THE UPCOMING FEDERAL ELECTIONS AS REPORTED BY THE CENTRAL MEDIA
“A Knockdown” – that was Vremya MN’s description of the event which can be considered to be the political hit of the past electoral week. Namely, Yevgeny Primakov refused to meet with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Vremya MN comments, “We can assert with surety that nobody has ever treated Yeltsin in such a way before.” Much more violent opponents of Yeltsin, such as Mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov and Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, have never been able to afford passing up such a high audience. “Not to mention other politicians who have been insulted by the president more than once – they still met with Yeltsin as if nothing had happened, did not dare not meet with him, and did not regard those meetings as a personal disgrace.”
But Primakov is a different person – he is shrewd. Not only did he refuse to come to the Kremlin, he also explained his decision to journalists in detail – Primakov announced that he simply does not think that a meeting with Yeltsin would be expedient and, most importantly, he does not want “to associate his name with the Kremlin in any way.” The paper interprets this announcement in the following way for its readers: Primakov “does not believe in the existence of Yeltsin the Politician any longer” and does not want to play a secondary role on the Kremlin stage. In the paper’s opinion, this serves as evidence of “an obvious drop in the authority of the president’s power.” Segodnya, in turn, believes that “what should have happened has finally happened”: “With reference to the bad behavior of certain people in Yeltsin’s inner circle, the Russian president has for the first time been denied an audience.” Thus, Yeltsin “was openly made to understand that he associates with a bad crowd.”
Kommersant-daily maintains that the electoral staff of the Fatherland-All Russia bloc simply did not dare risk letting Primakov have a tete-a-tete meeting with the president owing to the “mystical fear” of Yeltsin’s “hypnotizing charisma.” The leaders of Fatherland-All Russia believe that the president need only wish it, and “the old intelligence officer will be forced to stand at attention” under his severe glare. And it is easy to guess what it is the president would wish, given the raging information wars: the struggle between Fatherland-All Russia and the Kremlin has long been the major topic of those wars. Apparently, if Yeltsin managed to pressure Primakov it would be fairly easy to neutralize Luzhkov’s bloc, for “If one of the top three candidates on a bloc’s electoral list is taken off that list, the entire list can be cancelled.”
Other papers likewise mentioned the Kremlin’s insidious plans. Segodnya for instance, maintains that Yeltsin was about to try to “establish contacts with the leader in the electoral race Primakov” and was even ready to “take over the initiative from the next Duma, and, not waiting for the inevitable votes of no-confidence in the current government, offer Primakov the post of prime minister” and later the status of his successor in exchange for guarantees after he leaves his post. Vremya MN in turn, believes that the main goal of the meeting was to attempt to “separate the two leaders of Fatherland-All Russia and then destroy them one at a time.” In addition, according to Kommersant-daily those plans were fairly realizable, and it was tactics that ruined the scheme. It would have been enough for Yeltsin to telephone Primakov and personally invite him to a meeting in the Kremlin, and “the old academic” could not possibly have refused. Instead, the president sent Primakov the invitation via the Presidential Administration, which was an evident mistake. Kommersant-daily writes that by not showing up at the meeting “Primakov certainly was openly rude to the head of state, but, after all, the Kremlin had it coming.”
Izvestia calls Primakov’s decision “The Second U-Turn Over the Atlantic.” By refusing to “play the Kremlin’s games,” the former prime minister not only destroyed the plans of the president’s inner circle to split Fatherland-All Russia, but also demonstrated his unwillingness to be the Kremlin’s “spare president.” Now Yeltsin’s inner circle still has to select the final person whom it will support and promote as the president’s successor from among people close to the Kremlin. We can only guess who those people will be. Izvestia mentions current Prime Minster Vladimir Putin in this connection: “The rumors about Putin’s would-be dismissal intensify in direct proportion to the growth of his rating,” Izvestia remarks. The paper also names Sergei Shoigu, “the new favorite of the Kremlin court,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Ivanov, and even Minister of the Interior Vladimir Rushailo, “whose candidacy appears to be under serious consideration by the Kremlin.” After the failure of the Primakov plan, which was thoroughly planned, “immediately after the second attempt to carry it out,” the Presidential Administration is no longer considering the candidacies of outsiders.
