Boris Yeltsin turned 70 on February 1. Almost all periodicals made some attempt to take a look at the colorful figure of the first Russian president from today’s new perspective. And, of course, none of them could resist a chance to compare two such different characters as Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.
Many periodicals adopted a nostalgic tone. It’s hardly surprising that almost all yesterday’s fears are now recollected with affection: just like an adult recalls scary tales from childhood.
The Kommersant newspaper titled its article on Yeltsin’s birthday “The One and Only”. All previous complaints seem very insignificant now. Kommersant says: “Only the person who does for Russia more that Yeltsin did will be able to judge the first president of the new Russia. Somehow, we do not see any such politicians in Russia right now.”
Despite the diversity in assessments of the Yeltsin era, his major achievement is undoubted: “Yeltsin made this country free” – with freedom of speech and the media, as well as all the major civil rights. With Yeltsin at the helm, all these liberties were guaranteed. According to Kommersant, now most of Yeltsin’s achievements are in jeopardy.
However, Kommersant says, even if Yeltsin’s initiatives are not continued, his presidency will always remain the brightest and the most romantic period of Russian history in the 20th century: “if only because Russia has not had such high hopes for a long time.” And Russia itself is to blame, not the first president, if these hopes have not been realized. As for Yeltsin, he will always be “the one and only, like a person’s first love”, regardless of attitudes toward him. Kommersant is certain that no one else will ever “arouse such strong feelings among Russians”.
“Yeltsin, Russia, and the 1990s were made for each other,” says Leonid Radzikhovsky, an observer with the Segodnya daily. Hard times create appropriate leaders: “Russia gave Yeltsin vast spaces for a reckless ride, the wind of history was at his back; and he had the courage not to get frightened, to remain standing, and even to keep urging people on…” It would be folly to try to measure such an outstanding person by ordinary standards, or to reproach him for drunkenness, wildness, and the license of the presidential milieu: “Yes, any other Yeltsin – less wild, less reckless, less capable of destroying everyone and everything (primarily himself) – wouldn’t have achieved anything in Russia or with Russia. Here, any great reforms can be carried out either by an executioner or by a Yeltsin.”
Another significant factor should always be taken into account: Yeltsin can be reproached for anything except this: the intention to become “another Stalin”, in order to unite the nation by means of “steel and blood”.
The rest, of course, was in accordance with traditional Russian style.
According to Radzikhovsky, Yeltsin is destined to go down in Russian history as “the most Russian of all Russian leaders”.
The Argumenty i Fakty weekly says of Boris Yeltsin: “Over the past 15 years no one has done so much good or so much harm for Russia.” Nonetheless, despite all his eccentricity (and perhaps partially because of it), he managed to save the country.
Still, it is quite easy to name some more extreme hypothetical developments. “Russia could have tried to defend Yugoslavia, and to give Yugoslavia and Iraq some modern weapons to fight NATO. Russia could have stopped supplying gas to Europe. We could have taken Abkhazia from Georgia and the Crimea from Ukraine… We could have declared the results of privatization to be theft. But what would have happened to Russia then? And would such a country have survived until now?”
It is easy to understand that for anyone with an over-developed instinct for power, no term in office is enough. It took Yeltsin a long time to solve the problem of passing his presidency to a successor. And it took Putin some time to agree to accept the presidency. According to Argumenty i Fakty, Putin’s fear of the responsibility he was assuming was so great that it did not disappear even after the notorious surprise resignation of December 31, 2000. “And of course, over time this fear could unconsciously turn into a dislike of his predecessor.” At present, there is more than enough evidence of revising the Yeltsin legacy. For instance, exiling Boris Berezovsky, “a key shadow figure in the old Kremlin team”. Plus, as Argumenty i Fakty says, the “combat training” for regional leaders, who had become accustomed to a complete lack of supervision during the Yeltsin era. And the information security doctrine, which is actually a blow aimed at the media, which had become used to freedom. And finally, the pointed replacement of Glinka’s music for the national anthem with the former Soviet music; a decision that for the first time drew Yeltsin’s disapproval. The list could be continued.
If we follow Soviet bureaucratic logic, Argumenty i Fakty says, this means we should subsequently expect a variation on Khrushchev’s famous speech at the 20th party congress in 1956, where he denounced his predecessor…
However, Argumenty i Fakty states, Putin is most unlikely to openly break with Yeltsin’s team; at least as long as his presidential popularity rating is high enough.
