The August lull: politicians ready their weapons for new battles

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It’s August. Politics is on vacation, according to the press.

In contrast to previous years, however President Vladimir Putin seems in no hurry to take a break. Nezavisimaya Gazeta suggests that one reason for this might be his wish to personally supervise work on the federal budget for 2007, which is being prepared well in advance this year – “in order to avoid the budget being used for the petty purposes of campaign battles.”

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, chief curator of the national projects, is also too busy to go on vacation just yet. During a video-conference with regional leaders from the Trans-Volga federal district, Medvedev had to tell them to “stop whining and start working actively” on making the national project objectives a reality (as quoted in the Gazeta newspaper). “The state is serious about solving these problems,” said Medvedev. The stubborn regional leaders refuse to believe that “there’s no substance at all to rumors that national project funding will stop in two years’ time (i.e. after the elections – P.M.) and everthing will return to what it was before.”

Gazeta reports that Medvedev, one of the favorites to become Putin’s successor, essentially “equated the national projects to a war. He’s aiming for victory (implementing the projects) at any price.” Under the circumstances, a vacation for Medvedev is obviously out of the question at this point.

Besides, the successor candidate situation is far from clear-cut.

The Novye Izvestia newspaper notes that polls in early summer showed Medvedev with the highest approval rating of any potential successor – although he only scored 10.3%. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, recognized by the press as the second favorite, ranked third (7.2%), after Vladimir Zhirinovsky. “Ivanov’s rating was affected by some scandals over abuse of conscripts (dedovshchina) in the military, which stirred up public opinion,” says Novye Izvestia. And military hardware has been letting him down: for example, a fighter jet crashed in the Kaliningrad region on Navy Day.

In the meantime, experts say that the Kremlin hasn’t yet made its final choice regarding a successor to Putin. Sergei Markov, director of the Political Studies Institute, told Novye Izvestia that many senior officials have “a realistic chance” of becoming the successor: for example, presidential envoys Dmitri Kozak (Southern federal district) and Georgy Poltavchenko (Central federal district), Russian Railroads chief Vladimir Yakunin, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, or some regional leaders.

Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, says that trying to guess the successor’s identity at this stage is useless, since Putin “has a habit of implementing personnel solutions by means of cover operations and covert recruitment.” Oreshkin maintains that all the events surrounding Medvedev and Ivanov are a typical “cover operation” – while someone else is being recruited as the real successor: a person who is “absolutely one of our own,” from the Kremlin’s perspective, and is controllable, in the sense that the Kremlin has some dirt on him.

The Gazeta newspaper notes that in an interview with Western journalists before the G8 summit, Putin made a rather curious admission – especially for a national leader who is trusted by over 80% of citizens, according to the latest polls. He said that he doesn’t trust anyone except himself.

He’s not alone in that. Earlier this week, yet another region produced a proposal to enable Putin to seek re-election for a third term in office.

This time the region was Chechnya. As the Kommersant newspaper reports, even though the regional legislature was in its summer recess, it recalled lawmakers from their vacations for a special meeting, at which the majority voted in favor of a proposal from the regional branch of the United Russia party, headed by Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov: to submit the relevant constitutional amendments to the Duma.

Kommersant notes a curious point: the Chechen parliament actually voted in support of an appeal from the regional branch of United Russia. The parliament had made no response to a letter it received from Chechen President Alu Alkhanov earlier this summer, in which he requested lawmakers to prepare and submit to the Duma a bill for the same constitutional amendments.

The Vremya Novostei newspaper attributes all these curiosities to “the nuances of intra-Chechen politics.” Ramzan Kadyrov will turn 30 this autumn, making him officially eligible to replace Alkhanov as president of Chechnya. True, Kadyrov has stated repeatedly that he has no such intentions. However, according to Vremya Novostei, the Kremlin will probably have to choose between him and Alkhanov, who was elected in 2004 – “and then it wouldn’t hurt to recall that both of them have wished Vladimir Putin political longevity.”

In this context, says Vremya Novostei, it isn’t all that important whether the Chechen parliament’s proposal goes any further – especially given that all previous regional appeals for amendments to Article 81 of the Constitution have been rejected by the Duma without discussion.

