After the city was once again blanketed in smoke last Sunday, Moscow city officials authoritatively told the media that there was no smog in Moscow, and there never had been. However, while a few days ago the city government wasn’t going into details about Moscow’s air problems – simply advising residents to be patient – it has now gone on the offensive.

The Kommersant newspaper reported the Russian Meteorology Bureau’s special explanation for Muscovites.

“Smog is the wrong term to use here,” a senior official told Kommersant. The concept of smog originated in London, “where industrial enterprises released a lot of smoke into the air in the early 20th century”; Russia’s meteorologists strongly deny that this is what Muscovites are now seeing in the streets – rather, they call it smokiness or murk, “depending on visibility”.

Meanwhile, the foreigners who have the misfortune to be in Moscow at the moment, choking under the grey blanket along with native Muscovites, are calling the phenomenon “Russian smog”, according to Izvestia.

Still, to all appearances, there is something specifically Russian about it. Many papers have noted that a few days ago, when the city was celebrating, chemicals were used to clear the clouds over Moscow. Nezavisimaya Gazeta informed its readers that the city spent just as much to avert the threat of rain as it allocated to Governor Boris Gromov of the Moscow region to fight the forest fires. Moreover, the decision to allocate extra money for fire-fighting was made only when the situation had escalated to emergency level; and Governor Gromov, according to Moskovskie Novosti, reassured the public that the forest fires would be under control very soon: “by the start of the real autumn”. In other words, he basically admitted that the problem would be solved by autumn rains, not money or technology. So why allocate money at all?

Professor Sergei Novikov from the Human Environment Institute told Kommersant that there are standard precautionary measures used around the world in situations where there is a serious smog (or “smokiness”) risk. City streets are continuously hosed down. Municipal authorities request industry and power plants to restrict operations, and citizens to limit the use of cars. None of this has been done in Moscow, of course.

The Vremya MN newspaper notes that Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s baby – the city’s construction industry – has also contributed to the infamous “smokiness”.

“Moscow has spread out over the last decade, becoming like an amphitheater – with huge apartment blocks around the rim – a structure in which air circulates poorly… All this has inevitably worsened the microclimate. Moreover, construction which cuts into the green belt around the city is the height of stupidity rather than a feat to be applauded.”

And if Moscow’s population is falling, why are there so many people in need of housing, anyway? “New apartments are mostly bought by newcomers from all over the country. The housing industry is booming, and will not be stopped, since it is profitable.”

Somewhat belatedly, the Prosecutor General’s Office has turned its attention to the environmental problems in and around Moscow. According to Vremya Novostei, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov demanded that those responsible should immediately be identified, and promised that “appropriate procedures may be invoked”. However, the list of those responsible for the situation is thus far confined to a few low-ranking officials, forestry officers, and the fire-fighters, of course.

The left-wing opposition immediately turned the smoke blanketing Moscow to its own purposes. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov yet again called for the dismissal of Mikhail Kasianov’s government, describing it as “helpless and inept”. The Popular-Patriotic Union of Russia published a special declaration on this topic in Pravda, expressively headlined “The Kremlin in the Murk”.

But almost no other politicians took advantage of this opportunity to remind voters of their existence before the start of an election campaign. The Vedomosti newspaper calls this another confirmation of how different Russian politics is.

“In practically any reasonably civilized country, the leading ranks of concerned citizens, united in a powerful green party, would have sounded the alarm long ago – denouncing municipal and federal officials – and would have easily surmounted the 5% barrier in the parliamentary elections, on a mighty wave of popular support.” In any other country – but not in Russia. Where is the Cedar environmental party, asks Vedomosti, or anyone “seeking to emulate the rapid rise of Joschke Fischer”? Nothing has been heard from them so far.

Meanwhile, the election campaign is clearly becoming the hot topic in the media. Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta in a recent interview: “Now we have to view everything – from next year’s budget to the actions of the government as a whole and specific parts of it – solely from the standpoint of the election campaign.”