(According to the National Public Opinion Research Center, VTsIOM, Putin’s approval rating is now the same 68% he had in 1999, when Putin was generally acknowledged as the “man of the year”). At the same time, the people take a harsher view of the president’s specific actions: 65% of respondents are dissatisfied with the current economic situation; 49% of respondents criticize Putin for Chechnya. According to Yury Levada, head of VTsIOM, quoted in the Versty paper, the president has managed to “embalm” his rating. However, the question is: “How long can such ’embalming’ last, if it is not supported by real action?”
Meanwhile, other sources provide a even more amazing data. According to the Agency for Regional Political Research (ARPI), President Putin’s popularity rating has reached its peak at 66%. The only time he rated higher was in 1999, when Putin as prime minister coordinated the Chechnya military operation and there were a number of victories over Chechen; then his rating was 74%. Then, Putin’s rating gradually decline; and after the Kursk submarine disaster it dropped to 55%. However, in autumn his rating started rising again, and, according to Novoe Vremya magazine, event the disastrous situation in the Russian Far East could not affect it.
Novoe Vremya sadly notes: “The first – and, judging by everything, the last – period of liberal-romantic restraint in Russia has ended.” Russian society has again returned to its accustomed comatose state, which is usually broken from time to time by delusions of power and isolation.
The magazine considers another point to be surprising: in fact, since the times of “Yeltsin’s occupation regime” nothing has changed much: living standards are about the same, the war in Chechnya is still on, corruption is the same, as well as the license among local authorities. What can Russians dream of in such conditions? Obviously, not of wage rises or honest leaders. As it turns out, 55% of Russians dream of being a great power again. According to opinion polls, Russian citizens are convinced that Russia has some sort of special historic mission, which is “to gather people into a united state, which would be the successor to the Russian Empire and the USSR”.
People who agree to tolerate their own poverty, but do not want to accept the independence of other ethnic groups, are a godsend for the government, which is unable to “run the country by non-authoritarian means,” Novoe Vremya says. According to the magazine, there is a certain harmony between the state and the people in Russia, since they “generate each other”. And no reasonable regime is possible in a country where “social parasitic attitudes and social inertia” have reached such scales as in Russia.
Novoe Vremya believes that this situation is likely to cause new upheavals in Russia sooner or later, especially if “the current generation of politicians does not realize the need to break the long-standing and evil connection between the silence of the people and the unpunished corruption of the state.”
Itogi magazine draws the reader’s attention to the growth in the number of opinion poll respondents who are answering “uncertain”. The majority of such respondents, according to the magazine, are people who over the past years of reforms have become disappointed in both the reforms and the ideas connected with them. First such people refuse to give clear answers during a poll; and then their judgements become openly negative. “Creeping dissatisfaction” is turning into “expectation of a strong hand”, which would be able to “put the country in order”.
According to pollsters, the distrust of Russian citizens toward all social institutions is growing. The only exception are the security services (the army, the secret services), as well as non-government authorities, including the Russian Orthodox Church. Itogi explains: “What strikes many analysts and external witnesses is the confidence of Russian citizens in the president – which is simply the reverse of a lack of confidence in other social structures.” Thus, the president’s high approval ratings are based on a negative attitude: they exist only because of “denial of everything that’s undesirable or unclear, which people cannot improve by themselves – so they are trying to isolate themselves from the growing disorder in the economy, political buffoonery, and senseless bloodshed in Chechnya.”
According to polls, in September 2000 36% of respondents said that Russian politics had become less open and behind the scenes intrigues had started to dominate since Putin came to power; 34% of respondents considered that the fights between various political forces had become more intense; 44% of respondents said there was the atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and tension in the country. According to expert appraisals, Russians are passively accommodating themselves to circumstances, “survival is their way of life”, and people are “focusing on the familiar as the only guarantee of stability”.
Well-known activist Sergei Grigoriants, head of the Glasnost Protection Foundation, commenting on the latest presidential decision to transfer command of the counter-terrorist operation to the Federal Security Service (FSB), stated that this decision shows the new position of the special services in the Russian state hierarchy.
According to Grigoriants, “It is absolutely clear that currently everything possible is done in order to make the FSB aware of its special position in Russia.” Moreover, for the first time in Russian history, the FSB will be directly running the country. The consequences are likely to be rather regrettable, partially for reasons of skill. KGB/FSB officers, according to Grigoriants, “are people of a tactical mentality, who are trained to achieve well-defined objectives.” So they are unable to cope with political issues, let alone run the economy. Besides, they usually prefer deep conspiracies to public politics – which will have a very bad impact on the health of Russian society.
