On the peculiarities of government policy and Russian patriotism in the winter period


Russia’s notorious unpredictablity, cited in any attempt at analyzing its politics, economy or society, has struck again – this time it’s the weather.

Most analysts were predicting a general crisis in 2003; but because of the intense cold beyond the Urals this winter (a complete surprise for the authorities, as usual), the effect has already been felt. A series of man-made disasters in Siberia and the Russian Far East has shown that Russia, in the words of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “is more in survival mode than in reform mode”. As soon as the people turned to regional governments with demands for “less about reforms and politics – just give us heating”, the helplessness of those goverments became obvious. “Regional leaders who have fought lengthy battles for sovereignty are admitting that their own resources don’t suffice to support essential services in extreme conditions.”

Thus, meteorology has smoothly been transformed into politics (which is completely routine for a country where – in the absence of stability, a secure life, and many other things the West takes for granted – absolutely everything becomes political: from where the president was born to what kind of cars are used by state officials). The consequences of Siberia’s cold snap, “when duly understood,” predicts Nezavisimaya Gazeta, could well lead the president to “narrow the scope of radical economic and political changes.” Man-made disasters are a forceful argument for the need to strengthen the well-known “state power hierarchy”, and to increase the role of the security services in society (this isn’t just a reference to the Emergency Ministry, of course).

In these circumstances, predicts Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Putin’s presidential envoys will undoubtely win their confrontation with the old Kremlin elite – and they will also gain extra emergency powers.

Russia is becoming a state based on authoritarianism and a single personality, while retaining a few “democratic counterweights” – says William Smirnov, deputy head of the Russian Political Science Academy, in an interview with Vek weekly. Smirnov considers this process to be quite logical: “The historical tradition in Russia shows that any leader – and not only in Soviet times – unfortunately has to make use of authoritarian power wielded by one person, in order to transform the nation, achieve even a relative level of order, rein in the limitless selfishness of the elites.” Smirnov regrets this, admitting that he himself holds “mostly liberal” views. But he is nevertheless convinced that in our “collective historical memory” there still lives “an acknowledgement that a tough leadership style, and tough policies, are correct and traditional.” From this point of view, Putin’s political style is entirely consistent “not only with the Russian mentality, but with our political and legal culture” – in which the focus has never been on whether people obey the law, but on the meaning of “justice, freedom, and truth.”

This is also a useful viewpoint from which to examine the ever-growing number of security service officers in government: “What other bodies have survived the trials of perverted democracy?” Russia’s political and business elite has turned out to be short-sighted, says Vek: they all based their actions solely on personal or corporate goals, unconcerned about the national interest. “So it’s not surprising that Putin has been drawing a lot of his staff from the security services.”

Smirnov says that what we’re seeing now is “a change in the system of government without official constitutional change.” (As an example, he cites the reforms to the Federation Council – its former composition ran counter to the principle of separation of powers; also the creation of the seven federal districts, which have essentially become “new federal administration centers”.)

Actually, constitutional change isn’t ruled out. According to Argumenty i Fakty weekly, the Kremlin and its associates are working on various options for amendments and additions to the Constitution.

Rumor has it that the favored option is the work of Mikhail Krasnov, a former aide to President Yeltsin. In part, this includes a proposal to set up between five and seven more federal districts – which will include about 30 of the present regions. This means some existing regions will be reduced, and other will gain at their expense. Moreover, it is proposed to let the president rather than the Federation Council appoint the general prosecutor; and to increase the presidential term in office to at least five years. In a word, the policy of building up the “state power hierarchy” (in simple terms, “tightening the screws”) continues.

Despite this (or maybe because of it), Putin remains as popular as ever. In another article, Argumenty i Fakty says his consistently high approval rating makes Putin’s name a great marketing tool – a weapon in battles for top political posts. In the recent regional elections, the “Putin and me” ploy became one of the most widely-used methods. Moreover, it wasn’t unusual for the PR teams of rival candidates in the same region to use this method with equal enthusiasm. They used image editing to create photos of a candidate standing next to Putin; they used print media specially created for the elections, and the Internet. How could a voter fail to trust a “Putin person”? And it’s quite easy to become a Putin person with today’s level of computer graphics. Understandably, the big money floating around in the regions during campaigns make elections “a short but sweet period for those who are expert in campaign advertising tricks.”

Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, has said in an interview with Literaturnaya Gazeta that the incumbent regional leaders won the recent round of elections – more specifically, it was the “party of bureaucrats” that won. “Voters are removed from decision-making these days – internal agreements within the ruling elite play the main role.” If an incumbent regional leader is doing reasonably well, and if he has managed to get the local elite on his side, destroy his opponents, and has no conflict with Moscow – as a rule, he will be re-elected.

Oreshkin says that the federal goverment “didn’t get involved in the regional elections over trifles”; but it’s still well known that it does have “a bridle on every regional leader”: presidential envoys, the system of federal agencies in the regions, new laws. Within the ranks of state officials – those who “have influence over business, thanks to the regime, and take their share from it” – there can be people with either right-wing or left-wing political views; nevertheless, “these days he party of victors is as one.” Oreshkin considers that political parties “just aligned themselves with whoever was winning” in the regional elections.

Oreshkin does not consider that the influx of military officers into government is taking on alarming dimensions: “There is such a trend, but it’s big enough to be worth getting alarmed about.” (Out of the ten generals running in the regional elections, only three have won so far.) The reason for this move by the military officers is simple: “The military has only just realized that they lost out when property was being divided. They have resources of force. And we’re talking about healthy, aggressive, ambitious guys in the prime of life. With military experience to boot. They don’t want to feel like they’ve been left behind.” Moreover, the president comes from the same background; looking at the presidential envoys he has appointed, it seems he isn’t averse to “moving his own people forward.”

Writing in Novaya Gazeta, Andrei Piontkowsky describes Russia’s political circumstances as critical: “The three sources or components of Putinism – Yeltsin’s Family, the security services, and the St. Petersburg liberals – have started their decisive battle.”

The conflict could have easily been predicted; these temporary allies had very different goals. They joined forces in autumn 1999 in the “Successor Project”. Yeltsin’s Family was determined at all costs to prevent “a rival clan coming to power, which would endanger not only the Family’s assets, but the personal liberty of its members.” The security services wanted to make a comeback. The liberals wanted “a strong hand which would finally get Russia onto the path of market reforms.”

Piontkowsky says it was just as easy to predict that the security services would come out on top – if only thanks to their “soldarity and their focus on the goal”. Besides, in the Yeltsin era they were practically unrepresented in government – hence they were untainted by all the privatization and corruption scandals. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the security officers have “a huge database on this subject, and they control law-enforcement agencies who are capable of making use of this data.”

As for Putin himself, Piontkowsky believes it is fairly difficult for him to play the role of “an arbiter, keeping the balance between all the competing factions around him” – because of Putin’s lack of experience in politics and in power. Most likely, in this struggle between factions in his team, the president will remain “more of a passive observer.”

“Of course, corruption is the major negative legacy of the Yeltsin regime; and Putin, if he wants Russia to recover, if he wants to stop the degradation of the state, needs to attack corruption with the same passion that Khrushchev attacked Stalin’s repression,” says sociologist Vladimir Shliapentokh, a former Russian citizen and now a professor at the University of Michigan. The public will be much more relaxed about criticism of the Yeltsin regime than it was about Khrushchev’s revelations, Shliapentokh thinks: “One could even say that this would be in line with public expectations.”

The main mystery of Putin’s time in power is why he hasn’t made use of “such an accessible resource for strengthening his power” in the first year of his presidency, at a time when his approval rating was high and the economy was relatively stable.

Overall, according to the US-based sociologist, Putin’s regime can be considered to be unique for Russia. Almost all regimes in Russia over the past two centuries have been authoritarian. Of course, there was some difference between them: the ideology of some of them was based on liberalization of society; others supported strengthening authoritarianism. And the former group, the modernizers, have always supported reforms – if not revolutions – in order to cut the gap between Russia and the West.

Another group – judging by everything, Putin belongs to this group – was always ready to take harsh measures in order to reinforce order in Russia and preserve its territorial integrity.

