Topics of the week: party-building and freedom of speech in Russia


The media acknowledged the top political story of the week to be the merger between Fatherland and Unity – the two parties of Russia’s new nomenklatura. As Itogi magazine noted, the two party leaders – Sergei Shoigu and Yuri Luzhkov – suddenly discovered that they had “much more in common than not”. They explained that they had suddenly seen the light after realizing that “the specific and realistic creative program proposed in President Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly demands the consolidation of all those who support the course chosen by the president”.

But Itogi points out that these two participants in Russia’s political battles were bound to join forces sooner or later: their differences had never been ideological in nature.

In the 1999 parliamentary elections, Fatherland (or rather, Fatherland – All Russia) was a “party of regional barons”, who aimed to defend their independence at the federal level. Unity, on the other hand, was created to consolidate the positions of “Yeltsin’s old bureaucracy”. Now both sides – for different reasons – have an interest in cooperation, even in unification.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov seems to be trying to break free of his constant conflicts with the Kremlin, which apparently still views him as a potential opponent. Itogi notes: “Luzhkov desperately needed to establish himself in the president’s camp, which would enable him to dismiss all criticism of himself as attacks by anti-presidential forces.”

As for Unity, its objective is quite obvious: gathering all political formations of any significance under one roof. The consequences of this are clear.

For example, all existing parties could even be merged into two, not three, political mega-structures – in order to make the parliament easy to manage. Itogi comments: “Those in the Kremlin are tired of constantly needing to consult with someone or other, search for compromises, reach agreements; they want to extend their system of working with the Unity faction to the whole parliament, so that decisions can be made not in the Duma hall, but in the peace and quiet of Kremlin offices, and the leaders of subordinate parties will receive their instructions over the phone.”

Kommersant-Vlast magazine considers that by announcing the merger of Fatherland with Unity, Yuri Luzhkov “has ceased to be an independent politician, once and for all”. The Moscow mayor, exhausted by his battle with the Kremlin, is counting on achieving a number of objectives in exchange.

The first of these is to “demonstrate his unconditional loyalty to the Kremlin”, thus making himself safe from any further attacks. Luzhkov also hopes to enlist the pro-presidential party’s help in maintaining his control over the municipal parliament (Moscow City Duma elections are scheduled for December; according to Kommersant-Vlast, there will be an attempt to form a bloc capable of challenging pro-Luzhkov candidates). And of course, the main aim is to preserve at least some of Luzhkov’s influence at the federal level, with the help of supporters in one of Russia’s most influential political parties.

But Kommersant-Vlast points out that it’s really doubtful whether Luzhkov’s hopes will be fulfilled. Coalition with Unity is unlikely to ensure total safety for the Moscow mayor: “to date, the Kremlin has dealt firmly, without hesitation, even with those regional leaders who founded Unity, such as Alexander Rutskoi from the Kursk region or Alexander Nazarov from Chukotka.”

It’s also hard to believe that Luzhkov will retain full control over the Moscow City Duma. First of all, Unity candidates will inevitably be elected, and their primary loyalty will be to the Kremlin. Secondly, independent deputies will also be more loyal to Unity than to Luzhkov (as Kommersant-Vlast notes, “the Kremlin has already perfected its methods of handling independent deputies in the federal Duma”). It’s also most unlikely that the Kremlin will agree to Luzkhov retaining his status as an important politician at the national level. Moreover, Luzkhov is in danger of losing influence in Moscow itself; Kommersant-Vlast predicts that once the mayor is no longer a strong and independent patron, Moscow officials will start seeking more substantial allies on the side.

Thus, Kommersant-Vlast concludes that the Fatherland-Unity merger basically signifies “the total capitulation of one of Russia’s most ambitious regional leaders – who, just eighteen months ago, was even aspiring to the presidency.”

The left-nationalist radical opposition paper Zavtra was fairly direct in its comments on the merger between the parties of the federal and Moscow bureaucracy. Zavtra says this alliance should be considered “an essential stage in creating a Duma majority in preparation for decisions on the privatization of natural monopolies”. However, Zavtra predicts that the new coalition can only postpone for a couple of months “the elimination of Luzhkov, since after the privatization projects are approved, the Kremlin will no longer need him in any official capacity”.

