Vladimir Putin as the president of the Russian people


“Media Minister Mikhail Lesin is rapidly changing from an ordinary official into the informational director of Russia,” was the comment of the Segodnya daily on the amendments to media laws tabled in the Duma by members of Unity, the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), the Fatherland-All Russia faction, and the People’s Deputy bloc.

According to Segodnya, these amendments will make Mikhail Lesin a real monopolist in the area of television and radio broadcasting – if only through the transfer of the right to issue licenses from the regional competition commissions to the Media Ministry and its local branches.

Segodnya says that the real attitude of the government toward the media is made clear not only through direct bans on unambiguous calls to change the constitutional order, as it used to be, but also through bans on “instigation” of the same. “For instance, television footage of Union of Right Forces deputies refusing to rise while Alexandrov’s anthem is played could always be interpreted as ‘disrespect for the national anthem’,” which could lead to trouble with a TV station’s broadcasting license. Moreover, the paper says, any criticism at all in the media might be considered in the light of this amendment.

The Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper draws some conclusions of its own: “The pro-Kremlin factions want to restrict media freedom.” The paper reserves its strongest criticism for the proposal by some deputies to change the part of the law which defines who can be considered as a professional journalist. People who are not on the editorial staff, but work on contract, may be deprived of their right to disseminate information. Nezavisimaya Gazeta stresses that “this is a clear way of putting pressure on the independent media; since, for example, it is mostly contract journalists who agree to work in Chechnya”.

The media will also have many problems if the Duma passes amendments to articles 49 and 51 of the main media law. These stipulate that journalists “must verify the authenticity of the information they report”; but on the other hand, they do not have the right “to conceal or misrepresent significant information, nor to spread rumors as reliable information, nor to disseminate information in order to discredit anyone”, and so on. This means that if a journalist starts an investigation which concerns the business reputation of an official or a company, the offended party has the right to appeal to the corresponding article of the law. . Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that this means no information can be published before a trial.

However, the media is convinced that the government has many other ways of putting the media in its place, beside introducing the amendments to media laws.

Citing sources in the General Prosecutor’s Office, some news agencies on Friday published details about the salaries and loans of Media-Most journalists; as well as, according to Izvestia, “Media-Most’s allies from among other periodicals”. At the same time, the General Prosecutor’s Office insists that journalists have not broken any laws: the loans in question did not exceed $76,000 to $164,000. It is entirely obvious, says Izvestia, that the only aim of the leak from the General Prosecutor’s Office was to discredit the “scribblers”, by saying: “They are arguing about freedom of speech, while they’re making so much money!” It is easy to imagine the reaction of the tabloids and readers to this information. According to Izvestia, the position of the quality media is also rather ambiguous in this situation: at least for their provincial intelligentsia readers, with “their acute ethical sensibilities and insultingly low wages”. In these terms, to defend people who earn tens of thousands of dollars for their articles means automatically “drawing upon themselves suspicion of being bought by big business, of trading the ideal of liberty for golden coins”. Thus, the authorities have a perfect opportunity to “discredit the writing class as a whole, and then take revenge for all the criticism journalists have been writing and will write”.

By the way, the aforementioned event is most unlikely to improve the situation within the community of journalists – at least, it will be rather difficult to speak of solidarity. In this context, Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes the speech by Vsevolod Bogdanov, head of the Union of Russian Journalists, at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe: he complained that the Russian media are dependent on the authorities mostly because the average Russian journalist earns less than $50 a month.

Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky said at the first emergency congress of Russian human rights groups: “We think that a special and intricate operation is unfolding in Russia, an operation aimed at eliminating the independent media.” (As quoted in Obshchaya Gazeta.) Yavlinsky says the government wants obedient media outlets to use as a weapon against its opponents. Yavlinsky stressed: “There are no debates with opponents nowadays. There are no longer any political discussions. When opponents have to be dealt with, they will be marked for the kill – on TV or in the newspapers. Or they can be disqualified from an election just three hours before polls open. That’s all.” According to the Yabloko leader, the executive branch “feels free to do whatever it likes, without being accountable to anyone”. Yavlinsky believes that it is high time for decisive action; in particular, he thinks, it is urgently necessary to pass a law on civil supervision over the secret services: “We insist on the need for such accountability, as soon as possible.”