The well-known journalist Mikhail Leontyev maintains in Vedomosti that Primakov was forced to venture this sharp gesture, which was unusual for the ever-tactful former prime minister, under the threat of “compromising materials against him which were prepared beforehand.” If Primakov had opted to meet with the president after all, then “propaganda specialists from Fatherland-All Russia” would have used this fact to justify “further pestering of Primakov” and would have done it regardless of the actual results of the meeting. Now, however, the whole affair is in the past, “and the Kremlin will not invite Primakov for a second time. Fatherland-All Russia has regained the former prime minister and can now own him undividedly.” In addition, in Leontyev’s opinion, by defecting from his trademark style of electoral behavior Primakov caused damage first and foremost to his own political image, which up till now had rested on “his contrast to the general barbarous political morals and manners” and has now almost come to resemble them.
As usual, Moskovsky Komsomolets suggested its own and rather exotic explanation for what happened. According to the paper’s sources, the Presidential Administration had prepared a draft decree awarding Primakov the Order of St. Andrew in connection with his 70th birthday. As is known, up till now only four people have been awarded this order, namely Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Alexii II, the academic Dmitry Likhachev, the armament designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev. Primakov was supposed to become the fifth. However, first of all he “did not want to be treated kindly on the eve of the election” for fear of the possible consequences for his reputation, and secondly decided not to trigger another round of tension in his relations with Luzhkov. “For at this juncture the Kremlin will not award Luzhkov even the Order of Honor. At best, he will be sent an honorary diploma.” In addition, Moskovsky Komsomolets maintains that a splendid birthday ceremony would have emphasized Primakov’s age, which he is trying to avoid at all costs.
Whatever the case, Primakov’s sudden decision amazed everyone who had gotten used to the former prime minister, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta described him, “biding his time and watching where the wind blows rather than making decisions,” the quality for which Primakov has been compared to military commander Mikhail Kutuzov more than once.
At the same time, by depriving society of the customary perception of himself as the embodiment of “peace, stability, and aloofness” (the wording of Andrei Piontkovsky in Novaya Gazeta), Primakov encroached on the niche of another politician who has created for himself the image of a man of action – Putin. Piontkovsky believes that the reason for Primakov’s popularity lies in Russian society’s nostalgia and yearning for the Brezhnev era. In Piontkovsky’s opinion, Primakov resembles Brezhnev even physically. When musing about the future that might await Russia if Primakov wins the presidential election, Piontkovsky recalls the Russian folk song about a coachman who froze to death in the steppe: “By electing good old granddad Primakov, Russia would unconsciously opt for the fate of a traveler who is taking his last sweet sleep in a warm snowdrift during a snowstorm. The idea of Primakov’s presidency, which seems to have absorbed nearly the entire Russian population, is in fact the idea of a hospice.” Putin, whose rating is currently growing with a speed that amazes specialists, is perceived in an absolutely different light: “A young and energetic officer of the special services who issues sharp and clear commands, sends regiments into the depths of the Caucasus, and brings terror and death to terrorists and enemies of Russia. Naturally, Russia’s female soul, which yearns for an authoritative master, has switched allegiances from respectable Primakov to the young heroic lover.” This, according to Piontkovsky, is Russia’s real political choice on the eve of the 21st century – the choice that incorporates “two archetypes of the Russian idea of power: the head physician of a hospice and a brutal pseudo-hero.”
