In the aftermath of the media’s discussion of Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly, the president himself came forward to provide an explanation. In his long interview with the newspaper “Izvestia”, Putin spoke, as “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” put it, “not only as a high-ranking official, but as an ordinary man who admits that his initiatives may be perceived from an emotional standpoint and not purely from the point of view of economics.” There seems to be a need for such an approach: it is a tradition in Russia to regard leaders’ speeches not only as purely informative reports, but as some kind of significant event, which determines the course of the political and social life.

This is why a statement by the weekly “Moskovskiye Novosti” is significant: “Putin said much to the Federal Assembly openly, but the rest was to be found to be ‘between the lines.’ In earlier times, the message ‘between the lines’ was, as a rule, much more important than the text itself, which had nothing to do with the true situation. Later, in post-Soviet times, people stopped taking Yeltsin’s speeches seriously: ‘Who could have seriously believed his promise to defeat corruption (1998) or his statement that there will be no favorites in the parliamentary election (1999)?’ Since then, the situation has changed radically: society, which still trusts the new president, strives to take his words seriously. Politicians and political analysts tend to take them seriously, as well.”

We must say that the first impression made by Putin’s speech was relatively strong. The magazine “Novoye Vremya”, for example, was shocked with the severity of Putin’s words: “During all these fifty minutes, he did not smile once. In comparison to the text of the address dispersed by information agencies beforehand, his speech was even more gloomy and dramatic.” As the magazine pointed out, Putin chose “the genre of harsh criticism and partial analysis of defaults.” Governors learned that the president, in spite of all problems concerning federal reform, still intends to deprive them of the right to sit in the Federation Council. Ordinary voters were told that the population is dying out and the limited amount of growth achieved in the economy was only the result of the situation on the international market and, moreover, it can be called “growth” only against the background of the recent catastrophe. The president’s supporters in the Duma did not receive a single word of praise, either. Moreover, having repeated one of his favorite ideas about the necessity of creating several strong parties, Putin sarcastically referred to some political alliances created from above which fade, once they find themselves in a competitive environment. “Possibly,” “Novoye Vremya” remarks, “the Duma ‘Bears’ (members of Unity – translator’s note) were told beforehand that these words do not pertain to them, but they were hardly pleased to hear such words in the presence of their colleagues.” The president was strict in his evaluation of the activity of the Russian media, whose economic inefficiency makes it totally dependent on financial sponsors, thus making it “a perfect tool for inter-clan fighting.”

However, Putin, as the magazine pointed out, laid a particular emphasis on the fact that the freedom of the press is guaranteed for everyone, except for those who use it to oppose the state. Judging by some signs, he was referring to Media Most. All this harsh criticism, from the point of view of the magazine, would have been justified if the president, when criticizing the elite and “liberal intellectuals,” had given ordinary voters even a feeble hope- “if only in his discussion of the gloomy past there had been at least a brief mention of bright prospects… But Putin was implacable to the end.” At the same time, in the opinion of the magazine, “ordinary people expect promises, explanations and instructions from the leader.” “Novoye Vremya”, quoting Charles de Gaulle’s favorite words: “I am a lonely man,” entitled the article devoted to Putin’ address to the Federal Assembly “Fifty Minutes of Solitude.”

“With whom does Putin intend to build a new Russia?” asks Alexander Gamov, a political observer for “Komsomolskaya Pravda”. In his opinion, the part of the address devoted to the “state” was the strongest section, but the building of a new state is a long and complicated process and it is indispensable to support society. A strong state can be created only with the help of democratic institutions. Gamov reproaches the Kremlin for having shut itself off from other democratic institutions, including the media. Thus, the president’s retinue ignores information about the interests and needs of society. “Komsomolskaya Pravda” quoted the words of President Nikolai Fyodorov of Chuvashia: “Putin sees the state as the president and the Kremlin alone.”

As Putin remarked in his interview with “Izvestia” in regards to criticism of his address: “It is traditional in Russia to scold the leadership, to fear it and expect nothing good from it. Our historical memory is full of fear.”

