What will become of Russia – and of us? Fervent media interest in this question continues. All observers have found various arguments in favor of their own opinions in the start of President Putin’s second year in office. Who is Putin, and where is he taking the nation? There are many answers to these questions, and the debate is growing ever more heated.

For example, it is often said that Russia’s first president was unable to complete all the reforms, and passed on this task to his successor. The “Vek” weekly considers such statements absurd.

On the contrary, says “Vek”, all plans were carried out precisely as intended: “The transfer of profitable state assets – that was the whole point of the reforms for the sake of which the Communist regime was overthrown. Nothing else was planned.”

And the new ruling class found itself in a rather precarious position. The unprofitable socialist economy was transformed into a kind of unprofitable capitalist economy, “with elements of feudalism”. As a result of the reforms, “the lumpen-proletariat increased exponentially” in Russia. The consequences could be very grave, “especially when we consider the similarity between a number of factors in the events of 1917 and the situation today”. “Vek” says this is a reference to the government’s inability to make the economy function effectively, the state’s inability to control events in the regions, disputes within the military, etc.

The new reforms “from above” may well segue into another period of stagnation. “Vek” considers there are already some signs of this, like increased terms in office for regional leaders, and the introduction of restrictions on political parties. However, the new period of stagnation is unlikely to last as long as the Brezhnev era, due to economic instability – and also because “the numbers of the lumpen-proletariat exceed the margins of safety”.

In an interview with the “Rossia” weekly Mikhail Deliagin, a leading economist and head of the Globalization Institute, recalled Franklin D. Roosevelt’s definition of a president’s two primary responsibilities: to inspire the people, and to be able to organize the work of the government. Deliagin believes that President Putin isn’t coping with either of these tasks yet.

The quality of the government’s performance – for example, that of the Cabinet – has fallen to “an absurdly low level”. The institution of presidential envoys has not turned out to be very effective. The lack of clear economic policies intimidates the business sector, both in Russia and abroad. But the most unfortunate aspect of the situation is that President Putin has lost the strategic initiative: “Last year he was greatly feared, and based on the nature of that fear he could have achieved a great deal.” But this period of “great fear”, and the relatively favorable economic circumstances which coincided with it, were wasted.

Deliagin looks ahead to the challenges awaiting Russia in 2003, 2005, and 2008. The first debt crisis will hit in 2003, when scheduled foreign debt repayments will be $17-19 billion. In 2004-05 Russia’s electricity grid will reach the limit of its service lifetime, a crisis called “physical breakdown of basic infrastructure”. In 2008 a default on debt payments to the London Club of commercial creditors is expected; in Deliagin’s words, Mikhail Kasianov has postponed the problem “right to the end of Putin’s presidency”. So the end of the Putin era is predicted to be far from triumphant – that is, of course, if Putin is still president by 2008.

The “Novye Izvestia” newspaper considers that the present style of government only exacerbates all Russia’s present problems.

The story of Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko of Primorye (Maritime territory, Russian Far East} can be considered a classic example of Putin’s problem-solving methods. Despite his “incompetence as a manager” and “financial impurity”, which had been noted by the federal government many times, Nazdratenko has once again been considered worthy of a “senior management position”.

Such “Kremlin double standards” are evidence of the federal government’s “utter lack of principles” and administrative weakness. And this is not the only example. None of the ongoing “differences of opinion” which require definite decisions from the president have been resolved. “Instead of the military reforms we still have bureaucratic skirmishes between the defense minister and chief of the General Staff. Instead of structural reforms in the electricity sector, there are clashes between the energy minister and Anatoly Chubais of Russian Joint Energy Systems.” “Novye Izvestia” also includes “the shameful saga of debts to the Paris Club of creditor nations” in this list – an international scandal created by contradictory assertions from various state officials and the president himself. It is important to find out the nature of this lack of clarity in the regime’s decisions: “If it is just a symptom of growth, then it is temporary; and we can hope that Putin will start acting as a national leader should, once he has gained political weight and respect.” But if this is a case of “subordinate mentality”, then it’s incurable; and “Putin, as president, will forever remain a functionary for whom taking a stand is painfully difficult.”