Nemtsov himself has drawn some media attention in recent days because the Sovetskaya Rossiia and Zavtra newspapers published a transcript of his telephone conversation with Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Party in Belarus. The media have focused not so much on the content of the conversation – as Nemtsov admitted to journalists in many interviews, this contained no sensations – as on the fact that it was monitored and taped.

In truth, the URF leader’s views on the prospects of the Russia-Belarus Union are well known. So is the fact that the office phones and mobile phones of Russian politicians and Duma members are constantly monitored.

According to Moskovskii Komsomolets, Boris Nemtsov was once approached with an offer to purchase – for a “substantial sum” – tapes of his own telephone conversations. Nemtsov reportedly turned down the offer: “I can remember my own conversations perfectly well without this.”

Moskovskii Komsomolets does not believe that an investigation into Nemtsov’s case by the Prosecutor General’s Office will yield any results. In the meantime, no one is denying that there is a problem here: members of parliament and federal officials have long since stopped taking the risk of entrusting their secrets to the telephone network – or they do so deliberately.

Sergei Yushenkov, Duma member and leader of Liberal Russia, told Moskovskii Komsomolets that he and his colleagues have had to agree on a special system of code-words which prevent anyone else from understanding their conversations: “We only speak without using code if we actually want an information leak to happen.”

In these terms, the Nemtsov-Lebedko conversation proved something of a disappointment for the media. Rossiiskaya Gazeta asks: “Why did the ‘eavesdroppers’ publish a conversation which was so dull, politically speaking? There are no interesting secrets in Nemtsov’s views on the Russia-Belarus Union.” Indeed, it was absurd to present this as if it was sensational news.

Leonid Radzikhovsky, an observer with Vremya MN, the publication of Nemtsov’s “innocuous” telephone conversation only served to demonstrate that “in Russia, muck-raking as a genre has been still-born”. The Yuri Skuratov scandal in 1999 proved that the Russian public is unshockable. “Citizens are quite certain that everyone who has power and money indulges in theft, debauchery, and fraud (after all, what else are power and money for?).”

If any dirt is dug up and published, says Radzikhovsky, this is done for one of three reasons.

First, publicity: “Scandal attracts attention, after all – and this frequently benefits the hero of the scandal.” Of course, one has to be able to seize opportunities; the undoubted champion in this form of sport (or art) is Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Secondly, dirt can be used to create a set-back for someone; for all the cynicism of the Russian public, if a scandal is big enough, the person concerned frequently loses a top job or a profitable deal. But it’s usually necessary to keep up the scandal for a long time in order to guarantee a set-back.

Finally, there is the landslide scandal: the most vivid example being the Skuratov case, “the conclusive, public move in a lengthy bureaucratic chess-game”.

However, Radzikhovsky says that for ordinary citizens the real significance of the issue lies elsewhere: “Any form of dirt primarily ends up being to the state’s disadvantage.”

When information about incomes, taxes, and property which is given to state taxation agencies – and a lot of other confidential information about citizens (including their telephone conversations) – becomes publicly available, this primarily characterizes the type of state we have to deal with here. State officials in the “special agencies” who offer virtually any form of information for sale: that’s what this state is all about, and citizens then have to decide for themselves what their relationship with it should be.

Some have made their decisions long ago. Boris Berezovsky, the chief opponent of the present regime, drew attention to the opening of the new political season (and to himself, of course) by granting a lengthy interview to the Vedomosti newspaper.

This interview with Berezovsky contains the usual postulates.

Firstly: “A fully-fledged authoritarian state is being created in Russia.”

Likewise, he talks of the lack of any structural economic reforms in Russia, saying the present relative economic prosperity is due to “the momentum of the free market economy built up over the decade of Yeltsin’s reforms”.

Berezovsky says that “despite all the remnants of the past, redistribution, and battles for property”, Russia now has millions of people who have learned to live independently. He estimates their numbers as 8-10 million. He is targeting these people with his Liberal Russia party project.

