Boris Yeltsin’s New Year surprise to all Russians has marked a new phase of the diverse life in Russia – “the most boring electoral campaign” (a phrase by Interfax-Vremya weekly) to be followed by the election of the second Russian president. The weekly explains the inevitable colorlessness of the campaign by the fact that its outcome is already predetermined: “The major part of the Russian political elite has already crowned Putin as the next head of state.”

Indeed, every new day of the past week brought the news of ever-growing support for the candidacy of the acting Russian president. Nezavisimaya Gazeta states in an article under an expressive headline “the alternative-less Putin” that the start to the unprecedented universal support for Putin was given at the very beginning of 2000: “Local officials in Yoshkar-Ola, Dagestan, and Altai expressed their unanimous loyalty to the prime minister.” And when the time come to officially nominate Putin as a candidate for president, it turned out that “the initiative group of citizens” that gathered in the President Hotel comprised exclusively VIPs: Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov, Governors Alexander Rutskoi, Mikhail Prusak, Ivan Sklyarov, Dmitry Ayatskov, and Leonid Roketsky, Chairman of Gazprom’s board Rem Vyakhirev, Chairman of Rosneft oil company Sergei Bogdanchikov, Chairman of the RJES company’s Board of Directors Anatoly Chubais, etc.

The presence of representatives of the Unity movement and the Union of Right Forces in the initiative group was fairly expectable, whereas the fact that former supporters of Fatherland-All Russia joined them made a sensation; Nezavisimaya Gazeta remarked not without spite in this connection that “the statements about support for the acting prime minister do not make it obligatory to join the ranks of the initiators of nominating that prime minister as a candidate for president.”

On the other hand, Vedomosti states that “the support of Putin does not prevent the governors from taking care of themselves”. On the one hand, the regional leaders’ aspiration for “trading loyalty for transfers, having local debts to the federal budget erased, etc.” (an expression by Delovoi Vtornik, a weekly supplement to Tribuna) is fairly understandable. Izvestia expressed its opinion of the matter in a yet more straightforward manner: “After the negotiations over the terms of monetary allocations from the federal budget any regional leader would immediately become as meek and start to search spasmodically for any corrupt journalist to convey via him his loyalty to the acting head of state.”

On the other hand, Vedomosti maintains that the former compatriots of Luzhkov and Primakov have arrived at the conclusion that the prime minister is currently “the only consolidating political activist”. Therefore, not only do they support his candidacy as the next president but also express their vivid desire to see Putin win the elections already in the first round. Sergei Sobyanin, Chairman of the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District Duma, explains this idea: “The less obvious Putin’s victory is, the more difficult he will find it to manage this country.” Apart from that, in case of a second round of the presidential election “both foreign investors and Russian citizens will start to feel themselves uncertain as to the further developments.”

Putin’s regional supporters simply cannot think of a situation when their favorite would not win the election at all.

Segodnya believes that Shaimiev, Sklyarov, and Rakhimov will still have to apologize before Putin for “their impetuous support for former candidates for president – first Luzhkov and then Primakov”. Otherwise, “Shaimiev may well start to have problems with his Tatneft oil company. Indeed, will he be able to enjoy protection of Primakov the Academic under such circumstances?” The paper continues by stating that Nizhny Novgorod Governor Sklyarov’s position is even worse: “His region is on the brink of a default.” The other governors’ motives for supporting the prime minister are no less serious. For instance, two deputies of Kursk Governor Rutskoi have only recently been released from detention cells. “But they may be returned there at any moment, and accompanied by more respectable persons…” Novgorod Governor Prusak and Saratov Governor Ayatskov are hoping to use their support for Putin as a means of becoming members of the government. St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev is counting on the acting president’s assistance with winning the upcoming gubernatorial election. Segodnya calls all this motley crew of Putin’s “fans” “a team of professional political undertakers”. The paper believes that it was them who “‘buried’ the presidential ratings of Chernomyrdin, Luzhkov, and Primakov by means of their support”. And if Putin really counts on them this may well play a dirty trick on him, too: a slight fluctuation of his own rating will be enough “for the consolidated group of these comrades to shift to another candidate, just like a swarm of bees heads for a different hive in search for more honey. That is the party of power we have in this country – a nomadic party,” the paper concludes.

