president and the citizens: a conversation?

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“Let’s maintain the suspense on that,” said Vladimir Putin after his live broadcast, when journalists asked him what he plans to do after 2008. Indeed, suspense is being maintained; as the Gazeta newspaper points out, suspense is building as we watch.

Until now, President Putin has been unambiguously opposed to changing the Constitution in any way. But this time, in his televised question-and-answer session, he “changed his story,” as Gazeta puts it: saying that “drastic changes” to the Constitution are inadvisable. This offers some food for thought to anyone who cares to take it, and there will be plenty of takers.

Of course, as Our Choice party leader Irina Khakamada pointed out in an interview with the Kommersant newspaper, it could have been just a slip of the tongue; but on the whole, like many others, she got the impression of “a person who understands everything, but is being evasive.”

Meanwhile, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that Putin’s ratings have “soared to record heights” since his latest refusal to run in the next presidential election.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports a Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) poll as showing that by late September, for the first time this year, almost half of respondents said they would vote for Putin if an election took place right now.

No other potential candidate can boast of such a high voter support rating.

The Izvestia newspaper commissioned ROMIR Monitoring to do a poll in which respondents were asked to suggest some presidential candidates other than Putin. Izvestia says the answers only confirmed that “the public can’t see any suitable candidates.”

The highest score in this poll went to Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, named by only 12% of respondents; he was followed by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov (10%), Vladimir Zhirinovsky (9%), Gennadi Zyuganov and Sergei Ivanov (6% each), and Aman Tuleyev (6%).

Former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who recently declared his presidential ambitions, didn’t make the list at all – despite the fairly substantial policy program he set out in an interview with the Kommersant newspaper.

All the same, this policy program has made an impression on political analysts. Kasyanov started by stating his objections to the present policy course: “First of all, the regional level of government has been made redundant. Regional leaders are no longer a political force.” In Kasyanov’s view, this “dilutes the spirit of the Constitution,” since the Constitution defines Russia as a federative state.

He went on to say that it’s unacceptable for the media to be used to reinforce the state hierarchy: “Millions of people are aware that this is brainwashing – blatant propaganda.”

What’s more, Kasyanov expressed concern about “the political field narrowing” in Russia: “The new legislation on elections and political parties is aimed at making the citizenry less politically active. We ought to be lowering the Duma representation threshold, not raising it.”

But all these errors can be corrected, says Kasyanov: “We must not miss this opportunity offered by the Constitution: the Duma elections and the presidential elections.”

In Kasyanov’s opinion, the next president will need to tackle two main categories of problems.

“The first is the social sphere. The fruits of economic growth should be distributed more proportionately, more fairly.” Predictably, this campaign-oriented statement drew attention: the press immediately started asking why Kasyanov didn’t fight for social justice when he held the office of prime minister, with immediate opportunities to distribute benefits “more proportionately.”

But the second point in Kasyanov’s policy program was much more interesting: his intention to “fix the imbalance in government.”

Kasyanov noted that the Constitution endows the federal Cabinet with executive authority. However, Article 32 of the constitutional law on the government transfers authority over the security and law enforcement ministries from the Cabinet to the president. Kasyanov says this is wrong: “It creates an imbalance… The Cabinet has no significant status these days, being essentially just an appendage to the presidency.” Thus, the “security and law enforcement functions” should be returned to the government – a government formed by the parliamentary majority: “This will ensure stability for the political system.”

In commenting on Kasyanov’s policies to the Vedomosti newspaper, Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, noted that they are very similar to the ideas expressed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky in his articles.

Dmitri Badovsky from the Social Systems Research Institute says that these ideas reflect the opinions of “some political elite subgroups – those who believe that the consensus which existed in the Yeltsin era and during Putin’s first years in power has now been destroyed.” In their opinion, the ultra-presidential republic of today carries “the threat of authoritarianism,” but the president could give the prime minister some guarantees by restoring “the system of checks and balances.”

On the other hand, says Makarkin, it’s unlikely that Putin – who keeps saying that he doesn’t want a third term in office – would want the role of an “enhanced” prime minister as described here. Makarkin told Vedomosti: “The prime minister would become dependent on the parliamentary majority. Besides, in political terms, a popularly-elected president would be perceived as a more significant figure anyway.”

As Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out, besides his high voter support rating, President Putin has an exceptional confidence rating as well: 30%. Obviously, no federal government in Russia could ever boast of such achievements.

