Russia’s domestic politics and foreign policy: the PR kingdom


The euphoria of observers after the Ljubljana summit of the two presidents, when Vladimir Putin and George Bush were so surprisingly friendly toward each other has been rather quickly replaced by an analytical skepticism.

The media started to reflect on the results of the meeting. As it turns out, there are very few reasons for delight.

The Vedomosti paper speculates: “Of course, personal familiarity is very important. Everyone still remembers Bill and Boris shows of the recent past – both Yeltsin’s awkward jokes and Clinton’s catching laughter. It seemed the two presidents and their subordinates would never be able to offend each other… Meanwhile, it was under Clinton that the US started to develop the idea of constructing the national anti-missile defense system and to continue NATO expansion to the East.” So Bush will only have to continue the activities of his predecessor, only taking into consideration all the criticism of Clinton’s too indulgent – from the standpoint of the US political establishment – attitude towards Russia.

Undoubtedly, after the Ljubljana meeting, it will be easier for the US and Russian leaders to communicate, but “they hardly have any common political goals,” stresses Vedomosti.

The Vremya MN paper writes: “As expected, the first meeting of the Russian and US presidents brought no breakthroughs in relations between the two countries. The sensitive areas and mutual reproaches are the same, and major disagreements have not been resolved.”

At the same time, President Bush stressed the intention of the US to develop the trade and economic cooperation with Russia; however, as the paper says, here the price of the issue is also of great importance.

Vremya MN stresses: “Further and real change of the US attitude toward Russia will demand certain geopolitical concessions from Russia: this concerns Iran, China, and relations with other Russia’s neighbors.”

The US needs “additional vectors” in foreign policy. On the other hand, at present the US is not interested in worsening relations with Russia, taking into consideration a number of principal disagreements on certain issues with Europe and China’s becoming one of its “long-term strategic rivals”.

That is why, according to Vremya MN, “from the beginning of May it was not Putin who was seeking to meet Bush, but on the opposite.” This has also been the reason for numerous “test balloons” the US administration launched, such as the rumor of the possibility to write off a considerable amount, or even all Russia’s debts to the US in exchange to agreement on modification of the 1972 ABM Treaty.

However, the paper notes, if the “cost of the issue” is worsening the relations between Moscow and Beijing, Russia is likely to face an excruciating dilemma – especially if consider the recent agreement with the People’s Republic of China and four Central Asian countries on establishment of the so-called “Shanghai organization for cooperation”. The alliance is supposed to be clearly military-political character.

The Moskovskie Novosti weekly believes that after the “Goetheborg riot”, which famous political scientist Alexander Yanov called “the first public demonstrative conflict in the North Atlantic alliance”, Bush had no way out but to try to use Russia regardless of all expectations.

Moskovskie Novosti quotes the words of a French observer, which were said on the threshold of the Ljubljana summit: “We Europeans will stand between Russia and the US. We will not allow them to start another Cold War.”

In reality, things were otherwise. Putin, “as if feeling that Bush’s bravado is actually covering vulnerability”, gave a hand to the US president: “You need the ‘Russia card’? You’ll get it. But remember who helped you in hard times.” According to Alexander Yanov, this is the real ground for appearance of the “Brdo castle surprise”.

The Obshchaya Gazeta newspaper with great pleasure noted that Bush’s manners turned to be absolutely opposite to the data of the Russian secret services. Putin was warned that he would have to deal with a “cold, diffident man”, who in addition “cannot listen to anyone”.

Despite these expectations, the US president turned to be a very emotional, and rather comfortable partner, who can listen to and hear.

At the same time, the paper noted that nonetheless, Bush’s viewpoints “have not changed in the least after he listened to Putin in Ljubljana”.

In the meantime, the Novoe Vremya magazine wrote, “Bush returned to Washington being severely criticized, for US critics did not like his friendliness toward the Russian leader”.

And the Novye Izvestia paper quoted some statements from the “Washington Post”: “Evidently Bush was trying to please Putin criticizing Clinton’s policies in relation to Russia, which is an unforgivable mistake of our president…. How is it possible to state that he trusts a person, who still continues the Chechen war, pressures the free media, and does not allow OSCE observers to go to the zone of the military operation?”

