Plots and Characters of the Week: Clinton, Putin, Berezovsky


President Clinton’s visit to Moscow appeared as a kind of indicator of the changes which have taken place in Russia. As the newspaper Segodnya noted, “Clinton found himself in a country completely different from the country he had once discovered for himself and for the West”. Everything has changed: instead of “friend Boris”, there is the enigmatic “Mr.Putin” – who, while continuing the Chechnya war and nuclear cooperation with Iran, at the same time makes statements “about the possibility of joining NATO, and suggests building a nuclear shield which in fact would be directed against Russia’s strategic partners.” Instead of the “red” Duma, there is a parliament loyal to the Kremlin (while remaining, however, traditionally opposed to the US president). Instead of political opposition (during his previous visits Clinton spoke with representatives from across the political spectrum, from Gaidar and Yavlinsky to Glaziev and Zyuganov) there is only the defiant Boris Berezovsky. As the newspaper pointed out, the only traces of the past are “McDonald’s and the same economic problems which Moscow now intends to solve without US help. This is why Moscow believes that it is speaking with Washington as an equal.” The article in Segodnya is written in a romantic tone, and is entitled “The Russia which Clinton lost”.

Vremya Novostei points out: “The coverage of the American president’s sojourn in Moscow has never been so apolitical”; which, in the opinion of the newspaper, can be explained by the opposing standpoints of the two leaders. “For Putin, Clinton’s visit is a premiere, the first meeting with his American counterpart on equal terms. For Clinton it is a swan song, the last visit to the capital of the country relations with which constituted the nucleus of his foreign policy.” At the same time, the concept of “strategic partnership created under Yeltsin”, in the words of the newspaper, “has expired”. “What the new framework of bilateral relations will be is known neither to Moscow, nor to Washington.”

The prospects of Clinton’s possible successor, Al Gore, for winning the presidential election are problematic, Izvestia writes. The coming to power of Republican George W. Bush “does not promise anything good for Moscow” – the continuity of policy toward Russia may be broken. “The respectful and concerned participation in Russia’s affairs by the Clinton administration may be replaced by a demanding and overbearing style of communicating from a Bush administration.” No matter how much “the lame duck Clinton might love Russia and sympathize with its problems… he will be unable to do anything extraordinary for Russia during this visit.” The article is entitled “The Lame Duck Came as a Friend.”

The newspaper Vedomosti is much more skeptical about the US president’s visit. Here are two headlines from one issue: “Unnecessary Meeting” and “Unnecessary Visit”. In the opinion of this newspaper, Clinton has set himself purely pragmatic objectives: he visited Russia “mostly in order to help his Democratic Party colleague, Al Gore, defeat the Republican candidate in the upcoming election.” From this standpoint, it is the fact of the visit itself which really matters. There can be no question of any significant results for Putin. However, as the pragmatic Vedomosti writes, “since Clinton has nothing to lose, there is a possibility of frank private talks, including about how Putin should relate to the next US president.”

Vedomosti is much sharper in another article: “The Russian-American dialogue has reached a deadlock: as our authorities became ready for key economic decisions, Americans had hardly recovered from deep disappointment over Russia’s ‘reforms’.” The author of the article – Mikhail Leontiev, a well-known columnist – assumes that economic issues are not very important for the US in its relations with Russia. It makes no sense for Russia to raise issues with which it is really concerned – debt rescheduling, investments, and access to markets. “Actually, it was no use meeting with Clinton at all.” Nevertheless, Russia “politely lets its American friends fill the gap with topical political garbage about the inevitably bright prospects of our relations,” concludes Leontiev.

The media also paid much attention to the informal aspect of the summit. In the opinion of Segodnya, the meeting of the two presidents can be regarded as another “presentation” of Putin. Despite a relatively successful visit by Tony Blair to Moscow, Clinton, as the newspaper holds, “may well foil Putin’s attempt to make friends with Britain, for instance by stating: Mr Blair, this is not the person you thought him to be.” In the opinion of the newspaper, the popular comparison between Putin and Gorbachev – who was once introduced to international politics by Margaret Thatcher – does not stand up to criticism. “Gorbachev’s success on the world stage did not depend on the Iron Lady’s recommendations, but on a whole range of sensational initiatives”; let alone the fact that Gorbachev had his own team – for example, Eduard Shevardnadze worked with him on foreign policy. “Putin has no such aides – in fact, he has to use the services of Primakov’s Foreign Ministry, which is much better at confronting the West than at building bridges.”

