Gifts of the Magi: pessimism of US analysts and the optimistic love of the Russian people for their country and president


Valeria Novodvorskaya, “the grandmother of Russian democracy”, has told Novoye Vremya magazine: “Russia did not waste the 20th century: it has come to no one knows where, and has given the world no one knows what.”

The start of 2000 was shocking for Russia: Boris Yeltsin “abdicated”. The end of the year was no less shocking, at least for supporters of democracy: Alexandrov’s music for the national anthem was adopted as a state symbol. Novodvorskaya noted that “Russia gained a temporary reprieve from hell, but now it is back – to the accompaniment of Alexandrov’s requiem.”

However, Novodvorskaya thinks that all of Russian history over the past millenium is graphic evidence of the ineffectiveness of the state and society. For instance: in the 10th century, Rus was a confederation with democratic government in its towns. At the end of the 20th century the government again began to create “a command hierarchy of undemocratic centralism”. In the 10th century, Rus had a professional army (the warbands of princes). In the 20th century Russia had “a forced army”. A setback in the economy is clear: “at the beginning of the century Russia was like the International Monetary Fund (Europe used to borrow money from Russia). At the end of the century, Russia was begging for money from Germany and France.”

It turns out that “medieval Rus is Russia’s democratic option”. Instead of designing new military hardware, the famous Russian military-industrial complex should create a time machine for transporting everyone to the 11th century “to rich fields, huge sturgeon, innumerable game-birds, and clean air”. Novodvorskaya notes that such election program would guarantee any political party immense popularity and no less than 90% of votes.

Victor Loshak, Editor-in-Chief of the weekly Moskovskie Novosti, views the current mood of democrats (even if they are not as radical as Novodvorskaya) as “a feast of embarrassed winners”. He considers the present political system “a frost-bitten democracy”, a democracy “with Lenin’s mausoleum, Stalin’s anthem, an amorphous mass of economists in the parliament, and the military in civil administration”. (Loshak notes that Yeltsin, with his famous flair, managed to predict a world trend: “There is no room in this world for sentimental politics. Political figures whose views were shaped by the 1960s have left power; their place has been taken by the children of the Cold War: the pragmatists Schroeder, Putin, George W. Bush…”). As it turns out, Putin’s democracy is supported not by the private sector, like in Western countries, but by bureaucrats who have become active participants in market relations.

Loshak notes that such a democracy discredits Russia in the opinion of our Western mentors. But it should be noted that such a plight is much better than “a police state with an isolated rural economy”. That’s why it’s no wonder that “the out-of-date and frozen population” of the Russian Federation has approved the president’s choice in agreeing to sacrifice the achievements of recent years. For instance, freedom of speech. Loshak thinks that the public’s indifference to this problem can be explained: political consultants now do what “ideological departments of the Communist Party used to do: they deceive the people”. In replacing information by propaganda, presidential aides are making a qualitative change in Russian democracy. Loshak quoted from a gloomy prediction in the CIA’s report on “Global Trends to 2015” about Russia’s future, which sets out the causes of Russia lagging behind Western countries: “Putin’s inclination toward hierarchical rule from Moscow, and public support for this… the capability of the ruling elite to remain in power regardless of circumstances.” Loshak wonders if there is a chance of refuting this prediction.

In fact, the CIA’s conclusion – which, as Alexander Yanov, a well-known columnist, said in Moskovskie Novosti, had been prepared over 15 months based on materials from the Russian media – seems like a verdict.

According to the authors of this report, Russia and its CIS partners have reached a crucial point, beyond which the lag will become irreversible. Within the next 15 years “these countries will fall behind the West and major developing nations”.

The reasons are diverse: economic (first of all, inadequate structural reforms and decaying infrastructure), demographic (the Russian population is declining and becoming less healthy), political (Putin’s policies). According to the CIA, the most damaging factor is Russia’s foreign policy: groundless ambitions to be a military rival to the US; “the dramatically reduced resources of Russia” which continue to decline; and the hopeless ambition to become the CIS leader. According to the report “the central role of Russia will continue to decrease, and by 2015 Eurasia will become a geographic notion without any political, economic, or cultural reality”.

Alexander Yanov is interested in whether this verdict can be appealed: “I think it can. The CIA has been known to be wrong.” Yanov says the US does not take into consideration “the possibility of extraordinary developments” which Russia might produce: “The current trends have been extrapolated into the future: that’s how the prediction was made. But this is rather imprudent, like tomorrow’s weather forecast based on today’s weather”. Yanov advises the pragmatic US analysts, who are not used to factoring in the whimsical twists of Russian history, not to forget about perestroika, for instance, “which was a bolt from the blue for the entire world”.