So it is quite possible, says “Novye Izvestia”, that “Nazdratenko’s political adventures are not the last example of the Kremlin’s weakness and helplessness”. It is quite likely that similar stories will be repeated.

In the past week the newspapers have published the reply of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RUIE) to Boris Berezovsky’s proposal to buy out Media-Most’s debts to Gazprom.

On the one hand, the RUIE response acknowledges as “entirely natural” the creditor’s attempts to have the debt repaid: “Everyone should repay debts, even the most independent media companies.” (Quotes here are taken from the RUIE response as published by “Kommersant”.) On the other hand, “independent television is essential for Russia”; therefore the RUIE considers that “there can be no question of taking NTV off the air, or censoring its broadcasts.”

The best solution, according to the RUIE, is to attract foreign investors and “form a normal joint-stock company with foreign participation, which is not controlled by any single entity.”

As for Berezovsky’s proposal, the RUIE emphasizes: “We view the attempt by big business to monopolize control over the country as the worst mistake of the past decade. The same applies to attempts to enforce its will on the government through the use of controlled media.”

The RUIE says that it doesn’t want television to become state-controlled, but neither does it want to see television “become a tool used by its owners to blackmail the state.” Therefore, RUIE members decline to participate in Berezovsky’s proposed plan to support the NTV television network.

The “Vedomosti” newspaper quotes political analyst Valery Fedorov: “This is the first time tycoons have announced with such unprecedented clarity that they accept the rules of the game as set by the government… Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Big business shouldn’t get involved in public politics – or if it does, it should be subordinate to the state.”

Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, says the RUIE response is a statement of intent rather than a real example of playing by new rules: “I don’t think the game has started yet, since no one is placing bets.” Pavlovsky says the RUIE declaration suits the government very well, “though it could hardly be viewed as a mandate for uncontrolled joy among the bureaucrats.”

However, according to “Vedomosti” the bets in the game Pavlovsky mentions have already been placed. Before their most recent meeting with President Putin, RUIE members sent him a letter saying that Russian business leaders could invest $15-20 billion in the Russian economy “if normal operating conditions are created.” The state official who reported this to “Vedomosti” considers that this isn’t the final figure – the amount of investment remains to be discussed. This “Vedomosti” article is titled “Capitulation”.

The “Argumenty i Fakty” weekly devoted a lengthy article last week to one of the “new oligarchs” – a man whose ability to get along with the regime is envied by Boris Berezovsky himself. This is Roman Abramovich, the new governor of the Chukotka autonomous district. It is said that Abramovich was recently asked during a private conversation whether he had any fears that what has happened to Berezovsky and Gusinsky might happen to him. Abramovich didn’t rule out that masked men might knock on his doors one day. However, even if he does get into serious difficulties, he has no intention of going public with any revelations in the media: “Trying to fight the state is pointless.” And the regime is lenient with those who don’t oppose it publicly. Of course, it could impose financial penalties, but more money can always be made. Those close to Abramovich consider that this approach has proved its value thus far. “Argumenty i Fakty” quotes “a Kremlin functionary” on Abramovich: “Unlike some others, he sticks to his own business. He doesn’t demand anything from the state, nor does he attempt to tell it what to do.”

Roman Abramovich may succeed in surviving the “time of troubles”. And if he manages to transform the impoverished Chukotka Peninsula into a “queen of the North” like Alaska, he could earn the title of a good manager as well as that of oligarch. Who knows, says “Argumenty i Fakty” – “we might see his name among the list of candidates for prime minister, for example. Or maybe even…” The sentence trails off, but there’s no need to complete it; “Argumenty i Fakty” has already pointed out that Abramovich’s country mansion near the village of Maloe Saraevo (two kilometers off the Rublev Highway near Moscow) strikingly resembles the contours of the Kremlin.

“More and more often, it seems that Russian political time is running backwards,” writes Grigorii Yavlinsky in the “Obshchaya Gazeta” newspaper. Yavlinsky is one of the few politicians in Russia who openly criticize the regime. “There is a return to familiar phenomena from old times – like the rejection of free speech, the rejection of liberties in general, the refusal to refrain from using the army in internal conflicts, the rejection of individual initiative… waiting for favors to be distributed from above once again.” The leader of Yabloko stresses that this is the mood of the majority of citizens, and the regime’s policies only encourage it.