At the same time, Putin has no rivals within Russia. In the opinion of the newspaper Vremya MN, he has a fine grasp of the “public politician’s style”. “The image of a tough, unsmiling prime minister is gradually sinking into the past and is being replaced by the new image of a president who can not only correctly assess the situation, but act accordingly.” Putin has repeatedly demonstrated this new skill in regional tours, provoking constant comparisons with his predecessor. For instance, the “early Yeltsin”, the newspaper remarks, never forgot to praise the beauty of local women during his tours of the regions. Putin has taken a more individual approach: when during the anniversary of Fyodor Volkov’s Theater in Yaroslavl one of young actresses kissed Putin on the cheek, he “pretended to wipe the kiss off his face and put it in his breast pocket.”

The newspaper points out direct borrowings from the “early Yeltsin”: if at the beginning Putin was a little afraid of “pressing the flesh”, now he, like Russia’s first president, has grown to like it; “causing much anxiety among his bodyguards by his unplanned sorties.” Putin has learned everything: “to raise crying women from their knees and put defiant officials in their place”. To cut it short, the president is now much better at playing his part in the atmosphere of “mass, if not nationwide, adoration”.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta published the results of the latest opinion poll done by the National Center for Study of Public Opinion: the majority of respondents still approve of the actions of the executive branch. Fifty-one percent hold that “it would do Russia much good” to concentrate control over parliaments and governors in the hands of the president. And 63% of respondents are positive about the idea of granting Putin the right to dismiss heads of regions. Moreover, 48% of respondents approved the idea of creating seven federal districts. It is interesting that 31% of respondents had no opinion about the composition of the Federation Council; but 13% supported Putin’s idea, and 28% supported Yelena Mizulina’s proposal to elect members of the upper house by direct voting, while 15% consider it possible to abolish the Federation Council.

The weekly Moskovskie Novosti maintains that Putin’s “trump card of nationwide support” is not permanent: “People who voted for the incumbent president want order, but do not associate it with administrative reforms.” At the same time, public support is proclaimed to be an indispensable condition for carrying out reforms: according to the information of Moskovskie Novosti, at the recent constitutive congress of the Unity movement, leader Sergei Shoigu quoted Confucius: “There must be enough weapons, food and trust in the ruler in a well-ruled state. Both weapons and food can be dispensed with. The main point is the people’s trust.” The weekly remarks that the experience of China must be favored by Unity to the same extent as it was by the Communists during the last years of the CPSU.

However, in spite of all Unity’s efforts to be useful for Putin, he, as Moskovskie Novosti puts it, only allowed Unity to consider itself the party of power. “The Kremlin administration believes that this is more than enough. Putin does not need this burden now: he has a great deal to do.”

Obshchaya Gazeta states that there was a change of direction at the Unity congress: if previously its members had claimed the role of the party of power, this time they only stated their intention of becoming a “loyal and unobtrusive support for the executive.” They were even praised by the president for their “modesty of intentions”.

Such caution in expression, as Obshchaya Gazeta holds, can be easily explained: by proclaiming itself a party of power, Unity would be forced to take on at least moral responsibility for what is happening in Russia, “including the president’s actions” – which, in the light of Putin’s reforms, does not correspond to Unity’s plans.

On the other hand, Putin “does not need anything from his companions, except for “unobtrusive support”. Obshchaya Gazeta holds that the president’s disinclination “to attend party meetings, report about work accomplished, ask for permission from the Central Committee to dismiss the government, listen to criticism” can be easily understood. “Why should he take on such difficulties?” Such a position, the newspaper notes, means that Russia has a long way to go toward a normal party system, “because there cannot be a normal party system with opposing parties, but without a party of power.”

At the same time, Novaya Gazeta regards the Unity congress as a proof of successful construction of a two-party system. In the opinion of the newspaper, this was a typical “convention of victors.” “Unification is gathering pace after the victory” – which was illustrated by Our Home Is Russia, All Russia, the Party of Russian Unity and Agreement, and others which merged with the new party of power.