The Americans were most of all surprised by two Bush’s statements: “I understood his (Putin’s) soul” and “He is an honest man, I trust him”.

“Russians have been unable to understand who Putin is for two years,” the “Washington Post” was outraged, “and our president completely “understood” Putin within two hours and decided that he is worth trusting.”

The “New York Times” is taken aback: “Bush must have been praising Putin for he wants to push his plans for development of the national missile defense system through by all means. That is why there is an impression that the things he publicly said about Putin in Slovenia are not what he considers in reality. Either our president is a talented actor, and ordinary American voters do not know about it as yet, or he is extremely naive, and the Russian president managed to outwit Bush.”

According to Novye Izvestia, the ABC television network has given vent to suspicions: “Because of his former occupation, Putin has never said a word of truth to anyone. Apparently, Bush has forgotten about it and swallowed the bait of the former secret agent. Of course, Putin could not politically impede our president in such a short time; however, our leader will need more caution in further contacts and a more balanced response to what the Russian president is saying and doing.”

The paper also refers to the opinion of US political scientist Richard Cohen: “George Bush has an apparently inflated self-worth… He is extremely self-confident, I would say opinionated, and this is likely to do serious harm to further contact with Russians.”

According to Mr. Cohen, during the meeting with Putin, Bush acted as “a baseball team coach, assuming that he had counted everything correctly and that the relations will keep developing according to his scenario. However, things may turn out quite the opposite.”

Actually, only a week after meeting with George Bush, and at the end of negotiations with Austrian President Thomas Klestil, Vladimir Putin gave an official explanation of what Russia’s possible response to the development of the US national missile defense may be.

According to the Russian president, if the US withdraws from the 1972 ABM Treaty, Russia will “have a legal right to equip Russian missiles with three, four, or five warheads instead of one warhead” (a quotation from the Vremya Novostei paper). Putin also stressed that this was just an option for further action, the cheapest and the most effective.

Thus, Moscow has broken its three-month silence concerning “Star Wars”. According to Vremya Novostei, lately there has been a sort of moratorium on this topic, which was initiated directly from the Kremlin: Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov forbade his subordinates to talk freely about “our response to the US militarists”. Now the president has broken the moratorium himself.

However, the paper notes we should appreciate that President Putin rejected the suggestion of the Russian military: to restore “nuclear trains” to combat routes, to resume flights of strategic bombers with nuclear weapons to the air borders of the “potential enemy” and voyages by Russian submarines loaded with cruise missiles to the US coast.

They say the military even mentioned the possibility of withdrawing from the treaty on restriction of medium-range missiles and placement of a corresponding group of forces in Russia’s western regions. As we have already mentioned, these suggestions were rejected.

However, the president’s words were more than enough. As the Vremya Novostei paper notes, “there has been nothing like this for about 15 years… Evidently, the personal meting of the Russian and US presidents finally destroyed the earlier illusions of both countries about a possible compromise.”

Nonetheless, according to the Kommersant paper, the US accepted the statement of the Russian president rather calmly: in particular, Secretary of State Colin Powell believes that Russia “will never choose this option, as soon as they add up the cost of reinforcing their arsenals”.

In fact, Kommersant notes, we do not even have money to pretend that we have a strategic balance with the US. By 2010 the service lifetimes of all Russian ICBMs will have expired, except for 26 Topol-M missiles. In order to restore the arsenal, Russia will have to deploy 30-40 missile systems annually. However, the paper notes that even in time of Igor Sergeev, when the missile forces had the priority for funding, the defense industry could not produce more than ten Topol-M missiles a year. And the new leadership of the Defense Minsutry intends to first of all develop the general-duty forces. That is why, according to Kommersant, “even is Moscow will seriously decide to increase the number of nuclear warheads on Topol-M missiles, it is hardly likely to considerably influence the situation in the world.” Several dozens of new Topol-M missiles will be unable to balance even the 736 US monoblock intercontinental ballistic missiles, that are permitted by START II.” And if Russia withdraws from the treaty, the US will have a chance to increase its ground grouping.

The paper concludes: “Moscow simply has no chances to win another weapon race”.

