Electoral mysteries: how do you win the people’s love?

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A new word has appeared in the national newspapers: “endowment.” As the Vremya Novostei newspaper thoughtfully explains, this is “a capital fund where the dividends from managing the assets of donor companies are used solely for philanthropic purposes.” It might be used for funding education, for example, or scientific research, or social projects.

Most importantly, an endowment “is entitled to maximal tax preferences.”

There aren’t any endowments in Russia as yet, but Senior Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev stated the other day that Russia has over 5,000 charity organizations and funds. They don’t lead an easy life: in effect, philanthropy in Russia is taxed twice – first when the donor-companies pay taxes, and then when the charities that receive the money pay tax on any dividends from investing it.

Medvedev spoke out against this unfairness. At a nationwide forum on “Society, Philanthropy, and the National Projects,” he said it is necessary to enact legislation that will make it possible to establish endowments in Russia.

Then again, as Vremya Novostei reports, he stressed that such organizations “must not be used for any other purposes or disrupt the tax payment system.”

All the same, Medvedev considers that “it’s worth trying.”

Medvedev’s statement caused quite a stir. Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes Larisa Zelkova, director of the charity fund established by Vladimir Potanin, head of the Interros conglomerate: “Medvedev isn’t a person to speak idly. For him, as the person responsible for the national projects, such an instrument is important, since it’s a way of accumulating money that isn’t state funding and doesn’t come from the budget.”

Vremya Novostei reports that in the opinion of “some economists, such as those at the Troika Dialog company, the Higher School of Economics, and the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs,” endowments “could provide 20-30% of funding for Russia’s 20 leading universities by 2015.” By 2020, they could provide up to 40% of funding for the top 40 universities.

Still, there’s no need to look so far ahead just yet: the immediate goals of the new activities involving Dmitri Medvedev are quite specific. Despite the widely-promoted national projects (health care, education, housing, agriculture, and a new project – gas supplies in the regions), Medvedev, the leading candidate to become President Putin’s designated successor, still isn’t being taken seriously as a public politician, according to Newsweek Russia.

Rumor has it that Medvedev’s upset about not getting enough television coverage. To all appearances, however, he’s being promoted on television just like Putin himself. Newsweek Russia reports: “Journalists from the presidential pool follow the successor around as he visits dairies or Internet classrooms, and report how he chairs meetings. News broadcasts are presented strictly in order: first the nation is told what the president did that day, then what Medvedev and Ivanov did, and everything else follows after that.”

But this isn’t helping very much: Medvedev still has a lower approval rating than Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, or Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. That’s why he has to keep adding new pretexts for news coverage: philanthropy, for example – or religious affairs.

It was reported the other day that Medvedev has replaced Culture Minister Alexander Sokolov as chairman of the government commission on religious organizations. There don’t seem to have been any complaints about Sokolov’s performance; Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes Bishop Mark of Yegoriev, deputy chairman of the External Church Relations Department of the Moscow Patriarchate, as saying that Sokolov participated in the commission’s work and had “good contacts” with representatives of various faiths.

But Bishop Mark also said that Medvedev “has not been chosen at random” for this appointment: “faith is not a matter of empty words for him,” and he “understands the importance and significance of this work, as well as Russia’s specific character.”

Farid Assadulin, deputy chairman of the Muslim Religious Directorate for the European part of Russia, said: “This appointment shows that the presidential administration wishes to underscore the significance of the religious factor in present-day Russia.” Moreover, Assadulin told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that this link to religious organizations “can be used in implementing the national projects for which Medvedev is responsible.”

This much is clear: the range of the potential successors powers is expanding.

Alexei Malashenko from the Carnegie Moscow Center told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that these newly-acquired powers “are sure to be useful for Medvedev himself.” After all, Russia is a country of many faiths; its Muslims alone number 20 million. “We have no right to ignore these circumstances,” said Malashenko. “It is only reasonable that someone who is already a focus of attention and who will probably aspire to more is paying attention to these matters.”

