The End of the "Honeymoon Year" for Vladimir Putin and the People


The newspaper Segodnya has described the first year of Putin’s presidency as the “honeymoon year” between the president and the people. Although a year has passed, there is still no definite answer to the question: Who is Mr. Putin?

Segodnya observer Leonid Radzikhovsky considers that arguments about whether Putin is a democrat or an advocate of authoritarianism are pointless, since neither of these definitions apply. “The only definition that fits him is that of pragmatist, but it is too indistinct.” In Radzikhovsky’s opinion, Putin is “the president of comfortably-off and apolitical middle-aged Russians.” A large part of this new social layer consists of “former KGB officers who have adapted themselves to the market economy.”

The plans of Putin’s supporters are obvious: their policy will be aimed at “building bureaucratic capitalism with a strong KGB tinge.” This policy has adequate ideological support, consisting of “sensible amounts of nationalism, patriotism, fighting the media, etc.” And the current political situation is no surprise, since Yeltsin’s reforms have not given rise any other organized force but Putin’s team.

Delovye Lyudi magazine says that some people view Putin as a radical reformer, the successor of Yeltsin and Gaidar. Other call him “a suppressor of freedom, a successor to Russian imperialism.” Some people highlight his KGB past, others stress that his political ideal is Peter the Great, a prominent reformer.

The magazine says that in reality, we have seen only the first steps taken by the new government in the first year of Putin’s rule. Most of the year has been spent perfecting the mechanism of state. This may be explained by the fact that Putin inherited an economy in a deplorable condition. Besides, the new president, being a former intelligence agent, is inclined to act cautiously. Putin’s policy has not acquired a definite form yet because it combines new ideas with illusions from the past. Delovye Lyudi says, “It is not ruled out that Putin is just a transitional figure between Yeltsin and some other political leader who will come to power after Putin.”

Delovye Lyudi says the government has not taken full advantage of the favorable economic and political situation in 2000. The article is headlined “Escape from Strategy.”

Itogi magazine has published an article about economic results for the year, headlined “A Quiet Year without Reforms.” The magazine says that the government has failed to submit to parliament most of the bills on the schedule it had prepared; this means that Herman Gref’s economic development program has not been implemented. Officials are proudly talking about the macroeconomic successes of 2000: there has been 7% GDP growth in Russia; inflation has declined; gold and hard currency reserves have doubled; consumer demand has grown by 8%, and direct investment in the Russian economy has risen 19%. According to the State Statistics Committee, by October 2000 real incomes had grown by 9.4%, and the unemployment rate had fallen by 17.7% compared to the same period last year.

However, Putin’s team has had little to do with such economic prosperity. Russia owes this to Sergei Kirienko, who has so often been cursed for the ruble devaluation of 1998, and to Yevgeny Primakov’s government, which was the first to record a deficit-free budget. Another favorable circumstance has been the incredible growth of oil and energy prices on the world market. This factor alone has gained Russia over $16 billion this year. According to presidential economic adviser Andrei Illarionov, by the end of the year Russia will receive another $30 billion, which is 12% of the GDP. However Illarionov says that the devaluation effect, that stimulated the Russian economy after the 1998 economic crisis, is coming to an end. According to Illarionov, this year Russia “has consumed” half of that effect. “Ten or twelve more months of such policies, and the economy will be back to relative price levels of July 1998,” he warns. He says this will mean economic growth would stop. It is not clear if economic reforms would continue under such circumstances.

Former finance minister Andrei Nechaev says in his interview with Literaturnaya Gazeta that economic growth is based on high oil prices and the ruble devaluation effect cannot last. “Economic growth should be backed by an effective economic policy.” Nechaev says there are a number of contradictions in the government’s economic policy. On the one hand, some measures have been taken to reduce state regulation of the economy. On the other hand, new state monopolies have been introduced, e.g. the monopoly on tobacco production.

Nechaev supports the president’s efforts to strengthen the state power hierarchy “so that regional leaders will not feel like princelings.” However, he thinks that the government is not paying enough attention to establishing a uniform economic policy in all regions of the Russian Federation. He considers that strenthening the state’s economic and political role does not necessarily imply state interference in economic processes.

Itogi magazine says that the time when the government permitted tycoons to play a major political role has passed. “Big business should be manageable. Otherwise, it will not exist at all.” The president’s statements about a cudgel for intimidating tycoons have been followed by direct action from the security structures. Masked security agents have visited offices of various large companies and corporations. The government has thus been overcoming its dependence on big business. Business leaders have understood the Kremlin’s intentions, and accepted the new rules of the game. Kakha Bendukidze, CEO of Uralmash, has said, “Everyone is convinced that Gusinsky has not failed as a businessman, but has been brought down by the government as a tycoon who opposed it.” Gusinsky’s rival Berezovsky has got off more lightly: he has only been forced to emigrate.