What’s more, Putin himself inspires such confidence only in terms of his overall status as supreme ruler and “father of the nation.” As soon as respondents are asked about specific issues, the picture changes drastically.

For example, according to a ROMIR Monitoring poll reported in Novye Izvestia, only 13% of respondents believe that Putin’s recently-announced policy program of “investing in individuals” will be successful.

True, 23% of respondents said that Putin’s proposals – more funding for health-care, education, housing construction, and agriculture – are a good thing in principle. But respondents also expressed a firm conviction that the whole endeavor is sure to be messed up by the bureaucracy – including the federal government. Novye Izvestia notes that this opinion is held by even more respondents in the major cities: 30%.

A further 17% of respondents said that the new policy program is nothing more than “fine words” – it’s no use expecting any practical results from it.

What’s more, says Novye Izvestia, 7% of respondents said that this policy program marks the de facto start of Putin’s re-election campaign. And 19% of respondents were completely unaware of the new program.

Sergei Smirnov, director of the Social Issues Institute, told Novye Izvestia that these poll results fit in with the overall pattern: “Top-down policy initiatives haven’t been producing any results of late. So it’s actually surprising that the public still retains any confidence at all.”

Smirnov explained this as follows: “People draw a distinction between President Putin as an individual, who still gets high ratings, and the policy initiatives he proposes.” There is the impression that Russia is using “two different systems of coordinates.”

According to the Izvestia newspaper, convincing evidence of this duality can be found in President Putin’s latest live broadcast.

Izvestia maintains that the format and content of the broadcast indicate a crisis of confidence in Russian society.

“President Putin’s rating is sky-high,” says Izvestia, “but beneath that is the extremely low rating of confidence in government bodies, from the Cabinet to the parliament, and in civil society institutions, from political parties to the media. This situation is unnatural and dangerous.”

According to Izvestia, Russia has produced “an odd hybrid of two types of democracy: citizens are governing the state by means of delgating all authority to one individual – the president.” And they look to him for solutions to their immediate problems.

The broadcast showed that those problems don’t include political issues. The Vremya Novostei newspaper says: “No one asked President Putin about his successor, no one said the word ‘Beslan,’ no one mentioned Khodorkovsky or the YUKOS affair, no one asked what Putin thinks of former prime minister Kasyanov’s presidential ambitions.” But the citizens who took part in the broadcast clearly viewed Putin as “the ultimate, if not the only, source of solutions to the problems of their daily lives.” What’s more, judging by the 60 questions Putin answered during his broadcast, the problems encountered by Russian citizens look much the same as they did a year ago, or two years, or five years.

Izvestia says: “Since people are taking their grievances to the president, they evidently have no other avenue of complaint. That means they don’t believe they will get a fair hearing from judicial authorities in the regions – so they regard legal action as a drawn-out hassle without much chance of success.” Obviously, this could be attributed to the peculiarities of the Russian mindset, formerly known as “Tsarist-era illusions.” But “it also makes one think about the overall condition of representative democracy in our country.”

After all, says Izvestia, there’s also the other side of the coin: those citizens who were heard out by President Putin are certainly in an enviable position, since their specific problems will now be solved. But Putin’s own position can’t be described as enviable, since he is driven to handle matters that really aren’t part of his job.

And Russia’s position is even less enviable, as Izvestia points out, since “the president’s time is being wasted on micro-management rather than the strategic goals of establishing a functional democratic system of governance, capable of responding to citizens’ needs on its own.”

Stanislav Belkovsky, director of the National Strategy Institute, says it’s hardly surprising Putin doesn’t want to stay on for a third term when he’s forced to deal with problems like the schoolbook shortage in the Amur region or water supplies to a village in the Stavropol territory.

In an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda, Belkovsky says: “He’s tired of the burden of governing Russia. After all, these days his personal involvement is required for everything – from running Navy exercises to paying the salaries of state-sector doctors. Even renovations at the Bolshoi Theater can’t go ahead without his involvement! Given all that, he’s bound to be tired.”

Belkovsky has recently told the media that Putin has seven potential successors: “two speakers, two governors, two prosecutors, and one presidential envoy.” According to Belkovsky, this group is already prepared for an election campaign. Belkovsky claims that President Putin has already spoken with six of them: Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, presidential envoy Dmitri Kozak, Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Khloponin, Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachev, and Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov. The seventh – Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov – has received “the offer he can’t refuse” from “other Kremlin people.”