At the same time, Yuri Levada, director of the National Center for Study of Public Opinion, describing the results of the latest opinion polls in a supplement for “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, came to a conclusion that the incumbent authorities themselves have done much to revive Russia’s traditional phobias. At one time, Levada writes, many observers hoped that the power shift, which took place after Yeltsin left office, would produce political stability. However, these hopes did not come true: “scandals of various scales and directions began to erupt and disturb politicized groups of society almost every day.” The introduction of federal administrative districts, the whole package of the president’s initiatives in regards to the federal reform, scandals around Media Most, Norilsk Nickel and all cases of “illegal privatization, Babitsky’s case, warnings about preventive strikes on Afghanistan etc.” – all of those events took place, as Levada observed, as if according to one and the same script. Those events share “an unexpected character and a deliberate intention to astonish, and are characterized by a search for justification or even an alibi.” There seems to be no direct result, the director of the NCSPO remarks, but “there are situations when the ‘astonishment factor’ is more important than a concrete result.” Of course, there can be no question of stability and order in this case: “It seems to me that a notorious rule is being implemented: first the Russian authorities become involved in a situation and then they decide what may come of it and at what cost. This mode of behavior seems to characterize all recent initiatives.” Still, the poll results indicate that the general level of the population’s trust of Putin has changed little. During the presidential election, 69% of the population approved Putin’s actions and 61% of respondents do so now. On the other hand, many fears of citizens concerning the new president have been reassessed. If the amount of anxiety, which is aroused by the suspicion that Putin is closely linked to Yeltsin’s retinue (the Family), remains the same at around 55% of respondents, the anxiety arising from the absence of a precise political and economic program of the new leadership, has sharply increased – from 29 to 65%. The number of respondents who blame the president for the lack of progress in solving the Chechen problem has also increased – from 59 to 87%. Forty-five percent of respondents (as opposed to 39% in the period of the presidential election) fear that the country is under the threat of military dictatorship. Thus, the fears connected with Putin’s past remain on the same level, whereas those connected with the current situation in the country and the future of the state have notably increased. Levada’s conclusion is as follows: “The level of the population’s trust of Putin prior to the election is substantial enough to maintain his current political authority… At the same time, the concrete results of the actions of the state leadership have begun to prompt criticism.”

The relations between the president and the elite are no better. “Putin’s habit of acting hastily has led to an unexpected result. Every day, a queue of those wishing to receive personal explanations from the president becomes longer,” writes the newspaper “Vremya MN”. In this regard, neither the president’s address to the Federation Council, nor recent interviews, have changed anything.

“A war on several fronts” often mentioned by the press recently, a conflict in the parliament, fights with the oligarchs, the protracted Chechen conflict – all of this has put the president in a true predicament. Putin’s problem, in the opinion of the newspaper “Vremya MN”, is that he has practically no allies: “And this is a very dangerous problem.” The newspaper recalls numerous interviews given by Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin’s main ideologist, in which he stated that the president does not need support from the elite in a situation where he is still supported by tens of millions of voters: “And if some politicians and oligarchs defy the president, he can turn to this ally for help.”

As Mr. Levada writes in his analytical note cited above, “a rich person in a poor country always looks suspicious.” Pollsters warn: “under the influence of strong emotions, the public is prepared to believe accusations, without asking for evidence. And our society has been brought up in an atmosphere of distrust of any rich ‘property owner,’ to say nothing of an ‘oligarch.'” However, as “Vremya MN” explains, there is hardly anyone in Russia who wants a new revolution. There is the question of securing public support by means of holding a referendum: “But a referendum not simple and can be very dangerous.”

For all appearances, the possibility of cataclysms in the country has been discussed in the Kremlin lately. In any case, Dmitry Kozak, deputy head of the Presidential Administration, said the following in an interview to “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, answering questions about the possibility of unification between governors and oligarchs in a potential coup: “I think that the federal center possesses adequate political resources to confront such an alliance, if its actions contradict the center’s policies… I do not see serious reasons for fearing a coup.” Its curious that, on the one hand, Kozak holds that “the president has enough political resources and the trust of the electorate to avert anti-constitutional actions by whomever.” On the other hand, hopes are staked not on people’s trust alone, but on support from security agencies, as well: “A coup is impossible without armed force. And Putin, thanks to his consistent actions and attention to the Armed Forces, enjoys special support and the trust of the military electorate.”

