The Russian media has been quite distracted from domestic problems by the question “Whom do we like better – Gore or Bush?” It’s by no means an uncomfortable position to be in, if the election in question is taking place elsewhere. In recent weeks, there has been lively discussion in Russia about the merits of the two US front-runners, accompanied by the relative prospects for Russia.

“Al Gore has criticized Russian ‘repression’ in Chechnya, but hasn’t threatened to deprive Russia of aid,” reasons Arugmenty i Fakty weekly. “But George W. Bush has said that cooperation with Moscow is ‘impossible’ until it learns ‘civilized restraint’.” Both Bush and Gore are promising to go ahead with national missile defense. Still, it’s possible that if Bush wins, he would – as a moderate Republican – allow himself to be persuaded by advisers not to take such a radical step. As for Gore, NMD is clearly not an issue he feels strongly about; but if Iraq or North Korea should launch an ICBM, this could change.

(Argumenty i Fakty) reports that “many Russian analysts” believe Russia would benefit from a completely new start in its relations with the United States: “Putin would be more comfortable dealing with Bush, who is not ‘tainted’ by contacts with Russian politicians.”

But it’s also clear that a Bush victory would be unwelcome for many among the Russian elite, who have benefited from American loans: “The Republican candidate is tough and cold-blooded in his attitude to Russia, and he will keep his promise to deal with corruption.”

The traditional Russian expectation of a “strong hand” to restore “iron-clad order” – even a hand from abroad – was widely echoed in the print media in relation to the US election.

“Of course, the US presidential election isn’t just the internal affair of the United States, even though it must be entrusted to the Yanks alone, alas,” says Segodnya columnist Leonid Radzikhovsky. “It’s also a major event in Russian politics, and for all members of the United Nations. This is because the most important person in the world is being elected.” The title of this article is “President of the Globe”.

Pro-Bush items started appearing on Gleb Pavlosky’s website shortly before 7 November. The authors have no doubt that Bush’s tough talk on Russia is purely campaign rhetoric, aimed at Gore. Still, the Republican candidate is much more favorably disposed toward the Russian middle class than toward Russia’s wealthy oligarchs.

Expert magazine is also convinced that “despite their hard-line rhetoric” the Republicans, being more pragmatic, might turn out to be more favorable partners for Russia than the “soft” Democrats. What the Democrats stand for is undoubtedly appealing, says Expert “No one would argue that the environment, information technology, and human rights are great… The problem is that the Democrats use completely inappropriate means in pursuit of their goals.” Relying on “militant minority groups” – at home and abroad; military intervention in the domestic affairs of other nations; Russia has had experience with all such Democrat “management techniques”. That’s why some concerns have been voiced in Russia that Al Gore might “out-globalize Clinton, and under a Gore presidency the USA and NATO would become entrenched as global teacher-cop”. On the other hand, if Bush wins, we may hope that the US would focus on defending its actual national interests, rather than “going out of its way to to teach the rest of the world how to live”. Therefore, “we can do business” with such people.

Understandably, this approach would suit Russia’s new president – who is convinced, says Novoye Vremya magazine, that “one sign of a strong nation is that it doesn’t put up with being lectured by others.”

Meanwhile, another anniversary has rolled around in Russia – unnoticed, as usual – or maybe not quite an anniversary: it’s only ten months (believe it or not) since “Vladimir Putin became the de facto president of Russia”. This description of the start of the “Putin era” in Russian history comes from Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

What’s really amazing, says Komsomolskaya Pravda, is that voters and political analysts still “have no complete and precise picture of the new head of state’s policies or intentions – so they don’t have a picture of likely future developments either.” Well, this might even be good – at least for the president himself. He now has a chance of going down in history as “the most honest politician of the 20th century.”

It’s true: Putin didn’t promise voters anything specific, other than to establish a dictatorship of the law. “But no right-minded individual,” says (Komsomolskaya Pravda), “would take Putin to task for not keeping this promise. God save us from a dictatorship of the kind of laws we have at present…” The newspaper considers that the president has succeeded in one task: “retaining the essence of the state built by his predecessor, while reshaping it to some extent.” This is because the new president has been extremely lucky. Oil prices are rising, there are no social upheavals on the horizon, and “Berezovsky’s constructive opposition” has clearly not got off the ground. An attempt by Governor Rossel of the Sverdlovsk region and President Rakhimov of Bashkortostan to motivate their colleagues to defend the rights of regional leaders fell flat, because the others were more concerned about saving their own skins.

In short, “developments to date have made things easy for the head of state”, and Komsomolskaya Pravda even predicts a “new era of stagnation”, as a result of which “future generations will come to associate Vladimir Putin with Leonid Brezhnev.”

It should be added that although this prediction is an intentional exaggeration, similar opinions have been recorded in a range of other leading publications.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta, for one, notes “another pivotal moment” recently in relations between the regions and the federal government. “The regional opposition hasn’t only surrendered – regional leaders are vying in protestations of their loyalty to the Kremlin.”