Presumably, some more contenders will be added to this team within the next few months. (Not counting the above-mentioned Mikhail Kasyanov, let alone the bizarre figure of faith-healer Grigori Grabovoi, firmly convinced that he’s the reincarnation of Christ as well as the future president of Russia.)

There will be others, of course. For example, the Vedomosti newspaper makes the mysterious comment that “using a well-planned PR strategy, it would make sense to remind Russian voters” of former YUKOS chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose prison sentence recently came into effect.

Vedomosti maintains that despite Khodorkovsky’s unfortunate position at present, all is not lost: “since the worst is now behind him, his situation can only improve from here.”

The picture painted by Vedomosti is almost idyllic: “Conditions in a prison camp are better than in the Matrosskaya Tishina detention center – more space, more fresh air, easier regulations. And a rich person can arrange some tolerable living conditions for himself. He will be able to read, write, and come up with theoretical solutions to political problems.” (Russian history offers examples of prisoners doing just that – from Chernyshevsky to Bolsheviks in Siberian exile.) Besides, “prison camp wardens are favorably disposed to wealthy prisoners.”

In any event, says Vedomosti, the Putin administration will find itself “in an obviously unfavorable position, since it will have to take action, while Khodorkovsky the prisoner can just sit back and comment on its actions.”

And by 2008, the date so many are now discussing, “Mr. Khodorkovsky, whose crimes voters are sure to have forgotten, might well be granted parole – just as the regime is forced to go through the process of transferring the presidency from one person to another.” And “God only knows” what the “material and moral costs” of this path will be, or how it will affect “public perceptions of the authorities.”

Vedomosti says: “There is the impression that Khodorkovsky will emerge from prison more popular than he is at present, and more prepared for political competition.”

Alexander Prokhanov, chief editor of the Zavtra newspaper, predicts a different but not entirely hopeless future for Khodorkovsky.

In an interview with Bolshoi Gorod magazine, Prokhanov was asked a leading question: “Will the next president release Khodorkovsky?” Prokhanov answered without a shadow of a doubt. He is firmly convinced that the next president of Russia will be Dmitri Rogozin, leader of the Motherland (Rodina) party. Prokhanov underscores that if Khodorkovsky’s views “continue to evolve in the same direction as they are moving now” (a reference to Khodorkovsky’s “Left Turn” article, published in Prokhanov’s paper), he would have every chance of earning a pardon from the new regime – on the condition that the repentant oligarch “accepts the idea of a national salvation project, aimed at saving Russia, and donates a substantial part of his remaining fortune.”

In short, this plan entails Khodorkovsky not only learning to live in accordance with the ideas expressed in “Left Turn,” but also providing material assistance for making those ideas a reality.

Yet all these complex plans could be dashed, as usual, by the traditional-yet-surprising simplicity of Russian voters.

A poll done by FOM and published in Izvestia shows over a third of respondents, 39%, were completely unaware that Putin doesn’t intend to seek a third term, until they were informed of this by FOM pollsters. Until then, these citizens – despite all the efforts of political consultants and media outlets – were evidently sure that there’s nothing to worry about, since the universally-trusted head of state can’t possibly abandon them after 2008.

Even so, according to the FOM poll, 45% of respondents said that Putin would approve of proposals to amend the Constitution, enabling a president to serve more than two consecutive terms. And two-thirds of respondents said that if the two-term limit didn’t exist, Putin would gladly stay on as president.

As they say, you can’t fool popularity.

But what if the electorate’s wishes aren’t destined to come true?

ROMIR Monitoring has contributed to clarifying the future successor’s image by asking respondents about the qualities that a presidential candidate in 2008 should have. Respondents gave a clear answer: the primary requirements for a contender are professional skills and the ability to govern the country (60% of respondents).

Forty-one percent of respondents said the contender must be in touch with the people and able to understand their needs.

Thirty-four percent of respondents said he must be honest and not corrupt.

The fourth answer, given by 32% of respondents, specified an understanding of national development goals; the future president’s intelligence came in fifth with 23%.

Actually, the portrait painted by these responses does resemble a certain politician, but he’s not in Russia. All this prompts thoughts of choking on pretzels, bicycles that tend to crash into bodyguards, and a notorious note passed to the Secretary of State, asking a simple question: whether it’s all right to leave the room.

In short, the people’s affection for their leader is just as irrational as any other powerful emotion – even if that leader “only” wants to “go down in history as the president whose period in office passed without anything collapsing in Russia” (Stanislav Belkovsky’s definition).

And that’s precisely why it’s so important to “maintain the suspense,” as Putin put it, right up to the end.

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