Themes and topics of the week: the results of Yeltsin’s rule and the prospects of Putin’s reforms


In answer to a question from the Vremya Novostei newspaper about the current situation in Russia, Boris Strugatsky, a well-known Russian novelist, said: “Well, I think the situation has become a bit more serene. People feel a certain stability… I think it is hardly likely that Russia will turn back. As a consequence, it is not interesting to read newspapers any more.”

The majority of observers seem to have experienced “a shift in fate”. Some of them speak of this directly saying that tomorrow will differ from yesterday. Others tried to analyze the current situation and its influence on the future. As usual there were a lot of causes for such attempts.

Last week we marked the seventh anniversary of the 1993 October revolution as a result of which a new government system appeared in Russia: a presidential republic. The newspaper Vremya MN describes these events as follows: “As a result of the August putsch the control over Russia was inherited by a crowd of deputies who were not ready to support Yeltsin’s power. They elected him their president, gave him almost unlimited rights but later decided to turn him into a scapegoat for not always successful results of radical reforms. But they lost.” In October 1993 the president became an absolute governor. At the same time during past years no one has ever called in question the democratic principles of the Russian life. But this happened due to the specifics of Yeltsin’s character “who used to allow other branches of power to act independently.” The press was absolutely free. It ventured to reproach the president using the most favorite slogan of the radical opposition: “Yeltsin’s gang to prison!”. This lasted until the president announced his retirement.

Currently the situation is quite different Vremya MN. When Vladimir Putin became a legitimate president he began to screw nuts tight and reform the state machine.

The newspaper notes: “It seems as if Putin tried to convince everyone that a person must play a more important role in modern history than it is provided by Yeltsin’s Constitution.” If society agrees to this statement the alteration of the main law will become inevitable.

The 1993 revolution has not gone beyond the Sadovoye Koltso. Obshaya Gazeta states: “After its promising and brilliant beginning the 1991 liberal revolution was fading away very quickly leaving the feeling of emptiness and disappointment.” The 1993 revolution has not gone beyond the Sadovoye Koltso at all. Nevertheless the newspaper states that one can be sure that dictatorship is out of the question in Russia: “Any casuistry of presidential bills cannot call dictatorship into being if there are no conditions for it.”

There are no such conditions in Russia. According to Obshaya Gazeta this concerns not only social but also demographic conditions: “Dictatorship requires the involvement of the youth… because exactly the youth are the main driving force of all revolutions.” All revolutionaries (from French Jacobeans to Lenin’s Red Guard) were very young, energetic, hard-edged, “impatient and intolerant”… When revolutionary movements were changed by dictatorship it “used to inherit the same habit to solve all problems using violence.”

But in Russia by the beginning of 1990s the youth were not a considerable part of society. “In such circumstances neither revolutions nor dictatorships ever happened!” Russian society, which was considerably old and consequently inert and slow-moving reacted to the inflammatory appeals of radical-democrats rather limply. Subsequently those who acted out of ideological considerations were replaced by selfish people, and the notion of liberal reforms was compromised.

Obshaya Gazeta informs that in any other country the power would be swept away by a revolution “after so many years of predatory activities”, but in Russia, which was robbed of vitality by a demographic crisis “there were not enough young and sound forces to do this.” The youth in the epoch of changes was apolitical and “pepsy-choosing”.

The newspaper Vremya MN publishes the latest research of the National Center for the Study of Public Opinion: 46% of respondents said that they are not satisfied with their living standards (in Moscow the number of such respondents was 39%). At the same time 52% of Russians and 58% of Muscovites are sure that in the near future their lives will not improve.

Commenting on these data the newspaper cites sociologists who state that the transformation of society (in other words its successful reformation) is possible only if Russia has “a distinct mobilization ideology” like in the post-war Germany which was united by the idea of anti-fascism and democracy. Russia does not have such an ideology yet. “Due to unknown reasons an opinion has appeared that each human being must be responsible for his destiny. But we are a different Europe, this is not our nature… our mass psychology gives birth to the idea of cooperation, mutual aid and social justice.”

According to sociologists exactly this idea can become the basis of Russia’s new ideology which might appear with the rise of new generation.

The newspaper’s views on this subject are rather optimistic: “Judging by a few expert polls the youth in large cities are pro-West, provinces are more traditional, but in general the youth are more democratic and liberal than older generations… Their system of values is different.”

