The national census, the importance of which was noted so often at various levels of government, is finally over.

For all the reassuring words of state officials and the State Statistics Committee – as well as academics from the Miklukho-Maklai Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, who had been preparing the census since 1996, according to Vremya MN – a strange impression remains.

The papers were delighted to announce that quite a few exotic ethnic groups had been discovered in Russia. According to Vremya MN, ten Scythians were found in Rostov-on-Don. Moskovskii Komsomolets reported around 30 citizens in Omsk identifying themselves as Zulus. Not to mention hobbits and elves – there are plenty of those in any self-respecting city, if our playful citizens are to be believed.

According to Professor Valery Tishkov, director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, such pranks directed at the state result from “an experiment unique to Russia: carrying out a census “on a voluntary basis”. Professor Tishkov told Vremya MN that in “any civilized nation” such procedures are strictly controlled by the state – participation in a census is compulsory, and there are penalties for supplying false information. In Russia, substantial sums were spent on pre-census advertising; but Tishkov believes this led to the public adopting an “incorrect” attitude, not taking the event seriously.

Tishkov says that civil rights groups and the media were largely to blame: “There was too much talk of violations of privacy.” As a result of all these fears, it was decided to make the census forms anonymous. This measure was well-intentioned. The results require no explanation: “Anonymity was confused with confidentiality. The latter was guaranteed by the state, via census-taking procedures and the conditions under which the information received will be stored. But anonymity simply prompts people to be irresponsible.” It also makes them inclined to play pranks. In that respect, Moskovskii Komsomolets wants to know: are there any plans to set up a Zulu school in Omsk?

On the other hand, it appears that the problem of the Kryashens (Orthodox Christian Tatars) still remains unsolved, though much has been said and written of late about their right to their ethnic identity. At any rate, Moskovskii Komsomolets claims that there are entire villages of Kryashens in Tatarstan whose residents were recorded in the census simply as Tatars. In Bashkortostan, on the other hand, Tatar villages were recorded as being populated by Bashkirs.

The situation turned out to be even more confusing in the cities. Izvestia reports that by Monday, census-taking targets had been exceeded in most major cities. What these figures really mean is hard to tell.

For example, in the Chertanovo-Severnoe district of Moscow, census-taking was 102.5% of target. Meanwhile, the authors of almost all articles about the census in the national media are unanimous in saying that neither they nor many of their friends were visited by census-takers. This was reported in Kommersant, Vremya Novostei, Novye Izvestia, Moskovskii Komsomolets, and Rossiiskaya Gazeta. The Versty newspaper, citing information received from “ordinary census-takers” and, reported that in the Sokol district of Moscow, for example, data on residents was being recorded on census forms entirely without the participation of those residents. The census-takers were given official apartment building records containing basic details about residents, and told to make up any information that was lacking.

Despite all this, the Moscow Municipal Statistics Committee confidently declared that according to preliminary results, there are 10 million people in the city – maybe more. In Russia overall (also according to preliminary results) there are over 143 million people. After doing the arithmetic, Izvestia asks: does this mean that at least one in ten Russians is a Muscovite?

Viktor Perevedentsev, a leading demographer and senior researcher at the Comparative Politology Institute, says these figures are dubious. According to his estimates, a more realistic estimate for Moscow’s population is 8 million to 8.5 million. Perevedentsev says the “extra” two million appeared in the census results due to the State Statistics Committee’s directive to count everyone currently in the city as a Muscovite – foreigners, guest workers, market traders, people without residency permits, and homeless people. Izvestia notes that this methodology could yield a figure in excess of 10 million.

In fact, a tendency to exaggerate figures was a feature of this census. According to analysts at the Socio-Economic Problems of the Population Institute, if an honest count were made, many cities (like Samara, Novosibirsk, Rostov-on-Don) might lose their “million people status”. Other, more modest cities would risk falling below 50,000. Thus, in order to at least maintain their current level of funding, almost all cities are following Moscow’s example: recording homeless people, visitors, people in transit, and all kinds of “dead souls” in the census.

The likelihood of this being true is convincingly supported by the example of Chechnya, where – after two wars, and the exodus of ethnic Russian residents – the total number of residents remained unchanged: 1.1 million people. And although before the wars no fewer than 40% of residents were ethnic Russians, Chechnya is now a mono-ethnic republic. Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes curiously that 400,000 ethnic Chechens have seemingly appeared from nowhere over the past decade. And that’s not counting the guerrillas, who for obvious reasons were not recorded in the census.

