The progress of the reforms and the Russian political elite


The 10th anniversary of Russia’s state independence made the press sum up the results of Yeltsin’s rule and try and predict what we are to expect in the future.

“The past decade has been a time of incessant reforms,” the newspaper Vremya Novostei states. “Everything has changed: state structure and the rules of the game in business, foreign and economic policy. Political and economic instability has become Russia’s favorite style.” At the same time, there are few reasons to believe that the “time of reforms” has passed: “The number of problems facing the new authorities is equal to what it was ten years ago.” However, these problems are different from those which the administration had to solve a decade ago, though it cannot be denied that Russia’s second president has set about these issues no less resolutely than the first one did, in his time. The first two steps – tax and federative reforms – have already been defined. Politicians and society are trying to work out what will be done next. Vremya Novostei cites various Duma faction representatives in regards to the actions by the authorities. Anatoly Lukianov (CPRF) holds that the priorities are wrong: the two steps taken should not have been the first. “The president’s message defining his goals should have appeared first, so that we could judge whether these decisions are right or wrong.” Oleg Morozov (Regions of Russia) expressed himself in the same vein: “Radicalism of any kind is acceptable when it reflects not only resolution, but precision in defining and reaching the goal… Following the president’s first two steps, it would be good if in the near future – say, until fall – no third, fourth, or fifth steps were made. We need time to analyze these two.” Vyacheslav Volodin (Fatherland-Al Russia) also thinks that the steps taken are enough for the time being, and now much effort must be applied to implement them correctly: “As for the third step, it is likely to be taken next year. It will possibly concern reforming federal agencies.” Sergei Ivanenko (Yabloko) and Viktor Pokhmelkin (Union of Right Forces), on the contrary, are looking forward to continuing reforms. Pokhmelkin holds that land reform must be the third step, whereas Ivanenko expects “serious progress in the sphere of tax reform” by the end of the year. Franz Klintsevich of the Unity faction assesses possible developments very clearly, in a military manner: in his opinion, the principal task is to achieve implementation of the decisions made by all citizens of Russia, “regardless of their post, rank, or position.” This should be done by all possible means, “including those of force.” The newspaper is sure: no matter what steps Vladimir Putin may take, the main point is that “the elite sees the new president’s energetic activity as the only right path”.

The weekly Vek is not confident about the rapid success of the new reforms, and is afraid of possible threats to state stability. “To destroy the old state structure and to build a new one are two different things,” reasons Vek. “If there is a rift between the two, the consequences for the country’s integrity may be extremely negative.” As a result of the president’s rapid actions, as Vek observes, “united political teams have emerged in regions, which are ready to take issue with any presidential envoy for the sake of corporate interests.” Besides, drawn-out legal polishing of the proposed bills is inevitable. Hence the danger, in the weekly’s opinion, that “the old political system will be rapidly destroyed and it will take too long to build a new one,” which could lead to “administrative chaos” and loss of control over developments. This happened, for instance, in late Soviet times, after the notorious sixth article of the Constitution had been abolished, depriving the CPSU of a monopoly on state power. “The old Soviet state structure was dismantled and the new one was never created. As a result, the USSR broke up.” Russia has much fewer resources for the maintenance of internal stability than the USSR had, warns Vek.

“It is astonishing that each step taken by Vladimir Putin is accompanied by applause, no matter what he does”, the weekly Inostranets writes. “Although he has not done anything to get so excited about.” From the point of view of Inostranets, it is hard to say anything definite about the results of the new president’s economic policy. There is no clearly discernible progress either in fighting against corruption, or in the attempts to be “impartial” to oligarchs, “let alone political freedoms. Here we observe a certain decline.” Still, exultant cries are heard everywhere. In particular, this is the way governors react to Putin’s bill on federative restructuring, although their cries of welcome sound a bit artificial. This can be easily explained: “Putin is merely cutting them without using a knife. However, they approve his actions, permitting themselves only mild criticism.” The reason for such reserved behavior by regional leaders lies, in the opinion of the weekly, in the resolution with which the new president is tackling the matter. “The new Kremlin style of ‘wiping them out in latrines’ must have impressed the most ardent critics among governors. They are evidently afraid of Putin, with his KGB skills.” At the same time, Inostranets, along with many other periodicals, does not doubt that governors “know very well how to achieve their aims by means of behind-the-scenes schemes and lobbying.”

In the opinion of the magazine Kommersant-vlast, it is the law on the new order of forming the Federation Council, which deprives regional leaders of their federal status, that must be regarded as “pivotal to the president’s reforms.” If this law comes into effect, it will only take time to pass any other laws necessary for the presidential administration through the upper house of parliament. No wonder that this law drew resistance from governors – which was, as Leonid Radzikhovsky, observer of Segodnya, put it, “the first test of statesmanship for Putin”. Radzikhovsky is convinced that “a great force of anger” stands behind the “sluggish and cowardly” resistance of governors. “If Putin wants to know what his good vassals think of him, let him listen to how they speak of Kotenkov.” Even the reserved Yegor Stroyev, when asked to assess Kotenkov’s position, said through clenched teeth: “There are idiots in this world.” However, according to the information of Segodnya, on the day after the president’s meeting with senators, at which Kotenkov’s statements were “strictly assessed”, the latter was officially appointed presidential representative in the Duma.

