Even at the peak of the political season, the phantasmagoria of Kim Jong Il’s visit to Russia would probably have been the top story in the Russian media. So it’s not surprising that right now, during the political lull, the “Dear Leader” of the North Koreans has grabbed the headlines. The media spared no adjectives in describing his journey along the Trans-Siberian Railway, nor in describing all the inconveniences which residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg were forced to bear due to the unprecedented security measures imposed for the sake of the North Korean leader’s peace of mind.

“Russia did all it could to make the North Korean leader comfortable,” noted the Vremya Novostei newspaper.

The circumstances of this visit, says Vremya Novostei, really do make one pause to consider the advantages of being “very bad indeed”: the international community is more cautious in its dealings with North Korea than with any other state, because it never knows what to expect from North Korea.

At the same time, it’s understood that all the exotic demands of this honored guest were met not because of any liking for him as a person, nor for his Stalinist regime. “Russia is counting on using its influence with North Korea as a trump card in its big game with the United States, primarily with regard to missile defense,” Vremya Novostei points out.

But who is using whom? That remains an open question: Vremya Novostei recalls the unfortunate results of President Putin’s visit to North Korea last year, when Comrade Kim first of all promised Putin to give up his missile program, “then said he had meant it as a joke, and finally promised again – sort of.”

This story provides excellent evidence that the rogue states are classified as such not just due to someone’s nasty whim, but because they don’t keep their word, and don’t observe the civilized rules of international relations.

However, that slice of the recent past has been firmly set aside: the main result of Comrade Kim’s visit was his new promise that North Korea would observe a moratorium on missile launches until 2003. Kommersant says: “It seems Moscow consented to tolerate all the quirks of the North Korean guest, just for the sake of this declaration. The Kremlin believes it will boost Russia’s position considerably in the dispute with the US about the need to retain the ABM treaty of 1972.”

On the other hand, according to Obshchaya Gazeta, the very fact that Kim Jong Il has visited Russia “is capable of reviving the very worst suspicions of the developed world – East and West – regarding Russia’s policies”. Contact with President Putin enables the North Korean leader to create the intrigue he wants in the eyes of the international community: “For example, by playing up the mystery and thus giving the impression that Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang might be working on something like the military-political alliance of the 1950s, to spite the West.” Of course, times have changed, and it’s impossible to create such an alliance these days. “However, according to Pyongyang’s reasoning, historical memory is strong enough that even a simulacrum might well incline Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul to be more amenable.”

And Comrade Kim’s eccentric journey is, of course, a great PR move, says Obshchaya Gazeta: “Let everyone talk and write about ‘Moonface’ for three whole weeks, while he travels there and back.”

Izvestia comments: “Comrade Stalin might have travelled like this, had he wished to travel across the country in his lifetime.” Over the past few days, the Russian press has been constantly discussing encounters with the distant past: “Russia has been made up to look a bit like the USSR… A few things were washed, cleaned, swept. Idle sightseers and vagrants were cleared from the area, but no efforts were made to fill the streets and squares with cheering people.” Actually, that wasn’t necessary – most likely, Comrade Kim didn’t insist on an emotional component to the the recognition of his achievements; he was quite content with the ritual.

Besides everything else, Kim’s visit gave Izvestia an opportunity to explore the difference between a national leader and a leader of the people (vozhd).

Firstly, it’s clear that “leader of the people” is a more serious concept. “The leader of the North Korean people turned out to have no charisma at all. Then again, Comrade Stalin didn’t have any either.” Simply because it wasn’t necessary. According to Izvestia, charisma is essential for gaining power, whether it’s democratic or totalitarian power. But once the goal has been reached, charisma becomes superfluous: “It’s just light relief for the leader, a spectacle for the people. We’ve seen this happening in Cuba.”

That’s why the sporadic attempts by well-wishers to pin the “leader of the people” label on Putin are futile – the title won’t stick. The Russian president is a typical national leader, i.e. the head of state. A “leader of the people” is a symbol of the state, and in this capacity he is “outside the real world, outside life experience”. (Izvestia even described Kim Jong Il’s visit to the Lenin Mausoleum as “a summit of two leaders of the people”.)

A national leader is a real person, part of the real world. And his concerns are also of this world – in addition to everything else, he has to “occasionally provide proof of his phyicial presence in this world. Let people touch him, show his physical capacities, not hide his family from the public view, play the saxophone, go skiing, play hockey.”

In other words, a national leader must always be concerned about his approval rating – unlike the leader of North Korea, a country described by the Russian media as “the land of triumphant PR”. However, according to Obshchaya Gazeta, the concept of an approval rating in a country like Russia is significantly different from what it is in countries which have a tradition of democracy. The differences result from the specific political goals of the head of state in a “controlled democracy”.