Besides, Yavlinsky thinks it is necessary to establish a permanent meeting place: “We want to gather all the democratic and civil society forces, no matter what their titles and positions, without any subordination, at the same table”. Thus, Yavlinsky says that he and his Yabloko colleagues have started “practical activities” for creation an opposition to the ruling regime.

Lidia Grafova, a columnist with Literaturnaya Gazeta, asks: “Will people support the opposition to ‘Putinism’?” According to Grafova, the current political system is gradually turning Russia into a police state, and “the citizenry, if it doesn’t want to be downtrodden, must resist the pressure.” At the same time, Grafova admits that the hopes of success are very faint: “Over the years of perestroika tortures, civil society in Russia has failed to mature. There is no society, and the population keeps silent.”

There is no doubt that the threat of a “constitutional upheaval” is most unlikely to greatly impress the “masses”, although civil rights activists perceive it in the Kremlin bill on the Constitutional Assembly. This bill has been one of the immediate reasons for convening the emergency congress. The human rights groups are also concerned that some “appointed officials” will have the right to “change the Constitution in accordance with presidential orders”. In any case, the participants of the congress consider themselves more of a constructive opposition than an irreconcilable opposition: “If our demands are met, it would be a crime not to make a move in response.”

Meanwhile, Obshchaya Gazeta draws the conclusion that during the first year of Putin’s presidency the outlines of the new political direction have been defined very well: “Overall, it is heading in the direction of restoring something that’s traditional in Russia – an authoritarian regime, a regime independent of the people.”

At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the path which Russia has now chosen once again has already led it to disaster twice. “There has been more than enough of everything that President Putin is trying to restore now, both in Russian history and in the USSR.” And the new state power hierarchy is most unlikely to be as strong as it used to be under Russian czars and Soviet general secretaries. The presidential envoys to the federal districts are most unlikely to achieve the same level of unification in Russian regions as there was in previous empires – from Central Asia to the Arctic. “And there will never be the same level of control over the media, let alone the economy.” Contemporary Russia is a relatively powerless state: “A third trip along the same road is being made by Russia – and its people, who are significantly fewer, are tired and weakened, who have exhausted themselves to the utmost in previous attempts. And it is clear that the third attempt is destined to fail even faster than the previous ones.” Nonetheless, neither the nation nor the authorities know any other ways: “And this makes President Putin symbolic, as a real people’s president of Russia.” Alexander Nitsko, an observer with Literaturnaya Gazeta, writs: “Twice in the 20th century, Russians voluntarily destroyed their state down to the foundations. And it was done not only because of ideology, but for mercenary reasons.” In 1917, most people supported the Bolsheviks “in the hope of getting more land for free”. In 1991, Russians “wanted sovereignty, separation from other republics, even from Ukraine and Belarus, in order not to share Siberian gas and oil with them.” As a result, 30 million Russians in other post-Soviet republics became second-class citizens. And this has led to many problems, including the war in the North Caucasus, where people could not agree that they did not have the right to establish states of their own, unlike the people of Kazakhstan or Estonia. Unfortunately, Nitsko writes, Russians have no desire at all to analyze their own historical failures and defeats: “Still, the major enemy of Russia is its forgetfulness.” Consequently, the tragic scenario of Russia’s break-up is likely to repeat itself.

Novaya Gazeta also mentions historical lessons, considering the current situation in Russia. According to this paper, the ongoing argument about the direction of the reforms between Herman Gref and Andrei Illarionov is extremely reminiscent of the arguments between the “left and right” Bolsheviks in the 1920s, an argument between Bukharin and Trotsky.

Just as in the 1920s, both opponents keep to the same ideology, both believe the private enterprises, free market, and liberal principles. Just as then, the difference in about the tempos of the reforms. Gref supports gradual changes. He believes that as long as the situation may be considered satisfactory, there is no necessity to swing the boat: it is necessary to appreciate the political stability, which has been achieved with so many difficulties. Illarionov, on the contrary, is convinced that the government is losing a unique chance for forcing the liberal changes. Thus, currently Gref acts Bukharin, Illarionov may be considered a “liberal reincarnation of Trotsky”, while the oil exports plays he same role in the economy of the country as grain exports played in 1920s. in 1920, it was the peasantry, who had to repay for the structural changes. At present, according to Novaya Gazeta, the victim is “the majority of urban hired workers, who are expecting no profits from the next liberalization wave.”