Yuri Luzhkov, who was only recently out of favor with the Kremlin and who seems to have reached a certain accommodation with Putin lately, stated in an interview with Obshchaya Gazeta that “not all of what the president suggests is the ultimate truth.” First and foremost, Luzhkov was displeased with the bill on the new order of forming the Federation Council. The Moscow mayor considers the upper house to be “a useful element of the state system”, “a powerful filter for extremes” and “emotional decisions” often made by the Duma. Luzhkov is sure that the intention to deprive governors of the opportunity of representing their regions at the federal level is a mistake: “What other representative can be better aware of the situation in a region, of its needs, than the leader of that region?” The state needs a special agency engaged with the problems of the entire country. The newly created State Council, “a public consultative agency, something by way of a club for governors where entertaining meetings between heads of regions and the state authorities will be held from time to time,” will not be able to replace the Federation Council, since it is not a “federal agency”. Luzhkov also emphasized that he is a “supporter of strong state authority”, but he clearly sees the difference between a strong state and a state based on force, which is why he considers it to be his duty to express criticism about the proposed bills.

“In peacetime, it will not do to rule the country and society in accordance with wartime laws,” Georgy Satarov, a well-known political analyst, stated in an interview to the weekly Moskovskye Novosti. He stressed that for the first time over the past 80 years, “territorial formations which have substantial characteristics of statehood” have appeared in Russia. Such a system, in Satarov’s opinion, increases the threat of separatism. Besides, observation of democratic standards in society becomes problematic: “Each district is headed by a person who is independent from the residents of that district. The head of the territory is independent from citizens. The mechanism of his legitimacy is undemocratic.” Satarov critically assesses the president’s intention of granting the federal center the right to dismiss governors: “The rule according to which a governor can be suspended after legal proceedings have been instigated is absurd. The president assumes the functions of the judiciary. This is nothing but despotism.”

Still, as the newspaper Kommersant stated, in spite of the fact that none of the senators fully supported the president’s initiatives, the Federation Council did not dare to take radical measures. “Senators did not dare to come into conflict with the president,” remarked Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Vremya Novostei called the reaction of the Federation Council “a riot on their knees”. The amendments suggested by senators, in the opinion of the newspaper, cannot significantly change the law. However, as Vremya Novostei holds, neither of the sides is interested in an open conflict: “Putin, who has just set about building the structure of the executive branch, needs time to put it into operation; and open sabotage by governors could seriously hamper this. Governors also need time to make out the president’s innovations, build their relations with district envoys, and, finally, simply understand what a ‘federal district’ is all about.” The draft law, the newspaper holds, may be handed over to an agreement commission and be discussed by it until federal districts become real power and the issue of the governors’ rights disappears by itself. Another development is also possible, however: governors may manage to get the upper hand over new heads of districts. Still, as Vremya Novostei maintains, “Putin seemingly prefers to ignore the governors’ hysterics and the Duma will continue to pass laws restructuring Russia.”

Thus, the Federation Council turned out to be, as the weekly Novoye Vremya put it, “not only the most futile, but also the weakest link in the chain of the Russian parliamentary structure”. Some heads of regions are trying to lobby their interests in the Kremlin structures, others are looking for new jobs in the state service. The majority, however, “are patiently waiting for their turn to swear allegiance to their new masters – presidential envoys.” Senators, as Novoye Vremya pointed out, are not doing the most obvious thing: they are not appealing to their electorates – which, in fact, are the source of their power.

The behavior of regional governors becomes understandable after reading the results of the latest opinion poll done by the National Center for Study of Public Opinion, cited by Novoye Vremya. According to these data, “63% of Russians would be glad if Putin could fire governors and regional deputies if they appear to be too stubborn. Half of citizens would positively assess full control by the president over local authorities, whereas less than a third of respondents would feel negative about it.” The majority of regional leaders, Novoye Vremya writes, “have always lived apart from their people, in a political sense”. This is why governors, “when hard times began, appeared as 100% officials intriguing among Moscow and local bureaucrats, and not as politicians followed by masses.” It is natural that the public considers such issues as “the amount of rights granted to these officials and whether they are popularly elected or appointed by the center” to be far from its real interests.

Duma deputy Alexander Shokhin, a well-known politician, stated to the newspaper Vremya MN that the law on formation of the Federation Council will be successful – despite the governors’ resistance. First of all, heads of regions were granted “compensatory powers” linked with dismissing heads of local administrative agencies. Secondly, a great number of votes of Duma deputies cast in favor of this bill make it possible to assume that any veto by the Federation Council can be easily overridden. As for the president’s right to dismiss governors, it should be made more precise. Still, there is not much time for discussion: as we know, the president expects that these laws will be passed by June 8. Shokhin also stated that measures which might be undertaken within the framework of the Constitution, are, in fact, limited by three draft laws passed by the Duma in the first reading and the regulation on federal districts. “All other changes can be passed only through amending the Constitution.”

