The year of 2007: something in between "brutally serious" and a joke

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“There are grounds to regard 2007 as the year of Vladimir Putin,” says Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Lilia Shevtsova in an article for the Vedomosti newspaper. In her view, Putin, “more than any other leading politician, proved himself capable of mystifying, disorienting, surprising, and even scaring people – not only Russian citizens, but the outside world as well.”

The Levada Center polling agency does a special opinion poll every December, asking people to evaluate the past year. The latest results indicate that the strongest emotion in Russian society is hope. In the Vedomosti newspaper, Levada Center analyst Alexei Levinson compares this year’s results with the data collected in December 2000, soon after President Vladimir Putin came to power.

In late 2000, 51% of respondents hoped that 2001 would be better than the preceding year. Levinson notes that this figure was a record high. When Prime Minister Putin became President Putin, Yuri Levada described him as “the president of hope.”

Now, as President Putin prepares to become Prime Minister Putin again, 41% of respondents report feeling more hopeful. “So the person who came in as the president of hope is going out with the same title,” says Levinson.

In listing Vladimir Putin’s main achievements for 2007, Lilia Shevtsova focuses on the successful operation he carried out to keep his team in power, and Russia’s comeback to the international arena as a factor “which continually promises to reshuffle all the cards.”

According to Shevtsova, the irony is that Putin’s amazing achievements turn out to work against the system itself, “threatening to ultimately make the Russian system dysfunctional, and to create external threats which that system would be incapable of countering.”

By setting up the Medvedev-Putin tandem, the “Stabilizer President” has planted a time-bomb under the existing political system, since shifting influence to the prime minister “will lead to power being diluted and two centers of gravity emerging.” Shevtsova notes some examples of such “dual power” crises in Russia’s recent history: when the parliament building was shelled in 1993, and when the Primakov-Luzhkov team was destroyed in the elections of 1999.

The Argumenty i Fakty newspaper is more optimistic: “There is some hope that 2008 won’t bring any dangerous political surprises at all: the two highest state offices will be held by like-minded people, allies, hatched in the same St. Petersburg nest.”

Argumenty i Fakty maintains that Putin’s choice has alleviated the alarming uncertainty about the “national leader” idea: “Introducing this extra-constitutional office could have led to an additional center of power emerging, with rivalry between factions in the ruling elite.”

According to Argumenty i Fakty, a Levada Center opinion poll has shown that Russian society is not ready for a new messiah (only 17% of respondents favor giving “great leader” status to anyone at all, while 30% are opposed), and Putin has got the message.

Argumenty i Fakty says: “It’s also a good sign that the proponents of amending the Constitution have been defeated. This means that Russia is breaking with the destructive tradition of tailoring laws to individual leaders.”

But some experts don’t share the Argumenty i Fakty newspaper’s optimism; they’re still insisting that the Constitution will be revised in 2008.

Andrei Ryabov, Expert Council member at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says in Gazeta.ru that “in the confrontation between supporters of the status quo and ‘reformers,’ the former have had the upper hand until now.”

However, as RBC Daily reports, influential United Russia politician Vyacheslav Volodin added fuel to the flames on December 24 by saying at a press conference that “revising the Constitution will only be possible in 2008.”

Ryabov maintains that the “reformers” are likely to interpret Volodin’s hint as a signal to launch a new offensive.

RBC Daily notes that this isn’t the first signal indicating that amendments to the Constitution may be on the way. A correspondent from RBC Daily who attended one of Gazprom’s holiday season events “had the pleasure of hearing Gazprom representatives express delight at Dmitri Medvedev’s promotion to successor, and heard one of them say something very interesting: ‘There will be a great deal of work after May. I don’t know how many years, according to the new Constitution…”

Ryabov notes that the Russian Constitution specifies monocentric presidential rule. Som the confusion and disorganization that may arise from the Medvedev-Putin tandem situation would “present the ruling elite with a tough choice: concentration of all real power in the hands of the president, as required by the Constitution, or a revision of the Constitution to reflect a redistribution of powers in favor of the Cabinet.”

In Ryabov’s view, the latter prospect seems more realistic, given current trends.