Dmitry Shusharin, a correspondent of Vremya MN, says, “The first year of Putin’s rule has shown that the government is more interested in publicity stunts than in resolving real social and economic problems.” However, he considers that the government’s achievements in this field are not that great either: “The tiresome battle against Gusinsky, who has been caught even in Spain, seems to be the essence of the government’s information policy.” Shusharin considers that the best way for the state to express its dislike of any particular media company would be to create media competition. “Instead, the state is only reinforcing NTV’s monopoly.”

In Shusharin’s opinion, the aspirations of Gusinsky and Berezovsky to be seen as political exiles are ridiculous. The history of Media-Most, as well as that of Berezovsky’s media empire, would be extremely interesting for the law enforcement agencies. However, any attempts by law enforcement agencies to investigate the financial machinations of the media magnates will now be interpreted as attacks on freedom of speech. This only benefits Gusinsky and Berezovsky, who have received another chance for political attention in the West, which did not pay much attention to them earlier. Shusharin also says that this is advantageous for the federal government, which has no idea what to do with the national economy. And the public will again be the losers, as will the TV network, which has to fend for itself at the moment.

Impexbank CEO Oleg Kiselev asks in his interview with the weekly Moskovskie Novosti: “What does the state want to achieve by repression?” He notes that if the government wants to prove its strength by means of repression, it will fail, since no one has ever managed to succeed with these methods. And if the government just wants to have its personal revenge on Berezovsky and Gusinsky, this is ridiculous in such a large country as Russia. Kiselev considers that it would be more sensible for the government to let Berezovsky return to Russia and set up his political opposition.

Kiselev thinks that the state should change its attitude toward business leaders, since there are not so many tycoons in Russia who have managed to keep their businesses afloat for ten years. He notes that they gained their initial capital by methods that were legal at that time. Therefore, the government should show some appreciation for people who are able to manage their assets.

Komsomolskaya Pravda reports that Berezovsky himself does not think his role in Russia is over. He not only has economic interests here, but also large-scale political plans. After the tycoon failed to eliminate Putin by using his TV pit-bulls, according to the plan he tested on the leaders of Fatherland-All Russia, he had a new idea. Many Russian tycoons have been running in regional elections, especially in remote regions with a harsh climate. Komsomolskaya Pravda says this is a natural trend, since Siberian and Northern regions are rich in natural resources, “and tycoons view them as a cornucopia from which to pump money to warmer climes as quickly as possible.” According to some rumors, Berezovsky intends to run for governor of the Irkutsk Region. This region has the Bratsk aluminum plant, the Bratsk and Irkutsk hydro-electric power plants, the Angara Petrochemical Company, and many other petrochemical and energy companies and deposits of natural resources. Unlike in central regions, in remote regions not all assets have been distributed yet, and there are financial and legal conflicts there. This provides many opportunities for such a skillful player as Berezovsky. Besides, it is extremely difficult for the federal government to dismiss a regional leader; therefore, he could organize a new opposition consisting of tycoons and regional leaders.

Obshchaya Gazeta says the current period of political stability is only a lull between two political crises. There is no doubt that Russia will soon have to make a transition to an electoral system based on real alternatives. It is very difficult for Russians to make this transition, since “this is not a change of ideology but a change of psychology. This is not a transition from one master to another, but a transition to an absence of masters.” The scale of this crisis will be no less than that of perestroika.

There are many ways the situation could develop. The only thing Obshchaya Gazeta is sure of is that this will not be a “revolution from above,” since it is not in the regime’s interests. The most peaceful option is a split in the ruling party. “Even if the two new leaders only have marginal differences, still it will be a transition to a fundamentally new system of Russian politics.”

A victory by an opposition candidate is less likely. Neither the Communists nor any other left politicians are able to win on their own. It also can’t be ruled out that a new charismatic leader may emerge, like Alexander Lebed in 1996. But it is difficult to imagine such a situation now.

Obshchaya Gazeta says there is a more radical option. If the political system fails to change within the state system, the state system itself will have to change. The newspaper says that confederation trends are developing in Russia, whereas natural links between regions are rather weak, especially now that the federal government has decided to replace natural “horizontal” links with artificial vertical ones. The federal government’s efforts may have quite the opposite effect: Russia could disintegrate into several smaller republics.