Georgy Satarov, president of the InDem Foundation, points out that “it doesn’t matter in the least which particular region has produced yet another of these proposals.”

Mark Urnov, president of the Expertise Foundation, told Vremya Novostei that the third term scenario “is being retained as either a fallback option or a scare tactic.”

In Urnov’s opinion, this approach is being used to demonstrate “pressure from Russia’s most unmanageable and non-Europeanized regions. The cover story is that these regions don’t understand democracy, and their natural authoritarianism is leading them to make such proposals.” Urnov emphasizes that by rejecting these calls for a third term, Putin is “saving face as the guarantor of the Constitution – even protecting the Constitution from attacks by these regional forces who know nothing of democracy.” After that, he can “triumphantly become an irreplaceable prime minister.”

“This would be a more elegant performance, and no one could find any grounds for objecting to it,” says Urnov.

In fact, the Chechen parliament heard an even more radical proposal than the one that was passed, says Kommersant. Yuri Laskov, representing the Shchelkovsky district of Chechnya, called for Putin to be made president for life. Kommersant adds: “The applause that followed Laskov’s proposal might have been envied even by Ramzan Kadyrov, whose speeches to the Chechen parliament are always a great success.”

Even against the backdrop of such ultra-loyalist initiatives, the press is managing to find some variety to spice up the summer lull in politics.

Novye Izvestia claims that the latest political sensation is the “publicity campaign” for another senior state official: Gennadi Onishchenko, head of the Russian Consumer Protection Inspectorate (RosPotrebNadzor). Until recently, most voters had never heard of Russia’s chief public health official – but now he’s being seen on television almost as often as Dmitri Medvedev or Sergei Ivanov. After banning imports of mandarins from Abkhazia, declaring war on bird flu, and (most importantly) banning imports of Georgian and Moldovan wines, RosPotrebNadzor has essentially turned into “a powerful enforcement ministry, capable of affecting all areas of life.”

Novye Izvestia says: “An unbiased look shows that Onishchenko’s resources are even greater than those of the much-promoted and advertised Medvedev and Ivanov. Onishchenko can influence politics, including international politics, and the economy, and business.” While politicians argue over development strategies for Russia after 2008, “Onishchenko, whether deliberately or not, is building up an image as the defender of ordinary citizens” – protecting them from “poison in bottles” (poor-quality wine), advising them on which countries they shouldn’t visit for a holiday or business, and protecting them from the danger of a bird flu pandemic. “In effect,” says Novye Izvestia, “the full name of Gennadi Onishchenko’s agency – the Federal Oversight Service for Consumer Protection and Public Welfare – sounds like a ready-made campaign slogan.”

But the experts consulted by Novye Izvestia say that Onishchenko is just carrying out the tasks set for him by the Kremlin. “In this case, ‘the Kremlin’ should be interpreted as the security and law enforcement (siloviki) faction,” says Alexei Mukhin, director of the Political Information Center. “They’re using him as a strike force. He is called in when they need to ban something. The ban on Borjomi mineral water, or the tighter restrictions on wine imports from Moldova and Georgia, which caused a political scandal – these are undoubtedly the consequences of certain conversations between Onishchenko and the siloviki.” Novye Izvestia notes that we can only guess how far-reaching the plans of Onishchenko’s “handlers” might be.

An anonymous source “close to the Kremlin administration” told Novye Izvestia that although all of Onishchenko’s “anti-Georgian” and “anti-Moldovan” moves have been made with the Kremlin’s sanction, Onishchenko might well try to use his current high profile in order to pursue ambitions of his own.

Oreshkin warns that Onishchenko shouldn’t reveal any ambitions prematurely – the dangers of doing so can be seen from the examples of Vladimir Ustinov and Mikhail Kasyanov: “The earlier he sticks his neck out, the sooner he’ll get his head ripped off by rival factions.”

One way or another, says Novye Izvestia, the presidential candidates situation is becoming increasingly unpredictable: “Someone completely unexpected could emerge at any moment. Or several someones.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that Sergei Sobyanin, head of the presidential administration, hasn’t taken his vacation yet. Both his deputies – Vladislav Surkov and Igor Sechin, the leaders of rival factions in Putin’s inner circle – are also still at work.