Besides, the national projects as such haven’t yielded much positive publicity for Medvedev so far.

What’s more, a certain part of the television audience (the actual target of this whole PR campaign) is feeling rather embarrassed by this “constant talk on television about the priority topic” and these “national-scale ambitions,” according to an article by Maksim Solius in the Vedomosti newspaper.

Solius says: “A look at the Housing federal program, for example, with the Affordable Housing national project being a small component of that, is enough to convince anyone that nothing very grand is being planned there.” For instance, the target is to raise “housing supplies for the population” from 20 to 21.7 square meters per person by 2010. And the “coefficient of housing affordability” (that is, the ratio between the average price of an apartment and the average family income) should be reduced from 3.9 years in 2004 to three years in 2010.

“I’ve only taken the first two target figures,” says Solius. “It’s not even certain that they will be achieved, but it is certain that the poor are unlikely to feel much better off thanks to this.”

According to Solius, “all this looks somewhat embarrassing against the backdrop of a hyped-up national project. But we can expect much more of the same if Medvedev is officially appointed as the successor!” Solius says that Medvedev himself “cannot fail to understand this – hence the sense of embarrassment.”

“So we have a strange picture here,” says Andrei Ryabov in Novaya Gazeta. “In line with the national projects, the state is promising the public plenty of housing, along with good health-care and education. Thus, it’s raising expectations. In real life, however, people are only seeing a rising cost of living and growing problems in all the abovementioned areas. This is leading to increased irritation and increased protest attitudes in society.”

These observations are supported by poll data from the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM): negative attitudes in our society today are clearly growing stronger, and the number of pessimists is on the rise. This applies to various areas. The Gazeta newspaper reports that positive evaluations of the economic situation went down from 13-14% of respondents in January and February to 11% in March, while negative evaluations went up from 29% to 36%. The political situation is no better: disapproval of the regime’s policy course increased from 22% to 27% of respondents in the first quarter of the year, while positive evaluations went down from 15-16% in the first two months to 12% in March.

Overall, the percentage of respondents who agree that things are moving in the right direction fell from 25% in January to 22% in March. The percentage of those who say the present direction of development is wrong increased from 25% to 29%.

Gazeta concludes that unless voters feel some improvements in their lives as elections approach, the outcome could be unfortunate for the authorities.

Valery Fedorov, head of the VTsIOM polling agency, told Newsweek Russia that for the time being, the masses aren’t very interested in election issues.

“Ordinary people live for today,” says Newsweek Russia, while those in power are pondering “how to leap from one train to another” without compromising their positions and privileges. Thus, according to Fedorov, “the atmosphere is nervous and tense among the elites, who have finally become convinced that Putin will indeed step down in 2008 – while ordinary citizens are feeling calm and peaceful.”

But will he step down? “There are many indications that Putin still hasn’t made up his mind,” says Delovye Liudi magazine. “There’s a multitude of variables: the international situation, oil prices, the opinions of Western leaders and the elites in the developed nations.”

What’s more, according to Delovye Liudi, “the dynamics of socio-political and economic processes within Russia” aren’t entirely clear either; in other words, that very same direction of development hasn’t been defined.

But while President Putin is thinking, says Delovye Liudi, “those who don’t want him to step down have come up with a scenario of their own.”

It’s clear enough who opposes Putin’s departure: “Extending Putin’s period in office would be advantageous for those members of the elite whose status depends entirely on him, and who, for a number of reasons, would be unable to compete in the event that he steps down.”

Delovye Liudi maintains that the “formal and legal obstacles” to a third term aren’t really obstacles at all: “Suffice it to recall that the question of a third term was debated quite actively in 1997-98, with regard to Boris Yeltsin.”

There are a great many options: establishing the Russia-Belarus Union, amending the Constitution (on the grounds that they are necessary for the regional merger process, for example), and so on.

Besides, according to Delovye Liudi, President Putin’s high approval rating makes it entirely feasible to use a plan that’s been used on numerous occasions in history: “the king offers to abdicate, but his subjects beg him to stay” – by means of a national referendum, for example.

