Exactly ten years ago – on June 12, 1991 – the first president of Russia was elected. As the Vremya Novostei newspaper notes, this was Boris Yeltsin’s last election: from then on, he “merely confirmed his right to power, his right to be the tsar”. He made a convincing monarch, in all respects – from unlimited political authority to his personal habits.
Vremya Novostei says that in those days it was Yeltsin alone who made politics – “everyone else was only acting in the plays he staged”. Those who thought they were manipulating the president were misleading themselves. “Of course, they would find out the truth in a luxurious country home, a parting gift after their dismissal. Boris Yeltsin was tsar-like in his generosity.” Vremya Novostei emphasizes that Yeltsin wasn’t just any tsar – he was a reforming tsar. True, he didn’t manage to deliver consistent reforms: it’s not that easy to combine widespread trembling awe toward one’s power and constant mood-swings with “any specific firm course”. Although Russia has changed in recent years, Vremya Novostei says the most important thing has remained unchanged: “The institution of the monarchy, even spiced up with a few democratic processes, has grown substantially stronger.”
People now expect from Putin what they once expected from Yeltsin – a tsar’s favors and actions: “making people’s careers, sweeping projects, and all other symptoms of monarchy”, when one person alone sets policy, while others are only free to agree or disagree, follow his orders or not. “It’s another matter entirely that the monarchy created by Boris Yeltsin was tailored to his own requirements. Now the realm will have to change into something quite different.”
Vremya Novostei got some interesting replies when it asked a range of politicians and analysts what Yeltsin was like as president.
Valerii Saikin, a Duma deputy with the Communist faction, thinks Yeltsin was a real leader only in the days when he headed the Moscow municipal committee of the Communist Party. Subsequently, having made his reputation in the battle against privileges, Yeltsin himself became bogged down in them. That’s why the Communists remember him as “two-faced”.
Yeltsin’s dual nature was also noted by Vladimir Lysenko, leader of the Republican party. He says Yeltsin in 1989 was “bold, decisive, the most promising politician in Russia. But by the end of his time in power he was a leader who hadn’t fulfilled his most important mission, and in many respects had reverted to authoritarian rule.”
Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation, remembers Yeltsin as “an extremely colorful personality, a revolutionary at heart, a romantic, and someone with a great passion for life”. In Nikonov’s view, the paradox of Yeltsin lies in the fact that he managed to carry out a democratic revolution by completely undemocratic methods. “It seems there is no other way of making revolutions happen in Russia.”
Viktor Anpilov, leader of the Working Russia movement, Yeltsin was a “satrap”. But Anpilov qualifies this by adding that “having a satrap in power is better than indecision” – and the first Russian president couldn’t possibly be described as indecisive.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky has a huge grudge against Yeltsin – he says Yeltsin was “the most terrible person in history”. Zhirinovsky asserts: “I won the election in 1991. People in the KGB told me so. But Yelstin was declared the winner.”
Viktor Pokhmelkin, deputy leader of the Union of Right Forces faction, thinks Yeltsin’s major flaws were his love of power and indifference toward anything which didn’t directly threaten his power. “When it was a matter of fighting for power, he was always decisive. But when it came down to using power to do something of substance, he was often surprisingly passive.”
Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, says that while Yeltsin was in power “there was a revolution in terms of freedom – in the Russian sense of the word – but it was by no means a political revolution”. That is why no foundations for political stability were laid while Yeltsin was president: “We still have no institutions capable of protecting private property. And many people still understand liberty as being a kind of atmosphere rather than a guarantee of various things, including security.” Pavlovsky is sure that Yeltsin was essentially a good person, but finds it necessary to note that “in an era of disasters it’s not enough to be a good person in order to really help people.”
“Real-world democracy in Russia has turned out to be very different from textbook examples and systems of government in the West,” says the Vek weekly. But despite these differences, Russian democracy is doing better these days than a year or two ago. The “Putin system”, says Vek, has turned out to be stronger than the “Yeltsin system”: “The old regime didn’t prevent internal disintegration within Russia, but the new regime has set about unifying the country. For the first time since 1993, the political elite has started to comprehend that despite all the competition in its ranks, it is a single entity. Consensus has been reached on foreign affairs and Federation unity issues; the right and the left, which until recently were categorically opposed to each other’s social and economic policies, are turning to persistent – but manageable and peaceful – political bargaining.” That’s why all talk of “unorthodox democracy” is groundless: it is unlikely that any other system of government could have coped with such an idiosyncratic country as Russia.