The story of the election in the Kursk region, accompanied by the Kremlin’s leaked blacklist of unsuitable regional leaders, has set off a “wave of pro-federal initiatives” in the regions, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta puts it. Even the most critical regional leaders have started wanting to be “the president’s people” and to make friends with the presidential envoys.

Governor Eduard Rossel of the Sverdlovsk region, a main player in the “gubernatorial resistance”, has declared there’s no conflict between himself and Petr Latyshev, presidential envoy for the Urals federal district; he has described all previous differences as “misunderstandings”. Governor Leonid Roketsky of the Tyumen region has described Latyshev as a “thinking man” with a “state-oriented approach”. At the same time, Roketsky permitted himself a swipe at Rossel, emphasizing that “the task of a regional leader is not to inflame passions, but to carry out the instructions of the head of state.” But Rossel himself said he’s ready to “meet all the president’s requirements.”

Alexander Nazarov, incumbent governor of the Chukotka Autonomous District, found some kind words for Konstantin Pulikovsky, presidential envoy for the Far East federal district, in the lead-up to the regional election. Nazarov said that Pulikovsky has never attempted to “crush all resistance” – on the contrary, he has always been open to dialogue.

Another leader of the regional opposition, President Nikolai Fedorov of Chuvashia, still managed to become the first regional leader to bring his region’s constitution into compliance with federal law.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta considers that “it’s impossible not to see the signs of a political deal behind the sincerity of avowals of loyalty from regional leaders.” Loyalty to President Putin and his envoys is being exchanged for “stability of their own status, and a solid chunk of federally-funded programs.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that the zenith of loyalty to the Kremlin has been the proposal from Governor Dmitry Ayatskov of the Saratov region: to appoint regional leaders the same way that prime ministers are appointed – let the president nominate them. Ayatskov considers that government will be “cleaner, and, what’s more important, cheaper” that way.

The Vremya MN newspaper considers that the regional leaders aren’t doing too badly, after all. “Even if you believe the Kremlin’s blacklist exists, you must admit this means the regional leaders still have power. Otherwise, why bother fighting them?” Especially since it still hasn’t been established whether this blacklist is real, or just another episode in the media wars. A more important issue is the determination with which “members of the oligarchy” have chosen to participate in regional elections in Chukotka and Taimyr. “It’s worth noting that they are doing it themselves, in person, risking not only their money, but their egos, reputations, and maybe even their present status.”

(The Kommersant newspaper reports that Norilsk Nickel CEO Alexander Khloponin, a candidate for governor of the Taimyr Autonomous District, told members of the Krasnoyarsk regional parliament that “running a territory is no different from running a big corporation.”)

Vremya MN says that only one point is currently clear: regional leaders have to be reckoned with. Analysts are also noting that Moscow’s position on various regional candidates is unclear.

In one article, Vremya MN assumes that the Kremlin still hasn’t seriously declared open season on regional leaders: “it’s just following Lenin’s pragmatic and time-tested tactic” of taking over the lead in any local protest movements that spontaneously arise, especially since they pose no threat to the Kremlin. “For the time being, the Kremlin is satisfied with how things are going without its direct intervention.” Of course, next year – when the real “political heavyweights” face regional elections – the Kremlin will have something to think about.

Just in case, the president has thought up a pretty good lightning rod: the State Council, which many have been too quick to dismiss as purely decorative. Vremya MN predicts a big future for the new council of regional leaders, especially if its ranks include re-elected regional leaders who are influential in politics and business. Vremya MN has no doubt that the State Council will have a say on budget issues and national development strategy. “Even if the regional leaders are removed from the Federation Council – where they will send their representatives – they will still keep much, if not all, of what they have in their home regions. They might even become stronger.”

Vremya MN also points out that the presence of regional leaders in the State Council not only gives them an opportunity to influence the situation in Moscow, but also “makes it somewhat easier to work with them”. Regional leaders who are kept at an “equal distance” from federal government – like tycoons who are kept at an “equal distance” from the state – can pose greater problems for Moscow, since they would be less manageable, and hence less predictable. Therefore, says Vremya MN, the State Council project “is not a retreat, but an entirely rational component of a political system which, on the whole, is not entirely rational.”

Boris Berezovsky, now Vladimir Putin’s main opponent, had some typically categorical points to make on the irrationality of the Russian government in his interview with Izvestia. It is worth noting that even such a serious newspaper as Izvestia couldn’t resist highlighting the “elusive image” of the current “demon of Russian politics”: “Berezovsky appeared in the lobby of the Bristol Hotel – suddenly, as if out of thin air. And he disappeared just as suddenly.” During the interview, “an electronic organizer and three constantly-ringing mobile phones” lay on the table in front of Berezovsky. Just to add the finishing touches to the picture, Izvestia noted: “The oligarch was dressed simply, all in black. He eagerly questioned us about Putin’s visit to Paris.”