Rostislav Turovsky, head of the regional studies department at the Political Techniques Center, told RBC Daily: “Some amendments to the Constitution are inevitable in the next few years. They are likely to affect the length of the president’s term in office. The interval between Duma elections may be extended to match the president’s longer term.” Turovsky predicts that powers will not be redistributed between the president and the government, because Putin will reclaim the presidency in the future.

Dmitri Badkovsky from the Social Systems Institute says: “De jure, redistribution of powers between the president and the government is unlikely to happen in the immediate future. But it could happen de facto, within the provisions of the existing Constitution.”

Lilia Shevtsova continues her analysis of Putin’s “ambiguous” achievements by noting that “the reinforcement of Russia’s international role,” in its current form, tends to promote the opposite results – it’s a factor prompting the West to consolidate against Russia: “The Kremlin’s slingshot policy is proving to be more effective than Iran or the Islamic threat as a means of consolidating the West.”

Shevtsova notes that the first warning sign indicating that Europe is considering ways of countering the Kremlin’s “gas diplomacy” is Brussels’ decision to develop a common energy strategy.

According to Shevtsova, “calls from Russian and Western adepts of Realpolitik, their calls to avoid quarreling with Putin, might turn out to be a smokescreen behind which the West is starting to develop a new strategy – a strategy for containing Russia.”

Thus, the outcome of Putin’s domestic and foreign policy victories could be a dysfunctional system surrounded by a hostile environment.

A poll done by the Levada Center, reported in Novye Izvestia, indicates a loss of confidence in the pro-democracy opposition forces: none of the potential pro-democracy presidential candidates is supported by more than 5% of respondents. Moreover, a quarter of respondents say that the pro-democracy forces shouldn’t have their own candidate at all; they should endorse Putin’s designated successor.

Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, says that this attitude to pro-democracy candidates is due to the fact that politicians who have been around since the 1990s are “morally exhausted.” Makarkin notes that lack of enthusiasm for pro-democracy politicians is not synonymous with a loss of faith in democracy as an idea. Makarkin told Novye Izvestia: “There is a great desire to see someone new – but no new pro-democracy politicians can emerge, since the older politicians won’t leave, and television broadcasting isn’t interested in any new figures. We usually see new pro-democracy politicians rising at times of crisis, as in the late 1980s, when a whole gallery of them emerged all at once. The crisis in the system, the crisis of confidence in the authorities, will spur demand for new opposition politicians – including the pro-democracy opposition.”

Gazeta.ru observer Dmitri Butrin says that Russian politics awaits the emergence of “someone who can offer a new alternative – in terms of ethics rather than aesthetics – to the currently-available choices.”

In Butrin’s view, the events of 2007 have been “ambiguous and ephemeral – a conjunction of the trivial and the extremely serious.”

Butrin says: “Once again, it’s possible to get a jail sentence in our country for telling a politically inappropriate joke. But any such event would also be discussed as a joke, although this wouldn’t make any difference to the imprisoned person.”

The “glamored” authorities are discussed in the style of glossy magazines: “Russia and the rest of the world are only talking of the trivial things – like why Putin chose to be photographed bare-chested, or why some particular analyst described the Putin-Medvedev relationship as ‘closer than family.’ It’s what we all thought, right?”

Counterposed to the trivial is the “brutally serious” approach of the authorities, trying to scare Russian citizens during the Duma election campaign: “All preparations for the 2007 campaign were essentially based on one scenario: inciting hysteria and spreading it to as many voters as possible.”

As a result, says Butrin, “the hysteria found fertile soil only within the apparatus servicing the authorities – and only in its most nervous part. Meanwhile, most ordinary citizens just laughed it off, not being inspired to close ranks or join together in a united fist. They went ahead and voted as predicted: not in favor of the pro-democracy opposition, which was rather inclined to become a sparring-partner in hysteria, and not in favor of those who crave war with America right here and now. They voted in much the same way as they did ten years ago.”

Butrin asks: “How can we escape the Scylla of ‘one true idea’ without running into the Charybdis of ‘don’t give a damn’?” In his view, citizens must be offered “an ethical alternative to existing choices.” In 2008, we should move away from the battle between the past and the present; we should start inventing the future from the present. “Otherwise, none of this is serious.”

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