Of course, the regime could have been more tolerant – toward independence for the regions, for example. However, Vek considers that this would have posed a real threat of the Federation breaking up: “if market economy rules are strictly followed, the existence of a single state stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea is economically unviable, by definition”. That’s why the federal government is forced to redistribute resources from wealthier regions in favor of the poorer regions. Vek says: “Can this be done without authoritarian rule? One day, maybe – though it’s unprecedented.” Meanwhile, understandably enough, the nation has to be preserved “right here and now”, and from this viewpoint “strong presidential rule is the lesser evil, if not a good thing (even a costly good thing)”.
Vek asks: “How much authoritarianism is enough?” And answers its own question decisively: “No more than there is at present.” However, it is quite possible that authoritarian trends will become stronger if no relevant legislative safeguards are set up – primarily against further concentration of power in one person and against any restriction on the principle of regular changes of the head of state. Of course, says Vek, right now this problem isn’t as urgent as it was in the Yeltsin era, but there is no guarantee that it will not recur – “apart from Putin himself”. Hence, there is some cause for concern: “It’s not every time that Russia gets a leader who is better than the previous leader. Citizens and the state must have some guarantees against the luck of the draw.”
“President Putin is just about the most ‘accidental’ ruler in Russian history,” says Obshchaya Gazeta. Indeed, even the more unusual monarchs of past centuries were born into the circle of those capable of aspiring to power (though Obshchaya Gazeta forgets Empress Catherine I, formerly the completely unknown Marta Skavronskaya). Even for the general secretaries of the Soviet era, it was a long road to the top (also an arguable point). In any case, Obshchaya Gazeta is sure that Yelstin was no accident – “neither as a member of the Politburo nor as the leader of the ‘democratic revolution'”.
But Putin’s ascent was entirely a matter of chance: “This person was appointed as the successor by a president who has long since become unpopular, without any consultation with anyone other than his close associates, even less popular than himself – people like Boris Berezovsky.” Nevertheless, not only was Putin elected president by a convincing majority in free democratic elections, but he remains to this day a popular president, with a high and stable approval rating.
This conundrum gives political analysts no peace; and Obshchaya Gazeta presents its own version of an answer – a social psychology version, so to speak. After 1991, says Obshchaya Gazeta, Russian society found itself in a fairly humiliating position: the glittering hopes for a better life had been dashed, the nation was ruled by a group of people “who were shamelessly robbing it, and the citizenry was completely helpless against this group”. Most bitter of all, this was not helplessness in the face of “powerful, terrifying totalitarian rule like autocracy or communism”. All external signs of democracy are currently in place: terror is absent, while freedom of speech and free elections are present. “It would seem to be just a matter of electing someone different. But Russian society is so unprepared to organize itself, so accustomed to submission, so afraid of liberty and of itself, that it is simply incapable of doing so.” Yeltsin’s election as president was to some degree explicable: Yeltsin was “the hero who had overthrown communism”, and even voting for him in 1996 (when his rivals were the Communists) could be presented as choosing the lesser of two evils. However, once Yeltsin started choosing and re-choosing his successor, and finally chose the most insignificant person in the full confidence that the people would vote for him – this had become “the ultimate demonstration of the citizenry’s powerlessness against a regime which can basically feel free to disregard the people”.
Hence Obshchaya Gazeta considers that the present “overwhelming love for Putin” is nothing other than an attempt by the people to deny the humiliating truth. “It is shameful to vote as you’re directed to vote by very bad and unpopular leaders, simply because you’re not used to acting independently.” However, there is a way of evading that sense of shame – you have to “fall in love with the person you’ve been instructed to vote for”. “After all, if you really love him, it’s as if you are free and independent. And the question of where that person came from becomes irrelevant.” Of course, if love should fade away, the sense of shame will return, and a “self-respect crisis” will become unavoidable anyway. But it is precisely because love for Putin is a defensive mechanism intended to save our national honor that “we will try to love him up to the last, as long as possible”.