According to Obshchaya Gazeta, Putin’s overriding goal “is not just to retain the power he has – unlike Yeltsin, he did not strive for power, and he can maintain his position without making any special efforts.” The main goal of Russia’s second president “is to impose ‘order’ and calm on a society which has been shaken up by the revolution.” The approval rating indicates the progress he is making toward this goal. If the rating is high, it means the president is doing the right thing, and society is calm. And when people see that the president’s approval rating is high, “they are also reassured that all is well, and society becomes even more calm”.

On the other hand, a “controlled democracy” and no alternatives to presidential rule make for some strange mutations in time-worn democratic institutions. The very fact that there are no alternatives to the regime affects evaluations of it: “If you know there’s no way of changing the regime, it’s more psychologically comfortable to approve of the regime.” Thus, the approval rating gradually loses its meaning as a tool for direct feedback from society to the regime.

Of course, in Russia the president is also able to improve his rating not only by changing his policies or behavior, but by putting pressure on media outlets which provide “negative” coverage of him. (That’s exactly what was done to Media-Most.) The result appears the same – the approval rating rises – but it’s actually a fabrication. And if feedback mechanisms from society to the regime don’t work, democracy is gradually eroded, and all its institutions wither away. Obshchaya Gazeta says: “The evolution of the present regime continues to repeat the basic phases of the previous ‘no alternatives’ regime, Soviet rule, although in a considerably “milder” form.”

According to Inostranets weekly, once the executive branch had sent the legislature off on vacation, and they parted until autumn in mutual satisfaction, a kind of “suffocating sense of well-being, like the recent Moscow heat-wave” spread across Russia.

Having secured the president’s support, the major political parties are optimistically preparing to “try on the chains of the new law on parties”. The president himself, says Inostranets, is also “feeling quite comfortable in the shade of his high approval rating”. However, this situation only proves that Russian politics is incapable of dealing with the real state of the nation.

Inostranets attributes this incompetence primarily to “brainwashing and the elimination of oppositional media outlets” (which might largely explain Putin’s high approval rating). Another reason is “extensive pressure on all factions within the elite, which has forced them to display complete loyalty to the president, for the time being, in order to retain their positions”.

But the situation could change at any time: these factions will undoubtedly have an opportunity to defend their interests, since Russia remains in a state of systemic crisis, “in which both high approval ratings and ‘consolidation’ are contingent concepts”. Inostranets finds convincing evidence of crisis in the endless stream of natural, man-made, and other disasters, with which the state system can’t cope, despite all the regime’s efforts to strengthen it (according to the Emergencies Ministry, the number of such disasters may rise to 40 a month in the near future). There are also problems in the economy (despite the optimism projected by the Cabinet, the problems of inflation and lack of investment in industry still remain unsolved).

And the endless war in Chechnya continues, with the risk of very serious unexpected developments for Russia.

Inostranets considers “significant changes” in Russia to be inevitable. In this context, the latest appointments in security and law enforcement are especially interesting: key posts are being taken over by people with a background in the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Inostranets quotes a recent announcement by Yuri Ovchenko, director of the Economic Security Institute, about the intentions of “a number of people who have links with the security structures and access to the president”: to move from “an oligarchic system to a national system”. Ovchenko says this would involve a drastic shift in economic policy, “to eliminate the catastrophic consequences of the so-called reforms of 1992-99, and revise the results of illegal privatization”. The key role in the process of deprivatization and changing ownership is allotted to the FSB people who have taken top jobs at the Central Bank and the State Customs Committee. Of course, the dismissal of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov is inevitable, since “he’s too bound up with the oligarchs”.

Further to this topic, another newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, qotes an extract from an Economic Security Institute publication: “A dramatic contradiction is taking shape between President Putin’s historical mission, strategic direction, and image, on the one hand – and the economic priorities of the Cabinet, on the other.” The document goes on to say that the ultra-liberal approach taken by the Kasianov Cabinet “primarily focuses on the interests of the oligarchs, rather than the vast majority of Russian citizens who continue to live in poverty.”

What’s more, according to Novaya Gazeta, those who are now developing an economic strategy for Russia consider that the Kasianov Cabinet cannot be described as truly liberal, since “it’s imposing a Latin American model on Russia: total power for the oligarchs, impoverishment for most of the population, with the economy entirely dependent on foreign loans.”

Novaya Gazeta claims that Putin intends to hand over control of the economy to an entirely new team this autumn. This new team already exists, and a detailed economic course for it has already been worked out.