However, all those leaders, at least at the beginning of their time in power, have denied the preceding regime “though to varying degrees of publicity and intensity”. In these terms, Putin is an exception. The president not only started his term in office with an “ode in praise of Yeltsin”, and then provided Yeltsin with “immunity from prosecution and unbelievable material benefits”, but he still believes it is necessary to “visit Yeltsin, especially before going abroad, and to listen to his admonitions”.

It seems even more amazing that the new president has kept the whole Yeltsin team in the Kremlin (as Vladimir Shliapentokh notes, no Russian czar or Soviet leader ever dared to leave his predecessor’s team in place). But Alexander Voloshin “easily moved from the old boss to the new one, and still remains the second most influential figure in Russian politics, after the president”. Moreover, most of Putin’s erstwhile political rivals have kept their positions in the Kremlin, as well as many tycoons who “received privileges from the previous government”.

There are a number of explanations for the president’s behavior. Some analysts insist that Putin has some moral obligations to Yeltsin, that he feels “grateful, which is very rare for a politician”. Others believe that “the Family” still has some means of influence over the new leader, thus preventing him from taking any unexpected actions. In any case, the author of the article in Obshchaya Gazeta reflects, “if we go by common sense and previous experience”, Putin is surely feeling the burden of his dependence, and sooner or later he will try to get rid of this control.

Besides, as has already been noted, the president does have some scope. Even if the Russian elite accepts that corruption in Russia is inevitable, and fighting it is senseless – the leader, who is usually more dynamic than the elite, may not agree with this; and then he will declare a war against “the Family”, which together with its tycoons is a symbol of corruption in Russia.

Consequently, the article concludes, “the path of evolution of the current regime is perplexing. There are many alternatives, and all are possible.”

Vladimir Bukovsky, a well-known Russian dissident who in the Brezhnev era was exchanged in the West for Chilean communist leader Louis Corvalan, also seems to be taking a far from academic interest in the issue of the “evolution of the regime” and Russia. In his interview with Izvestia, Bukovsky reveals the major reason why Russia has never recovered from communism: “The Communist ideology has disappeared, but the Soviet style remained.” Both society and its leaders have failed to shed this style: “That is why Russia is going backwards. History is like a war – if you do not attack, you lose ground.”

Bukovsky is very pessimistic about the future prospects of Russia: according to him, in the past century Russia has not simply broken up, “it has broken into fragments, flown apart in small pieces, like a broken mirror”. Bukovsky thinks that in the next 30 years the “process of fragmentation” in Russia will continue; it is far from over. Besides, the course of events greatly depends on many factors: first of all, on world oil prices…

Bukovsky refuses to predict when Russia will start to make progress, if it ever starts at all: “They often say: Russia will not disappear, it is a whole civilization! I’m sorry, but there have been precedents in history when whole civilizations have disappeared. And the possibility that the Russian state will disappear by breaking into a number of sovereign principalities is rather high.”

It might sound strange, but Vyacheslav Kostikov, Yeltsin’s former press secretary, in some ways agrees with Bukovsky. Like Bukovsky, Kostikov believes that the fundamental issue has not been settled in Russia yet: the “question of the place of Communist ideology in contemporary Russia”. In his article in the Argumenty i Fakty weekly, Kostikov says that the public “still doesn’t understand what has happened with socialism in Russia – whether it has finally lost its historical battle with capitalism, or whether this has just been another temporary delay, another temporary and brief “thaw”, with a new Andropov on the threshhold”.

Kostikov writes: “We need another ‘Nuremberg trial of the Communists’, otherwise doublethink will continue in Russia as a main reason for the lack of unity in society. The recent events concerning the state symbols can be cited as a graphic example of doublethink.” Kostikov thinks that reform supporters should have demanded not small concessions from the president, but “making nationalist-communist ideas illegitimate”. “As long as the nationalist-communists are allowed to present themselves as bearers of the national idea, we will not be able to stop the war with the past,” and divisions in society will persist. “In order to stop this,” insists Kostikov, “we need a policy on the past.”

