On Monday Vremya MN wrote: “Yevgeny Primakov, who announced that he will not run for president, amazed nobody by this news.” Perhaps that is so. However, according to media reaction to the former prime minister’s “final decision” announced last Friday, something different had been expected from Primakov.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes: “Even after Fatherland-All Russia suffered defeat in the parliamentary election, various estimates of Primakov’s popularity rating served as evidence that the country was seeing him as the third top candidate for president. Apart from that, the deputy mandate allowed Primakov to actively hold his presidential campaign and might well have brought him additional votes.”

However, Primakov refused to struggle. Vremya MN explains this decision by “Primakov’s extreme maladjustment to modern-day political reality” and quotes him as saying, “I felt that our society falls short of… real democracy.” The paper comments on Primakov’s statement as follows: “We have never heard such a reason before, for usually this is exactly the reasoning politicians use to prove their own value to society, adding, ‘But there is one person who can improve everything, and you know who it is.’ However, Primakov took precisely the opposite action.”

We should note that Primakov’s decision to bow out of the presidential race was announced exactly two days after Mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov, “Primakov’s most loyal admirer”, said that he “would not be Putin’s rival in the presidential election” and, in general, “is ready for any compromise”.

Izvestia holds the opinion that in this situation Primakov showed an unbelievable degree of naivete: “As it has turned out, the former director of the Foreign Intelligence Service is too credulous. At first he believed that someone would be thankful to him for his assistance after the August 1998 financial collapse; later he believed in Luzhkov’s guarantees to him; finally, he believed that someone would really opt for his experience and honesty when appointing the Duma speaker. However, Seleznev’s controllability won the upper hand.” Now, the paper believes, the best option “the Kremlin’s former chief opponent” may count on is “a sympathetic offer of a minor post in the executive branch”.

Kommersant-daily takes Primakov’s decision to be fairly logical for a politician who failed to adjust himself to the new political situation: “Primakov is used to serving the state, making statements or keeping silent on behalf of the state… Soviet politicians do not exist outside the state, for in that case they must act of their own accord, and a Soviet politician, by definition, has nothing of their own.”

The main flaw of which Nezavisimaya Gazeta accuses Primakov is that when leaving the political stage, he “did not share his rating with anybody”. The paper believes that after Primakov had decided not to run for president, he should have “given relevant instructions – whom to vote for – to the part of the electorate that would otherwise have voted for him”. However, Primakov did nothing of the kind. “He helped neither the Communists, to whom he had often been accused of being too close, nor Grigory Yavlinsky, who was, after all, his ally (even if not a complete ally) in the Duma protest coalition.”

Finally, Segodnya published its own explanation of the reasons why Primakov refused to run in the presidential race. According to the paper, Primakov made the said decision after a meeting with Putin: “Primakov was given to understand that running in the presidential election would cost him dearly – for instance, the former prime minister could be subjected to even more violent TV attacks than during the parliamentary campaign.” In other words, the paper asserts that one of the potential rivals of the “main candidate” was subjected to open pressure.

Segodnya maintains that now that Primakov has refused to struggle for the presidency, the last candidate really capable of depriving Putin of “the sweetness of a victory in the first round of voting” has disappeared. From now on, according to the paper, “Putin might as well hang loose and take no interest whatsoever in the presidential campaign – he will win the election hands down.”

Currently, Putin’s team has other fish to fry. The Presidential Administration has already prepared draft amendments to the Constitution on extending a president’s term in office by three years – making seven years instead of the current four. Rumor has it that this idea “belongs personally to Putin”. Segodnya takes such a development to be fairly likely: “Indeed, what’s the problem here? The acting president has ‘tamed’ two-thirds of Parliament, and the majority of senators have already pledged allegiance to him.”

This viewpoint is shared by Novaya Gazeta”, which puts it bluntly, “Putin needs the Duma as an instrument for extending his term in office… Hence his support for the Communists during the distribution of parliamentary posts, his overtures to Kirienko and Gryzlov, etc….” According to the paper, the main topic currently being discussed in the Kremlin is the possible extension of Putin’s term in office.

“Yeltsin, who became Russian president in his sixties, (…) considered two four-year presidential terms to be enough. Putin, 47, who is currently preparing to become president, will be only 55 even after a second four-year term. And what should he do then? Retire?” It appears to be much wiser to see to it beforehand that the presidential term in office is extended “at least to match the French or British seven-year term.”