“The right wing has been practically put into the right framework,” states Novaya Gazeta. “The only thing left is to bring the opposition into conformity.” It is important to note that the formation of a “new nationwide left-centrist movement” is underway. There is a name – “Russia”, there is a leader – Gennady Seleznev. Most often the emergence of the “new left” is explained by dissatisfaction of some Communists with the activity of Gennady Zyuganov and the election results. The organizers of the “left center” define their intentions in the following way: “We need a worldwide coalition of citizens and organizations of left-wing democratic orientation who do not deny the possibility of constructive interaction with the authorities.”

From the point of view of the newspaper, this idea accounts for the emergence of the new political movement. According to “reliable sources” of Novaya Gazeta, “it is the Kremlin which has intitiated the formation of “Russia” and has earmarked more than $30 million for this purpose.”

The weekly Argumenti i Fakti also expressed interest in the Kremlin’s spending. This time the cost of the federal reform was analyzed. According to the weekly’s estimate, administrative staffs of 300-400 people will be formed in each of the seven new federal districts. Of course, all of them will require wages, transport, apartments, health care services, etc. If we add in “thousands of square meters of office space”, we will get a sum of about $600 million. If we then add to this sum approximately $160 million needed for reorganization of work of the government, Argumenti i Fakti writes, it will be clear how much the recent administrative innovations will cost ordinary taxpayers.

The newspaper Vedomosti expresses doubt about the success of Putin’s reforms, since they were started, so to speak, from the wrong end. At one time, the newspaper remarks, “the idea of putting a human face on socialism was hampered by the Soviet Union’s last ruler’s misunderstanding that economic reforms are above political ones.” Now, Vedomosti maintains, there is a threat of repeating the same mistake. “The state structure can be gradually brought into conformity with the economy, which is effective on the nationwide scale. On the contrary, it is next to impossible to bring the economy into conformity with a new state structure without violence – which is very dangerous in Russia.”

Komsomolskaya Pravda agrees that reforms should start with the economy, but explains that this path is not suitable for Russia, since it is too poor. To restore the economy, which has for several decades produced “the wrong things in the wrong way”, money is needed, first and foremost. In Yasin’s estimate, $1.5-2 trillion is needed, as a minimum, whereas the whole of the federal budget totals no more than $30 billion. This means that to effectively start economic reforms no less than 50 budgets are required. This is absolutely impossible. This is why, Komsomolskaya Pravda explains, we are facing so-called liberal reforms in the social, tax, and other spheres. This is a standard assortment, the specifics of Russia will only affect “the people’s readiness to sacrifice for the sake of progress” and the speed of the progress. “The higher the speed – the more sacrifice is required. Putin demands high speed, which means that we are in for some pain.” The article is entitled: “What Will Putin Do With Us?”

This question is not only of concern to the readers of Komsomolskaya Pravda. “The command chain in itself is not the objective,” reasons Literaturnaya Gazeta. “Now the public wants to know what economic, political, and social projects will be implemented thereby.” For instance, as Literaturnaya Gazeta hints, Putin might say that this chain of command is needed for (e.g.) doing away with organized crime. “In any case, the president must declare his intentions right now, without delay.” Intellectual circles breed a lot of purely philosophical questions, Literaturnaya Gazeta writes. “Why does Putin easily succeed where others – for example, Yeltsin – failed? Why is he so good at reining in regional leaders? And the main question – why do these leaders so easily part with their privileges?” Once again it was proved that Russian politicians are eager to “submit, to faithfully serve a master rather than fight for freedom.” Literaturnaya Gazeta notes sadly: “We are parting with our liberties faster than with slavery.”

The primary reason for all that, in the opinion of the newspaper, is that rights and liberties in Russia were not won, but received “for free”. Democracy “imposed from above” does not create a civil society; just like “crash privatization programs, in which people suddenly become millionaires, do not create true and stable private property.” It would be no wonder, Literaturnaya Gazeta continues, if Putin, having found after the failure of another complex of liberal reforms that there is no money to restoration the chain of command, “began to confiscate the fortunes which were presented on a plate or stolen.” The newspaper considers such a development possible, since the “private property of ‘new Russians’ is not protected by public opinion.”

