By Alexander Ageev Profil, No. 32, September 3, 2001, pp. 18-21

A radical liberal edition of the housing and utilities reforms might be proposed by an influential right-wing opposition force. The president, as defender of the people’s interests, would lead a tough battle with the opposition in favor of a milder version of the reforms.

Two years ago, a plain-looking newly-appointed Russian prime minister coined a phrase which some found funny, others irritating, and others really cool. Whatever the opinion, the phrase in question (“We’ll wipe out the Chechen guerrillas in their latrines”) stirred the still waters of the people’s weary indifference toward the government.

No doubt, this fiery boyish phrase, obviously not prepared in advance, would have remained in the nation’s memory as merely an amusing incident – but Putin’s sudden outburst of verbal toughness was followed by actual deeds. On the other hand, without this phrase – politically incorrect, but sincere – the quick retaliation against rebel Chechnya would have looked like a bloody and unfounded punitive operation by a strong state against a weak one, rather than holy vengeance for Russia’s humiliation.

In short, Putin’s phrase lent some drive to the Chechnya operation and increased the nation’s ardor.

Politicians and political analysts were still shrugging skeptically and predicting that Putin wouldn’t last long as prime minister, when the people – and, most importantly, the army – had already recognized the prime minister as one of them, as a real man with a strong character.

But strangely enough, this notorious phrase became the only hint at Putin’s charismatic potential. To all appearances, immediately after the prime minister uttered this sentence, the government’s professional imagemakers started building a “proper” image for him, and thought better of treading the dangerous charismatic path on which Boris Yeltsin had slipped. The logic was simple: if President Yeltsin’s popularity rating was below zero, then his complete antithesis would have the best chances of success.

If Yeltsin was flabby, sluggish, and awkward, then his successor should be wiry, quick, and maneuverable. If the first Russian president was inarticulate, then the successor should speak clearly and without a script. Since Yeltsin evidently drank too much and was generally not in his prime, the successor would inevitably be completely healthy and altogether ready, willing, and able. The latter point was even over-emphasized by Putin’s imagemakers: his widely publicized flight on a fighter jet and his submarine excursion made reasonable people start to doubt the successor’s maturity.

However, if we disregard Putin’s pranks in the early days of his rise to power, he was positioned as a model senior state official, with an obvious Western flavor. He was presented as a rational and pragmatic politician, capable of making decisions and monitoring their implementation. He was pictured by crafty imagemakers as democratic enough, but without being demonstrative about it; as mobile and open, but simultaneously restrained – a typical workaholic. In other words, Putin was meant to be a sort of top executive – a crisis manager appointed to save the company named Russia from sheer collapse – rather than a military chief or the father of the nation.

The new Russian president became a person to be proud of – the nation could boast of him to the international community, which is an achievement in its own right, regardless of his political course.

Meanwhile, the second Russian president was obviously biding his time about providing any clear-cut ideological definition of his own political course. He spoke (as part of protocol) about democracy and relevant reforms, while in real life the Presidential Administration ventured a number of specific populist moves (wage and pension increases, for instance) which appealed to the public. Putin also launched a program to restructure the organization of the state.

All these things combined ensured Putin’s steadily high popularity rating. The image of a pragmatic and efficient top executive took root and has been working well up to now, save for the obvious flop during the Kursk submarine disaster.

What did happen, exactly, in August 2000? The president did not sleep through the Kursk sinking due to a hangover, as certain media claimed. He merely acted in accordance with the logic of his image. That is to say, he treated the Kursk disaster as an emergency requiring a certain set of rational moves, not public penance. And this logic might have worked, if not for the media which framed the president in revenge for the government’s moves against Vladimir Gusinsky and NTV, because these moves were interpreted among Russian journalists as the Kremlin’s attempt to restrict freedom of speech itself.

The Russian media suddenly started treating the Kursk disaster as a national tragedy. They skillfully played on the spontaneous emotion of the masses, until the president took certain steps to rescue his reputation: he sanctioned the absurd operation to salvage the submarine crew’s bodies and made the senseless promise to raise the sub itself one year later.