Moskovskie Novosti weekly is pessimistic about the electoral chances of Putin’s two major rivals, Gennady Zyuganov and Grigory Yavlinsky. The paper compares the current situation with the 1996 presidential election: “Four years ago Boris Yeltsin’s two most significant rivals had their own electorate, their own support, and their own resources.” Zyuganov’s supporters dreamed about restoration of the former Soviet order, Yavlinsky’s supporters about a new democratic society.

Currently we may state that neither group’s dreams have come true in the past four years.

Putin intends to radically reform the hierarchy of power. According to Segodnya with reference to Putin’s speech at an expanded board meeting of the Ministry of Justice, the acting president is planning to start fighting “laxity” in the regions which managed to “lay their hands on more sovereignty than others” under Boris Yeltsin. The matter primarily concerns Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Putin drew the board’s attention to certain discrepancies between the two republics’ laws and federal legislation. He warned the board that these discrepancies may well “acquire a critical mass capable of exploding, and severing, the integrated constitutional system in this country.” The republics took these statements seriously; Segodnya even assumes that “Mintimer Shaimiev and Murtaza Rakhimov, along with Mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov, may well restore the opposition in the Federation Council.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes about personnel reshuffles in the Presidential Administration. Although there have not been many such reshuffles yet, and they cannot be considered significant, the paper believes that they allow us “to draw certain conclusions as to what the Putin administration will look like when Putin becomes the full-fledged president.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta states that the acting president’s working style greatly differs from “the ‘style of chess players’ that was so dear to Yeltsin.” Therefore, the paper predicts, “little by little, the need for ‘great contrivers’ of the Yeltsin administration will cease to exist at all.”

Nevertheless, at the end of the article the paper drops a hint – Putin should not be in such a hurry to dispense with the services of tested and reliable people. “For nobody can say for sure that Putin’s rating will not fall.” So far, there is sense in preserving in Putin’s team those who can “improve any situation”.

Novoe Vremya magazine, in turn, states that “Putin is only starting to work out his own presidential style.” The only clear thing so far, the magazine predicts, is that “after March 26 an absolutely different life will begin, when neither Putin nor his administration will encounter any obstacles whatsoever on the way to fulfillment of their own plans – the plans we as yet know nothing about, save for mere hints.”

However, these hints are becoming less and less ambiguous. The fate of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky became a good occasion, after all, for asking a direct question: “What are we driving at?” (an article headline by Moskovskie Novosti). This is the question about the prospects of democratic reforms in this country, a country which, according to Izvestia”, allows the existence of “black holes” – “where the regulations strictly observed in the rest of Russia are dead, where the presence of the state is not compulsory, where there is not only a legal vacuum (primarily the invalidity of international law) but also the absence of elementary mercy.” Izvestia headlined an article about the exchange of Babitsky for two Russian soldiers with Stakin’s well-known phrase: “No person – no problem”.

Segodnya assumes that the possibility cannot be ruled out that there was no exchange at all, and that Babitsky is simply hidden in a remote place and will be kept there until the presidential election: “Until March 26 he will probably be kept in a basement somewhere, and then triumphantly and gloriously released, because after the election he will no longer pose any threat.” The paper believes that the special operation to neutralize the journalist is supervised by “a person close to Putin and loyal to him”. The paper allows for the possibility that Putin himself does not know all the particulars of the operation, “but it is unlikely that he is absolutely unaware of what is going on”.

The main question is exactly what Babitsky learned in Chechnya that made it necessary to neutralize him. We can only guess: “It is fairly possible that Babitsky met in Grozny with guerrilla leaders, and the latter told him the truth about Basaev’s meeting in France with high-ranking Russian officials, about the true causes of Basaev’s and Khattab’s raid into Dagestan, which was futile from the very beginning, and also about those who had actually blown up apartment blocks in Russian cities. Perhaps they not only told him all this, but also provided him with conclusive evidence.” One way or another, “by the time of the presidential election Putin’s team must get rid of this witness who is capable of ruining Putin’s career.”

In such a context, an even more tragic scenario – Babitsky’s assassination – does not seem so much improbable. “Perhaps his body will soon be found somewhere in Chechnya, or certain ‘witnesses’ will emerge and give the details of his death.(…)”

If we assume that at least one of the paper’s versions corresponds to reality, we will be forced to agree with Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Union of the Right Forces, who states in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “Putin’s success and the high level of his popularity among the Russian electorate are connected with the fact that people do not know what he is.”

Nemtsov states that such a position is very advantageous on the eve of the election, for “Putin as a myth can win many voters over to his side – everyone will fill this myth with their own content, and that suits Putin perfectly. However, I would still like to know what we are to anticipate from him.” Perhaps the story with Babitsky will be an answer to this question.