The Moskovskie Novosti weekly considers that Russia’s real “political configuration” remains unchanged in the wake of the Fatherland-Unity merger announcement. Luzhkov has only confirmed what was already obvious: the complete futility of fighting the Kremlin these days. “The era of cynicism has dawned,” says Moskovskie Novosti. “Weapons for single combat with the federal government should be turned in – or at least hidden away.”

The Obshchaya Gazeta newspaper has a similar view. “Consolidation of pro-presidential forces doesn’t mean redrawing the political map – only simplifying it… Rather than having a number of movements and alliances – frequently changing their names, and supporting the president overtly, covertly, wholly or in part – it’s more convenient to deal with a single party, which is openly the ruling party.” The aim of this plan is clear: the Kremlin intends “to form a party capable of collecting 60-65% of the vote, i.e. the Putin supporters”. But Obshchaya Gazeta points out that intentions are not always achieved. The architects of this plan are naively convinced that when parties unite, their voters can also be combined; likewise, that “Putin’s popularity rating will remain sky-high forever”. However, a different turn of events is much more likely: in doing this, the “Kremlin party-builders” – despite all their intentions – will lose some voters to the opposition. “Simply because Fatherland and Unity combined can’t collect as many votes as Fatherland and Unity collected separately.”

Hence, says Obshchaya Gazeta, the opposition will have a chance to “expand its ghetto”.

The Versty paper considers that the Fatherland-Unity merger will result in a “change of leadership” in Russian politics – where the position of leadership was until recently held by the Communists.

Versty notes that the parliamentary elections of 1999 were widely regarded as a triumph for Unity. However, the Communists actually beat Unity (if only by half a percentage point), collecting their consistent quarter of all votes. But now there is reason to expect that the pro-Putin centrists will collect the most votes at the next elections. And this, Versty emphasizes, will be a real revolution in a country where the left has been dominant in recent years.

The new centrist alliance also means that the right risks “finding itself on the periphery of Russian politics, and being marginalized”. The right has fewer numbers than the Communists, it has less solidarity, and besides – “it still can’t decide what it thinks of popular President Putin”. On the whole, the Union of Right Forces supports the president, “though every so often it seeks out some pretext for oppositional pinpricks, and wavers on the question of whether to cross over into opposition”. Yabloko, on the other hand, constantly criticizes the government. But the general opinion is that the greatest danger for the right lies in the excessive ambition of its leaders; it is still far from clear that they are ready for complete unification.

Mikhail Krasnov, deputy head of the INDEM Foundation, discussed the Russian right wing in more detail in his article for Nezavisimaya Gazeta. In his opinion, the Russian right represents “common European values” rather than the interests of big or mid-sized business.

This is why the electorate of the Union of Right Forces, for example, is by no means confined to the business sector – it cuts across many professional, property, and age categories. Krasnov says: “The views of the Union of Right Forces usually attract young and middle-aged people, educated, with fairly good incomes.” Hence the conclusion: it’s the right which is really capable of “reflecting the interests which coincide with the nation’s strategic interests”, since poverty, bureaucratic power, and general backwardness are not in the interests of the right.

But the objective interests and goals of political formations are one thing, while the capacity to implement them is quite a different matter. Lack of unity among the right, and the inability of its leaders to agree amongst themselves, could work to the right’s disadvantage here. Krasnov stresses that “the time for petty quarreling” is over for the right. If the Union of Right Forces, Yabloko, and other groups at that end of the spectrum don’t want to fall and take all the democratic hopes of their voters with them, “their leaders will be obliged to restrain their egos”.

Igor Oleinik, head of the Development and National Security Strategies Institute, says in Novye Izvestia: “The fact that the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko still haven’t united is now irritating many voters rather than puzzling them.” Besides the excessive ambition of the leaders, or the incompatibility between Grigorii Yavlinsky and Anatoly Chubais, there are deeper reasons obstructing such a move – above all, it’s because the voters of these parties have different approaches to the system of democratic values.

Oleinik emphasizes that most Yabloko voters are from the social-democratic intelligentsia, and work for others. Their behavior has remained virtually unchanged since the Soviet era. “Yavlinsky-type political figures – who criticize the ‘dirty’ executive branch, but don’t wish to ‘soil themselves’ by participating in it – can be found in our history in almost every decade of the 20th century.” The average Yabloko supporters these days are middle-aged or elderly.