Meanwhile, analysts are increasingly asking how long the people’s love will last, and how long the president’s approval rating will stay high as the government pursues its chosen course. For example, Otto Latsis looks at this issue in Novye Izvestia, in a detailed examination of recent government decisions with an impact on social services and the economy – from housing and utilities reforms to the ban on imports of used cars.
It’s clear, says Latsis, that the era of spontaneous economic prosperity due to the ruble devaluation in 1998 has come to an end. Now it’s essential to have some well-planned measures to support growth targets. The auto industry is the driving force of the whole economy, as we know from America’s experience; so the government’s ability to resolve this sector’s problems is most indicative of the general situation. Latsis says no one ought to be misled by the recent resolution to protect the Russian market against imports of old cars. In reality, the auto lobbyists have achieved the exact opposite: poor-quality Russian-made cars are now securely protected from market competition. In the near future, the car market will become busier and stocks of unsold cars will now be sold; after that, the industry will continue to produce uncompetitive Russian models. Thus, the government’s decision is against the interests of Russia’s long-suffering middle class – and it perpetuates the existing backwardness of Russia’s auto industry.
A similarly conservative approach is taken in many other areas. Housing construction is usually viewed as the second most important driving force in the Russian economy. The government has also failed to create a new model for this sector to replace the model which has exhaused its resources.
The government’s approach to housing and utilities reforms combines “brutal radicalism” with profound conservatism: rather than changing the monopoly structure of housing administration, all we get is increases in payments for utilities and housing.
But the most frightening manifestation of conservatism in policy, says Latsis, is the government’s approach to the problem of Chechnya: “the war is being conserved”.
It would appear to be obvious to everyone by now – including the Kremlin – that the situation cannot be improved using the current methods. New approaches are needed, but they are not being sought.
It should be acknowledged, says Latsis, that all these problems were not created by Putin, and neither was the conservative approach to solving them. “Putin’s misfortune – and his fault – is that he has not rejected that approach. But he received widespread support in the election as a candidate from whom people expected changes.”
Latsis sees the reason for Putin’s adherence to conservative methods of problem-solving in his lack of real “democratic support”. “Having ascended to the top ‘from nowhere’, without a party of his own (yet another ‘pro-government party’ can’t be taken seriously in this regard), without even his own political clan, Putin is seeking consensus with the political elite as a whole.”
According to Latsis, the principle of such consensus is reminiscent of the Brezhnev era: “Don’t bother me, and I won’t bother you.” This is exactly what was known as stagnation. However, Latsis stresses that this policy devoured all the reserves of stability in the Soviet system within 20 years: “Russia today has no such reserves – neither does it have years to spare on an attempt to resurrect conservative policies.”
Novaya Gazeta describes Putin’s policies as protective rather than conservative. “Putin came to power in order to protect the existing system,” says Novaya Gazeta, adding that this is the system of oligarchic capitalism.
Of course, a few particular oligarchs – now known as magnates – don’t feel as secure as they did under Yeltsin: Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky have gone into hiding abroad, “just like Herzen and Plekhanov”; Rem Vyakhirev is out of Gazprom – despite his conscientious implementation of the plan to take over the NTV network. Even the ultra-loyal Roman Abramovich has been summoned for questioning by prosecutors. He hasn’t been charged with anything so far, and it’s an old case which has already been closed once, but this is still an unpleasant experience for him.
However, Novaya Gazeta notes that during Putin’s first year, the oligarchy, although it was “let down” in political terms, received several valuable economic gifts at once. A flat-rate income tax was introduced, and now the government will attempt to plug the gaps in the budget by reforming housing and utilities. (The government plans to save around $3-4 billion a year on housing and utilities – “that’s about the same as the handout received by the rich via the tax reforms”.) Then the oligarchs received a new gift, even more valuable: deregulation of hard currency laws. Besides everything else, this is a good security guarantee for the oligarchs – now none of them can be retrospectively accused of illegal business dealings.