In general, there are serious doubts about the reliability of the census – for all the substantial sums spent on it. According to the State Statistics Committee, planned spending was moderate, by world standards: $1.10 per capita, for a total of $180 million. Vremya Novostei notes that the only places where 100% of people were recorded in the census were the military and the prison system. According to the media, a major factor in this was the attitude of citizens to this state enterprise.

No other enterprise initiated by the state has aroused such a storm of emotion among the people, says Moskovskii Komsomolets. Citizens naively assumed that the state – at long last! – wanted something from them. And they tried to take advantage of the situation.

Literaturnaya Gazeta explained it with some pathos: people hoped “that if they refused to let the census-takers into their homes, then perhaps somewhere in the blind, deaf, and dumb bureaucratic machine something would finally ‘click’, and some eye would open and see all their problems, some ear would be unblocked and hear their simple requests.” Social protest found expression in quite specific demands: turn on the heating and hot water, provide decent housing rather than run-down housing, or repair roads (on Russkii Island, for example).

But sabotaging the census, of course, didn’t turn out to be an effective lever of influence on the state, as Ezhenedelnyi Zhurnal notes. Once again, the regime solved its problems by itself.

However, many observers are still wondering why all this was done at all. Why did the regime need to do this?

After all, everyone in Russia is on record somewhere: at the offices which issue internal passports, or a marriage bureau, or an educational institution, or elsewhere. Compiling all this data probably would have been easier than sending an army of half a million census-takers “to the people” (many of the census-takers were beaten up, robbed, or even raped). On the other hand, Moskovskii Komsomolets says it might have been worth spending $180 million to find Zulus in Siberia.

And the law-abiding citizens who took part in the census – how do they stand to benefit? How will their lives be changed by it? Ezhenedelnyi Zhurnal says that all arguments along the lines of “this is necessary for society as a whole, and thus for each of us” are specious. “So let’s assume the census reveals there are more school-age children in Moscow than official statistics previously showed – what of it?” Everyone understands perfectly well that no new schools or sporting facilities would be build because of that. “More likely, the police would be ordered to take harsher measures against evaders of residency registration.”

Under the circumstances, it’s not the number of those who ignored the census which should surprise us, but the fact that a significant proportion of citizens actually did respond to the state’s call.

In the meantime, the idea of the government being alienated from the people is becoming a regular topic in the media – and not only in the Russian media. The Vek weekly has published a selection of comments on this topic from Western newspapers.

According to “The Wall Street Journal”, the Kremlin’s current actions – Putin’s “new agenda” – only seem convincing to the “decorative so-called ruling class”, but not to most citizens.

Practically no one has attempted “to take the political temperature of a nation which has experienced a series of upheavals and crises, a financial crash and two wars in Chechnya”. The results of the first census since the collapse of the USSR could be a real litmus test, even if it’s only for specialists; that is, providing the census results are sufficiently reliable.

“The Washington Post” considers that Russia is experiencing another political crisis. It arises from a general crisis in the institution of elections – more specifically, the outcome of the gubernatorial election in the Krasnoyarsk territory.

The importance of the institution of democratic elections in post-communist Russia is hard to overestimate; this is virtually the only significant means of legitimizing the nation’s government. However, it’s a different matter entirely when “in front of the whole world”, across a territory as large as France and Germany combined, elections are reduced to a harsh battle between business interests, for the capacity to exert influence on the federal government. Voters “begin to understand that the election process is only a cover for the same old ruling class”. “The Washington Post” warns that once gained, this knowledge is “a time-bomb which could explode in the near future”.

The French “Tribune” newspaper turns its attention to Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Justice Minister Yuri Chaika, at which the minister was advised to “assist rather than hinder the registration of political parties”. The newspaper sees this advice as evidence of an aim “to involve as many citizens as possible in the political process”.

But “Tribune” notes that in Russia “it is possible to observe the process of people’s thinking becoming depoliticized, which is connected with growing disillusionment in the strength and power of democracy”. In this kind of soil, “the most poisonous political fungi may grow”. The history of the world contains numerous examples of this. It can be fought, of course, by constant vigilance from the law enforcement agencies – which inevitably leads to a transformation of the government itself.