Yavlinsky believe that the political methods in use today are reminiscent of special operations, “when people say one thing, think something else, do another thing entirely, and want something completely different. By the way, the result will be none of the above.” Instead of politics, there are behind-the-scenes battles, mud-slinging, the intrigues of political consultants. “Just like in the intelligence services, recruitment and active measures are two major forms of politics today.”

It’s pointless to continue speaking of restoring order: “All that is now happening, in these terms, is far from being a ‘dictatorship of the law’; it is a redistribution of property in favor of certain cliques which are close to the regime.” And those who represent the liberal wing in the Cabinet, says Yavlinsky bitterly, were yesterday’s “radical reformers” but are now supporters of a strong state, “although their state is turning out to be shameless rather than strong.” The right-wing parties, to which most of these people belong, defend the rights of big business to the detriment of human rights. “I must remind you that such parties have the capacity to degenerate into fascism sooner or later,” says Yavlinsky. “As we know, all dictatorships throughout history have been established to a chorus of calls for order and a strong state.” In Russia, where the state system still hasn’t decisively repudiated the Stalinist legacy, “playing at dictatorship” is particularly dangerous – especially since Stalin has been recently returning to the pantheon of “positive historical figures”.

Yavlinsky also considers that it’s futile to rely on help from the West in Russia’s present situation. The Western establishment has already tried to help us – although without quite knowing where to start. As a result, the inevitable disillusionment has set in. The “narrow circle” of Western leaders have concluded that Russians just don’t understand the meaning of democracy, liberty, or a market economy. And so there should simply be a strong master in the Kremlin, whose main task will be “to keep his subjects under control and promise the West that Russian missiles won’t be heading its way.”

In general, Yavlinsky concludes, it’s time we realized that the democratic development of Russia “is our own difficult task, connected with our own vital national interests, and no one is especially obliged to help us.”

In his interview with “Segodnya”, Leon Aron, a leading Russia expert with the American Enterprise Institute, said that the West, which expected of some progress on Russia’s reforms, has been disappointed: “Unlike Yeltsin, Putin can have the Duma approve anything… If the reforms are not started while he has a 70% popularity rating, there is no chance that they will be started when the rating starts to fall.”

As for the opinion (popular in Russia) that it will be easier to negotiate with the US Republicans than with the Democrats – according to Leon Aron, it does not stand up to criticism. He also stresses that the new Republican administration bears no moral responsibility for the Russian reforms, which is why no political privileges should be expected from it.

It also should not be forgotten that Gorbachev and Yeltsin used to have an irrefutable argument at their disposal: the “communist threat”, Putin does not have this argument. “Putin’s political and financial resources are exhausted, and therefore many people suspect Putin himself of being part of this threat.”

Another American analyst, Michael McFall from the Carnegie Endowment, says in his interview with “Obshchaya Gazeta”: “Clinton’s team sometimes fussed over Russia as if it were a fretful baby.” If Russia did something out of line, e.g. resumed military cooperation with Iran, Washington said it was necessary to be more flexible toward Russia and not over-dramatise the situation.

McFall stresses that from now on things will be different. He thinks that the post-election situation in the US is similar to that in Israel. Israel used to be governed by Ehud Barak, who wanted to make peace with the Palestinians, although they often acted provokingly. The new Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a radical leader. Michael McFall considers that George W. Bush is similar to Ariel Sharon.

As for the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) of 1972, McFall believes that Russians are too sensitive about this issue. He says that even if the US creates its national missile defense, it will not be able to defend itself against a nuclear attack by Russia. Therefore, it is true that the US can defend itself only from Iran and North Korea.

However, Russian analysts say that these peaceful comments contradict the statements of senior US officials. “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” quotes US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has said that Russia is spreading nuclear technologies to countries that can threaten the US. He has called Russia an active proliferator.

CIA Director George Tenet has also accused Russia of violating nuclear nonproliferation. Even President Bush himself has told the top brass that the US is being threatened from all sides, and the main threat is proliferation of nuclear technologies.