Many expected that the president would “rewrite” the Constitution as soon as the federal reforms were launched. It became clear that the Constitution will sooner or later become an obstacle to the implementation of such large-scale plans; and Putin, as Izvestia remarked on this score, “is not one of those who are used to retracing their steps”. The only question, in the opinion of Izvestia, is what exactly the president will plan: passing a new Consitution by the Consitutional Assembly, or lobbying for amendments to the current Constitution through the Duma, Federation Council, and regions.

As Izvestia reports, the Unity and People’s Deputy parties, which are close to the Kremlin, more often speak in favor of the first path; whereas the left-wing opposition and Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) support the second. Still, at the Duma meeting on June 8, Yevgeny Primakov, leader of the OVR, stated that it is necessary that a deputy commission be created to set about working out amendments to the Constitution. Primakov holds that because of changes in the order of formation and, consequently, of the status of the Federation Council, it is high time for “redistribution of powers of the Federation Council, as stipulated by the Consitution, to be discussed.”

In particular, under the new order, in Primakov’s opinion, the upper house of parliament cannot be trusted with such issues as declaring and ending war, use of armed forces outside Russia, declaring a state of emergency, and some others. Besides, as the OVR leader holds, if the State Council is created, this agency will not be of a purely consultative nature, which is why “it is necessary to clearly define its powers in the Constitution.” At the same time, Izvestia points out, a natural question arises: what will be the use of the Federation Council then? “If Primakov’s initiatives are implemented, the powers and real influence over politics by this body will be equal to none.”

Still, as the press points out, Primakov’s political influence is growing. Segodnya reported that according to “well-informed sources”, meetings between Putin and the OVR leader “are regular, which is kept secret by the Kremlin”. As the newspaper holds, Alexander Voloshin, head of the presidential administration, “is very jealous” because of the president’s attachment to Primakov.

The magazine Profile remarks that Voloshin is one of the people who did a great deal to make Putin president. “However, it is well known that gratitude is not a trump card in politics.” It’s true, the order on Voloshin’s re-appointment was prepared right after the inauguration, but Putin did not sign it at once: “The president must have tried to get rid of obtrusive patronizing by Yeltsin’s closest retinue.” Profile also mentions Primakov: according to the magazine’s information, the president met with Primakov with the intention of offering him leadership of the Security Council, while offering leadership of the presidential administration to Sergei Ivanov, incumbent secretary of the Security Council. Finally, Putin kept his promise to Yeltsin: Voloshin was re-appointed. However, the “Putin-Voloshin” collision continued, as Vek holds: “If the conflict intensifies, the president will either dismiss the head of his administration, or, no matter how paradoxical it may seem, the head of the administration will try to get rid of the president, if the latter begins to insist on his rules.” The magazine also maintains that acceptance of the president’s initiatives by the parliament is of special siginificance for Voloshin: the head of the admnistration “did not forget how the Federation Council had hampered his first significant commission in his current post – dismissal of General Prosecutor Skuratov. Voloshin will hardly miss the chance to get his revenge.” This can be done, however, only if Putin’s bills are passed. If not, “the head of the administration will note that the phenomenon of Putin as a conqueror of everything is nothing more than a television image.”

“The president’s dependence on Voloshin is not of a financial or political nature, but of a psychological nature,” the magazine Itogi states. After the election, the magazine remarks, the president found himself in a unique situation: he owes nothing to anyone. To all appearances, he has never had any reason to fear blackmail: no serious compromising materials surfaced during his election campaign. Putin was free, in fact: “Nothing could prevent him from changing the Kremlin team and appointing those officials whom he, and not the Family, liked. But nothing of the kind happened”. Voloshin, in the opinion of Itogi, managed to plant the idea in Putin’s head that he could suggest an original way out of any situation. “He created an image of an irreplacible official without whom the president would be totally lost.” It is clear that the president will hardly dare to dismiss such a useful adviser.

Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, states in an interview with Moskovsky Komsomolets that “the Putin-Voloshin tandem had emerged even before Putin was appointed acting president.” In the opinion of Pavlovsky, Putin’s political program, which can be reduced to the “creation of a compact state”, or, to be more exact, to the state’s retreat “from those spheres where it is not effective, which means destruction of business which exists in these spheres” is “incompatible with the interests of masters of the political market.” They will never let Putin carry out his innovations. From Pavlovsky’s point of view, “Putin’s current attack is a psychological attack without political support. Tomorrow will witness a counterattack.” This year will be the year of the president’s resolute actions, or “the year of the disintegration of Putin’s majority.”

The latest edition of Zavtra, the newspaper of the extreme nationalists, reported, citing “our sources in the oligarchs’ circles”, that in recent days “a secret dialogue between Berezovsky and Gusinsky began, on joint counteraction to Putin. This will concern the federal reforms, first and foremost…” So it can be understood why Pavlovsky refused to make a prediction for the months ahead: “Watch the game!” he said.