Vitaly Tretiakov of Nezavisimaya Gazeta says that although it was absolutely clear a year ago that the new president has the most noble objectives – “restoring Russia’s might as a nation and a world power” – his policies cannot be called clear and open. As for incorrect expectations, nonsensical rumors and gossip, which have been caused by a lack of information, they aren’t helping the government to achieve its objectives. Tretiakov stresses that a president who is building a democratic nation “has no right to be an idol, whose will is often presented ambiguously by various oracles; nor a mysterious leader, who avoids controversial or urgent issues and mysteriously smiles instead, waiting for explanations of his smile.”
It should be noted that Tretiakov’s comments are rather harsh: “A president of a democratic nation is primarily its number one politician, not the number one spy in a hostile camp… People don’t need to be told what to do, but to understand what the president is planning to do. And the top politician must not hide his tracks, confuse pursuit and launch pilot balloons. Especially when he is talking to his people, rather than to his enemies.”
However, at the end of his articles, Tretiakov tries to even out the impression, noting that it would be an exaggeration to consider all the positions of the president unclear. Nonetheless, examples of such clarity in presidential policies are scanty and doubtful. The first case concerns the national anthem, when “Putin did not try to get by with hints”, and the second is about Chechnya: in particular, the issue of “the aims and methods for solving the Chechnya problem”.
It should be noted that both cases are just so-called “publicity stunts”. The saga of the national anthem, which is still arousing many arguments, has only symbolic meaning for the history of Russia, as the media often mentions.
As for Chechnya, despite the brutal promise to “pummel terrorists everywhere”, nothing has changed: neither Basaev nor Khattab have suffered from the presidential threats; even the number of Chechen guerrillas (according to FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, there are now 5,000 of them) has mysteriously exceeded the figure named at the start of the campaign.
As Tretiakov stresses in commenting on the policies of the president, “his clear actions must be shown in deeds more than in words”. In short, Tretiakov concludes, “there are many more issues which Russian society is concerned about than there are answers from the president”.
Novoe Vremya magazine considers that Putin’s time in power “can be divided into two parts: before the Kursk disaster and after the Kursk disaster”. The policies before the disaster are seen as “a major and authoritative project”: the regional reforms, new tax laws passed through parliament. Putin’s decisive start prompted many arguments about whether the energy of the new regime would be directed to modernizing the state and the economy, or into suppressing liberties. It was even admitted that there would be enough energy for both.
After the Kursk submarine disaster, when Russians disapproved for the first time of the president’s performance, the Kremlin’s efforts to maintain his popularity rating turned into an “obsession”. Since then the authorities have been very cautious, and tried not to “tread on any important toes”. The federal government started to act friendly toward regional leaders, including giving them the possibility of three or more terms in office. As a result of endless negotiations and compromises with the security structures, the military reform “has become so scaled-back” that it is hard to take it seriously.
The regime has also clearly demonstrated the change in its attitude toward big business. In summer “tycoons came to meet the president like defendants coming to court to hear their sentence”, but in January the head of state suggested that the tycoons should feel free to compete for their own economic ideas with the Kremlin. Thus, Novoe Vremya concludes, big business was again invited to participate in politics.
As a result of such softness, the Kremlin has lost the political initiative: now the president cannot shape events, and can only react to them afterwards. According to Novoe Vremya, lately Putin’s public statements have mostly been reminiscent of Gorbachev’s “word-lacing” style: “Concerning almost everything the president says: Yes – but if take all the factors into consideration, maybe no. Or: No, but if we weigh everything up, it might be yes.”
Obshchaya Gazeta published an article titled: “The strong state power hierarchy is weakening”. The article is devoted to the state reforms, “the only initiative of the new president which is considered to be a success by both the president’s opponents and supporters.”
The victory over irreconcilable regional leaders seemed to be complete: the governors have put up with appointment of the seven presidential envoys to the federal districts; have brought local laws into compliance with the federal constitution; and even stopped objecting to their loss of positions in the senate and all associated privileges. “And this is where the impossible happens: the victor orders his troops to fall back.”
Obshchaya Gazeta describes third terms for regional leaders as a “surrender after victory”, which had been forced through the Duma by the presidential administration. According to the paper, by this law Putin has given regional leaders much more than took away before: all their losses from moving from the Federation Council into the State Council, and the need to take into account the opinion of the presidential envoys, are incompatible with the “benefits that can be taken from four additional years in power”. Obshchaya Gazeta notes that Boris Yeltsin also “spoiled regional leaders all he could”. However, even in previous times, they never had such generous gifts. The paper is puzzled: what is all this for? Maybe the president “has sensed the approach of a social-economic disaster, and become alarmed that angry regional leaders would take advantage of it”, and decided to coax them? Or the president has decided to make friends with the regional leaders before lobbying for an extension of the presidential term? No answer, so far.
