The Kremlin’s "Kursk Battle": will the end justify the means?


The newspaper Segodnya has commented on the gubernatorial election in the Kursk region as follows: “The opposition between the federal government and regions seems to be entering a new stage.”

The fact that Alexander Rutskoi, incumbent governor of the Kursk Region and the election favorite, was disqualified only hours before polls opened proves that “the Kremlin dared take extreme measures in order to oust an unwelcome regional leader.”

The newspaper considers that Putin’s principle of noninterference in regional elections has been demonstratively violated. Of course, Rutskoi was disqualified from the election campaign in accordance with law, after the correspondent decision of the Kursk Regional Court. However, who will believe that the court was acting on its own?

At the same time Segodnya considers that the Kremlin’s victory in the Kursk region may become a Pyrrhic victory. It will not do to repeat the same trick in other regions, since it would be treated as an attempt by Kremlin proteges to muscle in on power in the regions. Incumbent governors have received a boost for their election campaigns: from now on they can intimidate their voters with the threat of a “generals’ conspiracy.”

Segodnya says that the Kremlin tends to rely on force in handling problems.

The newspaper links Rutskoi’s punishment with the recent attacks on the Kremlin from President Murtaza Rakhimov of Bashkortostan and Governor Eduard Rossel of the Sverdlovsk region. Most likely, the Kremlin has taken this step as a show of strength aimed at other disobedient regional leaders. However, this action may result in a real battle between Moscow and the regions.

Moskovsky Komsomolets says: “Regional elections have opened with surprises. The Kremlin’s opponents are being defeated one after another.” President Vyacheslav Kislitsin of the Republic of Mariy El was threatened with criminal charges and had to withdraw. And Rutskoi, whom Moskovsky Komsomolets calls “Berezovsky’s best regional friend,” was disqualified at the very last moment.

However, the newspaper notes that Rutskoi blames only his local opponents for the conspiracy against him, whereas “the Kremlin for him is above suspicion, like Caesar’s wife.”

Meanwhile, Moskovsky Komsomolets does not doubt that the Kremlin achieved its purpose in the Kursk region through the judiciary.

The newspaper Izvestia has described the Kremlin’s techniques differently. According to the newspaper, the elections in the Kursk region were destined to be complicated from the very beginning. This was clear from the moment when Viktor Surzhikov, a representative of the Federal Security Service (FSB), was appointed a federal inspector. Of course, Surzhikov was nominated as a candidate for governor, and it seemed that Moscow had a subtle plan for making him governor. However, this plan looked more intricate than it later proved to be.

Now that the plan has been implemented, Izvestia asks: why did the president start “strengthening the state hierarchy” and talking about “dictatorship of law”? On the one hand, legal procedures for dismissing governors have been thoroughly considered. On the other hand, Rutskoi’s disqualification was a blatant move to oust an unwelcome governor. Izvestia asks, rhetorically: “Why should a butcher need a scalpel?”

As stated above, it is not ruled out that the Kremlin’s “Kursk lesson” aimed at regional leaders was prompted by recent criticism of the Kremlin. The Kremlin was criticized a week ago at the meeting of the Greater Urals interregional association. The fact that the meeting was held in Ufa was a challenge itself, since according to the new division of regions into federal districts, Bashkortostan belongs not to the Urals district, but to the Trans-Volga federal district. The newspaper Kommersant notes that President Rakhimov of Bashkortostan has decided to remain a member of the Greater Urals association regardless of the administrative division. Moreover, Rakhimov called Putin’s federal districts “an inefficient bureaucratic structure which is breeding an incredibly large army of officials.”

Governor Eduard Rossel of the Sverdlovsk region publicly expressed his outrage at the activities of Pyotr Latyshev, presidential envoy for the Urals federal district, who has been appointing heads of regional branches of federal agencies without the approval of governors.

Murtaza Rakhimov warned that “this trick won’t work in Bashkortostan” and said that he would cut off the phones of new regional officials and turn them out of their offices if they were appointed without his consent.

Thus, Kommersant notes that regional leaders who had been impressed by the president’s reform persistence are gradually recovering. One more fact that has made governors soberer is that the State Council has failed to become a powerful structure. The most important issue that members of the State Council have been entitled with was the issue of Russia’s state symbols.

Now it is clear that the president’s reforms will be serious, and Rakhimov and Rossel have shown the president that their regions are strong too and they are ready to struggle for their rights. This article is called “Governors Have Ceased to Fear the Kremlin.”

The newspaper Vremya MN reported about now the opposition between the Kremlin and regions developed. “The next day after Rakhimov’s announcement the Duma, being controlled by the Kremlin, failed the Federation Council’s proposal to exclude the item on two gubernatorial tenures from the law on general principles of state power.” Nevertheless, the federal authorities have found a compromise with Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev. His first presidential tenure will be viewed as the first one for him. Other “problematic leaders” have also gotten a chance to gain the coveted agreement.

