Sergei Shelin Novoe Vremya, No. 5, February 1, 2001, p. 7

It seems that Putin’s hand, considered a strong hand by both supporters and opponents, has wavered. Last year, it never occurred to anyone that the regime might suddenly run out of energy. But a relatively mild style of managment has flourished, while real action on serious issues stagnated.

The first month of 2001 added some unusual touches to the portrait of the head of state. Everyone is talking of hesitations, indecision, and the regime being at a loss. The government’s main problems are debts to the Paris Club of creditor nations, media policy, and the president’s amendments to the Criminal Code being submitted to the Duma and then withdrawn. There is also the unexpected ease with which the regional leaders – who only recently were under severe pressure – have gained the right to three or more terms in office. It seems that Putin’s hand, considered a strong hand by both supporters and opponents, has wavered.

The president is consulting with Duma faction leaders; the president is consulting with the sports sector; the president is asking business leaders for advice businessmen for consultations… All these consultations only increase suspicions that something is wrong at the top.

Actually, Putin’s approach to government started changing before everyone noticed. His time in power can be distinctly divided into two parts: before the Kursk submarine disaster, and after.

Before the Kursk disaster, the president managed to push through some unprecedented reforms to the system of regional government, within a few months. These could be viewed as laying the administrative foundation for economic reforms in the regions. At the same time, new tax laws – more modern than the previous ones – were passed by the Duma. Also at the same time, the government was very responsible in its budget policy: almost all extra revenues from oil exports were spent on foreign debt repayments.

It looked like the start of a major and authoritative project. The arguments at that time were mostly over where the new regime would direct its energy: into modernizing the economy and the state, or stifling liberties – or both. It never occurred to anyone that the regime might suddenly run out of energy.

During the days of the Kursk submarine disaster, the public disapproved of the president’s performance for the first time. Most likely, just at the moment when the danger of losing the people’s love was the most obvious, the effort to maintain popularity changed from a routine task into an obsession. Since then, the fear of treading on any major toes has repeatedly been the major censor of the Kremlin’s decisions.

The treatment of Yeltsin’s old elite perceptibly relaxed. The pressure on regional leaders continued, mechanically; but the Kremlin started making very friendly gestures toward them, which gradually turned into fairly significant concessions. Even in Primorye (Maritime territory, Russian Far East), where the incompetence of the regional government was more than obvious, Moscow didn’t dare use its newly-acquired powers for many months.

The only strategic action over autumn was the military reform plan – which, after all the compromises with concerned departments, seems to be so reduced and delayed that it is hard to call it a reform.

The change of approach toward big business is easy to see by the contrast between the president’s two meetings with business leaders: last summer’s historic first meeting, and the recent one. In summer, the tycoons came to meet the president like defendants coming to court to hear their sentence. In January, the head of state proposed that the tycoons should lobby for economic laws in the Duma, and called on them to bravely compete with the Cabinet – to feel free to propose their own economic ideas to the Kremlin.

First of all, this means big business has again been invited to participate in politics overtly. Secondly, it means a suggestion to business leaders that they should put more effort into winning favor with those at the top.

The only exceptions are certain media magnates who have been accused of creating a negative image of the regime: so far, they have not had a chance to benefit from the Kremlin’s new mild approach.

At the same time, the generosity of social policies is impressive. If even half of extra state revenues received from oil exports over the past year had been saved for a rainy day, rather than spent on all kinds of populist moves and demands from pressure groups, this year there would be no foreign debt problem at all.

The other side of the Kremlin’s new mildness is that it’s lost the political initiative. Previously, Putin preferred to dictate the rules of the game; now he often has to follow someone else’s rules, and react to unexpected developments. For example: the creditor nations refusing to reschedule or write off Russia’s debts; the energy crisis in Primorye; the Pavel Borodin affair; the chill in relations with Lukashenko’s Belarus; and so on. Putin’s public statements are now mostly reminiscent of Gorbachev’s style. On almost any issue, the president will say: “Yes. But if take all factors into consideration, maybe no.” Or: “No, but if we weigh everything up, it may possibly be yes.” Moreover, Putin’s views are mostly conveyed to the public by other people, who talk to Putin and then give the media their interpretation of his views.

The economic climate over the past year – unusually favorable for Russia – also provided a chance for this relatively mild style of managment to flourish, while real action on serious issues stagnated. The opportunities for this have now been used up. However, the circumstances in the coming year are very likely to be different.