Other media also write about the dangers lying in wait for the acting president on his way to full-fledged presidency. Thus, Obshchaya Gazeta states: “The next Russian president has been appointed. The only thing left for us to do is vote for him.” The paper admits that “Putin’s candidacy is a happy choice” and the intrigue with the “arrangement” of his unprecedented rating, “the details of which we will not learn for a long time,” was a real success. At the same time, Obshchaya Gazeta warns the readers against overestimating the significance of these factors. “If Yeltsin had not fallen out of love with Stepashin, the Russian people would have loved the latter with the same (or nearly the same) anxiousness by now. If Yeltsin had left Chernomyrdin alone, Chernomyrdin would have become the alternative-less candidate,” etc. This, in the paper’s opinion, is the national specifics of the Russian democracy, no great efforts are even needed to promote any specific candidate, “for the people will vote for the authorities of anyone those authorities will point out as it is, and will do it absolutely voluntarily, in the situation of various alternative candidates and an absolute freedom of propaganda.” This is Russia, “the country with predominant Asian-type authoritarian decision-making”, which snugly fits to the “European-like democracy as regards further legitimization of those decisions”. Such a system, the paper asserts, ideally complies with the Russian historical traditions set by Peter the Great, namely “implementation of Western reforms for the purpose of preserving and enforcing the fairly Asian despotism”. Therefore, Russian will enter the new millenium “as a people that has never in its life actually elected its top authorities”.

Novaya Gazeta shares this opinion. It also believes that “the upcoming presidential election will be of only ritual significance” and that Yeltsin has created a purely monarchic precedent by his decision: “By his power of the monarch accountable only to the Most High he has handed his authority over to his successor.” The paper is of the opinion that it is exactly the quick pace of the presidential campaign that is called to play the deciding role in Putin’s “triumphal procession” towards power. As is known, currently the acting president’s rating is over 50%. Now, according to the laws of social psychology, his popularity may well start to fall. There exists such a term as “the electorate’s tiredness”. “Sooner or later people grow tired to a hero that is constantly turning up on TV screens.” Therefore, the paper states the necessity of approximating the date of the election as close as possible, now that the voters’ heads are stuffed with “the stable stereotype that there is no alternative to Putin”.

An Izvestia TV observer Irina Petrovskaya warns about the danger of “a total televised flattery to Putin”. Petrovskaya breaks her earlier promise not to comment on Sergei Dorenko’s analytical TV program and predicts that in the new circumstances of a presidential campaign Dorenko’s program will be of some interest, “not as a clinical case of corrupt journalism but rater as a kind of barometer for measuring the moods of those in whose interests ‘the most honest and independent journalist of this country’ is working.” Petrovskaya is of the opinion that, lest excessive efforts of the pro-government media should ruin the acting president’s image, those interested have decided to replace them with “slight constructive criticism, which, when performed by Dorenko, must appear especially convincing.” The first case of fulfillment of this plan was demonstrated last Saturday during Dorenko’s interview with Putin, when the popular TV anchor considered it necessary to warn the acting president about the danger of unpractical waste of his “colossal authority”, like in the case with his support for Gennady Seleznev, who in the end was defeated in the Moscow gubernatorial election. Said Dorenko: “It is enough for you to hit the bull’s eye for several times in a row, and everybody will say: he is a magician. But a magician has no right to make mistakes. Now that Seleznev’s candidacy fell through… What if someone holds this mistake against you?” Petrovskaya’s article is headlined “Attempted Impudence”.

Vek weekly has arrived at the conclusion that over-diligent campaign strategists may pose a threat to Putin’s presidential campaign: “…Life has more than once proved that the ruining of a popular image may have most catastrophic consequences.” The danger is even greater as Putin depends on competent work of his team and his electoral staff to a greater extent than other candidates for president: he can neither leave his posts of prime minister and acting president nor, “for the avoidance of an unanimous yell of protest”, use those posts’ advantages in his electoral campaign. Therefore, the weekly believes, it is important for Putin “to get rid of the deluding belief that his victory is secured.”

On the other hand, Gleb Pavlovsky, the chair of the Effective Policy Foundation, “a campaign strategist, a close advisor for the Kremlin, the evil genius for Primakov and Luzhkov, and the author of the Union of Right Forces’ victories”, asserts in an interview to Sobesednik weekly that no real electoral struggle is to be anticipated from Putin’s rivals: “they will stick to self-advertising”. Of course, Pavlovsky remarks, it is hard to tolerate the absence of any alternative to Putin, so there will be possibilities for struggle available: “And as for the absence of real rivals – well, even a pimple is seen from afar on a flat surface.” And Pavlovsky gives the following example: “There is such a method – to throw down the gauntlet and then avoid the fight, or explain that the fight was hampered by certain dark forces. In fact, this principle explains the entire political career of Grigory Yavlinsky.” Pavlovsky determines Yavkinsky’s position as that of “an Incorruptible Democrat”, “He is a kind of the international community’s emissary in Russia, the representative of the West’s interests, and for the West Putin as the next president is evidently not the best-case scenario.”