Alexander Tsipko appraises the current prime minister’s performance in a different way in Literaturnaya Gazeta. In Tsipko’s opinion, “We should recognize the fact that, regardless of our treatment of Putin as a personality, he has undertaken responsibility for determining neither more nor less than Russia’s fate.” Tsipko believes that what is currently being solved in Chechnya is not just a concrete military problem but also the question of the viability of Russia. “If Russia suffers another defeat in Chechnya, it will destroy, perhaps even forever, Russians’ trust in the powers that be and in their state.” Therefore, Tsipko suggests that Literaturnaya Gazeta’s readers consider all attempts to hinder Putin, all crafty intrigues aimed at involving him in the “war of compromising materials,” and all rumors abut the prime minister’s possible dismissal as “a betrayal of Russia’s state interests.” At the same time, Tsipko admits that, in the case of Putin, “as with Primakov, there are excessively high social expectations, another Russian myth.” However, since the myth of Putin “is working in the interests of strengthening the Russian state system,” Tsipko categorically warns against debunking it.
There is also another side of this matter: the current war of compromising materials may (and most likely will) “completely discredit both the Kremlin inhabitants and the leaders of the right-center coalition.” And in that case, in Tsipko’s opinion, the danger will grow that “the criminal authorities, with Zhirinovsky at their head, will triumphantly enter the Duma.” In that situation, only Putin’s resoluteness would be able to save society from such a development – assuming nothing hinders him, of course. The article is headlined “Guard Putin.”
Editor-in-Chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta Vitaly Tretyakov makes references to Tsipko’s article in his analysis of the current problems of the Russian powers that be. Furthermore, Tretyakov asserts that “Putin’s current successes and ever-growing rating are automatically working not only in Russia’s interests but also for the benefit of Yeltsin and his historical prospects,” and that therefore, “Putin’s current successes do not present any danger to the president.” Tretyakov is certain that, since “Yeltsin has never done harm to himself,” he will not dismiss Putin before the elections, “unless, of course, the military operation in Chechnya turns into a large-scale defeat.” Meanwhile, Chechnya continues to be Putin’s main concern. Kommersant-daily is of the opinion that “the North Caucasus has become the main political trump card of the prime minister. It is exactly the situation in Chechnya that his political future depends on.” In the paper’s opinion, Putin’s frequent visits to the theater of military operations are meant to “demonstrate to the electorate a politician of a new type – young, tough, and resolute.” The paper even voices the assumption that the prime minister is trying to prove that he is already “tougher than Yeltsin”: the president also visited Chechnya in his time, but that was after the first Chechen war was already over and official negotiations had started. “Putin visited the region in the heat of the military campaign and promised to exterminate guerrillas mercilessly.” Yeltsin, the paper recalls, has always loved “to deliver speeches and sign decrees on tanks and armored personnel carriers.” Putin, in turn, flew “a 100% real battle assault plane during his latest visit to Chechnya at a distance of literally a half-hour’s flight from guerrilla positions.” Now, the paper notes, the prime minister lacks only one thing: “a full-fledged victory in Chechnya.” But so far such a development cannot be guaranteed, and Putin is certainly running risks by staking his all on that would-be victory.
As Arkady Volsky noted in an interview to Segodnya, “Putin’s rating will last until the arrival of the first coffins from Chechnya.”
So far it is difficult to say in what way Putin’s political fate will be affected by the complicated situation in which he found himself during the Helsinki summit, when he had to assure representatives of the Council of Europe that Russia is fighting not local citizens but terrorists in Chechnya, while reports from Grozny asserted, quite to the contrary, that explosions in the city market had caused a great number of casualties among civilians. As Izvestia noted, Putin “either has no luck, or is being framed.” In general, the prime minister failed to vindicate the clumsy actions of the Russian military. And therefore any growth of his authority in the West is out of the question. However, this fact may even come in handy in Putin’s relations with the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the media reported the completion of another stage in the parliamentary electoral campaign: on Sunday, October 24, the Central Election Commission stopped accepting signature lists and monetary deposits from electoral blocs and political parties. Vremya MN informs its readers that so far five blocks are officially registered, namely Fatherland-All Russia, the CPRF, Yabloko, Our Home is Russia, and the Union of Right Forces. Another 26 parties managed to submit their documents before the deadline, and the Central Election Commission will finish inspecting them in several days to come.
On the other hand, Chairman of the Central Election Commission Alexander Veshnyakov warned that even the lists that are already registered are not 100% protected against another thorough inspection until December 19, the more so as the law “does not forbid the Central Election Commission from barring parties from running in the electoral race at any moment after the registration of their signature lists.”