According to Yanov, some great surprises which Americans cannot understand are very likely to happen in Russia: in any case, groups in Russian society which have learnt to appreciate their economic freedom are able to understand that current trends will lead Russia into a dead end. They can demand that the course be changed.

Expert magazine considers that Russia’s main asset in the future will be the “human resources” of Russian reforms (namely, the middle class).

According to the magazine, Russia has tried to revive the middle class three times. In the early 1990s practically all educated people in Russia aspired to this status. This first middle class was ruined by “atavistic ideas about the role of the state as an unlimited source of power and welfare”. The beginning of Gaidar’s reforms in 1992 spelled the end of this middle class.

The second attempt to create a middle class was the period until “Black Tuesday” in 1994. This period was marked by the removal of Soviet prohibitions and, as Expert describes, “a euphoric readiness to obtain all material comforts” under the slogan “I’m not a worker, I’m a partner”. After the failure of all adventures of that time, the cleverest representatives of the middle class understood that no one will pay them for supporting reforms.

The third attempt gave a new name to the Russian middle class: “new Russians”. According to Expert, the third middle class “did not consider themselves part of the people”. Each “new Russian” existed apart from society. His income depended on his luck. The August 1998 crisis was the end of his prosperity: “it turned out that each new Russian was a reprobate who balanced on the verge of breaking the law”.

However, Expert says that signs of a new social class have now appeared in Russia; the magazine proposes to call these people “middle Russians”. Their main feature is confidence in their capabilities and seeing their incomes as earned money (“I earn” instead of “I’m paid”). At the same time there are certain peculiarities which determine the individuality of “middle Russians” and their social tactics. Firstly, their patriotism is “immediate, personal and affectionate”. In addition, despite their “peculiarity” they do not consider themselves a special caste, and are ready to cooperate with members of other social classes. They are politically active: they are free from the chronic politics fatigue syndrome which has affected the rest of society.

Experts says: “All this is very strange and surprising. This does not fit in with the depression of Russian society.” The appearance of “middle Russians” is the main sociological discovery of the past few months.

However, when these people say “we exist” they also warn “there are few of us”. Researchers think this group consists of only 4 million Russian citizens. Due to the small number of such people, the prospects that they will cure Russia of “permanent depression” are doubtful.

Nevertheless, Expert thinks there is some hope. Only these people can “initiate the political, cultural and international revival of Russia”. According to Expert, these people “must find each other as soon as possible” in order to “create the form of their participation in social affairs which will allow them to become a new power in Russia”. This social class must remember that time is against them: the deeper Russia plunges into depression, the more difficult it will be to return it to normal life.

According to the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), says Rossyiskaya Gazeta, it is mostly respondents with a high social status who are concerned about the fate of Russia. However, about 77% of respondents consider themselves patriots; though there are more of them among well-to-do people: 82%. Moscow, traditionally described as cosmopolitan, actually has the highest number of patriots: 84% of Moscow respondents consider themselves patriots. Overall, the number of patriots is about equal in big cities and in small towns, where it seems to be mostly unconnected to the economic situation. Opinions are especially gloomy in small towns.

According to the poll, Rossyiskaya Gazeta presents a “generalized image of an anti-patriot”: it is a person under 25 years old, poorly educated, who lives in a small town, “a person without a past, and with a doubtful future”. If we keep in mind that a considerable part, if not the majority, of Russian citizens live in small towns, this might scare anyone: the young people in Russian provinces apparently have a negative view of their own country.

Meanwhile, it is quite interesting to see what Russians mean by patriotism. Over half of respondents think patriotism means “love of the Motherland”; however, only a third said that it means to “work for the Motherland’s welfare”. About 17% of respondents, the less educated and successful part of the population, believe that patriotism means “considering that your country is the best country in the world”. As for working for the welfare of the Motherland, 42% of respondents, mostly highly educated and well-off, want to do this.

Rossyiskaya Gazeta also says that according to the VTsIOM data, the Russian intelligentsia does not consider that “loving the Motherland” means “telling the bitter truth about it”. Only 7% of intelligentsia, against the average 12% of citizens, still hold this opinion. According to the paper, this is a very good and important sign: “The educated class is now well aware that denunciation, of which there has lately been a real epidemic, is a dead end; we need real action to change life for the better.”

Moskovskie Novosti weekly mentions Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov among those capable of representing the supporters of democracy in Russia today.