Another “fighter of the Putin squad”, a well-known journalist Mikhail Leontyev, writes in Vedomosti about the possibility of emergence of “a powerful, prospective, and highly motivated” pro-Western opposition in Russia. The question about the dynamics of the acting president’s relationships with the West is one of the most complicated issues. Leontyev does not mention any particular names but states that the new pro-Western opposition does not actually need power, “at least at this juncture”. “This opposition is satisfying an absolutely concrete demand and comprises pro-Western political, ideological, and commercial structures which have acquired an extremely powerful incentive and a stable market in connection with the well-known tendencies in Russia’s relationships with the West.” Leontyev asserts that for the said structures “any problem in Russia’s relations with the West is desirable, be it the Chechen conflict, corruption in the higher echelons of the Russian government, insufficient alternative in the election, the media’s loyalty to the authorities, etc.” The main danger for this new opposition, Leontyev warns, is as follows: “For them to sell themselves to the West as fairly humanitarian, civilized, and ‘westernized’, they should unambiguously oppose themselves to the rest of Russian society and picture the latter as savages, barbarians, and cannibals. But cannibals may actually get offended.” On the other hand, Leontyev calls upon the powers that be for refraining from any punitive actions: “The government should protect this opposition, tend it and care for it, and suppress the natural desire to smear it against the wall.”

Argumenty i Fakty weekly enumerates “six reasons why Putin cannot become the next president”. Everything is counted here, from the danger of a failure in Chechnya and that of physical elimination of the over-popular acting president to the danger of an economic collapse. The paper suggests its countermeasures according to each of the nine dangers. For instance, the journalists recommend the government to speed up the storming of Grozny and mountainous guerrilla bases in order to manage to “mop up” the entire Chechnya by March 26; a decision about 100% sales of exporters’ foreign currency revenues is suggested as a means against a would-be ruble collapse; the elimination of Mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov, a rather strong rival in the upcoming election, is recommended to be achieved by means of promising him the post of prime minister in the next government, etc.

The weekly suggests that the most undesirable scenarios – for instance, emergence of certain materials compromising Putin such as a videotape similar to that which ruined Skuratov’s career (rumors have long been circulating about the existence of such a film featuring Putin as the main hero lover) of other possible machinations of the oligarchs – should be neutralized by means of pressing on the media. “On the other hand, it appears unlikely that Independent Television and TVC, two TV channels controlled by Putin, will actually dare challenge the acting president, for, after all, in that case their licenses may well be withdrawn from them.”

As for ORT, Argumenty i Fakty believes that Putin should be more hand on that channel: “He should gather the ORT border of directors and, using the state-owned packet of shares (51%), remove Berezovsky’s people – Konstantin Ernst, Tatiana Koshkaryova, and Ruslan Narzikulov – from the key posts.” After all, the paper continues, ORT “is more than to one half a state channel and should work in the interests of the acting power, i.e. of Putin.”

Komsomolskaya Pravda takes the possibility of “a war of the oligarchs” to be the most serious electoral danger for Putin. The probability of such a war is growing along with Putin’s rating. Not a single oligarch, the paper states, has need for a strong and independent president “who possesses the right to intervene in the oligarchs’ affairs”. Therefore, Objectively speaking, the Russian political elite is not interested in Putin’s unconditional victory in the first round of the election: “It would be interested in the Putin who has barely won the election and who, therefore, would be dependent. They don’t need another Yeltsin in 1991, they need a Yeltsin in 1996.”

Moskovsky Komsomolets holds the opinion that Yeltsin’s “inner circle”, frightened by the acting president’s excessive independence, may well join the anti-Putin “attack by the oligarchs” (or, to be more exact, intrigues by Boris Berezovsky, who is especially closely connected with the concealed political levers). The dismissal of Pavel Borodin made an especially strong impression on the people ascribed to the category of the “inner circle”. It was after that dismissal that the long-standing rumors about the existence of videomaterials compromising Putin were revived. “The possibility cannot be ruled out that the rumors about such a videotape are only a prelude to another twist of the never-ending jostle for power in Russia, where, for some unknown reason, there always exist only two alternative victors – Chubais or Berezovsky,” the paper concludes.