However, it is very interesting that while in 1920s the situation was more or less satisfactory, Bukharin defeated the radical Trotsky. However, as soon as the Great Depression started, and grain prices fell, foreign revenues ceased and the expectations of the radicals were unfulfilled. Stalin and the central bureaucracy that supported him implemented an economic model of their own. Instead of the “workers’ democracy” promised earlier, a harsh system of administrative control was introduced. Collective farms were forcibly established in villages. Industry, mostly militarized, was established very fast. Both Bukharin and Trotsky were destroyed.

At present, says Novaya Gazeta, the situation is very similar: oil prices are falling, and the prospect of a global economic crisis is becoming real. “In a year’s time, no one will be buying Russian oil and Russian metals – at least, not at today’s prices.” The only question is, who among the current elite is capable of playing Stalin?

Paradoxically, Novaya Gazeta concludes that the answer to this question is far from being obvious: Putin does not resemble Stalin, “even if he would like to think otherwise”. Moreover, the government now has no effective bureaucratic machine to use as a support; neither does it have the means to create one. Despite relative economic prosperity, no one is investing in the Russian economy. What’s worse, according to leading analyst Mikhail Delyagin, in 2000 capital flight rose 30% and amounted to $24.6 billion. The more money Russian companies make, the more they take out of Russia: there are always countries which are more attractive than Russia for capital. Another attempt at “shock therapy” is impossible, since the people have no money – or at least, they have no money to spare. Thus, the government has no money to restructure the economy – unless it turns to the tycoons. According to Novaya Gazeta, Kremlin bureaucrats might like to deprive hostile tycoons of their assets, and give these to other tycoons, their allies – however, this would be impossible to describe as economic reform. Expropriation under the present ideology of the Russian government is also impossible: this ideology “demands ‘fat cats’ should be protected, since they are the source of our power”.

Thus, Novaya Gazeta concludes, Russia does not need to be afraid of a new version of Stalinism. On the other hand, the liberal reforms are unlikely to succeed. It is most likely that Russia will have to go through a new political crisis, in addition to its economic crisis. “Only the political forces which will form as a result of that crisis will be able to propose new economic strategies.”

Roy Medvedev, a well-known historian, says in the newspaper Versty that after a century of “totalitarianism and authoritarianism” any attempts to create a civilized state in Russia are utopian. The public, and the majority of state bodies, have rejected most of the reforms because they were not ready for such outcomes. Medvedev says: “All Putin can do now is choose state capitalism as a reference point of his policy”.

According to Medvedev, state capitalism is better than the radical Communism “to which we were led for many years”. At the same time, state capitalism is more acceptable than “the oligarchic and gangster capitalism of the past decade”. In short, this is the only possible choice for Russia: “I think state capitalism is the only path to a real democracy under the present conditions.”

Roy Medvedev thinks that all misgivings about Vladimir Putin’s regime are groundless. According to Medvedev, Putin does not infringe on the rights of small producers: “State capitalism does not allow corporations to infringe on national interests, and does not tolerate competition in its sphere.” As far as a free press is concerned, nothing has changed: NTV “continues to broadcast its anti-Putin reports as before”. The harassment of Vladimir Gusinsky is the media-tycoon’s own fault: Gusinsky, as well as Berezovsky, tried to dictate their own rules to the government, which “Putin and his state capitalism cannot tolerate”. According to Roi Medvedev, there is one region of Russia where state capitalism has been created since 1992. This region is the most prosperous and flourishing. It can serve as an example for the whole country. This region is Moscow. The author explains that Moscow’s economy is arranged as a big corporation. For instance, the existence of any Moscow oligarchs are out of the question despite the fact that about 80% of Russia’s financial channels are concentrated in Moscow. According to Medvedev, all these years Moscow has been carrying out “a secret state-capitalist policy” in order to survive. Yuri Luzhkov has proved that “his activities are a success”. According to the historian, Putin’s and Luzhkov’s paths “coincide”. The article in Versty is titled “Prescription from Turnings”.

It is possible that state capitalism will become Russia’s choice and its president’s choice. In any case, Moskovsky Komsomolets came to a simple conclusion when discussing why democracy never succeeds in Russia: Russian and Western societies are different. The results of an such institution of democratic society as elections is a graphic example: “We elect scoundrels, fools and drunkards with amazing precision.”