The magazine Profile does not doubt that “the rule of the second president will be extremely tough”. This is what new Russian property owners expected when they led Putin to power. “Having acquired as much as possible during Yeltsin’s ten-year reign, they are interested in preserving it”. These are the terms on which Putin was given the “banner of order.” However, being an independent and cunning person, the new president will not resign himself for long to the role of servant to the oligarchs, and will start fighting for “political self-determination”. Of course, he should not expect an easy victory. Putin will encounter strong resistance in his “game against the masters of life.” The result of the battle is unknown; all the more so, as the magazine puts it, since the recent election campaign confirmed that “the electorate can be easily convinced to make a president of anyone at all.”

“The president is slowly and carefully groping his way to an independent political role,” the weekly Vek writes. Resistance to his actions is correspondingly increasing. Vek lists the obvious pretexts for organization of an “informal anti-presidential coalition”: the Chechnya war, first and foremost, which now frightens even Putin’s moderate supporters. Then there is the activity of “oligarch-controlled media,” which are stimulating a “wave of popular unrest”; and, finally, rebel governors.

In the opinion of Vek, governors realize the importance of building a functional chain of command perfectly well, but this does not soothe their thirst for “guarantees and compensations.” At the same time, Vek does not recommend underestimating the capabilities of the new president; who, “in spite of having jumped from the state machine into big-time politics”, remains “the most acknowledged, if not most respected, politician in Russia.”

At the same time, oligarchs have various and sometimes unexpected resources, the use of which cannot be always adequately commented upon by the media. In particular, the notorious open letter of Boris Berezovsky to Putin caused a storm of explanations for the underlying motives of this move.

All media based their explanations on a postulate clearly formulated by the newspaper Segodnya: “Berezovsky never does anything on impulse.” In the opinion of this newspaper, the oligarch sensed a certain danger: “Strengthened pressure over some lawsuits, the talkativeness of Swiss prosecutors, and recent audits in the AutoVAZ company could not but make Berezovsky anxious.” On the other hand, the oligarch knows that he is not alone: “There are opponents to the administrative reforms in Putin’s retinue, and Berezovsky is expressing their position.”

At first, the newspaper Vedomosti supposed that Berezovsky was acting on behalf of governors opposing Putin; but then it published a more intricate theory. It is well known that Berezovsky is no public politician, and the fact that the “power behind the throne” has unexpectedly made a public move should be regarded as a weakening of his position. According to the information of this newspaper, Berezovsky is currently participating in two battles: a conflict concerning Soyuzplodimport (owner of almost all popular brands of Russian vodka) which is rumored to belong to Berezovsky; and a plot to amend the charter of Gazprom. The purpose of the latter is to remove Rem Vyakhirev from his current post as head of the company. If Berezovsky wins in both cases, Vedomosti explains, his success may be attributed to the president’s support. “If everybody starts saying that Putin owes Berezovsky and has to pay his debts, Putin could get very angry.” This is why, as Vedomosti states, Berezovsky decided to play a PR trick to his own detriment in order to avoid the president’s wrath.

Vitaly Tretyakov, editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, expressed an opinion that Berezovsky has justly pointed out to Putin “numerous faults in the plan of administrative reforms suggested by the president”; which is why it is unimportant whether this was done for democratic or selfish reasons.

Gleb Pavlovsky, another connoisseur of moods in the corridors of power, writes about a disagreement between “Berezovsky’s party of power” and “Putin’s public movement.” Today, Pavlovsky writes, Putin is “the leader of a mass movement for restoration of the state”, but he lacks organizational support, his political strength lies exclusively in his personal popularity. This means that “if Putin’s popularity collapses, his democratic movement may also disappear.”

Moskovsky Komsomolets put forward its own theory: Berezovsky is helping Putin create the necessary image of a “fighter against oligarchs” (although, as MK remarks, judging by the president’s current retinue, he is a long way from really fighting them). The overall plan is as follows: the media announces the start of a war on “wild capitalist sharks.” “Putin gains points, Berezovsky is again at the center of public attention, and everything ends in useless talk…”

It is clear, however, that, as Izvestia wrote, strengthening the chain of command will be to the detriment of the “man who created the new president”: it will reduce his opportunities for political manipulation. This is why Berezovsky remarked in his letter that “it is impossible to change the rules of the game after it has begun.” However, as Izvestia writes, Putin “holds that it is his own game – not Berezovsky’s”.