The only important point is that now it is clear: some people should not have been afraid of a change in direction after Yeltsin’s resignation: “What change are you talking about, if now the major priority is stability again!”
Vek weekly suggests another explanation for the situation: according to the weekly, all the talk about the president’s withdrawal from attack on regional leaders is unfounded: “There was no attack at all. Just as there was no attack on tycoons.” According to Vek, the president’s action should be considered as “successful wooing of both the regional leaders and tycoons”. The weekly believes that the president will need both: “but only as autonomous subjects, who will not have enough independence to wish to play against the state.”
At the same time, Nezavisimaya Gazeta considers there is some dirty trick in the whole saga of third terms for regional leaders: “Putin had something in mind when he started the federal reforms and took powers away from the regional leaders, otherwise he would not return everything a hundredfold.” According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, new favors for regional leaders may not be implemented at all: “Who can guarantee, especially given the constant leaks of information about imminent constitutional reforms, that in three years the boundaries of the regions will be the same as they are now, and they will not be replaced by seven to twelve federal districts? Or that the president will not abolish elections for the regional leaders for ‘political reasons’?”
It is said that representatives of the top authorities often mention various ideas on this issue in private talks. If these talks are transferred into in legislative decisions, it will be clear that the Kremlin considers the current favors for the regional leaders absolutely insignificant.
Putin’s unsuccessful attempt to make amendments to the Criminal Code, which would sharply restrict the current powers of the prosecutor’s offices, has also aroused lots of gossip and explanations.
Kompania magazine says: “The withdrawn amendments were the first reasonable initiative of the Kremlin for the court reforms.” If the amendments had been passed, Article 22 of the Constitution would have finally started to function (in accordance with that, no one can be detained for longer than 48 hours without a court decision). No building could be searched without a court warrant. However, after General Prosecutor Ustinov, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev and Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo had a personal meeting with the president, Putin withdrew his amendments.
Kompania says that the official explanations of the presidential administration concerning this issue don’t add up: it is senseless to speak of the lack of 1.5 billion rubles for the court reform, when the so-called transferred budget (money from last year) totals 95 billion rubles. Besides, Dmitry Kozak, deputy head of the presidential administration, who is in charge of the reform, states with “unusual openness” that the concept of the reform will not change, “we only should wait for a more favorable time”.
The magazine suggests that “the prosecutor’s office has just been given an opportunity to finish the Gusinsky case, after which it will be possible to restrict its powers”.
Expert magazine says that the introduction of Putin’s amendments to the Criminal Code would have undoubtedly reduced the number of people currently in detention cells: “an indicator on which Russia has broken all records”. However, so far the prosecutor’s office “retains all the powers which the Soviet system gave it,” Expert says.
However, the magazine considers that Putin still has an opportunity for a roundabout maneuver. The statement of Sergei Ivanov, head of the Security Council, that the detention of Pavel Borodin in the New York airport has no political basis can be considered as a “vote of censure for General Prosecutor Ustinov, who had dropped all charges against Borodin.” If Ustinov’s Geneva colleagues now prove the accusations, the Russian general prosecutor is most unlikely to keep his job. No wonder the media have repeatedly noted that the detention of Borodin might be very useful for President Putin.
Profil magazine gives an opinion from Valery Khomyakov, the director of the Agency for Regional and Applied Politics, who believes that Borodin’s detention looks like a “thoroughly-planned special operation by Russian and US special services”. The aim of the operation is to help President Putin to “get rid of the tiresome presence of the members of Yeltsin’s team in Russian big business.” And if we remember that the Swiss prosecutor’s office does not rule out that the members of Yeltsin’s family may be summoned for an interrogation, it becomes clear that the first Russian president and his team have, in fact, become hostages. “This means that the obligations of the successor to Yeltsin’s team are becoming insignificant.”
According to Profil’s sources, since the Republican administration came to power in the US, whose position toward Moscow is much tougher than their predecessors’, the influence of “power-supporters and KGB officers” in Moscow has considerably increased. Sergei Ivanov, secretary of the Security Council, is considered to be their leader, “and these people are most eager to clear the space around Putin from Yeltsin’s heritage.”
The strange ornaments of Russian political reality have now started to especially interest analysts. No wonder: the inevitable replacement of the course of the “real Russian” president with a new political reality, the essence of which is also defined by professional ability of the new head of state, is a very absorbing process.