Then the interview gets more interesting. Berezovsky says Liberal Russia has already cost him several million dollars, and ensuring the project’s success will cost no less than $100 million. It appears that this Russian oligarch – long since described as a “former oligarch” – can still afford to do this.

By Berezovsky’s own estimates, he is worth $1.5 billion in Russia and “as much again outside Russia”. He refuses to specify his assets in Russia – saying he is concerned that “the regime would immediately attempt to expropriate or redistribute that property”.

All the same, Berezovsky calmly announced in this interview that he still has a stake in Sibneft, yielding dividends of “tens of millions of dollars a year” (Sibneft immediately denied that claim). He also said he has a stake in Russian Aluminum which enables him “to participate in all decision-making”. And he owns 100% of Kommersant Publishing, of course. And a 10% stake in the STS television channel.

In short, it appears that Liberal Russia will not have any finance problems in the year before the elections, nor any problems with access to the media.

But the demands on Liberal Russia will be substantial: Berezovsky’s condition for providing the money is that it should “truly position itself as an opposition to the present regime”. Berezovsky notes in the interview that few are capable of doing that these days.

In particular, the Union of Right Forces has disappointed the “exiled oligarch”: in his view, “the URF is being very inconsistent”. Berezovsky says Boris Nemtsov’s conversation with Anatoly Lebedko primarily shows that “the URF is not an independent organization; it does only what the Kremlin permits it to do”. On the other hand, there are URF members with different opinions, “and they make no secret of that”. In general, Berezovsky considers that he will have no difficulty finding allies.

Besides the URF, the creator of Liberal Russia is also prepared to consider as potential allies “those who are described as patriots, approvingly or disapprovingly”. Berezovsky adds: “Patriots are people who love their country, and for whom its interests take precedence over the interests of all other countries.”

That sounds impressive. But people have different views about what may be in the national interest – as demonstrated by the ongoing debate about Iraq in the Russian media; or rather, Russia’s position in the developing situation.

A year after the horrifying terrorist attack on New York, Russia’s newspapers are trying to predict how the world will look after the United States strikes at Iraq (no one doubts that it will strike).

Russia’s attitude to US intentions remains unchanged: we are still opposed. And it’s not only Russia: leaders of other Western nations have taken no less decisive stands. Nezavisimaya Gazeta recently noted: “The clear ‘yes’ to the counter-terrorism coalition and the ensuing attack on Afghanistan expressed by other nations last autumn gave way to an explicit ‘no’ on the question of an operation against Iraq. Bush only has the support of Prime Minister Tony Blair – who faces strong resistance from public opinion in his own country.”

All the same, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the US need have no fear of being politically ostracized: “The Iraq issue isn’t worth a break in strategic relations between Washington and Europe.” If Russia continues to insist that it cannot accept US plans for Baghdad, Russia risks being isolated: “The experience of the war on terrorism has shown that whenever Washington’s European allies disagree with US actions, they simply shut their eyes to them.”

That’s the advantage of being the world’s sole superpower. No one will shut their eyes to Russia’s sins. “Those same Europeans are most unlikely to seek a compromise with Russia on the question of Chechnya.”

The famous Zbigniew Brzezinski, introduced in the Moskovskie Novosti weekly as the former national security adviser in the Carter administration, clarified the situation in an article headlined: “How to deal with anti-Americanism”.

It’s well known that the Americans are fairly concerned about their perception that the rest of the world doesn’t have a sufficiently friendly attitude toward the United States. This issue has even been discussed in the US at a special conference.

In Brzezinski’s view, the essential problem is that the Americans still aren’t being consistent enough in implementing their policies around the world. In particular, in order to defeat terrorism it is not enough to destroy the terrorists themelves – it is important “to start breaking down the political conditions which brought forth the terrorists”.

Otherwise, some countries – Brzezinski names Russia and Israel – will not hesitate to use the example of America’s “war on terrorism” in their own interests. Brzezinski says: “Whenever they talk to Americans these days, Putin and Sharon use the magic t-word in almost every phrase.” Both Russia and Israel are trying to use America’s battle against terrorism as a precedent for dealing with their own problems.