Union of Right Forces voters are mostly young pragmatists: “business owners, managers, and ambitious young people with their sights set on financial independence and power”. The style of Union of Right Forces supporters appears more flexible, competitive, “outwardly bordering on political cynicism”. This was clearly demonstrated during the last election campaign; there was much talk of the populism of Union of Right Forces leaders, but Oleinik points out that the results proved that the methods they chose were relatively effective.

Union of Right Forces voters seek not only to explain and evaluate the situation in Russia, but to change it. So it’s not surprising that there are so many of them among young people, including regional youth. According to Oleinik, if the economy doesn’t take a turn for the worse, “the balance of voter support will probably swing in a direction unfavorable for the academic Yabloko”.

But the difference in mentality between the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko is even more apparent from their approach to party-building. Yavlinsky remains the one and only, unchanging leader for his supporters. However, since the Yabloko leader still has no intention of participating in government, this system of party organization is turning out to be unviable.

The Union of Right Forces now has four leaders, each with their own sphere of activity. Oleinik notes that this system seems very unusual in Russia, which is used to seeing only one leader at the head of a party. But it’s quite justified in terms of working with Union of Right Forces voters.

Oleinik explains that “the ratio of people working in collective versus individualist areas is changing very slowly in Russia”. (He cites miners and programmers as examples of these job categories.) But it’s this ratio which determines the realities of Russian politics. Russia still has “an excess of collectivist, industrial occupations, which ensure that most voters need state paternalism”. And all political parties are competing for these voters – except the Union of Right Forces.

However, says Oleinik, trends in Russia’s development and Russia’s hopes of extricating itself from crisis are linked with changing employment patterns in favor of individualist, post-industrial occupations. Hence, the influence of the Union of Right Forces in Russia’s most advanced regions will continue to grow; that is, of course, if the leaders of the new party which is scheduled to appear on May 26 (at the right’s unification congress) don’t permit any major strategic errors.

Of course, the NTV network scandal couldn’t help but have an impact on the mood of right-wing voters.

The Vek weekly considers that the Union of Right Forces “has a split between those at the top (who fear losing their influential positions, and don’t dare to oppose the government too strongly) and the much more radical mood among the liberal majority, who are very worked up about the NTV scandal”.

Vek notes that on the one hand, it may be expected that under the new circumstances, the right-wing leaders “will speak somewhat more loudly than before about the need for liberal reforms”. However, due to the positions of their leaders, a merger between the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko still doesn’t seem very likely: Yavlinsky, who has taken a much more radical stand on the NTV affair, could be a more attractive leader for ordinary members of the Union of Right Forces than their own moderate leaders.

Profil magazine presents the results of a poll done by the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) on freedom of speech in Russia. Public opinion is divided: 43% of respondents consider that the management changes at NTV are the first step in an attack on free speech in Russia. Almost as many respondents, 41%, don’t see any sign of media freedom being endangered. And 16% of respondents still don’t know what to make of it all.

There are some very interesting results from a poll on how people feel about the NTV scandal. It turns out that 28% of respondents don’t feel anything at all about it; 23% say they are bemused; 20% are indignant. And another 5% feel satisfied.

Meanwhile, the media continues to discuss the NTV issue, commenting on theories about the ultimate purpose behind what has taken place, and discussing the consequences.

“The NTV mission has been brilliantly accomplished,” says Leonid Radzikhovsky, an observer with the recently shut down Segodnya newspaper, in an article for Obshchaya Gazeta. “For a few hundred million dollars, Gazprom has gained an empty hive – the bees have flown.”

There are many theories about why those who wanted the recalcitrant television network tamed would have chosen to use force in taking over – why they didn’t wait for the court decision which would certainly have been in their favor. First of all, says Radzikhovsky, the Kremlin was sure that “the fruit was ripe, time to pluck it”. As for the journalists, the government is still convinced that “they have no other option than to come to their senses and come crawling back” – especially since attempts to create a new NTV are unlikely to be successful.

Besides, a show of force is useful from the government’s point of view – it sends a message to all who care to take heed of it.

Some assume that the reason behind the night raid on NTV lies in differences within the Kremlin. For example, one Kremlin group was in charge of the “NTV mission”, but at the last moment another group interfered – trying to impress the boss – and fouled up the plans of the first group of liquidators.