Meanwhile, the Novaya Gazeta paper believes there is one more, no less important aspect of the meeting of the two presidents in Ljubljana. The paper’s political observer Andrei Piontkovsky also paid attention to the “unprecedented and not demanded by the protocol praises” Bush was showering on Putin. However, in his opinion, it is much more important that the incumbent US president is much less concerned about Russia’s interior issues than about the necessity to find a common language with Russia in the national security area. “Bush’s message was clear enough: if we come to mutual understanding on key geopolitical issues, the US will not draw the attention to the issue of human rights in an unpleasant for you, Mr. Putin, aspect. Such an inconsistent, if not hypocritical approach of the US and the West on the whole toward the issues of the freedom of speech and human rights has been resumed.”

On the other hand, in accordance with the logic of the author, if (based on Russia’s latest statements) the West fails to find a common language with Russia in the security field, it is very likely to resume its interest in the issues of freedom of speech and human rights. Thus, the topic of human rights is likely to be used once again as a tool in big-time politics. This is a very popular trick – for instance, Boris Berezovsky uses it very often and quite successfully: recently he announced the establishment of a political opposition to the current regime in Russia on the basis of the human rights movement.

Kommersant-Vlast has reprinted an article from the Orenburg regional newspaper Yaik which says that the tycoon’s concern with human rights is of a selfish nature. For instance, recently the Civil Liberties Foundation set up by Berezovsky decided to support minors in detention, allocating $1 million for this campaign. The newspaper notes that this money would be enough to provide breakfasts for 20,000 Russian children who have not committed any crime. The newspaper also states that cases of children fainting from hunger are not rare now, especially in rural areas.

Henri Reznik, a well-known Russian lawyer, has explained Berezovsky’s “selective” love for children. He has stressed that not only adolescent criminals will get money as a result of this campaign: a lot of lawyers will get jobs, since minors in detention will get qualified legal aid thanks to Berezovsky’s money. Thus, “links between civil activists and lawyers will be fortified,” which is certainly very helpful for the tycoon. The newspaper has also stated that thus measure will activate 163 regional public organizations set up within Berezovsky’s foundation. “Tomorrow these public activists may easily set up a party, if their sponsor wants them to.”

There is no doubt that Berezovsky will certainly want to set up a party of his own. Last week the newspapers Izvestia and Kommersant published Berezovsky’s interview given to an Izvestia correspondent Elmar Guseinov in Paris. As has turned out, the first version of the interview published by Izvestia did not appeal to the interviewee because it was abridged. Kommersant immediately published the complete version of the interview. Thus Berezovsky has made practically all people interested in politics pay attention to his words. First people read in Izvestia that the “zigzag trajectory of Russia’s current development is a result of too rapid reforms.” On the other hand, this “zigzag” is a result of “short-sightedness of the current president who is trying to flirt with the crowd” and who wants to cater all strata of the society. In other words, Berezovsky considers that Russia may become an authoritarian country with liberal economy.

In two days readers could find out from the interview published by Kommersant that Berezovsky is engaged in creating the right opposition aimed and countering the aforementioned “zigzag.”

Berezovsky does not conceal that he is fighting against Putin personally. In particular, he announced in his interview, “If Putin were left-oriented, I would have set up the left opposition with the same fury, since the key point for a liberal state is existence of the opposition in principle.”

Besides, the reader found out from the Kommersant article that Berezovsky does not view media as the main instrument of the politics. He said, “A different time has come. In my opinion, the state’s fight for media as a mechanism of political influence is erroneous.” Berezovsky is sure that in the next elections it is not media that will play the leading role. In his opinion, it will be more important to “reach everyone.” Then Berezovsky quotes Aleksander Kwasniewski, who won the presidential election in Poland because he had “traveled around the whole country.” He also put forward an analogous example of Italian President Berlusconi, who practically did not use media in his election campaign.

Berezovsky drew readers’ attention to the fact that currently the government often loses regional elections despite its influence over a lot of media. He makes the conclusion that the president’s ratings are “a soap bubble.” He considers that people are aware of the government’s intentions, even if the government does not call any particular candidate its protege. “People understand it and act in defiance of the government’s will.”