However, Brzezinski stresses that it’s a mistake to consider the US as “a politically naive nation which would easily give its new ‘allies’ indulgences for ethnically-specific persecution”. In truth, it would be more accurate to talk of religious rather than ethnic differences. President Bush earns Brzezinski’s approval for “being sensible enough to avoid identifying terrorism with Islam as a whole, and trying to emphasize that Islam as such is not to blame for anything”.

But in any case, Russia – with its sins in Chechnya and its unworthy behavior – isn’t looking very presentable, and it’s unlikely that even warm public support for US military plans would be capable of correcting that impression.

And yet – who knows? Kommersant recently noted that on the one hand, it’s understandable that the rest of the world is not exactly delighted over “Bush’s idee fixe about Iraq”. But on the other hand: “It is just as evident that the fewer nations there are which want to become strike-breakers and support the US, the higher the price the Americans are willing to pay to anyone who is now whispering to Bush’s emissaries behind closed doors: All right, we’re with you – but you see how risky it is for us, so it’s going to cost you.”

Kommersant predicts that when the first bombs fall on Iraq, “and it becomes clear that there’s no changing things, there will be a long queue of those who seek to profit from the exit of Saddam Hussein”. However, by that stage the price for supporting US actions will have fallen drastically.

Nevertheless, the Russian Foreign Ministry is surprisingly optimistic – and stoical. A quote from an interview in Vremya Novostei with Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov: “The resources of the international community are strong enough to convince the US administration of the need to make maximal use of all political and diplomatic leverage in dealing with Iraq. The consistent stand taken by Russia is drawing more and more members of the international community to its side with every day.”

That’s the positive side of things, so to speak. There is also a negative side to Trubnikov’s comments – bitter reproaches directed against Russia’s senior partner: “Being in the anti-terrorism coalition together does not mean the US can give orders to all other nations in all international affairs. An extraordinary blurring of concepts is taking place here. The battle against terrorism and the Iraq situation are entirely different things; so is the issue of UN weapons inspectors returning to Baghdad, and the question of replacing the regime of Saddam Hussein. And Russia cannot fail to be concerned about the fact that these concepts are being presented as interchangeable.”

Actually, it does seem that this concern is mainly Russia’s own problem.

As Vremya MN points out, for the rest of the world there’s nothing new about hearing Russia say “No”: the West used to call Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko “Mr. No”. And the “No” of Igor Ivanov is much less weighty than the “No” of Gromyko: “Washington can simply ignore Moscow’s warnings.” Could it possibly fail to ignore them?

And Moscow is in no position to permit itself the luxury of a quarrel with Washington. As Finansovye Izvestia recently noted, foreign investors are finally taking an interest in the Russian economy. The Russian money market has even recorded the highest growth among developing markets this year. Investors like Russia’s economic growth rate, its budget surplus, and its rising oil exports at a time when oil prices are high and unstable. But most of all, they like Russia’s strategic alliance with the United States.

Finansovye Izvestia says that in this context, differences about Iraq (let alone trade disputes) are not being viewed with serious concern. “As long as Russia’s basic position remains unchanged, Russia will continue to reap economic rewards from President Putin’s correct decision in the wake of September 11.” According to Finansovye Izvestia, that decision to enter into a coalition with the US was made against the advice of most of Putin’s own team. Thus, it may be hoped that in the future Russia’s leader “will be able to make correct decisions at critical moments, decisions which correspond to the nation’s fundamental interests.”

A curious recommendation: it’s easy enough to imagine how the left-wing opposition will react to it – the Communists who have just been deprived by the centrists and the URF of their hopes for a nationwide referendum against “Putin’s anti-social regime”. In any case, within days we will have the opportunity to get acquainted with the latest plans of all Russian politicians for defending national interests. Let’s not forget the advice of Boris Nemtsov, who is qualified to give advice on this: view all events from the standpoint of the election campaign which is just beginning.