According to Vlast magazine, the direction Russia chooses in 2001 will define its political image for many years to come. The magazine considers various ways in which events might develop, depending on the state of the economy, i.e. on oil prices. If oil prices fall rapidly, the Kremlin will surely place the responsibility for the economic failure of its policies on the Cabinet (“it has failed to take advantage of the favorable circumstances of 2000, and to implement the necessary reforms”). In these terms, the Kremlin may give up on the liberal reforms and launch a policy of protectionism. Consequently, security agencies will finally play the leading role: the Federal Security Service will provide for the economic security of Russia; FAGLI, “which has long been independently predicting socio-economic development”, will begin issuing specific recommendations; the Federal Tax Police Service will collect budget revenues. The Armed Forces and the Interior Ministry will be given carte blanche in Chechnya. Obviously, Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov will coordinate the work of the security agencies. Vlast even admits there’s a possibility that the Cabinet might be abolished entirely. Opposition would be possible only as a “semi-underground” organization. As a result, the magazine predicts, Russia might return to the Soviet system of government; but the communist ideology would be replaced with a patriotic ideology.

Given that so far President Putin has not completed any of his reforms (not counting the state symbols), any sudden actions in case of some unfavorable circumstances could lead to a decline in his approval rating; and then there would be many of his opponents who would like to get even with him. Vlast warns that among those opponents might be “regional leaders who have been turned into simple financial managers; and humiliated tycoons.. If they unite, they could be a fairly significant force.”

Then Putin, even if he remains in power, will no longer be the idol of the voters – which means re-election will be impossible for him; while Russia would face the need to choose another path.

Certainly, quite a number of unfavorable factors would have to coincide in order for this scenario to happen. “However, we should not overestimate the power of the Kremlin. Boris Yeltsin was also considered an invincible politician once.”

Meanwhile, Valery Khomyakov, head of the Applied and Regional Policy Agency, says in the Versty newspaper that no matter how the political situation changes in Russia, the right will gain strength, just because of the natural changover of generations: “The right-wing electorate is objectively increasing… as young people reach voting age.” Khomyakov is convinced that in the next parliamentary election the right will get 30% of the vote. According to Khomyakov, even if there is another economic crisis, this will also “give the right some advantages”. The main thing the right needs to do is “to explain to the public what it stands for.”

It is no surprise that the leaders of the Union of Right Forces are not referring to their party as “democratic” these days; since this word now has a negative connotation for the majority of Russians: “Democracy is Russia is understood as licence, which leads to inevitable deterioration in the lives of ordinary people.” The right needs to demonstrate that its ideology is constructive, and that it protects national interests and the people’s right to a normal life.

According to Khomyakov, the right has already scored some wins: although it failed to register many convincing victories at the recent regional elections, it is still gaining more seats in regional legislatures: “And these are the first steps to a further political ascent.”

If the economy remains stable, “society will pay more and more attention to good-looking, self-confident, prosperous people. In fact, that is what the right is.” Thus, it is obvious that the future sympathies of Russians directly depend on world oil prices. Khomyakov suggests that if the economic situation in Russia remains favorable, the leaders of the right should try to convince the public that this is the result of Herman Gref’s economic program, the liberal free-market program. Will the voters believe this?

According to Mikhail Gorshkov, head of the Russian Independent Institute for Social and Ethnic Research (in an article published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta), after many years of distrusting the government – and total pessimism in the Russian public mood – in late 2000 there was a turning-point. For the fist time in many years, the number of people who believe that the upcoming will be successful for them (51%) exceeded the number of people who are afraid that the year will be very difficult or bad for them (39%). There are two major reasons for the upswing in the public mood: high oil prices, which bring dollars into Russia – and the new president. (Two-thirds of Russian citizens still have a positive view of Putin’s performance as president, across all categories of age, social status, or political preference. As usual, only the intelligentsia disagrees: supporters of the Yabloko movement are the most skeptical about both the domestic and foreign policy of President Putin).

According to pollsters, the government should try to find a way to take advantage of this apparent and rather unexpected boost in public optimism; or, in their terms, “to make rational use of this psychological and emotional resource”.

However, as Gorshkov notes, “Russians have always been known for their optimism, even when there are insufficient grounds for it.” Perhaps some disparity with reality is the notorious mysterious peculiarity of the Russian psyche, which enables us to survive the endless problems of our motherland?