After the spontaneous emotion died down, it became clear that the president’s – tailored by political consultants (or by Putin himself, which is truly of no importance in the case) was not a panacea – that in certain circumstances it might work against its bearer as well.

On the one hand, it is an open secret that high politics is a fairly rational business; the primary criterion in the assessment of any politician is whether that politician is effective. This rather liberal set of ideas came to Russia from developed nations, where a politician is actually perceived as a top manager hired by society for a certain period of time specified in the contract.

But we should not forget that this is the reality in the West, where all layers of society have been raised within the framework of a single political culture. In Russia, on the contrary, there is no political culture as yet. All Russian political parties (save for the Communist Part) are artificial formations and are still learning to represent the interests of various forces in parliament. As for the electorate, its development is even more lamentable. There are certainly some advanced social groups, but there are also others whose minds are hopelessly bogged down somewhere in the Stone Age. Such people divide politicians into good and bad masters, and have an especial hatred for pro-Western activists.

All we can do is admit the simple fact that progressive voters are few and far between, and often don’t come to the polls, whereas the other category of people is numerous and votes with its heart – or according to the orders of the nearest superior.

In these social groups, love and hate for political activists are not archaic at all – they are a powerful, dormant resource, not to be disregarded.

But let us return to the president. Until now he has been concerned with issues in which most Russian citizens have absolutely no interest. Building the new hierarchy of government; the fiscal, administrative, and legal reforms – all these measures have been viewed rather calmly, and even indifferently, by the public – against the backdrop of regular wage payments, pension rises, and an overall slight increase in living standards. So far, these reforms haven’t been considered as either merits or demerits for the president.

On the contrary, the planned housing and utilities reforms are sure to affect not so much the prosperous levels of society, as its lower layers, who are living on the poverty line as it is. These groups will certainly dislike the reforms.

Meanwhile, during his time as president Putin has created an entirely insecure political system in Russia. How was it in Tsarist Russia? There was the tsar, and the people loved him; but the tsar and the people were divided by the despised landowners and state officials, who were blamed for all the people’s misfortunes.

Even under President Yeltsin, the head of state and the citizenry were separated by numerous departments and services which played the role of lightning rods, such as the leftist parliament which impeded real reforms, regional leaders who tried to get as much power and wealth as they could, and, finally, financial tycoons who robbed the defenseless people and cheated the constantly-ailing president.

Putin heroically eradicated all this disgraceful sedition and can now enjoy an obedient parliament, complaisant regional leaders, and restrained tycoons who support him. But now the president has found himself eye-to-eye with the people.

There is nothing dangerous about such a rendezvous in a country with a stable situation and a prosperous citizenry. But when the people suddenly suffer considerable pain due to a presidential decree, such a meeting is fraught with conflict.

A “charismatic leader” of the Stalin type, adored or feared (or both) by the people, would easily find a way out of such a situation. He would either threaten the nation with stern measures, or say tenderly: Well, now, just wait for another decade or two, and your grandchildren will have stable central heating, I promise!

Naturally, all the loyal subjects would agree to wait – without any damage to the leader’s popularity.

But can we imagine President Putin in the role of such a leader? Only if our imagination runs wild, and even then the resulting scene will be out of synch.

Could it be possible to urgently tailor some new charisma for the president?

In theory, everything is possible. But the best time for that has most likely already passed, and the people will believe only in something totally unbelievable now. For instance, it is already clear that after his sacramental phrase about latrines, Putin will never become a military chief. And he will be right to abstain from this career: there are no victorious wars in sight, and it’s better to keep a distance from the drawn-out counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya. Maybe the president could turn into a tyrant and thrash corrupt officials at all levels? The people would certainly praise this move, but who would be left to work with after such a purge?

In fact, now that our president is so effective in the role of a top manager, he might try replacing charisma by a serious opposition. Not a left-wing opposition, mind you (we have already tried that option); but a right-wing opposition. In other words, the housing and utilities reforms, in the radical liberal edition, might be proposed by an influential right-wing opposition force; whereas the president, the true defender of the people’s interests, would lead a tough battle with the opposition in favor of a milder version of the reforms. In that case, the reforms would be implemented eventually, and the president’s approval rating would remain intact…