At the same time sociologists state that in general society is biding its time: “People await that words will be confirmed by activities”.

The magazine Kommersant-Vlast thinks that one of the main problems of the post-Soviet reforms is “a very high starting level of the social well-being and an oversaid level of expectations.”

Judging by opinion polls a major part of those receiving less than a living wage continue considering themselves “the middle class”. “New poor” drive used cars, wear decent clothes and use Japanese video tape recorders, but save on food. They are used to being respected members of society and refuse to consider themselves the lower social strata: “They continue to turn a blind eye to their distress and expect that everything will settle, plants will start working and their wages will be raised.”

Judging by the basic data these “new poor” must not be poor because they have everything for success in life: qualification and forces. Nevertheless they live for $2 a day. “This is the main paradox of the period of transition which has proved to be a surprise for Western experts.”

According to the magazine, currently a lot of sociologists speak of the restoration of “the culture of poverty” in Russia: it’s a certain sum of social skills and economic methods which make it possible to survive “on the verge”. This culture died away not long ago, in 1970s “as a result of a stable economic rise, house-building and leveling income policy.” “The culture of poverty” which was created during first decades of the Soviet regime and the post-war period cover all sides of life: from family life (people don’t throw anything out) to various “primitive forms of self-employment”. The latter concerns jobbery, different services such as repair, carrier’s trade and etc. The development of the informal sector of the economy explains, according to Kommersant-Vlast a relative social stability of the situation in large cities and even in depressed regions. despite the lack of vacancies people’s incomes increase, they buy new cars and build new houses. But on the other hand the magazine states that the traditional desire to feign poverty influences the results of opinion polls. “For instance according to the Friedrich Ebert Foundation only every eighth respondent whose income is higher than $4,000 per month considers himself a well-to-do person.”

Mikhail Leontyev, a well-known publicist has published in the newspaper of the left opposition Zavtra an article in which he states that “the post-reform decade was the period of degradation.” According to Leontyev everything that has happened to Russia in early 1990s “was not a revolution but a catastrophe”. This catastrophe was considered by society a certain fancy-dress ball. “Nothing could be done until society understood what it is and found itself on the edge”.

The newspaper Versty publishes an interview with Roi Medvedev who noted a lot of new traits in Putin’s image, “most of them are positive”.

According to Medvedev, Putin is “a patriot and an independent political leader.” Left voters support him exactly because of these qualities. Thanks to the fact that Putin’s economic program is “rather liberal” he has enlisted the support of the right.

When asked if Putin uses his professional skills which he learned in secret services Poi Medvedev reacted negatively. He thinks that it is inadmissible to think that “Putin is just a an ingenious recruiter”. Roi Medvedev states that Putin can find common language with Anatoly Chubais and even Solzhenitsyn. “The latter cannot be blamed for primitivism.” From the point of view of the well-known democrat “Putin cannot be described by usual political terms because he is adequate to the country which he rules. I would call him an architect who tries to collect fragments of the once great Russia.” the interview with Roi Medvedev was headed “An Architect-Recruiter”.

Solzhenitsyn’s comment on his meeting with Vladimir Putin has caused indignation from Valeria Ilyinichna Novodvorskaya – a well-known politician, “dissident with a 30 year record”, “thrice convicted under clause 70 of the Crime code” – who appealed to the patriarch of Russian literature with an open letter.

Novodvorskaya is cited as saying Vechernaya Moskva: “You are on the verge of losing your good name, dignity and image of fighter against totalitarianism. My duty is to warn you.” She castigates the classicist for recreancy and political blindness: “What are you doing, Alexander Isaevich? Since you return you have not fought Communism… In addition you stoop to meeting with Vladimir Putin, an ordinary officer of the KGB. Have you forgotten everything?”

Commenting on this faultfinding a pride of the Russian literature, observer of the newspaper Izvestia Maxim Sokolov mocks: “This meeting might be evaded using different pretexts: servant might say that the landlord is not home or drive the guest away. But Novodvorskaya has reproached Solzhenitsyn of not using the procedure described in Archipelago: he did not meet Putin with a axe in his hand.” Maxim Sokolov headed this part of his Saturday newspaper satire “New aspects in the protocol of meetings with the president of the Russian Federation”. he noted that talks which begin with “My duty is to warn you” were a usual thing in every Party committee.