At this point, only the legislative branch is completely on vacation – except for Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, who is caught up in party-building.

The recent decision to merge Mironov’s party, the Russian Party of Life (RPL), with the Motherland (Rodina) party is only the start of a series of political mergers: that’s what Mironov told the Izvestia newspaper in a recent interview. The intended outcome is the birth of a “powerful system-forming party” of a leftist nature – a center-left coalition.

“I have no dobut that the idea of unification, and the process itself, and even the future results will be understood and approved by President Vladimir Putin,” said Mironov in the Izvestia interview. According to him, the new political alliance intends to support Vladimir Putin and his successor – “if the successor continues the incumbent president’s policy course.”

According to Kommersant-Vlast magazine, no one has any doubt that the new RPL-Motherland party project has been scripted by the Kremlin. The only differences of opinion concern the exact purpose of establishing this new party. Some analysts, Some analysts, noting Mironov’s association with the St. Petersburg wing of the presidential administration, regard this project as “an overt declaration of war against United Russia, on the part of the St. Petersburg siloviki.” As everyone knows, United Russia’s handler is Vladislav Surkov, a member of the Yeltsin’s Family faction in the Kremlin. But other analysts maintain that the RPL’s sudden swing to the left and its merger with Motherland were Surkov’s own ideas.

At any rate, according to Kommersant-Vlast, the formation of this new party is clearly an attempt to establish a two-party system – an idea which has long been circulating in the Kremlin. It would be based on United Russia and the new center-left coalition of the RPL and Motherland. Other parties with a chance of being elected to the next Duma – that is, the Communist Party (CPRF) and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) – “would be allocated the role of back-up singers to the two main soloists.”

However, in order to ensure success for the future center-left party, the Kremlin will have to divert a significant part of the administrative resources that were initially intended to support United Russia. And this could lead to some unpleasant surprises: if these administrative resources run short, United Russia risks failing to get at least 40% of the vote, which it would need to control the next Duma. The RPL-Motherland is predicted to get 15%, but that might not be enough to compensate for the loss.

Kommersant-Vlast says it would make for a far more entertaining scenario if the two Kremlin projects – Boris Gryzlov’s United Russia and Sergei Mironov’s RPL-Motherland – were to start competing with each other seriously. The only question is “whether President Putin would accept a ‘war without rules’ amongst his closest allies, only six months before a presidential election.”

According to Newsweek Russia, the United Russia party is confident that its new-found rival will fail in the next election.

Newsweek Russia quotes a condescending remark from Konstantin Kostin, deputy chairman of United Russia’s central executive committee and Surkov’s adviser on domestic politics: “The left-wing electorate is very complicated. Fighting for those votes requires coherent ideas and leadership. You can’t just sketch something in the Kremlin or wherever and be totally sure that it’ll take off and fly.”

Another “anonymous sources close to the presidential administration” told Newsweek Russia that although Motherland started out as a Kremlin project that really did take off and fly, what remains of it now doesn’t inspire confidence – and neither does the RPL, best known to date for its campaign to save the musk-rat.

In general, the summertime relaxation in Russian politics at present is only superficial – the calm before the storm. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta puts it, “Russia’s major political forces are readying their weapons before the battle for seats in parliament begins.”

But Vladimir Putin seems destined to remain the victor in all of Russia’s political battles. Izvestia ran an article the other day about a ceremony held in the city of Murom (Vladimir region), birthplace of legendary Russian hero (bogatyr) Ilya Muromets, on the feast day of the prophet Elijah (Ilya in Russian). Patriarch Aleksii II of Moscow and All Russia blessed an exact copy of the sword of Ilya Muromets, to be presented to President Putin, as Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces. “May this sword help him rule our Fatherland, affirming the revival of Russia,” said Patriarch Aleksii.

The sword was blessed at the Transfiguration Monastery, using a relic of St. Ilya Muromets brought to the Vladimir region from the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev. President Putin himself did not attend the blessing ceremony, but another “fairly high-ranking official” just happened to be in Murom at the time – Auditing Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin. He will deliver the sword of Ilya Muromets to the president.

You never know – Putin might find it useful.

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