And there’s yet another theory – the most subversive of all. Radzikhovsky says it’s possible that there are some “forces within the Kremlin which have a direct interest in creating a television channel strongly opposed to Putin”. For this purpose, the night raid was meant to shift NTV away from the “objective line of resistance”, all the way over to hardline opposition.

Radzikhovsky is quite clear in his comments on whose interests all this may be serving: “Those who make a business of battling ‘political opposition’ and profit from all the intrigues that go with such battles.”

If there’s any truth in this theory, it may be assumed that the NTV plan originated in the same place where all recent ideas about party-building have come from.

There are also other theories, no less interesting. The Vek weekly says: “Why isn’t anyone asking why a reporter from the Kommersant newspaper (owned by Boris Berezovsky) was at the Ostankino NTV office when the Gazprom team took over in the early hours of April 14? Why are Gusinsky’s television and print journalists taking jobs with Berezovsky’s media so fast and so confidently?”

According to Vek, it all looks like a well-planned scenario. “An alliance between two beleaguered tycoons is being formed right in front of our eyes; so far, it only concerns the media.” Thus, says Vek, “the plan for returning Gusinsky and Berezovsky to Russian politics by means of a breakthrough on the media front has already been launched”.

Gleb Pavlovsky, known as the Kremlin’s top political consultant, told Vek that in the current circumstances, both oligarchs have decided that an alliance is in their interests: “They had never been on friendly terms, and were in fairly strong competition. Now Russia’s entire business community has turned its back on them; in a sense, it insisted that resolving the problem of tycoons should be restricted to expelling Berezovsky and Gusinsky from the group.” Thus, both of these oligarchs were isolated.

In the West, Boris Berezovsky is seen as not quite respectable. So at the moment he has a strong need to prove to Western leaders that he can be effective in creating “some sort of propaganda mechanism for counteracting Putin”, which could be used in the next elections.

A specific exchange is being made: Berezovsky “offers his business capacities to Gusinsky, since Gusinsky needs them: but although Gusinsky has lost his legal status in Russia, he has more credibility in the West than Berezovsky.” According to Pavlovsky, who runs the Effective Policy Foundation, this is the basis of their alliance.

Boris Berezovsky himself has explained his present situation in an interview with Kommersant-Vlast magazine.

When asked whether there is any risk of TV-6 meeting the same fate as NTV, now that Yevgeny Kiselev’s team is there, Berezovsky replied: “I think there certainly is such a risk.” All the same, he is consciously running this risk: “I will support TV-6 in order to help the new generation, which is gradually assuming responsibility – maybe without even realizing it – for a new life.”

Berezovsky goes on to explain that he’s talking of the generation known as the “new average Russians”. These people are different from most Russian citizens: “They are independent, self-reliant, they don’t rely on a tsar, a president, or the state – they have decided to look after themselves and their families.”

It seems this is a reference to those Russian citizens who make up the bulk of right-wing voters. Berezovsky says he is ready to work on behalf of these people now, to make Russia “as liberal as possible”.

Berezovsky emphasizes that Russia can’t possibly be semi-liberal – “as Putin envisions it”. Or, as others put it, “semi-authoritarian” – for example, with a liberal market economy and an authoritarian political system.

Berezovsky notes that if Russia follows such a path, it is likely to become “purely authoritarian, and subsequently a totalitarian state”. But he’s sure it will not be a communist state: “A form of ‘brown fascism’ is arising in Russia, a totalitarian regime with a nationalist flavor.”

These predictions certainly make an impression. Meanwhile, Berezovsky’s determination to defend democratic liberties has found some support among respected human rights activists.

Novaya Gazeta has published an appeal from Elena Bonner to the Russian people, in relation to the NTV takeover: “It’s time we all understood who our allies are. They are Berezovsky, Gusinsky, Patarkatsishvili – the main shareholders of the television stations which are uniting, those with the financial capacity to create a new, independent, high-quality, nationwide television network… In the end, we are all allies in the battle for free speech in Russia.”

This approach drew a mixed response from Novaya Gazeta readers; with all due respect for Elena Bonner’s opinion, most of them think Berezovsky is pursuing his own goals in the ongoing television dispute, and these goals are far from the battle for democracy.

It appears that everyone is capable of finding their own answers to the old question of whether the ends justify the means.