According to Novaya Gazeta, the new prime minister will be Governor Mikhail Prusak of the Novgorod region. “Why Prusak?” asks Novaya Gazeta. It turns out there are many reasons: the Novgorod governor is young, but has a great deal of management experience. Under his leadership, the Novgorod region has become one of Russia’s five most prosperous regions. Prusak is known in the West, since he has represented Russia at Council of Europe assemblies over the past five years. Finally – and this is of no small importance – Prusak’s appointment could be viewed as a signal to supporters of a market economy: “Russia’s economic policy is not about to veer to the left.” Thus, the outline of the future Cabinet is quite clear.

The Versiya weekly has devoted a lengthy article to Mikhail Prusak’s chances of becoming prime minister. It concludes: “All we have to do is wait a little. The hot autumn isn’t far off.”

Another “hot” problem for Russia is Chechnya.

The Vek weekly says the development of the political situation around Chechnya is increasingly taking on the features of a classic clash between “the hawks” who support war to a victorious end and “the doves” who insist on immediate peace negotiations.

Proponents of a solution through force are, of course, military leaders; they are doing all they can to recapture the initiative which has slipped away from them. However, political restrictions prevent them from solving all the problems in their own way. Vek considers the dispute over federal action in Ingushetia to be significant in this context. According to the military, the highlands of Ingushetia have long since become a reserve base for Chechen guerrillas: so the war in Chechnya can’t be won without destroying their strongholds there. But the federal government will never agree to such an escalation of the conflict, which would take it beyond the boundaries of Chechnya, especially since nowadays it’s necessary to take public opinion in Russia into account, as well as the opinion of the West.

According to opinion polls, over half of the Russian public is now in favor of peace in Chechnya; only a third of respondents still support the actions of the military. This means that President Putin’s next election campaign, unlike his first, will be unable to score points off the war in Chechnya. The war in Chechnya is more likely to be a disadvantage for the president. Clearly, the situation has reached a dead end.

In all likelihood, the federal government would be glad to end the unpopular and costly war – but it doesn’t know how to do this. The Kremlin considers that another Khasavyurt accord could only serve as a pretext for yet another round of war. It’s essential to find someone influential to negotiate with, someone who could not only sign an agreement with the Kremlin, but guarantee that it would be implemented.

The latest issue of Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie reports that some hopes have recently appeared for a rather unexpected solution to this problem. A new figure has come forward from among the numerous Chechen politicians competing for leading roles: Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev, former head of foreign intelligence for the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria under President Djokhar Dudaev, now a Chechen oil baron and author of the “Eurasian” plan for a peace settlement in Chechnya.

There has been much talk of late about this plan, set out by Nukhaev in his book – “Vedeno or Washington?” – which he launched at the recent “Islamic threat or a threat to Islam?” international conference in Moscow.

In brief, the plan essentially involves a partition of Chechnya: a northern half, to be part of the Russian Federation; and an independent South Chechnya.

(The southern part of Chechnya is the stronghold of separatism; its Chechen highlanders adhere most strongly to ethnic traditions, and categorically reject any form of state, whether it’s Russian “constitutional order” or the Wahhabi idea of an “Islamic state”.)

A separate South Chechnya would not be recognized as an entity under international law, but would be recognized by Moscow as “a self-governing ethnic-theocratic territory”. Thus, this part of Chechnya would de facto achieve its main goal: freedom, which in Chechnya is understood as meaning the freedom to live by their own customs. Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie notes: “Needless to say, any Chechen who succeeds in separating even half of Chechnya would instantly become a national leader, and even among pro-Russian Chechens he would gain great prestige as the person who has brought about the long-awaited peace.”

In its search for a way out of the Chechnya cul-de-sac, the Kremlin is showing “indications of interest in this plan, and in Nukhaev himself”. (The best evidence for this is the fact that Nukhaev was able to attend the Moscow conference quite openly, even though he is still on the federal wanted list as a guerrilla leader.)

Nukhaev’s position in Chechnya is likewise recognized as being quite strong: as Dudaev’s former intelligence chief, Nukhaev is exempt from even the shadow of suspicion that he might have “sold out to the Russians”, which enables him to support a Eurasian form of union with Russia and criticize Wahhabi fundamentalism. Moreover, until recently Nukhaev was one of Russia’s fiercest opponents. So if Nukhaev, rather than the “moderate” Aslan Maskhadov, turns out to be sitting across the negotiation table from the Kremlin, it would mean that “Moscow has adopted a different line of reasoning, not just the logic of war”.

The Versiya weekly links Nukhaev’s Eurasian plan with a solution to the problem of Chechnya’s oil exports.

According to Versiya, there are two major forces which have vital interests in Chechnya. Firstly, there’s the United States, which controls the flow of oil around the world: “It would be a nightmare for the US Administration if a pipeline could carry oil from Chechnya and the Caspian Sea to Europe, bypassing the zone controlled by the US Sixth Fleet.” Of course, as long as war continues in Chechnya, there’s no question of supplying oil from Chechnya via the port of Novorossiisk.

