The end of 2001 marks the middle of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. These two occasions have prompted multiple summaries and predictions for the country and the president in the media. However, few articles are very optimistic.

The Kommersant newspaper anticipates, “Things will get worse: political scientists say Russia will not have a cloudless future.”

Well-known economist Mikhail Delyagin was especially radical in his predictions: he stated that in the near future the country should expect a most severe crisis and a military-political dictatorship regime. According to Delyadin, “the problem is not that Stalin is ruling us, but that this is a very petty Stalin, who is unable to work out a strategy and to decide where he wants to lead the country.” However, says the director of the Globalization Institute, those who feel strong enough in such a situation should still “work on the nation’s economic strategy, since sooner or later it will be needed, if not during the junta period, then after its collapse.”

It should be noted that Delyagin’s pessimism is not new for those who follow discussions in the press. What is interesting is that this time presidential economic adviser Andrei Illarionov almost agreed with him. As expected, Illarionov’s speech at the Alexander House conference was published in full in Boris Berezovsky’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta. As Illarionov stated, electing Vladimir Putin as president “gave hope to finally principally break the most repulsive traits of the economic and socio-political development of the country.” However, in his opinion, this year it has become obvious that “this hope is mostly an illusion”. As for the economic growth of the past three years, Illarionov explained that the government has had nothing to do with it, as it is a result of “redistribution of tremendous financial resources from abroad in favor of Russia”. At the same time, Illarionov believes that if the 1999 economic policy of Russia had not changed, this year the economic growth could have been not 5% but at least 15%. The hopes for elimination of corruption in Russia were not fulfilled either: the scale of corruption does not differ much from what it was in Boris Yeltsin’s time. From Illarionov’s standpoint, the only difference is that previously the corruption was “more amateurish”, while at present “it is becoming more and more institutionalized, formalized by official resolutions of the authorities, both federal, regional, and local.”

As for politics, according to Illarionov, all that was characteristic of the seemingly bygone regime is returning, first of all it concerns the fight between various groups at power. “I’m afraid we are returning into the same ditch we had recently got out of,” said Illarionov. According to him, the cause of the constant tension in the top circles is the imperfection of the Russian political system that is in fact a presidential republic. “The development experience of transition economies over the past twelve years demonstrates that a presidential republic is very often less efficient than a parliamentary republic,” since the latter is able to provide more effective control over executive branch of power.

Various periodicals have taken note of the power-struggles. For instance, Yabloko’s Novaya Gazeta writes, “Under Yeltsin the power used to have lots of opponents: the Communists, the disobedient Duma, regional governors – as a consequence, there was only one powerful team, the ‘Family’.” While Vladimir Putin does not have any real opponents, if not take into account indefatigable Boris Berezovsky, “No one is competing with the president for power; all are competing for a place under his right heel.” That is why there cannot be a single united team, instead there are two rival opposing groupings in the power, the old and the new one, the Family and the St. Petersburgers.

Meanwhile, the paper stresses, “fighting for big power also demands big money, which St. Petersburgers don’t have.” Moreover, they have no possibilities to make this money, as the level of their “services” is not high enough. According to the paper, the latest major property conflicts – because of Kuzbasugol, the Karabash plant, the Ust-Ilim lumber plant and so on – proved it: “in all cases the money in question were tens and hundreds of million of dollars in cash – and the KGBists were unable to get this tidbit,” though all they needed is just “some” aptitude to use administrative resources.

Moreover, the paper states that whenever the offended ones applied to the security structures, the latter suggested a “radical solution to the problem”, while after the client rejected such services all the information about him was conveyed to his rivals.

No wonder, the paper says, that St. Petersburgers were able to “get fixed” only in places where the president brought them holding their hand: Miller in Gazprom, Sergei Zivenko – in Rosspirtporm, Valery Yasin – in Svyazinvest. The paper also ironically notes that all “these appointed magicians have made the least success they could”.

That is why representatives of the security structures should not be taken for a slip-knot on tycoons’ necks, they are rather a muzzle, “to prevent from biting”.

This means that it is useless to hope for effective fight against corruption, the paper stresses: at present the aim of the new team is not to destroy the vicious system, but to push the old team aside. Novaya Gazeta explains, “If Alexei Miller replaces Rem Vyakhirev in Gazprom instead of making Gazprom transparent, this means the Kremlin is satisfied with the principles of Gazprom’s functioning, but is not satisfied with the person who receives the money.”

No one is going to kill the hen that lays golden eggs, so the reform of the system the tycoons established for their own needs is likely to be carried out. Moreover, Novaya Gazeta concludes, “Nationalization of the system instead of its annihilation became the basis for the new power’s success.”

According to the Obshchaya Gazeta paper, conservatism is the main peculiarity of the current political life; ‘fights and events’ have left it. Even elections, the usual pride of the Russian democracy in the post-Soviet period hardly have any alternative today: “during gubernatorial elections the main question is: who the top authorities to appoint the winner and who is to be withdrawn from the elections.”