Berezovsky continued his line of strong criticism of the president’s actions. According to Berezovsky, “On the one hand, our government is sane. On the other hand, unfortunately, it’s not very bright.” He believes that the main error of President Putin and his team is that they’re trying to find simple solutions to the complex problems facing Russia today. Berezovsky says that although Putin admits Russia needs to become more democratic, he believes Russia is incapable of evolving toward democracy on its own.

Berezovsky says Putin is convinced that “the president or other leaders should make the decisions” for the people. Russia has to be “pushed” into democracy. As for Berezovsky’s own view, he admitted that just a few years ago he held the same opinion: “I considered that a very strong tradition of slavery had been formed in Russia, over centuries of its history.” (Berezovsky defines slaves as “those who are accustomed to other people controlling their lives” – i.e. those who are incapable of making the big decisions for themselves.)

But it turns out that Berezovsky has now changed his mind. Now he sees a great number of “free, independent people” in Russia – no less than 20% of the population: “This is a huge number for Russia, if you bear in mind that in the mid-1980s there were only a few thousand such people. And now there are millions – in such a short time.” But Berezovsky believes that the proportion of such people needs to reach a “critical mass” – about 30-50% of the population – in order for a “return to the past” to become impossible.

Unfortunately, says Berezovsky, the reverse is now taking place: “We are now seeing how enthusiastically the slaves are running back. How enthusiastically they’re praising Putin, writing textbooks, opening Putin sport centers, filing reports, setting up party branches.”

The reserves of liberty, says Berezovsky sadly, have turned out to be too fragile, and now they are being quickly destroyed. “Of course, the main tool for this process of destruction is fear. In other words, people are deliberately being made to fear the state.”

At this point, Berezovsky’s image as the defender of democracy’s prospects in Russia suddenly and drastically changes to something completely different.

On the one hand, it turns out that the people had been eagerly awaiting Putin’s reforms. This was why there was such a great response to Putin’s crude expressions like “with a club in hand” or “wiping them out in the latrines”. “The people heard this, and the people liked it,” says Berezovsky. That is why, he warns, “relying on the people in broad terms is very dangerous.” The Russian people are just too gullible these days.

Berezovsky recalls how the people were preparing to vote for Gennadi Zyuganov in 1996, but ended up voting for Yeltsin. And in 1999 they intended to vote for Yevgenii Primakov, but ended up voting for Putin. It also shouldn’t be forgotten that in both cases, the omnipresent Berezovsky played a major part in this.

So, following Berezovsky’s own reasoning, in the debate over whether the Russian people are capable of making the big decisions for themselves – one is forced to conclude that Putin is right. Sad as it may be.

But Boris Berezovsky continues to weave his intrigues, as he came out and admitted to Izvestia: “Yes, I’m being provocative. And I’m doing it quite consciously. I want the regime to reveal its true colors – and not only to me.”

Understandably enough, the regime’s current attitude seems unfair and hurtful to Berezovsky.

Ilya Milstein in Novoye Vremya magazine notes that “the Kremlin has raised its club for war against the media barons, and is hitting them over the head with it”; it is now clear that the fight will last a long time, but it will not be equal – the state is obviously stronger.

But in the past – when the same “TV club” was thumping Zyuganov, Primakov, and Luzhkov – Boris Berezovsky was only too happy about it. “He used his political resources to lead Yeltsin to power in 1996, and Putin in 2000.” Having provided the full range of services to the regime, says Milstein, “Berezovsky waited in vain for his reward.” It must have been particularly galling for the oligarch to learn from Yeltsin’s latest book that Yeltsin never liked him. “Putin didn’t even have to write a book to make that clear to everyone,” concludes Novoye Vremya. “Now that club is looking more like a boomerang, and the president already has a grip on it.” That’s the title of this article: “Using the club as a boomerang”.

Tough times lie ahead for the media barons – this has been confirmed in an interview with Vek weekly by Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov, one of Putin’s loyal comrades, and a member of his St. Petersburg team. Ivanov says “we have no plans to create a Ministry of Truth.” All the same, Ivanov has no doubt that the information security doctrine addresses vital issues, despite all the talk about the restrictions it entails: “These are not restrictions, but legal safeguards for the constitutional right of citizens to personal and family privacy… No one is out to restrict free speech. But the doctrine views the use of illegally-obtained materials as a violation of the rights and liberties of citizens, and a threat to society.”

Further on, Sergei Ivanov is even more blunt: “In Russia, we still haven’t grasped a key concept in media law: ‘abuse of freedom of the press’. After we fill in the gap here, I think certain newspapers and TV programs will curb their fervor in defending free speech as they understand it.”

So it’s possible to infer that the formation of the state power hierarchy and the “clean-up of the media industry”, as Andrei Piontkovsky put it in Obshchaya Gazeta, continues.

The advent of the “new era of stagnation”, so eagerly awaited by the people (according to Boris Berezovsky, the expert on public moods), requires significant preparation.