Right now Ryzhkov is one of the major, and almost the only, opponents of the Kremlin on the issue of party reforms. According to Valery Vyzhutovich, an observer for Moskovskie Novosti, the bill on political parties proposed by President Putin is far from liberal: it sharply restricts the number of participants in the political process. At the same time, the leaders of the Duma factions have approved the presidential bill. What they mostly like about the bill is that it sharply reduces the possibility of competition from parties which are not already successful. That is why Ryzhkov called the new bill “a punitive division of the party market” among the monopolists who currently control it. According to Ryzhkov, there is also a danger of a “party-bureaucratic model” arising, which would exclude the public from participation in the activities of political parties. Moskovskie Novosti stresses that “Ryzhkov is alone. There are no more volunteers to argue with the Kremlin party-builders, whose reforms are supposed to provide the executive branch with maximal comfort and all conveniences.”

Moskovskie Novosti says Ryzhkov has no chance of winning the parliamentary battle: “Since being expelled from Unity for his liberal voting record, he has been an independent deputy. But the fate of political parties in Russia will be decided in the Duma by party majorities on the basis of inner- and inter-party interests.” The paper says that Ryzhkov is not eager to get back to the party “horde”. However, the “hordes” are most unlikely to accept the “reckless critic of almost all Putin’s actions”, including creation of the federal districts (“this has complicated the system of ruling Russia even further”); establishment of the State Council (“a body for display only, that decides nothing”); the results of combating the tycoons (“There are no significant changes. Some have been distanced from the Kremlin, others have gained more money and power.”). So, Ryzhkov has turned out to be a non-standard part in the “voting machine” of the Duma. Still, Moskovskie Novosti consider Ryzhkov “pragmatic, not romantic”. It is his pragmatism that makes him speak out “clearly and distinctly”, which surprises many of his more devious colleagues.

Meanwhile, the president’s popularity rating is still very high. According to the Regional Political Research Agency (results published by Novoe Vremya magazine), 57% of Russian citizens approve of Vladimir Putin’s performance as head of state; 45% of respondents called him the man of the year. However, 28% of respondents were unsure, which is rather high if we remember the unanimous delight of a year ago. Still, both Putin’s successes and failures have hardly impacted judgements about his performance: the majority of respondents can see no reasons why their attitude to the president should change. Nonetheless, 33% of respondents named among such reasons the worsening of the economic situation in Russia; 16% of respondents believe that the drawn-out war in Chechnya is bad for the president’s rating.

Novoe Vremya stresses that the war in Chechnya has been somewhat forgotten by the Russian public; although only 10% of Russians believe that the federal forces have won and the Chechen guerrillas have been entirely defeated. On the contrary, 47% of respondents believe that “a number of guerrillas have not surrendered and will continue a partisan war”; 23% of respondents are convinced that “the main aim has not been achieved, and the casualties among Russian soldiers and civilians have been in vain”.

At the same time, Novoe Vremya reports that according to various polls, between half and two-thirds of respondents are convinced that it is still necessary to use force in Chechnya. “This does not mean that Russians are unusually militant, or that people are still afraid. It only means that overall, nobody cares.”

The first leap in Putin’s approval rating in 1999 was due to his promises of a speedy victory in Chechnya. Putin failed to keep this promise: the federal army is gradually “settling into its garrisons” and is beginning to care not about control over the occupied territory, but about reduction of its losses: “It is an open secret for Russians that about the same number of soldiers as the Kursk submarine crew are killed in Chechnya each month.” Still the presidential approval rating is not falling. And having understood that Chechnya does not jeopardize the political calm in Moscow, President Putin has stopped emphasizing the Chechnya problem. “Any attempt to sort out the issue carries the risk of exacerbating the situation. Putin has enough such risks without Chechnya,” says Novoe Vremya.

According to Argumenty I Fakty weekly, since taking office, Putin’s major aims have been to dissociate himself from the Yeltsin heritage and establish the new state power hierarchy, while maintaining his approval rating at the same level. As Argumenty I Fakty says, all these aims may be easily considered to be virtual reality: “consequently, the president’s major actions have also been virtual”. For instance, approval of the Soviet anthem and “meaningful visits” to former Soviet client states.

However, in the new year President Putin will have to pay much more attention to real issues: it is impossible to maintain his rating with the efforts of image-makers only: “real life makes virtual reality shrink like a torn balloon”. The president was taught the most serious lesson last August, when the Kursk nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea.