But it is more reasonable, and surer, to attempt to change the soil; and what the nation needs here is not declarations, but “well-considered state-building efforts”. The question is whether Russia has enough time to do this.

Denis Dragunsky writes in Novoe Vremya magazine that the government can argue all it likes, to itself and the people, that everything is fine: “the economy is growing, the opposition is becoming more constructive, Russia’s international standing is improving, and only a few isolated groups of guerrillas remain in Chechnya”. The problem lies in a conflict between the outlooks of the government and the citizenry – “it’s small, but extremely dangerous – like the crack in the torpedo that destroyed the Kursk submarine”.

Dragunsky stresses that it’s not always the case that the government is malicious and corrupt, just as the people aren’t always reasonable and fair. “Frequently, the opposite is the case; but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the state and the people live and think in different dimensions, sometimes virtually in different worlds.”

These differences are omnipresent. “For example, the government is aiming to integrate Russia into global security organizations. But the people have a white-hot hatred for the West, and above all for the United States.” Another example: the government assures the West that democratic institutions are growing stronger in Russia. But the people, having become convinced that no one cares about their opinions, vote “against all candidates” when they go to the polls.

When people are convinced over a long period of time (in actions, not words, stresses Novoe Vremya) that their opinions and votes are worthless in comparison to “administrative resources”, “oligarch conspiracies”, “the Kremlin’s support”, and so on, then politics as such is devalued.

Novoe Vremya cites studies indicating that no more than 30% of Russian citizens believe in the effectiveness of elections as a democratic institution. This may be considered “the most appalling result of actions aimed at managing democracy from above”. In these circumstances, the high approval rating of the president can only mean one thing: a “Leave us alone!” message. And a few years from now, warns Novoe Vremya, “a complete stranger on the television screen” might suddenly declare to his fellow citizens that “power was just lying around, and he picked it up”.

Although the presidential election is still eighteen months away, the media is already busily speculating about what the dominant theme of the campaign will be.

Everyone understands that Vladimir Putin is likely to be re-elected for a second term – “barring any extraordinary developments”, as the Vek weekly has cautiously commented. But how will Putin organize his victory?

Vek says that until now, two themes have been used in turn during presidential campaigns in Russia: hope and fear.

In 1991, Boris Yeltsin embodied the electorate’s hope of changes for the better. In 1996, he managed to win essentially because his opponent, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, was portrayed as a demon from hell, a destroyer of all the achievements of democracy (remember the campaign posters with Zyuganov’s face and the ominous caption: “Buy some food for the last time!”). Voters came to see all Yeltsin’s flaws as a small price to pay for preserving the status quo.

Vek says that Yeltsin’s successor was once again “a president of hope” – this time, “the hope of overcoming the horrors of everyday life in Russia and returning to some basic levels of normal human existence”.

To some extent, Putin has justified the hopes people had of him back then. However, his “credit of trust” has mostly been spent. What can Putin do now – try the fear tactic again?

But attempts to make people fear the Communists are unlikely to succeed; not even the Communists themselves believe they can make a comeback now. Neither is it likely that “a new, radical force will arise, capable of a real or illusory challenge to Russia’s democracy”. Reviving the issue of “the Chechnya threat” would be an admission that Russia’s strategy in Chechnya has been ineffective.

Nevertheless, says Vek, a sense of fear can be used without being personified. “This would have to be a fear of something, rather than someone: a fear of the socio-economic situation deteriorating and political stability being disrupted.” In other words, uncertainty about what tomorrow may bring. In these difficult times, voters undoubtedly feel plenty of uncertainty like that.

Thus, as Vek concludes, the key theme of Putin’s next presidential campaign could well be “the idea of maintaining the status quo”; especially since a certain level of stability has indeed been achieved during Putin’s time in power. Any rival of Putin would represent an unknown factor, and thus the possibility of changes for the worse. So the Putin team’s campaign slogan could be the well-known proverb about a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush.

Yet by no means all political forces in Russia have the same views about the outcome of the 2004 election.

In an article on the upcoming privatization of the Slavneft oil company, the Rossiiskie Vesti newspaper reports that the favorite to acquire a 75% stake in the company is Roman Abramovich, “the Yeltsin Family’s main source of money”.

Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov, who owed his promotion to the Family, has done all he can to ensure such an outcome. “The pre-election redistribution of property in Russia is reaching unprecedented dimensions,” says Rossiiskie Vesti. “To all appearances, supporters of Yeltsin’s Family have launched a decisive counter-attack on President Putin’s St. Petersburg team.”

At any rate, the Family is clearly making an effort to ensure that by the start of the presidential election campaign, as much as possible of Russia’s resources will be concentrated in its control. They believe that the incumbent president “must clearly understand to whom he owes his second term in office”. Otherwise – “should Putin prove recalcitrant” – his rival in the presidential race might well turn out to be the imposing figure of Mikhail Kasianov. “And Kasianov would have the nation’s consolidated resources in his pocket.”

Boris Berezovsky has once again shared his views on the Putin administration (and its future prospects); this time, he addressed the readers of Moskovskie Novosti.

Berezovsky says: “I saw the goal of the 1999 elections as ensuring an orderly succession at the top; that is, ensuring the continuation of the policies pursued by Yeltsin. But now I see that those policies have virtually been buried.”

Berezovsky considers that “Yeltsin’s democratic reforms are gradually being rolled back, including the most important of them – eliminating the state’s monopoly on property ownership”. The regime is trying to restore control over business, says Berezovsky. This, in his view, is the main threat posed by the present regime to “millions of independent, self-reliant people” who have appeared in Russia over recent years. Berezovsky sees these people as his “support group” in opposing the Putin regime.

Meanwhile, noted political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky says in an interview with

Nezavisimaya Gazeta that those “self-reliant people” for whom the patron of Nezavisimaya Gazeta exhibits such concern – “people in commerce and industry, the educated youth, and so on, a diverse assortment numbering around 15 million”, whom Pavlovsky collectively terms “the growth group” – actually have no objections to “controlled democracy”.

According to Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, controlled democracy “is only the technique of making decisions while relying on Putin”. If any problems arise, like the Krasnoyarsk elections, for example, “the president is called in, like an auto mechanic, and he personally gets under the hood and works on the engine. There’s controlled democracy for you. It’s not controlled – it’s wind-up democracy.”

Pavlovsky says the president is the only component of the government with whom citizens see their social contract as being valid; since he “punctually fulfills his obligations to the people. All other parts of the government system are distrusted, and the people don’t believe there is any contract with them.”

Pavlovsky does not deny the existence of the Putin myth: “But the appearance of a leader created the myth – the myth did not create the leader!” Moreover, Russian citizens “aren’t idiots; they don’t view Putin as a god. For voters, Putin is ‘our man in the Kremlin’. It’s as if the people have sent a spy into the Kremlin on their behalf.”

Moreover, says Pavlovsky, there is no alternative to Putin in any case, since there is no national leader in reserve. Pavlovsky told Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “It’s precisely the current president who has a mandate for state-building in Russia. He has an obligation to leave us a new, lasting state by the time he leaves office.”

The voters have “hired” the president to perform this “service to the people”, says Pavlovsky, quoting Putin’s answer to a question about the census.

As this interview shows, the Kremlin’s team of political consultants is actually continuing (so far, at least) the tactic of “don’t interfere with what the president is doing, let him finish what he’s started – that is in everyone’s best interests”.

Novaya Gazeta cites some curious poll results from the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM): 28% of respondents expect an intensification of the political power-struggles at the top in the near future. VTsIOM notes that this is 6% higher than two years ago (22%) and 11% more than one year ago (17%).

These expectations are undoubtedly linked to the approaching elections. However, the strange aspect is that the expectation of political shake-ups “at the top” is strongest “at the bottom” – among the poorest citizens it’s 20%. As income levels rise, the figure falls: in the middle sector of the lowest income groups it is 15%, in the middle sector of the middle income groups it is 8%. In the upper sector of the middle income groups such expectations have fallen by 9% over the past year.

VTsIOM concludes that the upper layers of society are consolidating as the elections draw closer; rather than having an interest in political power-struggles, they fear the prospect of them. But the “social demand” for intensified power-struggles is coming from the bottom, from the lower layers of society.

To all appearances, these are the voters who will have to be convinced of the need to maintain the status quo over the next few years. Will the Kremlin’s PR team be able to persuade them by the time of the elections that President Putin “isn’t a god, but only our man in the Kremlin”?