However, Vremya MN considers that the Kremlin has shown that it will not give up a radical administrative reform and will not let any other force intrude its rules on it. “The compromise does not guarantee the third tenure for regional leaders. It will only let them run in the elections.” However, even this has become a great favor after the incident in the Kursk Region. Regional leaders have to understand that they have been living in a different country for a year.

Obshchaya Gazeta notes that the first case of Moscow’s interference in regional elections took place in Mariy El. The Kremlin spared no effort to prevent Vyacheslav Kislitsin, who is considered a “hooligan” in Kremlin circles, from running for re-election. All his proteges in the republic were dismissed. After that he was threatened with trials on all the cases he participated in. And finally, he was told that a video record of his carousing at a party of some local criminal authorities would be shown on TV. After that Kislitsin surrendered, the election was rescheduled for December 3, and Sergei Kirienko, presidential envoy for the Trans-Volga federal district, has been told to find a good substitute for him.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is not always sure itself whom it should help and whom it should suppress. Obshchaya Gazeta notes that it is not clear how a good governor differs from a bad one. “It is impossible to do it on the basis of the economic statistics, since in the current conditions a region’s prosperity or stagnation bears little relation to the talents of regional authorities.” Until recently, those governors who were loyal to the Kremlin were considered good ones, and “red” governors were viewed as bad ones. But this system is out of date already. In the Yeltsin era dozens of governors opposed the Kremlin; but now most of them, especially those aiming to be reelected, are hurriedly assuring the Kremlin of their loyalty. Rutskoi has not said a single bad word about Putin and his administration, even after he was disqualified. Closeness to “the master of the Kremlin” is fashionable now. And if a regional leader is told that the Kremlin supports some other candidate, he immediately rushes to Moscow for explanations. This has happened in the Ulyanovsk Region. Ulyanovsk Governor Yury Goryachev is wondering if his rival, General Vladimir Shamanov, is Moscow’s protege. According to Obshchaya Gazeta, Goryachev received reassurances from Moscow. The newspaper says that the Kremlin is not sure which of the candidates is worse. And if presidential envoy Sergei Kirienko does not propose some other candidates, residents of the Ulyanovsk Region will have to choose their governor themselves.

Those regional leaders who had always been critical of the Kremlin, but have managed to reconsider their positions in time, may count on the Kremlin’s benevolence, the media says. Kommersant cites a vivid example in this connection. Georgy Poltavchenko, presidential envoy for the Central federal district, has unexpectedly announced his approval of the tough residency registration requirements for outsiders who come to Moscow. Poltavchenko has admitted that the “registration requirements violate the rights of hundreds of thousands of Russians who would like to stay in Moscow.” However, the presidential envoy has stressed that if registration is canceled, “this will violate the rights of 8.5 million Muscovites who have built this city.” Thus, Poltavchenko has taken the side of the Moscow municipal government. Kommersant notes that the mayor of Moscow “has moderated his political ambitions, stopped criticizing the incumbent president and fighting with the rest of the previous president’s team, has started to actively work in the State Council – thus showing that he has accepted the fact that regional leaders have been driven out of the Federation Council – and therefore he has gained a good result.”

Thus, Russian citizens desiring to move to Moscow now have to wait for a new deterioration in relations between the Kremlin and the mayor of Moscow.”

Moskovsky Komsomolets has said that Luzhkov feels much more comfortable now than before, and intends to part with his oppositional past.

The election campaign on the Chukotka Peninsula is also very curious. Duma deputy and well-known tycoon Roman Abramovich is running for governor in that region. Obshchaya Gazeta has said that Konstantin Pulikovsky, presidential envoy for the Far Eastern federal district, was at first concerned when he learned of Abramovich’s intention. He immediately asked the president how he should treat the tycoon’s intention to run for governor. Putin reportedly said, “Okay, let him do it.” And a senior official of the presidential administration has explained, “It is normal for business leaders to want to work for the state now.” Thus, Abramovich has the Kremlin’s blessing.

At the same time, the ultra-left newspaper Zavtra asserts that Abramovich’s intention to run in Chukotka and the presidential administration’s consent are connected with plans to split the Chukotka Peninsula from Russia and make it part of the United States. The newspaper claims that Abramovich has commissioned special envoys to the US to develop a plan for severing Chukotka from the Russian Federation.

The newspaper Kommersant, on the contrary, gives an emotional account of Abramovich’s motives for running for governor: “You see, he has fallen in love with this land. When a city-dweller gets a country house and a small plot of land, he starts working in the kitchen garden all weekend, fixing up some barns and fences. The same has happened to Abramovich in Chukotka. He says, ‘Here we’ll build a road, and there we’ll repair a house’.”