The contradictions between the government’s political and economic decisions, embodied by the current policy of the carrot and the stick, are easily explicable: Putin came to power in order to protect “the system itself, not individuals within it”. In order for the system to function, discipline within it must be maintained – but “the oligarchs got out of control in the Yeltsin era”.
That’s why “Putin is like a schoolteacher, punishing children for their own good”. The recalcitrant pupils, Berezovsky and Gusinsky, have been expelled; Abramovich, who is a good boy but “was getting above himself”, has received a warning. Vyakhirev has been sent into honorable retirement, as “too old to be a pupil”.
Will these lessons suffice for the others? “Yes, most likely,” says Novaya Gazeta. “Potanin, for example, is trying awfully hard. But in any case, the Kremlin has some replacements ready and waiting.” The students in Yeltsin’s school were too spoilt, too free in their ways. The newcomers know the meaning of discipline very well. Novaya Gazeta names a few names: Miller, Kogan, Klebanov. “These are quiet, well-disciplined St. Petersburg oligarchs who have worked with President Putin in law enforcement or government. They understand the new rules of the game very well; most importantly, they know the meaning of discipline.”
The story of how Vitalii Tretiakov was dismissed as chief editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta bears witness to the fact that discipline is becoming the primary, unconditional requirement of the new era – both for the Kremlin and its allies, and for those who proclaim themselves to be in opposition.
Boris Berezovsky, who has set out to unite the anti-Putin forces, has also decided to put his media troops in order. The Vremya Novostei newspaper says Berezovsky is thus providing proof that “free speech is no more than a tool for Russian oligarchs”.
Vek says: “Tretiakov, who refused to sing along with the ‘defenders of media freedom’ during the media war over the NTV network, apparently doesn’t fit in with the new structure. In the chain of ‘money – ideas – platforms – power’, someone like Tretiakov turns out to be an unnecessary architectural detail.”
Vek considers that none of Berezovsky’s explanations about the market niches of Kommersant and Nezavisimaya Gazeta intersecting can be said to hold up. These two newspapers are targeted at entirely different audiences. It’s another matter entirely that it has been decided to expand the target readership of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, reaching out to the “new middle class”, to whom the former oligarch is now trying to appeal.
Vek says that the readers whom Tretiakov addressed over all these years are being transferred to the category of “superfluous people”. “Five years ago, the intelligentsia really did have some influence on government thinking and decision-making processes… Now it is the day of the bureaucrats, functionaries, bankers, the military – those who are still missing will be brought in, those who are no longer required will be crossed off the list and deprived of funding.”
“The opposition rejects outsiders just as effectively and mercilessly as the government. Especially if the opposition is being created by Boris Berezovsky,” notes the Vedomosti newspaper, which is certain that Tretiakov “was dismissed because he visited the Kremlin too often and was ‘insufficiently oppositional'”.
Tretiakov himself, in his final edition of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, says “strictly speaking, this newspaper lived and thrived against the laws of nature. It ought to have perished long ago, but it lived – and that’s a miracle!”
Like many others at the moment, the founder and now ex-editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta recalls the early 1990s, “the cruel and refined early days of Russian democracy, when the new order was emerging from chaos (and still hasn’t managed to emerge)” – the new order which gave rise to new media, including Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “I only delivered the child and set it on its feet,” says Tretiakov. “It was all set to go far…” But he says that from now on, all this will have to be dismissed as poetic fantasy.
“Social darwinism is grabbing us by the throat, and we can only free ourselves by sober and completely honest assessment of what is going on. No sentiment – the romantics are the first to perish. Of course, cynics never win out either,” concludes Tretiakov in his farewell article, entitled “The Cherry Orchard of Nezavisimaya Gazeta”.
But Vedomosti has no doubt that Tretiakov “will find yet another unusual investor like Berezovsky and revive his personal project in the form of a newspaper”.
No one is venturing to make specific predictions about the consequences of fundamental changes in the position of the media as a whole and in public consciousness. As Chekhov, whom Tretiakov quoted in his farewell article, said: “If only we knew…”