According to “Moskovsky Komsomolets”, Russian post-socialist society is a society “with strong social bonds”. The circle of contacts of Russian people is huge: “Every Russian citizen maintains friendly relations with officials, or doctors, or with some other very useful person.” Because of this, Russian people do not need any reasonable democratic arrangement of society. For instance, people are not interested in political parties because the latter do not influence their lives. The favorite slogan of Russian people is “Nothing depends on us anyway!” Using this slogan people either do not vote, or vote for the first name they see (sometimes people support those who use the rudest and the most obtrusive propaganda methods). The most conscientious voters activate their “strong links”, consult with their friends and rely on the opinion of those whom they trust, but never on the programs of political parties.

Moskovsky Komsomolets says that as a result of all this we create a complex of reasons which will ruin the country. Firstly, random people come to power: “various scoundrels, military and counter=intelligence agents, and criminals”. Secondly, they create teams of weak and incompetent officials. The usual absence of public control plays a fatal role as a result of which talks concerning conscientious work can be considered objectless.

According to Moskovsky Komsomolets, “the way of life and the mentality which have formed under pressure from Communism do not make it possible to build a reasonable and comprehensible political system and civil society in Russia”. We are flying on our cozy magic carpet, making the same mistakes, electing random people our leaders and awaiting their mercy.

Russia’s unpreparedness to assimilate Western values and views is viewed both by Rusian and Western analysts as an objective reality. It should be noted that some of analysts are annoyed by this peculiarity. The weekly Moskovskie Novosti has published an article by the well-known US political analyst Zbigniew Brzezinski concerning Russia’s prospects. According to Brzezinski, Russia must adjust itself to a new geopolitical situation. Russia will have to reconsider its place in the world for this. Russia cannot yet put up with the break-up of the USSR, and has not defined its foreign political ambitions “repeatedly trying to pose as a great power despite its backwardness”. Brzezinski is irritated by Russia’s attempts “stir up anti-American sentiments in European capitals”, and “angry invectives” concerning US hegemony. The analyst notes that at the same time Russia is trying to get the US entangled in a crusade against the would-be Islamic threat to the Russian south (which has been spurred by Russia’s outrageous behavior in Afghanistan and Chechnya)”. According to Brzezinski, in the meantime “Russia asks to organize a meeting between Putin and George W. Bush as soon as possible”. The US politician says that Russia must abandon its attempts to oppose NATO expansion eastward. It should understand that “Europe’s autonomy in the defense sector is not an alternative to the current defense interrelation between the US and Europe”. Putin must understand that “the current rearrangement of the North Atlantic defense system is exactly a rearrangement, not a split”.

According to Brzezinski, Russia will be able to build its radiant future in the Europe “which knows that its global role depends on organic relations with the US. If Russia joins such a Europe, it will gradually be able to become a modern, democratic, and flourishing member of the developing North Atlantic community”. Brzezinski proposes that Russia take Germany and Turkey, which reconsidered their place in the world in the 20th century, as a model.

Another American author Ira Strauss, Professor at the American University in Moscow, commented on Mr. Brzezinski’s article in Moskovsky Komsomolets. Ira Strauss says that the advice given by the former aide to the US president for national security explain “a series of failures by the West in its relations with Russia”.

According to Ira Strauss, Russia is advised to adjust itself to Europe and the US by acknowledging the new geopolitical situation unilaterally. This means that Russia must adapt itself to the rules of the Western community instead of joining it. “Despite the fact that Russia agreed to a series of vary painful adaptations in 1989-1991 the West makes it to jump through new burning hoops like a circus animal”.

Ira Strauss says that as a result the influence of Russian democrats who thought that Russia might surrender the empire for the sake of friendly relations with the West “because the West is an ally, and can defend our interests” has decreased.

At present “Russia feels that the West damages its interests along its border, replacing Russia’s responsibility zones with zones for NATO exercises”. As a result the arguments of the Communists and nationalists who charge liberals with treason were again confirmed.

According to Professor Strauss, Brzezinski’s piece of advice to take Germany as a model is rather dangerous: “The West is now treating Russia like it treated Germany after World War I.” Strauss thinks that demands to repay all debts and indemnities, keep down the imperial ambitions were the essence of “the adaptation method” which led to the birth of the fascist regime in Germany and to the tragedy of the World War II.

However, Russian analysts noticed the resemblance between Russia and the Weimar Republic. At present the question “Why drive Russia into a corner?” (the title of Ira Strauss’ article) has sprung up in the West.