Russian Joint Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais has given even more touching reasons for Abramovich’s decision in his interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda. He is sure that Abramovich will put things in order on the Chukotka Peninsula. As evidence, he quoted a fragment from their conversation. When Chubais asked him why he intended to run in the election, Abramovich answered, “I feel sorry for them.” Chubais asked, “Who do you feel sorry for, Roman?” and Abramovich answered, “I feel sorry for the Chukchi native people.” Chubais says that after these words, there were tears in Abramovich’s eyes. However, Chubais considers that it will be difficult for Abramovich to become governor of Chukotka, because he does not have much popular support. According to Chubais, in the current situation it is impossible for a business leader to be so close to the government.

Boris Berezovsky’s position is not the best at the moment. When he announced that “a group of coal miners” had come to him to join his new party, even Sergei Neverov, Chairman of the Kuzbass Coal Miners Trade Union, said, “Berezovsky has exhausted his political resources.” Neverov stressed in his address to the Duma that “coal miners have nothing to do with such gentlemen as Berezovsky, and can do without such a leader.” Thus, Berezovsky’s latest project has only drawn anger from coal mining leaders.

Last week Moskovsky Komsomolets ran an article about how Berezovsky was turned out of his state-owned country home. This was done after Berezovsky started criticizing the “anti-people regime.” Berezovsky was also deprived of special communications facilities and privileged license plates. Moskovsky Komsomolets notes that after these events, Berezovsky is unlikely to rule Russia.

However, Dmitry Volchek, a Vedomosti correspondent, believes that not everything is so bad for Berezovsky. He asserts that the “vulgar intrigues about country homes, interrogations, privileged license plates, etc. show that the Kremlin does not have any definite program for fighting tycoons.” Strategies have been formulated to fight state officials dependent on state salaries. But these methods are ineffective against Berezovsky. Therefore, “those who have been gloating over Berezovsky’s misfortunes were doing so too early. He may soon gain the status of the only opposition leader.” Volchek compares Berezovsky with Lech Walensa in 1981. “Like the Polish leader, he can turn an interrogation in a prosecutor’s office into a triumph of his own.”

Thus, we see that Russian media sources are not unanimous in their assessments of Berezovsky’s intentions and abilities. However, it is clear that he has not said his last word in Russian politics yet.

The newspaper Vremya MN talks of Berezovsky’s new viewpoint on privatization in Russia expressed, in his article “Our Revolution in Reverse” published in “The Washington Post.” According to this article, privatization took place in Russia not in 1992-94, but in 1996, on the eve of the presidential election, when the government feared that the Communists might win. According to Vremya MN, Berezovsky wrote this article to make Americans believe that democracy in Russia is again being threatened by the possibility of an authoritarian government. The newspaper says that another effect of such articles will be to intensify anti-Russian feelings in the US government. All attempts by the Russian authorities to attract foreign investors will also be frustrated.

It is no wonder that Anatoly Chubais answered the question about the tense relations between the government and tycoons in his interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda as follows, “If the word ‘tycoons’ means not major property-owners, but the problem of business leaders’ mechanisms for influencing politics, this is what Putin is destroying, and he is right!”

Anatoly Chubais disagrees with Berezovsky about threats to democracy. He says, “I know the situation in a number of regions. Separation of powers, independent media, and other democratic achievements are out of the question there. I am convinced that it is possible to establish normal democratic principles only through strong state power. I think Putin is approaching this task correctly.”

It should be noted that this is the opinion of one of the most successful managers in Russia, and the leader of the most dynamic political party.

The weekly Vek touches on relations between the federal government, oligarchs, and regional leaders in its articles on the progress of state reforms and the tense pre-election atmosphere in the regions. Vek considers that the institution of presidential envoys should “provide for the transition from license to law, from informal relations to formal ones.” However, “this problem will be solved through informal methods of pressuring tycoons so that they will move to legal and formal relations.” Vek believes that the institution of presidential envoys has been set up in order to combine formal and informal spheres. Therefore, it is quite clear why it is mostly representatives of security structures who have been appointed presidential envoys. Moreover, it seems logical that “some people reputed to be specialists in shadow relations have been recruited into the presidential administration.” The weekly notes that this is a curious experiment, but it is not clear whether the participants of this experiment will maintain their common sense. This has always been a problem in Russia.

It is curious that the “Kursk Battle”, now being intensively discussed in the media and called “a crucial moment in Russian political history” by Novye Izvestia, corresponds to Vek’s forecasts. Novye Izvestia writes, “The Kremlin’s successful operation to neutralize an unwelcome figure has removed the last doubts about the nature and methods of the new regime: there are no boundaries, and nobody will escape due punishment.”

Against the background of complete voter apathy about “a disgrace to constitutional standards and distortion of the democratic process”, the success of any authoritarian actions of the government is guaranteed. Novye Izvestia says that Russia is becoming a territory populated by a docile mob.

Izvestia’s political observer Semyon Novoprudsky comes to the conclusion in his article for the newspaper Vedomosti that “the complete contempt for any legal processes, demonstrated by Russian authorities all through Russia’s history, has been contempt for democracy. Democracy is a process. Russia is noted for its hatred for any procedures, and affection for authoritarian power at all levels.”