The large-scale PR campaign required for that scenario wouldn’t be any more costly than publicity for any of the potential successors.

In fact, according to the Levada Center polling agency, Dmitri Medvedev’s voter support rating is only 7% at the moment. Sergei Ivanov’s figure is somewhat better – 9%, according to an article in Kommersant.

Overall, Ivanov is recognized by more people than Medvedev – “if only because all families with growing sons know about Ivanov.” This ambiguous explanation was given to Newsweek Russia by an anonymous Defense Ministry source.

Newsweek Russia reports that Ivanov’s colleagues used to consider him an unambitious person: “It didn’t seem like he wanted to be the successor. If he was ordered to do it, of course – then he would become president.”

But rumors from the Defense Ministry staff say Ivanov has changed of late: “He’s simply wallowing in fame. He’s developed a taste for it.”

Look at his latest press conferences: Ivanov, “like Putin,” answers even the most unpleasant questions – such as questions about the road accident in which his son ran over an elderly woman, who later died.

More recently, Ivanov has gained an impressive amount of publicity by releasing a list of 1,152 companies, from 51 countries, “that should be treated with particular caution” (quoted from the Kommersant newspaper).

Apparently, the Defense Ministry has information indicating that these organizations are involved in military programs in the nuclear, chemical, or biological industries, or missile-building. Ivanov explained that “this list is based on reports from the Foreign Ministry, intelligence data, and the information exchange we have established with the world’s leading states.” The list will become the basis for a report on WMD nonproliferation, written for the G8 summit in St. Petersburg.

Ivanov promised that it will be an open report: “We will explain our export control system in this report and evaluate the efforts of some foreign organizations and countries in countering this serious threat.”

According to Kommersant, Ivanov’s announcement is Russia’s response to the West’s allegations that Russia has sold forbidden military technologies to rogue states.

“That’s PR, pure and simple,” Konstantin Makienko from the Strategy and Technology Analysis Center told Kommersant. All the same, he says it’s “not PR for Ivanov himself, but for the Russian state, which seeks to monitor its own exports of dual-use technologies.” But not everything is so unambiguous for Russia: compiling a list of organizations suspected of violating the non-proliferation regime amounts to “copying the United States list in an obvious, monkey-like way.” What’s more, Makienko says that “the large number of companies on the list raises doubts – it’s an improbable number. It raises doubts as to whether the list really exists.”

But Sergei Ivanov’s self-promotion in the lead-up to the G8 summit has been quite successful. You don’t get famous for doing good deeds, after all – as Newsweek Russia points out, quoting Old Shapoklyak. And the greatest amount of publicity for Ivanov has certainly come from the case of Andrei Sychev, the conscript who had both feet amputated after being assaulted by older soldiers.

Government sources gave Newsweek Russia a comprehensive explanation for why the media, including the pro-Kremlin media, responded so intensely to this commonplace tragedy in the Russian Armed Forces: “Sechin’s trying to wipe out the successor.”

The Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office, responsible for investigating the Sychev case, is indeed supervised by Igor Sechin, deputy head of the presidential administration. And a Kremlin source told Newsweek Russia that Sechin “doesn’t like either of the potential successors.”

Then again, citizens don’t like them much either. The Levada Center reports that 41% of respondents don’t want to see anyone from Vladimir Putin’s inner circle become the next president.

At present, before any additional PR efforts are made, 45% of respondents say they would be prepared to vote in favor of amending the Constitution to let Putin run for a third term. A further 21% of respondents say they would support a third term for Putin in the event of an emergency like an economic crisis, a war, or major terrorist attacks.

But there’s always something happening in Russia, as everyone knows.

That adds up to 66% of respondents in favor of amending the Constitution; anything to avoid having to choose between Putin’s crown princes: the liberal and the security man.

That seems to be about the only point on which the elite and the citizenry can reach a consensus.

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