Moreover, the absence of alternatives has spread to all areas of the Russian public political life: “A president without an alternative is doomed to finally create a corresponding parliament with votes without an alternative.”

According to the paper, this system is evidently excessive, although it has not completely formed yet – the upper house of parliament has already achieved the necessary extent of non-alternativeness, and the lower house of parliament will catch up with it soon. So, putting its own people to the most important positions, the authority is trying to not only secure itself from possible threats (though the paper states currently there are hardly any in the country), but to rule out any danger of their appearance in the future. The motto of the new team is – total predictability and control. From this standpoint, the recent dismissal of Federal Council chair Yegor Stroev is very indicative, in accordance with an old Soviet tradition he “voluntarily resigned” and his successor Sergei Mironov, who is hardly known but was “recommended from the top”, was elected by an overwhelming majority.

As the paper explains, the authorities needed not to have a necessary person elected only, but also to have the results of the elections 100% predictable, natural, routine, and absolutely “alternativeless” action. The elections to the Moscow City Duma were held in accordance with the same principle: all the places were distributed between parties beforehand. The present authorities are highly concerned about high independence level, “no matter if this can cause any real danger or not”. All this greatly reminds of Soviet times, when the authorities were concerned about abstractionism art exhibitions, or theatrical performances of the Taganka Theatre, which were not dangerous in the least.

At the same time, the paper reminds: “disappearance of political events from publicity does not mean that they have disappeared at all”. Fight for the power is still on, it only changed its form, “It has transformed from a fight for people’s love into a fight for the ruler’s love and is turning from open into secret.”

However, Obshchaya Gazeta thinks that “the process of predictability liquidation” is far from being over, and it is too early to speak about stagnation. On the other hand, the paper can’t help extrapolating the present processes to predict the future, “It will be a country where the results of voting at all levels will be the same, 90%. Where nothing happens in the public political sphere, and all events are rituals – the ritual of elections, the ritual of a parliamentary meeting, a ritual of regular meetings of the president with his civil society, and so on and so forth. People will be judging of the real political fight in this country basing on gossips and rumors, and the real signs of any fight will be resignation or arresting for corruption of this or that official”.

“Transition to an authoritarian “hard hand” regime and even to sever totalitarianism does not necessarily demand a revolution or an upheaval,” writes the Vremya MN paper. Sometimes this process is very peaceful and democratic, under the pressure of people, who are tired of “democratic chaos”. According to the paper, today one of the fundamental democratic values – free elections – has been practically disavowed. Preservation of the present democratic camouflage does not change the essence of the process: actually the people are offered the only and convenient to the power candidate. “Those, who can really become the people’s elect – a deputy, a mayor, or a governor – are crossed out of the list in advance, on the basis of a court verdict.” On the other hand, of the candidate is “a favorite”, the Center will do its best to “fix” the position for good by means of removing rivals. Moreover, everything will be done only according to the law. “So, the two cornerstones of any democracy – the law and the court – are disfiguring democracy in the country,” writes the paper.

The Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper held a poll among its readers on the possibility of honest elections in Russia. The results are even more discouraging than the official data, in accordance with which the number of naive voters who still believe in honesty of Russian democratic procedures amounts to approximately 25% of all Russians. According to Moskovsky Komsomolets results, there are only 1.5% of such people in the country. Commenting on the results of the poll, author of the article Alexander Minkin noted that although the poll questions concerned elections and work of the Central Election Commission, the responds of the poll participants made it clear what people really think of the incumbent authorities.

The Novoye Vremya magazine reported that according to monitoring.ru group, the State Duma is considered to be one of the most ‘dishonest’ organizations in Russia, while the traffic police are the leader on the black list. The law enforcement bodies (the police, prosecutor’s office, and the tax police) hold the second place – 67% of respondents think they are dishonest; and the Duma and political parties are the third, respectively 67% and 65% of people think so.

No wonder the majority of Russians simply do not know who to believe. As Novoye Vremya reports, if the parliamentary elections were held now, 21% of voters would not know who to vote for; 18% of voters would not participate in the elections at all; another 18% of respondents would vote against all. On the other hand, 16% of voters stated they would vote for the Unity and Fatherland – All Russia bloc; 13% of respondents are still devoted to the communists; and 6% of people support Yabloko; the Unity of Right Forces and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia both have 4%.

Apparently, creators of new Liberal Russia party count on this large percent of unsure and “against all” people. However, at the constituent congress of the new party a representative of the Unity of Right Forces Leonid Gozman warned the members of the new party that the Liberal Party does not have any real chances, “No one will join you, as this will deprive them of voices… I would suggest voting for not creation of the Liberal Russia party.”

However, Sergei Yushenko, the founder of the party considered this speech of the Unity of Right Forces representative a clear proof that the right wing takes this new offspring of Berezovsky’s as their rival.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s optimistic statements, “no matter how much the new political gambler may be criticized today, with the course of time the Liberal Russia is likely to become a real force, which both the authorities and the democratic colleagues will take into account.”