But the European nations have an entirely different view of oil exports from Chechnya. Versiya notes that Europe is extremely interested in anything that might provide an opportunity to bypass the American route of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline (as Versiya puts it, “to get off the US oil hook”). These considerations underlie the activities of European peacemakers, headed by the well-known Lord Judd.

Thus, there are two sides with contradictory interests in resolving Chechnya’s “oil problem”. “On one side there’s the United States, the Wahhabi fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia, Shamil Basaev, and Boris Berezovsky. On the other side is the European Union, relying on Russia’s liberals and its own mediators and peacemakers.”

Now a third force has stepped onto the stage: Chechen oil magnate Khodzh-Akhmed Nukhaev, whose position could turn out to be crucial.

In the article quoted above, Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie says that since Russia has no other acceptable options at this point for sorting out the mess in Chechnya, it seems that “the paradoxical and inconsistent figure of Nukhaev is the alternative factor in Chechnya whom the federal government will probably now have to deal with”. Actually, all the inconsistencies in this option won’t matter to the Kremlin, if the Eurasian plan proposed by Nukhaev – who is being called the probable future leader of Chechnya – makes it possible to end the war which everyone has grown weary of.

Obshchaya Gazeta points out that Eurasianism – the belief that Russian civilization is unique and non-European – “has always come into fashion after each breakdown in yet another European-democratic project”. According to Obshchaya Gazeta, spreading the ideas of Eurasianism is primarily in the interests of the regime, which is incapable of governing by normal democratic methods, and therefore needs an ideological underpinning for other methods. “The authoritarian-charismatic (autocratic) model, selfless and ascetic service to the state as the highest goal for the individual, the consent of ethnic and religious minorities to a subordinate role, imperial xenophobia, and more along the same well-known lines.”

However, Obshchaya Gazeta says it’s simply impossible to return contemporary Russia to this tradition: “a communal-authoritarian plan only makes sense if there’s a vital community, and if the autocratic regime takes on responsibility for outsiders of the private capitalist persuasion”. But the past decade has shown that Russian society is so fragmented that hopes for a “communal-collective basis” are completely unfounded.

Nevertheless, Obshchaya Gazeta considers that there is a kernel of rationality for Russian society in Eurasian ideology. This is “the de facto acknowledgment that the Russian Federation is multicultural”. Obshchaya Gazeta notes that while Russian liberals differ greatly in their attitude to the Kremlin, the war in Chechnya, and social programs, they are completely united in their sense of “the white man’s burden”.

This is often displayed in the widespread support among Muscovites for the government’s policies in the Caucsus. Meanwhile, Russia’s major bugbear – Wahhabi fundamentalism – “is nothing other than the natural response of traditionalist groups to the fact that secular democrats in the Kremlin have left large areas of the Russian Federation in the power of totally corrupt nomenklatura ethnocracies”.

Our society needs to realize that Russia really is a civilization based on a synthesis of different cultural groups, rather than a “Christian metropolis” burdened by “Asian side-issues”. Therefore, we should “respect the non-European tradition in Russian civilization, and accept it as an equal partner to the European tradition”.

Each part of the federation has its own path to democracy: “If the federal government facilitates this ‘multipolar’ movement toward liberty, it will preserve and strengthen the nation.” But if the government chooses the imperialist path, “the nation will once again be torn apart by various liberation movements”.

It’s interesting to compare this with the results of a poll done by the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) and reported in the latest issue of Profil magazine. The poll actually concerned foreign policy priorities, but the results say quite a lot about the mentality of Russian citizens. The poll aimed to find out what people think Russia’s foreign policy priorities should be over the next ten to 15 years. The highest proportion of respondents (31%) consider that Russia should aim to regain the superpower status once held by the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, 16% of respondents consider that Russia ought to give up its ambitions abroad and focus on dealing with its domestic problems. And 6% hope that Russia will manage to become a leader, if only within the CIS.

Based on these hopes and expectations, there would seem to be little hope as yet of radical changes in the government’s foreign or domestic policy. Any government is bound to take “what the people think” into consideration, especially a democratic government.

Getting back to the top story in the Russian media in recent days – the visit of Kim Jong Il – here’s a quote from the Rossiya newspaper: according to a member of the North Korean leader’s entourage, “Kim Jong Il himself wants reunification with South Korea, and understands perfectly well that communist ideas have become somewhat obsolete. However, past experience shows that drastic changes only happen during revolutions. And no one would want to step down as the head of a nation, even a nation such as North Korea.”