Judging by these publications not everyone shares Strugatsky’s opinion that it is not interesting to read newspapers (even if the matter concerns the interior socio-political themes).

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a representative of a new generation of politicians different from Novodvorskaya and Roi Medvedev whose interview was published in the weekly Vek thinks that Vladimir Putin “is in the fortune’s good book, wind is blowing in his sail and he drives the ship of his presidency without losses.”

Putin’s support rating is unbelievable (judging to all opinion polls his rating is 65%). Society approves of everything he is doing. Ryzhkov emphasizes that the incumbent president does not have opposition. The most interesting thing is “how he will use this treasure”.

Ryzhkov calls Putin’s rating “a rating of hope and advances”. It is not so easy to justify these hopes: “Firstly, Chechnya… Secondly, the tragedy with “Kursk” which testifies that the problems of the Army and the industrial infrastructure have become too loud. Thirdly, Russia does not enjoy confidence of the world community which is biding its time: there are no investments.”

In addition the power has come into conflict with civil society: “The Center fights everyone: the media, business, regions, local government…”

Ryzhkov considers this situation very dangerous: “I don’t like our elite as well. I consider it cynical, mercenary-minded and corrupt… But we have to put up with its existence. If Putin wants to change it it’s a wrong task.” The defeat which Vladimir Putin can suffer as a result of this conflict will be vexing because his presidency began under favorable interior economic circumstances that are connected with high oil prices as a result of which hard currency reserves have increased, the inflation has decreased and the rubles has become stable.

The euphoria of the power which is caused by a relative economic stability is dangerous for the future of Russia. This statement was made by Yegor Gaidar, Director of the Institute for the Economy of the Period of Transition and a member of Union of Right Forces, in an interview with the magazine Kompaniya.

According to Gaidar, the current economic situation in Russia resembles the situation in the USSR in 1970s: “We disentangled the consequences of that policy for years.” According to the well-known economist the government does not understand that Russia’s life depends on the situation on the oil market: “No one can guarantee that oil price will not fall lower than $20 for a barrel. That is why the government must be exceedingly modest when creating the budget”. In particular the government “must create reserves, not to increase its debts and to use additional revenues for reducing the debt burden in order to solve the 2003 problem”. Shortly, Gaidar warns that the government must not commit follies: “Look, profits are increasing! There are so many problems in Russia! Let’s divide everything now!” The director of the Institute of the Economy of the Period of Transition thinks that such moods are very dangerous.

The Weekly Vek cites former Fuel and Energy Minister Yury Shafrannik who recently gave an interview in the Soroka international press club: “Is it worth conducting reforms for ten years in order to make Russia more dependant on the world oil prices?”

The reality is as follows: export-import branches take an disproportionally big share in the Russian economic system. Andrei Kolesnikov states in Vek: “We can speak of the necessity of developing these branches because they are the backbone of the Russian economy thousand times. But if we imagine that this backbone is broken not much will remain from the Russian economy.” The pace of the increase of the gross domestic product and industry is decreasing. According to Andrei Illarionov, Aide to the President, if this decrease continues the economic rise will stop by next summer.

In this respect the 2001 draft budget, which was supported by the Duma in the first reading is considered by the newspaper Segodnya as the deputies’ capitulation to the government. “It seems that the government told the parliamentarians: Take what we give you or you’ll be sorry for it.”

The deputies have managed to win over much from the government: 50% of the prospective revenues. The remaining 50% will be reserved for reducing the shortfalls of the federal budget and the federal debt.

According to the newspaper Kommersant leader of the Union of Right Forces Boris Nemtsov called the behavior of the government “politically haughty”. Nemtsov considers “the bargain between the deputies and the government” absolutely illegal: “According to the Budget code all 100% of the revenue is to be used for paying the national debt.” But the Duma has opposed the intention of the government to spend all extra revenues as it pleases. As a result the government agreed to share extra revenues with the Duma and, as the newspaper Kommersant states, the draft was passed.

Grigory Yavlinsky, who published a big article in Moskovskie Novosti on the relations between the power and business studies the question if a long-term economic rise is possible after the current temporary revival.