At the same time, Novye Izvestia informed that the new party has at least two new allies: Valeria Novodvorskaya and Konstantin Borovoi promised the Liberal Russia the support of the Democratic Union and the Party of Economic Freedom.

Valeria Novodvorskaya said, “I hope you will defend the country from the president!”

However, many people do not agree that the country needs to be defended from the president. As Viktor Loshak, the editor-in-chief of the liberal Moskovskie Novosti weekly, said commenting on Vladimir Putin’s Monday television conference in the open air, “Putin and the country are at least interested in each other”.

Loshak also shared his opinion about the dialogue, “The liberal president met with his conservative people. An lecturer with international experience made a speech to the people who are still partially under the Iron Curtain”.

On the other hand, Moskovsky Komsomolets editor-in-chief noted that it is “good that grandiose plans left together with Soviet leaders”. Putin formulated the next year’s objective rather cautiously, “We need to make a small, but noticeable step towards better life.”

However, according to observations of the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, this is the weak point of the majority of Russians. As it turned out in the course of the conference, the electorate is mostly interested in day-to-day issues, “how to survive in Russia today?” While the Kremlin’s main trump card of today – the foreign policy and the “western turn” of the president – hardly concerns the Russian provinces. The paper concludes that like a hundred years ago, the Russian people have to resolve their issues all by themselves.

“In fact, this demonstrates, that despite all statements and victorious relations of the authorities, the present reforms of the Kremlin and the government have not changed much in the country.”

An observer of Vremya MN paper Leonid Radzikhovsky writes, “Over the past two years the Russian interior politics has reduced to empty declarations.” The Chechen war is still on. Establishment of the notorious power hierarchy turned to be more difficult than it seemed – for instance, it keeps failing in Yakutia. The personnel policy is in fact also a failure: “the ridiculous “St. Petersburg personnel revolution” is the proof that Putin has no one to lean on.”

Another issue is the resuming of the terrible for Russia’s reputation informational wars. According to Radzikhovsky, there can be two explanations for this: wither Putin is forming his own system of balances and counter-balances, or he is unable to control his own surrounding.

Overall, it takes long to name all the failures of the authorities, including “castration of the Duma, the Federation Council, the media, and final liquidation of the opposition.”

On the other hand, from Radzikhovsky’s viewpoint, this is not a disaster – today the power dictatorship is hardly possible in Russia. The issue is different: “There is no public opposition to the authorities, but there are no actions of the authorities either!”

However, the Moskovskie Novosti paper writes, that judging by the television dialogue between the president and the Russian people, the latter still “believe that all their problems can be resolved like in a fairy-tale”, and this belief is still connected with the president.

According to the poll held by the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM), Vladimir Putin is still the “best man of the year”, a third year in a row. Moreover, the number of Putin’s supporters has grown to 52% in 2001 against 38% in 1999 and 2000. VTsIOM Director Yury Levada wrote, “The president became the axel around which all the activities of the political peak turn and to which the attention of the whole country is attracted.”

Presidential popularity ratings are not only a subject for endless surprise, but also for Kremlin intrigues: from time to time the press hints that the real indices are much lower than the officially stated ones. According to Levada, it is not ruled out that the presidential rating is a means for exerting pressure on the president. In particular, Nezavisimaya Gazeta published the opinion of Director of Applied and Regional Politics Valery Khomyakov, who thinks “something is happening to Putin’s popularity.” And this might have been the major reason for the president’s intention to talk to people, as “The popularity rating for Putin is his main asset.”

Meanwhile, according to VTsIOM polls, over the past year the popularity rating of the Russian president has grown from 70% to 80%. However, Levada stresses, just as in 2000 the main support of the presidential rating is “not an assessment of what the president has done, but hopes for what he is likely to do in the future”. And hope can distort reality, “to exaggerate the small, to notice the unnoticeable, and to overlook the unpleasant”.

The Izvestia paper published results of a poll done by the Public Opinion Foundation. According to these results, this year the level of public optimism has fallen considerably, by 10% for individuals and by 6% for the nation. Almost a third of respondents don’t know what to expect from the coming year.

Pollsters believe this change is due to the fact that Russian citizens had their optimism peak earlier: “The euphoria the majority of the population experienced after the election of the new president is obviously dwindiling.”

Besides, according to researchers, it is not ruled out that Russian national tradition is operating here: as the present situation in the country is fairly stable, people prefer to reduce their expectations, in order “not to tempt fate”. One way or another, 70% of respondents were unable to explain the reasons for their optimism. However, 92% of the pessimists were even more mysterious: they were unable to explain the reasons for their pessimism.

So the impending Year of Horse has aroused a whole wave of disturbing expectations. Nonetheless, Izvestia says that according to Chinese fortune-telling, which is popular in Russia, the Horse is always harnessed in tandem with Dragon. President Putin is a Dragon – and according to Chinese horoscopes, 2002 will be an especially lucky year for him.

Overall, astrologers say, “Next year Russia will become a Noah’s Ark”. It is a rather ambiguous prediction, but fortunately, not too gloomy – thank goodness for that!