However, “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” says that Rumsfeld’s announcements mark the beginning of a new wave of anti-Russian sentiment. By accusing Moscow of proliferation, the US defense secretary is trying to weaken its arguments against the US plans for a national missile defense. Rumsfeld said it is not clear why Russians are complaining about US attempts to defend itself from the fruits of Russia’s own proliferation activities. “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” comments, “It seems that the US wants to return to the era of opposition and mutual accusations… The vocabulary and tone chosen by the American authorities indicate the lack of any desire to develop relations with Russia and conduct a constructive dialog.”

According to “Vremya Novostei”, Donald Rumsfeld’s announcements were addressed to the NATO partners of the US rather than Russia.

Ivan Safranchuk, an analyst with the Nonproliferation Center, says the US doesn’t want Europe interfering in its dialog with Russia on the proposed national missile defense. And now the US will be trying to discredit Moscow in front of Europe, proving that Moscow’s arguments are not worth considering.

Safranchuk believes that Russia should stand its ground in this situation. “If the US is so eager to deploy its national missile defense, let it withdraw from the ABM Treaty unilaterally.” In this case there may even be some advantages for Russia. For instance, it would stop the nuclear competition with the US. “It will be possible to make Russia’s nuclear arsenal more efficient and less expensive. After that Russia will calmly watch the US develop an arms race with China.”

However, “Vremya Novostei” says that the Russian military-industrial complex is unlikely to watch such developments calmly. “The harsher statements of US officials become, the more arguments Russian arms producers have in favor of extending nuclear production.” And the more money the Russian military-industrial complex gets, the stronger Rumsfeld’s arguments will be.

“Dipcourier-NG”, a special supplement to “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, notes that it is quite clear that Bush and his team have decided to protect the US against all likely and unlikely dangers, regardless of cost. “If under Clinton the US took interest only in clearly profitable campaigns, the Bush administration is ready to join in risky adventures without thinking of probable outcomes.”

Russia, or its likely alliances in the eastern hemisphere, is only one of the numerous threats to the US. Therefore, Washington will block Russia from developing its relations with India, China, and Iran. Furthermore, NATO’s eastward expansion will continue, and the Baltic states are likely to be the next countries to join NATO.

In short, representatives of the Russian Federation and the new US administration have enough topics to discuss. On February 24, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is to meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell. “Dipcourier” considers that this will be just a tentative meeting without any concrete results, although Kremlin officials are sure that it is possible to develop a dialog with the new Bush administration. “However, the White House does not seem to be sure that it should agree with the Kremlin at all.”

Meanwhile, the newspaper “Rossia” reports, citing a source close to Russian special services, that President Putin has issued a secret verbal order to the Main Intelligence Department of the Russian Defense Ministry to intensify its efforts with respect to the US.

This decision was allegedly caused by unfriendly comments of the US administration. “Rossia” supposes that Russian spies are to get more information about the political subtext of US announcements, and also pay more attention “to secrets of the American national missile defense.” According to the newspaper’s sources, Russian spies will work in the White House, the State Department, the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Department, the Treasury, and other such structures, as well as the largest companies linked with the US defense sector.

The author of the article doubts the financial aspect of the affair. The largest reward for information about the US intelligence system ($2.6 million) was given to Aldrich Ames. “Rossia” doubts that Russia could pay so much now.

The tonality of this article make a reader think about results of opinion polls conducted by the Monitoring.Ru Center. These results have been published by “Novoe Vremya”. When asked which character in Russian folktales may be called a symbol of Russia, 18% of respondents named Ivan the Fool and 18% named the Bear. Some 5% voted for Yemelya. Kolobok was named by 3% of respondents. It is worth noting that Ivan the Fool is more popular in Siberia, where 21% of respondents voted for him. In western Russia the Bear was named by 33% of respondents. Ivan the Fool was supported by only 19% of respondents in western Russia. The main admirers of Ivan the Fool were various state officials: 35% of them chose this character. This trend is natural, since it is rather difficult to manage a bear, but it is very easy to rule Ivan the Fool – easy to make him work by promising him “I don’t know what”, and then sending him “I don’t know where” – even to the White House, the FBI, the CIA, etc.