Yavlinsky thinks that the problems of power is the key problem in Russia. The new layer of proprietors “does not believe the official power and thinks that it can make the most reckless moves.” The power, in turn, does not believe in the social responsibilities of the Russian business and thinks that “without the all-seeing eye of the government businessmen will behave like pillagers on the occupied territory”. The population does not believe anyone and “thinks that someone has not cheated it today it is caused by the fact that this someone cheated it yesterday or intends to cheat tomorrow”.

The Russian economic legislation is so imperfect that any move to following this legislation will paralyze economic activities. According to Yavlinsky, the matter is that these laws were created in early 1990s in order to receive money from the West.

Currently the thesis concerning the dictatorship of the law is dangerous and harmful: an unstable balance which “makes it possible to plan economic activities at least for a year” can be destroyed, which will lead to the destruction of the Russian economic system. This system is far from classic notions about “a civilized economy”, but it can support the life of a huge number of enterprises and people.

Yavlinsky notes that the understanding of such danger causes reluctance to realize the announced intention of the state “to restore legality in Russia”.

At the same time the government would not cope with this task even if it tried to realize this intention: almost all Russian enterprises nominally are in a difficult financial situation. They are not profitable and don’t pay dividends to their shareholders. But at the same time these formally inefficient and unattractive enterprises become the centers of fierce fights for control over them.

“Officially everyone owes everyone, partners do not meet their commitments to each other but nevertheless maintain relations for years” because these enterprises are only a part of very complicated structures which are very efficient and profitable despite the unprofitableness of their components. In addition such schemes “minimize risks connected with a possible nationalization or re-privatization”.

Yavlinsky emphasizes that the possibilities of the state to influence the economic sector are extremely limited.

Actually, according to the leader of Yabloko, reforms should be launched again.

There are a lot of other (sometimes less serious) publications in the press the authors of which show their intention to reflect the moment of the change of political epochs. For instance this concerns a series of articles devoted to the presentation of Yeltsin’s memoirs.

The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets considers Yeltsin’s book a very important event: “Two different epochs – Yeltsin’s and Putin’s – have parted without very simply without hysterics.”

Despite the fact that Putin’s power is based on Yeltsin’s regime currently “new people, new principles and new court” are in the center of attention. Moskovsky Komsomolets notes that “the most important and interesting days” of those who have been invited to the presentations of Yeltsin’s book are in the past. Those who celebrated Putin’s birthday near St. Petersburg the same day “have hopes for the future”.

The newspaper criticizes the literary value of Yeltsin’s book: “The text, which consists of simple phrases, is very banal… The author does not analyze what has happened in Russia… In general Boris Yeltsin deserves a different book and a different interpretation of history”.

The newspaper Vedomosti notes “the amazing responsibility and superhuman wisdom of Yeltsin”.

Another discovery which was made by Vedomosti is that “Yeltsin is a good writer! He can use intricate metaphors and aphorisms”. All this, according to the newspaper, will be ascribed to Valentin Yumashev, who, according to Yeltsin, assisted him. Nevertheless, jokes and the mood of the book “conform with the speech portrait of Boris Yeltsin”. The newspaper thinks that Yeltsin’s literary style resembles Dovlatov’s prose.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta is interested in the ceremony of presentation. The newspaper compared the guests with the environment of the incumbent president: “Guests who gathered in the Reception House in Moscow can compete with Putin’s circle concerning their portliness.” In addition the guests were very informative: “the Moscow group, except Vladimir Resin and Sergei Yastrzhembsky did not attend the celebration.”

The fact that the members of “Korzhakov-Barsukov’s group” and that Yeltsin thanked Mikhail Mikhailovich’s government for not preventing the issue of the book are very important.

Segodnya began the article devoted to the presentation with a question: “Does Boris Yeltsin return to politics?”

According to the newspaper Vladimir Putin “is becoming a too independent person, and this does not suit the interests of the Family which has promoted him”.

Putin does not have serious political opponents. Only Boris Yeltsin can become a rival to him. Contrasting Chubais to Putin, and Putin to himself, Yeltsin showed that “he can influence the political situation even from retirement”.

The newspaper notes that it seems that the former president rules Russia and resolves the key issues. Putin handles only everyday routine and insignificant details. Yeltsin noted in his interview on TV that “the incumbent president acts according to my advice”.

If the elite believes that Putin in not independent in his decisions the problem of forming the opposition to the new president, according to Segodnya will resolve itself. This means that Yeltsin “can influence the situation as before turning it unpredictable, uncertain and dangerous”.