Ilya Milshtain writes in Novoe Vremya that after the submarine disaster Russians were shocked by the cold-heartedness of the authorities: “What the Kremlin administration later considered to be a planned campaign against the president was in fact the normal reaction of normal people to the abnormal behavior of the president.” That time the Kremlin image-makers, as well as their “colleagues from the secret services who make up the inner circle of the beloved Russian leader” gave the president bad advice: about half of respondents described the president’s decision remain at a Black Sea holiday resort as unethical, at a time when the whole nation was relying on the president’s participation in trying to rescue the Kursk sailors.

Nevertheless Milshtain admits that when the president finally started to act and speak out, he made a number of politically wise decisions: he declared national mourning, went to Severomorsk, met with relatives of the crew at Vidyaevo, promised to help them – and, in fact, kept his promise.

Milshtein writes: “Unlike the Kursk, President Putin made it to the surface; he did not allow himself to be sunk, he was saved. He came out of the icy sea, from the fight with public opinion, having strengthened his union with the military and the special services still further.” According to Milshtein, it was in August that Putin “made his final decision to put Russia in order”.

As for the Russian public, in many of them the August shock has left no trace. According to the data provided by Novoe Vremya, recently the residents of Eysk, a city by the Azov Sea, proposed building a new Kursk submarine using money from public donations. State-sector employees made their fist contribution to the fund: their daily wages. Novoe Vremya writes: “It is of little importance who will misappropriate this money, the local government or the federal authorities. The enthusiasm of the people is of the greatest importance here, those people who must have refused to trust the president last August. All this is in the past.”

According to Leonid Radzikhovsky, a political observer for the Segodnya newspaper, the past year clearly showed that the “masses” like the president, and the “elite” does not resist him. Thus, the president’s hands have been untied. And it should be noted that he is barely moving those untied hands -which seems to be the best option for the weary Russian public, which is dreaming of nothing more than a new era of stagnation. Will this dream come true?

According to Radzikhovsky, the answer to this question should be sought outside Russia, on world oil markets. Within Russia, everyone is ready for stagnation: “the poor; the elite, overflowing with money; vigorous youth; and small-scale careerists (political leaders)”. And everyone hopes to complete some business of their own while the oil dollars are still flooding into Russia.

Radzhkhovsky believes that if there is a slump on the oil market, as has long been predicted by analysts, Putin “will have to do something”.

What will Putin do, and what can the possible consequences of his actions be? It still seems there is no answer to this question. Chris Stephen, a Moscow correspondent of The Scotsman, suggested in an article published by Novoe Vremya that the successes and failures of Putin’s presidency are very likely to be judged “by the criteria that are currently being created”. Stephen does not rule out that the Putin regime is good for Russia at the start of his presidency, but might be bad for it in the end: “At first, his desire for order might save Russia from destruction. By creating a tough system of federal power, he is likely to create a stable basis for development. However, further development will demand more room to move…”

However, Stephen also suggests that “Russia probably does need Putin, just in order to give some shape to this always-anarchic country”.

Russia is indeed rather unusual. The results of opinion polls that have been abundant in the media over the holiday season also confirm this, adding a number of interesting features to the collective portrait of Russians. Besides, the emotional peculiarities of Russian citizens are no less interesting than their social situation.

According to Moskovsky Komsomolets, which cites the VTsIOM research center, work is now a source of emotional satisfaction for only 2% of Russians. Only 36% of Russians describe themselves as self-confident, which is very little: in Europe no less than 70% of people have this feeling.

At the same time, Russians connect self-confidence not with the results of their work, and not even with the results of their love life, but mostly with their appearance: a quarter of men and half of women say that the most important thing for them is to look good.

As for their love lives, things are very strange here. According to VTsIOM, 24% of Russians have not yet decided if they like sex or not. Two-thirds of Russians are not satisfied with their sex lives, while one-fifth do not care about sex at all.

At the same time, according to Reuters figures (also published by Moskovsky Komsomolets), Russia is the fifth happiest nation in the world. “Only residents of Kenya, North Korea and a couple of other little-known nations are happier than Russians…”

Still, it is not clear why we are so happy. Perhaps it’s despite everything.

After seeing the figures above, the attitude of the Russians toward their president stops being a puzzle: “it’s just an ordinary Russian miracle”, an unmotivated love.

For instance, according to ARPI, 46% of Russian citizens are convinced that President Putin, no matter what he says or does, is always “speaking for the ordinary people”. Clearly, it’s quite impossible to lose such a vast support base in just one year.

So President Putin still has time for decisive action – though nobody knows how much time.