Therefore, Berezovsky is sure that “Putin’s political age will not last long” (this phrase was also omitted in the Izvestia version).

Meanwhile, it is not only Berezovsky and his supporters who threaten Putin’s presidency. Novoe Vremya magazine reports surprising rumors scaring civilians. “A conspiracy is being prepared by state security services. Evil KGB agents want to deprive Putin of power by any method possible.” The president is said to be a stranger to them, because he worked for only a year as head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), he is “the protege of Yeltsin’s team, and used to be a member of Sobchak’s team.” The magazine considers that there is no point in discussing this rumor, since Putin had worked for the KGB before he joined Sobchak’s team. However, the magazine believes that this “foolish rumor proves that the Russian public consciousness is in a very curious state now.” This state is an outcome of activities of media, whose power has been questioned by Berezovsky.

Novoe Vremya says, “The media mole is digging without a break for rest. Every day detailed privatization sagas and stories about luxurious life of the top-ranking bureaucracy are published. This blind beast has undermined the very chance of social concord.” The magazine notes that it is impossible to construct public consensus on the president’s high rating. “These ratings show that people stake their hopes on the new president. Meanwhile, the grapes of wrath are ripening.” People’s love for the president may vanish as quickly as it appeared. “However, people do not want to part with their beloved leader: they want to justify him in any possible way. That is why such rumors appear.”

It is clear that this behind-the-scenes monster is unlikely to come out on stage, since he actually does not exist. However, people are obviously looking forward to “tightening the screws”, being tired of a decade of chaos. At the same time the nation does not want its beloved president to perform this shabby operation. “People realize that tightening the screws will not bring any good even to those who began to love the president for his merciless anti-corruption plans.” So people “will have to give up their love for president, although they do not want to.”

Vitaly Portnikov, an observer of the newspaper Vedomosti, states that the current rumors about threats to Putin’s life are connected with the current slight decline of Putin’s rating. Portnikov notes that in the Yeltsin era, media were saying that it was necessary to reduce the Federal Service of Presidential Guards (FSPG) inflated by Korzhakov. However, the old FSPG has turned out to be too small for Putin. At the same time the increase of the FSPG does not cause people’s indignation, since people see that the president is extremely popular and therefore should be thoroughly protected.

In reality, as Portnikov considers, these awkward PR actions only harm the president. “There is no need to make a Russian Kennedy out of Putin.” Reports about attempts at the president, indeed, can return popularity to the president, but this mainly concerns non-democratic states. Russia is not a country with a dictator regime, and Putin’s rating is now low yet. In this connection Vedomosti supposes that “PR structures close to the Kremlin base their policy on some different information from that they publish.”

Subbotnik-NG, a weekly supplement to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, asserts that the “open and obtrusive demonstration of measures for protection of the president appeared in the post-Soviet period. Before that, guards were inconspicuous in order not to undermine the idea of unity between the Party and the people.” Bodyguards appeared in the Gorbachev era, to show that Gorby was a serious reformer risking his life for the sake of ideas.

As the article says, such unusual propaganda moves were invented by Alexander Yakovlev, one of the ideologues of perestroika. This proves that even at that time authorities were aware of the importance of the image.

At the same time, oddly enough, even now politicians do not always care about their image. The weekly Zhizn writes about methods of Coordinator of the Fatherland-All Russia Duma faction Farida Gainullina, a former basketball player. When she raises her hand, this means that the faction should vote for this or that document. If the faction should vote against it, Ms. Gainullina crosses her arms: in basketball this sign means that the time is up. If she moves her hands round above her hand, this means that deputies may vote as they like.

Unity deputies use simpler signs: “for” is expressed by one raised hand, and “against” is expressed by two raised hands.

The Union of Right Forces and Yabloko use gestures of ancient Romans: if deputies should vote against a document, the coordinator shows a thumb turned down, and deputies should support a document, he turns his thumb up.

The Communist coordinator raises his hand if other members of the faction should vote for this or that document. If they should vote against it, he makes some movements above his head that resemble movements of a whip when a rider drives his horse on.

Although Russia calls itself a democratic state, the concept of “party discipline” is no less important now than it used to be in the time of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This is a case when PR loses its importance.