As pollsters of the NCSPO maintain, the president’s regime faces two advantages at the moment. The first one, which was of special significance prior to the election, is “mass disappointment in the activity of the first president, a thirst for ‘order and hopes for an iron fist’.” The second one, which has increased in significance as the authority of the new president grows stronger, is “the support of security structures.” It is of interest that all this has prompted no resistance from society: “the majority are ready to accept the new order introduced by the new president and hope that this, at least, will not make matters worse.” Moreover, Putin’s past service in FSB was a cause of concern for only 23% of respondents prior to the election. This amount has not changed much. It now totals 26%. A supplement to “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” pointed out that “the perception of security agencies, as a source of punitive violence in the form of the KGB, as was the case under Stalin and Khrushchev, has died out almost completely.”

At the same time, in the opinion of the press, the crisis of the leadership is gaining momentum. The weekly “Vek” noted: “The unity between the president, and regional and political elites is diminishing. A search for an answer to the traditional question of ‘who is to blame?’ has begun.” Only recently, “Vek” recalled: “Many leaders of regional and political elites actively joined Unity and hurried to insert Putin’s photograph in the frame where Yeltsin’s photo had been. Now it is commonplace to state that Putin is an ordinary person who understands nothing about politics and economy. He is a protege of security services, which have filled the state machine.” The president’s fight with the “variegated coalition of regional leaders,” “Vek” holds, is inevitable and its outcome is unpredictable. The president’s opponents “bet on behind-the-scenes ploys and media techniques. Neither of them appeals to the people or tries to explain to them what the fight is for and how the chaos they are ushering in will improve the people’s lives.” This is the president’s duty, in the opinion of the weekly: “If the elite turns a deaf ear to him, he will have the right to appeal to his immediate electorate.”

However, the president’s opponents also refer to public opinion. Nikolai Fyodorov, president of Chuvashia, one of the main critics of the president’s legislative initiatives, stated in an interview to “Obshchaya Gazeta” that public support for the president’s policies is to a large extent explained by the loyalty of regional leaders to the Kremlin: “The president or the prime minister with a large entourage and guards make occasional sorties to regions and they get to see the real life of the country… They visit plants, factories, farms and schools everyday… Eventually, it is the regional leaders who implement the political programs worked out in Moscow. The level of public support for the federal government is directly correlated to the ability of federal leaders to successfully implement Moscow’s programs.” Fyodorov warns: “Today we serve as a shield covering Moscow, and we can choose another role for ourselves… Neither the political establishment, not the Russian society, should mislead themselves into thinking that regional leadership can be ignored.”

At the same time, in an article entitled “Ninety Families Which Rule Russia,” “Novaya Gazeta” argues that it is the “party of governors,” with all Russia’s resources concentrated in their hands, who are leading the country to disintegration. Governors initiated the process of isolating the regions politically and economically. They introduce regional legal codes, which are at odds with federal laws and insist on special privileges for their territories, “so that sometimes the country seems to have returned to the period of feudal division.” Even the situation in Chechnya, in the opinion of the newspaper, should be considered “an extreme example of the behavior of the elite” and the Chechnya war should be regarded as “a harbinger of Russia’s impending disintegration.” The newspaper agrees that Putin’s bills are of an emergency character, “but this character is required by the emergency situation that Russia has found itself in .” The choice, in the opinion of the newspaper, is simple: “Either the disintegration of Russia and 90 families of regional oligarchs, or a united Russia with a strengthened command chain.”

“One of the main mistakes, which the authorities can make in a poor country,” Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right Forces faction writes in the weekly “Moskovskye Novosti” “is to appeal to such low feelings as jealousy, hatred and revenge.” Of course, Russia is a poor country, fifty million of its people have incomes lower than subsistence. This is why the public reacts positively when the authorities dogmatically proclaim that all oligarchs belong in jail. Such statements create a feeling of solidarity between the leadership and the people. However, as Nemtsov has suggested, “we could very well lose all that we have achieved in recent years without gaining anything in exchange if we follow this path.” Besides, the leader of the Union of Right Forces is sure that the president has made mistakes trying to establish law and order in the political and economic systems under the slogan: “All power to the Kremlin!” It makes no sense to try to build a unitarian state in Russia: it is impossible to rule such a huge country from the center. This will inevitably result in the disintegration of the state. Apparently, Nemtsov remarks, Putin would like to think that he embodies the state: “But oligarchs, whose power has been bolstered by the Kremlin, are sure that it is they who embody the state. And they are not far from the truth.” All this, in Nemtsov’s opinion, is the result of the president’s failure to fulfill his campaign promise to eliminate collusion between the authorities and the oligarchs.