Novaya Gazeta is likewise certain of the future aggravation of Putin’s conflicts with the oligarchs. It is of the opinion that the danger of a fall of Putin’s rating prior to the election remains high: no economic successes of the Putin government are to be anticipated against the background of Russia’s increasing international isolation and the expected drop of the world oil prices. In addition, “the positive (in the context of the parliamentary campaign) image of the Chechen campaign is already starting to exhaust itself.” Therefore, the paper concludes, “if in February or March Chubais’ team encounters with any difficulties as regards the provision for Putin’s electoral support, then even before the election a populist attack against Berezovsky and Abramovich may follow.” Furthermore, the paper asserts, already now the oligarchs are already feeling “the increasing threat from the Kremlin – they know all too well that Chubais is not disposed to share the fruit of a common victory with anyone.”

Pavlovsky, whom we have already mentioned, appraises the situation in a more optimistic way. When answering in his interview to Sobesednik the direct question whether he thinks that within the next several months Putin may sacrifice certain large oligarchs such as Berezovsky for the purpose of consolidating his own popularity, Pavlovsky speaks in a no less straightforward manner: “There will be no sacrifices for delectation of the crowd. Putin already holds the power, why should he organize any repressive shows? And as for a serious attack, Putin is too cautious to venture it without a proper reconnaissance work… I do not believe that a show trial of the oligarchs is part of his short-term plans.”

Apparently, Berezovsky himself does not see any good reasons to worry yet. At any rate, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, as if in response to Segodnya’s caustic remark that, no matter how hard Berezovsky tried, he failed to connect his name with the procedure of nominating Putin for a candidate for president, that “the fact that the chair of the RJES company became a member of the initiative group and Berezovsky was left outside does not actually mean anything. Knowing Berezovsky’s traditional methods, we may assert that to a certain extent he is represented in the initiative group by the head of the Karachaevo-Cherkessian National Bank who was also present at the President Hotel.”

Vek weekly, in turn, asserts that, from the viewpoint of Berezovsky, it is not him but Putin who is actually facing the task to enter “the current political elite”. Of course, if Putin does not intend to “break the order of power that has formed in Russia over the past decade and has already started to reproduce itself”, which would mean nothing more nor less than a revolution. However, now that Putin has already pacified the oligarchs by stating that no property redistribution is to be expected, the paper offers its own appraisal of the progress of the political developments: “So far the sides are compromising with each other. This readiness to compromise actually determines the current main sense of Russia’s political and economic life.”

For Berezovsky, at least, it does. And for the rest Putin remains an enigma, a “black box that will not open itself until the March election, Inostranets weekly states.

On the other hand, Sobesednik remarks in its own electoral forecast that “the nation is tired of the necessity to meditate.” The increased number of voters who voted against all candidates in the parliamentary election serves as evidence of people having given up the hope for positive changes.

“People in Russia have been speaking about an ‘iron fist’ for nearly a decade now,” the weekly writes: “The Russian citizens have been threatened with an ‘iron fist’ for ten years, and now everybody sees a panacea from all Russian mishaps in that fist. Indeed, years of reforms were not wasted in this country.” The more so as people wish to see this panacea in “Putin’s ‘iron fist’ which is always clad in a felt glove”, Rossiyskaya Gazeta states.

People have already gotten out of the habit of living “in a normal historical time, when nothing outwardly happens for many years on end,” Vedomosti writes. Many are certain the after the presidential election “the epoch of transition will end in Russia and an epoch of stagnation will begin”. So, “this country is entering a phase of stagnation – or stability, depending on the opinion,” Vedomosti maintains. As the fates decree, the voters’ desire of stability are to be fulfilled by acting President Vladimir Putin, a.k.a. a former KGB officer under the nickname “Stasi” (according to Sergei Kovalev in Inostranets), a.k.a. a former deputy of Anatoly Sobchak. Putin’s former colleagues from St. Petersburg say about him: “He has a Napoleonic complex. There is a dictator hiding dormant within him, everything will change in Russia before the country has time to say ‘Holy shit!'” (a quotation for Obshchaya Gazeta”).

The seriousness of Putin’s intentions – so far in the struggle for presidency – was also reported by Kommersant-Daily in an article headlined “9.5 billion rubles has already been spent on the upcoming election”. The paper simply summed up the prime minister’s electoral promises – to raise pensions starting from February 1 not by 12%, as Yeltsin had promised, but by 20%, and also to erase the salary arrears in the provinces at the expense of the federal budget. Naturally, there is no money for fulfillment of such populist promises: “A slight production growth at the end of 1999 cannot serve forever as the justification of additional social expenses.” Therefore, the government will have to print more money: “Citizens in Russian regions will not remember on the day of the election exactly who owes them. But everybody will remember that it was Putin who erased the debts.”