The lovely long-term outlook: 2007-08

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According to the Argumenty i Fakty newspaper, all recent opinion polls indicate that the people have finally developed some faith in a bright future.

“What’s surprising is that this faith has been discovered by independent researchers and experts, not the magicians from the State Statistics Service. These hopes are nourished by political stability and oil prices. The economy has been growing for seven consecutive years, and doesn’t seem about to stop.”

The Rosbalt agency reports some poll data from the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM): 70% of respondents say that 2006 has been successful for them, with only 30% describing it as unsuccessful. VTsIOM Director Valery Fedorov notes that this 70% is an incredibly high figure for Russia.

Argumenty i Fakty goes on to say that forecasts from foreign analysts are also favorable for Russia. The World Bank predicts that Russia’s economy will grow by 5-6.5% a year over the next few years. Goldman Sachs predicts that Russia will stride ahead confidently to 2035.

According to the Russian media, however, the ultimate accuracy of these forecasts will largely depend on the parliamentary and presidential elections coming up in 2007-08.

Smart Money magazine says that Russia’s elections have an odd tendency to attract problems. There was the first war in Chechnya in 1994. The dismissal of the president’s chief bodyguard and the deputy prime minister in summer 1996. The second war in Chechnya, and the apartment building bombings, in 1999. The arrest of Russia’s richest citizen in 2003. All these events were either deliberately added to the pre-election calendar or played up during election campaigns.

Smart Money predicts that if any selective punitive measures are taken in 2007, they will only be defensive; their targets would only be those who try to play a game that is radically incompatible with President Putin’s strategy.

Smart Money says: “Of course, there will be some attempts to ‘sell’ purely offensive action plans to the outgoing president. But he won’t buy them. We should not expect him to go after Anatoly Chubais, Vladimir Potanin, or Mikhail Fridman. We should not expect a small war. Putin doesn’t want any trouble.”

The Novye Izvestia newspaper has analyzed four potential scenarios for developments in the parliamentary and presidential elections: early elections, Stabilization Fund handouts in exchange for votes, escalation of inter-ethnic conflicts, and an Orange Revolution.

According to experts, any of the above could happen in our country.

Alexander Ivanchenko, director of the Independent Institute of Elections, says that there are some grounds for early elections. He told us: “As a consequence of Yeltsin’s resignation in 1999, the parliamentary and presidential elections are too close to each other.” In effect, the parliamentary campaign season flows into the presidential campaign. And if the parliamentary election goes badly for any particular party, it will lose the presidential election as well.

Thus, “there is the temptation to put some more time between the parliamentary and presidential elections.” One way to do this would be to have a substantial number of Duma members resign, causing the parliament to be disbanded automatically – or the president could resign, with a new presidential election being held within three months.

A poll done by the Levada Center indicates that early elections would favor United Russia. Of those respondents who intend to vote, 48% say they will vote for United Russia, 22% will support the Communist Party (CPRF), and 10% will support the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). All other parties score substantially less than 7% – the threshold for Duma representation: 4% of respondents support Sergei Mironov’s Just Russia party, 3% support Yabloko, 2% support the Union of Right Forces (SPS). In other words, if the parliamentary election is held early, the Kremlin’s first party (United Russia) might win 60% of Duma seats, while its second party (Just Russia) might not make it into the Duma at all. The Levada Center poll’s ranking of presidential candidates shows Dmitri Medvedev in the lead with 22%, followed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 20%. In the event of an early election they would move into the second round of voting, with victory for Medvedev effectively predetermined, given his administrative resources.

According to Novye Izvestia, the “Stabilization Fund handouts in exchange for votes” scenario would resemble what President Hugo Chavez has done in Venezuela. At present, the Russian state is sharing its windfall oil revenues with citizens in the form of the national projects. But there are also more radical methods – from subsidized prices for essential goods to direct handouts of money to low income groups. This is exactly what the recently re-elected President Chavez is doing.

Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Globalization Studies Institute, says that “there is plenty of demand” for a Chavez-like figure in Russia.

Mark Urnov, chairman of the Ekspertiza Foundation, told Novye Izvestia that the degree of nationalism in Russian domestic politics is rising. What seemed impossible only a year ago – “ethnic cleansing,” for example – is now becoming common practice. According to Urnov, next year we should expect an increased number of ethnic hate crimes – assaults and murders – and perhaps even “mobilized detachments of hardline neo-fascists,” leading to “pogroms in Russia’s major cities.” Research by the Moscow Human Rights Bureau indicates that Russian nationalist groups have over 50,000 members in total.

Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, told Novye Izvestia that the upcoming elections might use a script that calls for splitting Russian society, using anti-fascism as a dividing line: one-quarter versus three-quarters. “In order to do this, it will be important to structure public opinion as follows: a choice between the existing regime, with all its shortcomings, or those terrible fascists.” According to Oreshkin, this would be “a negative voting option – anything is preferable to ‘them.'” This is precisely how events developed in federal elections during the 1990s: people in the Yeltsin era voted for “anyone other than the Communists.”

The fourth option is an Orange Revolution. The Other Russia’s militant wing – the banned National Bolshevik Party – makes no secret of its intention to come to power via a revolution during the 2007-08 election cycle.