Obshchaya Gazeta notes that although the above options sound unlikely, and the current political system seems impregnable, it may exhaust its limited resources some day, and the slightest push would be enough to destroy it.

Literaturnaya Gazeta says that when future historians look for the start of the decline of the Putin era, they will focus on the choice of Alexandrov’s music for the national anthem. Putin’s attempt to quench the people’s thirst for a better life by sentimental memories of relatively calm times implies the government’s surrender in the face of the nation’s urgent problems. Putin’s domestic policy is absurd; his foreign affairs priorities resemble those of Soviet times, and are leading to Russia’s isolation. “The fuss surrounding the Soviet anthem has been followed by delightful reports about a gigantic New Year tree, a vast skating-rink, pirozhki and fireworks on Red Square to the tune of the Stalin anthem.” Literaturnaya Gazeta notes that Russia has not moved forward so far that the possibility of returning to the past is absolutely ruled out. “Since Putin’s unexpected emergence on the political scene, people have been thinking of Stalin more often. What can this mean?”

Novaya Gazeta says that the present government is fundamentally incapable of restoring previous (Soviet-era) conditions. To do this, many of the current political figures would have to put themselves in jail. Therefore, the government is creating various illusions in order to soothe the people. “Alexandrov’s music will be played at least twice a day for those who can’t afford food.” It is useless to promise anything to Russian citizens: nobody believes the government’s promises. “The only thing left to do is to sing songs.” Unfortunately for the government, people are already tired of various shows and no longer respond to them. The government is creating more and more new performances: the scandals over Edmond Pope and the national anthem, the harassment of tycoons, etc. But it is not getting any response. Thus, the government is torn between the desire to start the new wave of liberal market reforms planned by Herman Gref, and the desire to let the matter rest, since the status quo suits the present Kremlin regime.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that according to opinion polls, the restoration of Alexandrov’s music for the national anthem is the president’s most memorable action to date. According to some polls, up to 77% of Russians support the restoration of this anthem.

Nevertheless, leading political analyst Andranik Migranyan and some other members of the intelligentsia say the president should not blindly follow the moods of his voters, but actively influence them.

In Migranyan’s opinion, restoring Alexandrov’s tune as the national anthem symbolizes the political defeat of the liberal intelligentsia that became active in the era of perestroika and the initial liberal reforms. Nezavisimaya Gazeta says the intelligentsia has always been “consistently hostile to the official government, and now its political and ideological role is exhausted.”

But the trouble is that there is no middle class in Russia between the bureaucracy and the intelligentsia. Therefore, it is not clear whether the state will manage to suppress the ideological protests of the intelligentsia without restoring totalitarianism. Migranyan notes there is a danger in Russia that the fight between the regime and the intelligentsia will hinder the development of civil society. The article is headlined “The Birth and Death of the Russian Intelligentsia.”

Komsomolskaya Pravda has been looking into the possibility of dictatorship being restored in Russia. According to the newspaper, Putin’s task in 2000 was “to restore the normal functioning of the state, and consequently to stamp out the factors that could make dictatorship inevitable.” According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, the main grounds for introducing dictatorship would be the country’s disintegration. Centrifugal tendencies among regional leaders force the federal government to choose between disintegration and dictatorship as the only way of preventing it. The newspaper considers that the president has managed to avert this danger by his reforms to the state power hierarchy.

The second threatening factor is the economic situation. Komsomolskaya Pravda says that Russia’s enormous foreign debt is due to the privatization of its natural resources. Therefore, oil and gas monopolies will be inevitably nationalized sooner or later. The newspaper is sure that if Putin does not do this, it will be done by his successor.

The third important factor is the personnel problem: “Yeltsin’s personnel policy made any positive developments in the economy basically impossible.” State officials are accustomed to thinking they can get away with anything, and the task of the current government is to reorient them to work for the sake of the state.

Komsomolskaya Pravda hopes that the president will manage to solve these problems. “Otherwise, people will conclude that they can either have good wages in their pockets and heat in their homes – or democracy.” The people’s moral readiness to support dictatorship means a great deal. As Komsomolskaya Pravda notes, dictatorship should not be viewed as a purely negative phenomenon that brings only evil to the people: “We have had a chance to understand that people may suffer from democracy no less than from dictatorship.” Moreover, Komsomolskaya Pravda says that dictatorship may be “not only a stabilizing factor, but also an impetus to economic development.”

Obviously, the traditional Russian idea of the “strong hand” may be supported by a large part of the public, which has been disappointed by democratic dreams.

Thus, Russians may face much that is new in the new year!