So far, according to Kommersant-daily, the Our Home is Russia (NDR) movement holds the record in terms of the number of rejections: 20 people were taken off the movement’s electoral lists (by comparison, Fatherland-All Russia lost 10 candidates during the process of registration and Yabloko and the CPRF lost nine candidates each). The procedure of registration proved most painless for the Communists. Literaturnaya Gazeta sees the reason for this in the fact that the Communists are “always on their guard”: they are constantly being checked and inspected, and are ready for anything.
Veshnyakov is extremely proud of the manner in which the Central Election Commission is struggling for “fair and honest elections” by using the new electoral law, and hopes very much for a good result. On the other hand, in an interview to Argumenty i Fakty weekly, Veshnyakov expressed the fear of “a possible attack on the law.” Vesnyakov is sure that if that law were submitted to the Duma today it would fall through. Even when the law was adopted, Veshnyakov noted, it was possible only because “it was difficult to imagine how many things would become possible thanks to it.” But now that the law has taken effect, the Central Election Commission is doing its best to demonstrate its capabilities before the elections: “This is a very correct move for Russia. It is a sort of refinement of this state, something that can serve as an example for others.”
Izvestia estimates the new electoral law in an absolutely different way. In the opinion of its observer Vyacheslav Nikonov, the new law “grants the Central Election Commission the rights of a voter, which multiplies the possibility of an administrative intervention in the elections instead of restricting it.” According to Nikonov’s calculations, the law stipulates “11 unconstitutional grounds for denying registration, and 18 unconstitutional grounds for barring a party from the race after its registration.” Thus, it is possible to confiscate voting papers from not only individual candidates but also entire parties which represent the interests of large sectors of the population. Nikonov remarks that in the most common cases candidates are denied registration owing to “considerable discrepancies” between the information in their income declarations and the data provided by state accounting organs. However, Nikonov notes, these discrepancies may well be the consequences not of candidates’ malicious intentions but rather of honest mistakes or imperfections in the accounting system. From this point of view it becomes absolutely unclear why the Central Election Commission cannot point out the inaccuracies to candidates beforehand, in order for them to be able to correct their mistakes, but instead announces the mistakes only at a special meeting, when it is already time to raise the question of taking candidates who have committed such mistakes off the party lists. The more so as, despite all the strong measures, “there will be no real barrier in the path of criminal elements to power, since criminal authorities and corrupt officials are not stupid and naive enough to register property in their own names.”
On the other hand, these methods of underrating the value of one’s property are practiced not only by those who are connected with the criminal world but also by the majority of candidates for Parliament. The situation sometimes becomes simply ridiculous: thus, in an article headlined “How many hobos want to get into the Duma?”, Rossiyskaya Gazeta quotes the bewildered questions of its readers: “How can it be that the majority of these outwardly respectable people turn out to possess neither an apartment nor a car?…and as for their incomes, frankly speaking, they are not impressive – it would be rather difficult to make ends meet with such incomes.” In the paper’s opinion, “The current system of registering candidates’ incomes is poorly thought-out and unproductive. Furthermore, it is shrewd and aimed at sidestepping the law and cheating the electorate.”
Argumenty i Fakty is of the same opinion. Its article is headlined “Why are our rich so poor?” The paper writes that the very first feeling one gets when looking at candidates’ income declarations is bewilderment: “What kind of elite is this if what it ‘does not have’ beats the amount of what it ‘does have’? Perhaps, the establishment hopes that in this light the electorate finds it more pleasant? Of course, the seeming poverty of candidates for the status of the people’s protectors is well organized: their property is re-distributed among their relations.” But now that those people want to come to power, “perhaps the electorate could do better without getting the impression that the only aim of the ‘people’s servants’ is to attain things which, according to their income declarations, they absolutely cannot have. Besides, how are they going to manage the country and its people if they have not even managed to make their own fortunes? After all, when Russians chose democracy, among other things they chose the right not to be poor,” Argumenty i Fakty remarks.