According to experts, the success of an Orange Revolution plan would depend on the opposition making a connection with the masses. However, says Boris Kagarlitsky, Russia’s opposition forces are still just as alienated from the people as the authorities are.

Novye Izvestia goes on to say that Russia might experience a “virtual” Orange Revolution. Alexei Mukhin, director of the Political Information Center, says this wouldn’t involve any tent cities or barricades; instead, the Russian opposition might organize some sort of theatrical protest event which would get extensive media coverage, especially in the West. Former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov would describe the presidential election as fraudulent and declare himself the “people’s president.” Journalists would report this, “creating the impression abroad that an Orange Revolution has taken place in Russia.” According to Mukhin, this virtual Orange Revolution could last a long time, since it would be advantageous for certain forces in the West, seeking to put pressure on Russia’s next president.

The Vedomosti newspaper notes that the Kremlin might lose control over the parliamentary election if rivalry between United Russia and Just Russia escalates “from sparring into a real fight, with a mild level of intra-elite disagreement turning into an all-out war among the elites.”

Vedomosti concludes: “We observed something similar in 1999, when the Unity movement was opposed by the Fatherland-All Russia alliance. The split within the elites came to an end very rapidly, as soon as it became clear that the question of who would take power had been decided. If this question is decided within an acceptable timeframe on this occasion as well, we need have no fears about the elections slipping into an unmanageable scenario. Yet it is very likely that parties will fight to identify themselves with potential successor candidates – after all, given our constitutional order, the fate and influence level of any given party for the next four years is far more dependent on that than on the number of seats a party has in the Duma.”

According to poll results from the Bashkirova and Partners agency, as reported in the RBK Daily newspaper, the most popular of President Putin’s “official” potential successors is First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, who came second in the Person of the Year 2006 poll with a score of 2.9%. Putin was first with 32.5%. Third place went to LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Fourth and fifth were Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov (1.1%) and Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu (0.7%).

Alexander Muzafarov, head of the socio-political research department at Bashkirova and Partners, told RBK Daily: “Over 46% of respondents couldn’t name a Person of the Year at all. And all the nominated individuals other than Putin have fairly low ratings.” According to Muzafarov, the rise in Medvedev’s rating is unexpected – and it’s interesting to note that the second “official successor candidate,” Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, remains at the “barely mentioned” level.

“Why is Putin refusing to follow the example of Britain’s well-mannered politicians?” asks Smart Money magazine, noting that the ruling Labour Party hasn’t made any secret of the fact that Gordon Brown is set to take over from Prime Minister Tony Blair.

An answer to this question is provided by a presidential administration source: “While guessing games about Putin’s favorites may be destabilizing the situation, the effects of certainty at this stage would be far worse. If the successor was named now, over a year before the election, the state apparatus would simply explode – and the mud-slinging wars (between oligarchs) would seem mild by comparison.”

Smart Money says: “Given Putin’s popularity rating, he could afford to wait until only three months before the election before naming the real successor.”

In an article for the Kommersant newspaper, political analyst Lilia Shevtsova attempts to predict the next president’s political archetype. “The public is prepared to support a leader who would be a Cleanser: someone who would start fighting corruption. But this leadership formula could prove dangerous for the authorities themselves. However, this doesn’t mean it couldn’t take shape spontaneously.”

Shevtsova says: “In any event, the Kremlin team shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it will face a dialectical culmination: the new leader will be able to consolidate his own authority only by rejecting the previous stage of history – as Putin himself did. As yet, it remains uncertain who will be crushed beneath the rejection-train’s wheels. But no matter who comes to power, he will have to decide what to do with Putin’s legacy: stability achieved by means of postponing unpleasant decisions.”

In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, political analyst Alexei Zudin also says that a strong successor would face the temptation to chart a course of his own. In Zudin’s view, however, Putin intends to remain in politics – and in the system of power – even after he steps down. Consequently, it would not be sufficient for him to simply appoint a strong successor or allow an uncontrolled rotation of power.

“The monocentric regime created by Putin is a transition regime,” says Zudin. “It cannot reproduce itself without destroying itself, no matter what option we choose.” Thus, inevitably, the regime will become deconcentrated. The question is what this process will be like – controlled or a collapse.

“We are seeing indications that they’re trying to fit the process into controlled channels – that is, restrict it to the ruling group, not allowing it to spread further,” says Zudin. In his view, this deconcentrated new system should have one important quality: as before, the whole system will focus on Putin. In other words, it will be a system with an unofficial center of power. According to Zudin, this is analogous to China’s system of power.

Ogonek magazine predicts that Putin’s departure from the post of president could, paradoxically, lead to the onset of democracy.

“For all Putin’s dislike of state institutions, the institution of the presidency has seemed immutable,” says Ogonek. “But apparently this holds true only as long as Putin himself remains president.”

This could change after 2008, according to Ogonek. Any successor will seem weak compared to the powerful ex-president. And if the new president is also unable to replace officials (due to Putin’s ambitions or an objective political situation), if he is weakened to the level of his prime minister, the whole institution of the Russian presidency would be weakened as well.

Ogonek concludes: “On the one hand, all this could end in chaos. On the other, the process of all-out political confrontation could lead to democracy suddenly emerging of its own accord. Not ‘sovereign’ democracy, but the regular kind of democracy. And that would certainly be the most important development of the year. Unfortunately, we don’t know which year that will be.”

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