Recently, politician and oligarch Boris Berezovsky has once again become the most popular subject in the media. The press is actively discussing the motives for his decision to create a new information empire. The newspaper “Segodnya” is sure that Berezovsky’s holding is being created as an alternative to Media Most. “Evidently,” the newspaper writes, “the state, Shabdurasulov and Berezovsky intend to make the new holding play the role of a ‘loyal opposition.’ If this guess is right, the principal task of the new holding, the newspaper suggests, is to fulfil representative functions on the world arena: “if there are opposition media in Russia, then there must be freedom of speech.”

“Moskovsky Komsomolets” also believes that the holding will play the role of an opposition to the Kremlin but, unlike “Segodnya”, the newspaper suggests that Berezovsky has decided to seriously attack the Kremlin: “His open criticism of the president’s administrative reform and his support for governors is an act of despair.” In the opinion of “Moskovsky Komsomolets”, Berezovsky is worried about his expulsion from the Kremlin: “He feels that he is being quietly pushed out of the president’s close retinue.” In other words, the Kremlin does not need Berezovsky any longer and he fears for the safety of his “privatized super-property.”

Berezovsky’s decision to resign was also interpreted in various ways. As “Segodnya” witnessed, the reasons cited by the deputy from Karachaevo-Cherkessia himself (“I do not want to participate in Russia’s disintegration and the establishment of the authoritarian regime in it”) do not arouse much trust. Duma deputies have noted that “Berezovsky is trying to project the image of a person who has principal disagreements with the current authorities.” “Segodnya” believes that this is not a bad move: “An image of a consistent opponent of the leadership is, naturally, preferable in comparison to the image of an outcast.” There is hope, the newspaper writes, that the West, with all its dislike for the “Family” oligarch, will hardly surrender the political immigrant to law enforcement agencies: “All the more so since Berezovsky’s critique of the current political program coincides with the critique of Putin’s policies by the independent media in Russia and abroad.”

“Vremya MN” presumes that Berezovsky learned a lesson in the aftermath of the Gusinsky scandal: a controlled media empire is a much better defense from possible prosecution than deputy immunity, all the more so since Berezovsky himself holds that “any deputy in this country can be put in jail and no amount of immunity will save him.” The newspaper agrees that Berezovsky’s position in Putin’s times is different from that in Yeltsin’s epoch: “Despite the image of the ‘omnipotent devil’ created in Yeltsin’s times, Berezovsky could not put himself on the same level with the Kremlin master. Now the situation has changed. Berezovsky thinks himself responsible for the creation of the ‘Putin phenomenon’ and hence is convinced that the head of state must listen to the opinion of the person who led him to power.”

The newspaper “Vedomosti” presents a selection of expert opinions in regards to Berezovsky’s recent actions. Andrei Ryabov, an expert for the Carnegie Endowment, doubts that the oligarch seriously intends to leave the Duma: “Berezovsky is a man who always fights to the end. It is hard to imagine him quitting the game at the moment of climax.” Yuri Krasnov, deputy head of the Duma analytical department, holds that the oligarch is simply experiencing a nervous breakdown: “There must be some hidden conflict, which compelled him to make such a statement. I think, that he will soon calm down and will not put his plans into practice. It is a way of pressure.” Igor Bunin, director of the Center of Political Technologies, has a different theory. In his opinion, Berezovsky is playing a double game: “Let us assume that he has come to terms with the regime about forging a constructive opposition. He will try to unite the governors and oligarchs around himself and at the same time make sure that this opposition remains within reasonable limits. In this case, what he is doing now is logical.” On the other hand, Bunin does not rule out the possibility of an emotional breakdown.

“Nezavisimaya Gazeta” has to some extent confirmed the possible interest of the Kremlin in Berezovsky’s recent actions. Reasoning about the possibility of the creation of a new media holding, at the center of which will be Russian Public Television (ORT), the controlling interest of which is held by the state, “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” presumes that the results of negotiations with the possible participants of the holding will illustrate the political goals of the rebel oligarch: “If the leadership is calm, then Berezovsky’s ‘opposition’ is nothing but part of the political scheme recently implemented by the Kremlin.” To cut it short – so many newspapers, so many minds.

Anna Fedotova