Last week, the Interfax agency reported the results of the latest VTsIOM poll, according to which the popularity rating of President Vladimir Putin has reached a new record: currently, 83% of respondents approve of his performance.

VTsIOM President Yuri Levada said in his interview with the Kommersant newspaper that the new rise in the presidential rating is a direct result of the Dubrovka theater hostage-taking.

It is no coincidence: according to Kommersant, after September 11, 2001 the popularity rating of President George W. Bush leaped up from 56% to 79%. The popularity rating of his predecessor Bill Clinton rose by 11% after the explosion in Oklahoma City. The rating of Australian Prime Minister John Howard rose just as steeply – by 10% – after the explosion at a Bali night-club which had been popular among Australian tourists.

At the same time, the VTsIOM leader says the Kremlin has no reason to be very optimistic: if we analyze the components of this amazing popularity rating, the results are disturbing.

For instance, 49% of respondents said they are dissatisfied with Putin’s way “of putting the country in order”; 62% of respondents are dissatisfied with the “president’s efforts to improve the economy and raise living standards”; and the overwhelming majority – 74% – are negative about Putin’s “achievements toward peace settlement in Chechnya”.

As for the Moscow hostage-taking, 75% of respondents are convinced that the leadership of the Interior Ministry, Federal Security Service, and other security structures should be punished for being unable to prevent it. As the security structures have got away easily with it, 26% of people are confirmed that the “police and security services are connected with the authorities with corruption”; 19% more say “the authorities do not dare touch the security structures for they depend on them”. Thus, the increase of the presidential popularity rating is paradoxically not connected with the estimation of his activities’ results. Yuri Levada explains it with Putin’s being “the president of hopes”, to whom the population is prepared to forgive the absence of noticeable successes in fulfillment of his plans.

When Kommersant asked the VTsIOM leader whether Putin will be able to retain his high popularity rating until the 2004 election, he responded, “How do you know there are not more sensational security actions prepared?”

It should be said that Kommersant is not an exception: the issue of the election which is to be held in more than a year is bothering all today. However, everybody is interested in the presidential election – the parliamentary election is considered rather as primaries, a checkout for the present layout of forces.

Besides, it is traditional in Russia to be indulgent concerning the parliamentary elections and the parliament. According to the Konservator weekly, people associate the parliament “with chattering”; while the president is usually associated with actions. That is why the “Duma election as a rule become the expression of people’s disappointment in oil slogans; while the presidential election is the consolidation of people’s hopes”.

Konservator stresses it should be taken into account that an important peculiarity of the presidential popularity rating is his “non-partiness” – voters from radical left to “definitely right” are ready to vote for him. That is why his rating is impossible oo transform into the parliamentary majority, “There is Putin, there is his rating, but there is no Putin’s majority.”

Besides, the Profil magazine notes, an acting parliament is still exotic for the majority of Russians. It is due to both a lack of political awareness among Russians, and the defective political system of Russia. However, it is also due to the loss of connection between a member of parliament and his voters from the day after an election.

In fact, Profil writes, the representative branch of government in Russia does not represent anything: as a rule, parties intensify their activities – or even appear out of nowhere – right before elections. They carry out no other work but preparation for elections, and they have no other goals but promoting their candidates to the Duma. “This causes the people’s alienation from the ‘people’s representatives’ – they rather consider the Duma to be a political theater.” Thus, Profil concludes, nine years of the parliamentary experiment in Russia have proved “its significant lack of success if not a complete failure”. In these terms, Russia is seriously lagging behind the modernization and it is likely to stay at the level of third-world countries if it does not make serious effort.

Meanwhile, in the opinion of the Konservator newspaper, the major paradox of the preparations for the upcoming election is that “President Putin will definitely be reelected in 2004, while his 1999 project will not.”

It is necessary to re-group forces and change the ideological aims on the threshold f the election: it is necessary to find a convincing political project for the president for his second presidency. Konservator announces solemnly that the “Contest of election projects is in full swing.”

So far, it is only clear that the communists will inevitably be represented in the forth session Duma; while it is rather difficult to determine the configuration of other parliamentary forces. The non-communist electorate is still hesitating between the party of power, the democratic opposition, and the liberal reformers – this is the Russian political market for which politicians will be fighting.

In particular, Marat Gelman plans to participate in it with his project “the Unity ousts the Union of Right Forces”. The author of the project believes that the Unity can no longer remain “a faceless bag with votes for Putin”. The centrists will have to determine their ideology. In these terms, the capture of the right wing with forcing the Union of Right Forcers out of there has been considered the most prospective – however, the electoral “swamp” must not be lost, as it is in fact the foundation of the party of power.

At the same time, the Unity will remain a bureaucratic party with the right wing rhetoric “as a banner”. Plus, the centrists think they have some hope to win over to their side some significant right wing leaders, in particular, Sergei Kirienko or Boris Fedorov.

In fact, the Nezavisimaya Gazeta reminded recently, the disagreements between the conservative and liberal factions of the Union of Right Forces have started from the party’s establishment.

The words of Lubov Glebova, Sergei Kirienko’s deputy in the Trans-Volga federal district, became a new expression of the confrontation, “Who are we opposing at the barricades? The present government – instead of supporting its reforming efforts we are opposing it for some reason.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that the behavior of Boris Nemtsov during the hostage-taking in Moscow became the last straw for the conservative right wing, as well as the forming of the public commission for investigating the circumstances of the tragedy. The president’s note concerning some “politicians who are gaining publicity from bloodshed” made an especially strong impression.

“In these terms, the paper says, Kirienko’s associates cannot understand what they have in common with Nemtsov’s party.” It is even said that if Kirienko and his associates withdraw from the Union of Right Forces, the majority of potential voters will follow them. Lubov Glebova also says that the present Union of Right Forces mostly targets at the traditionally right electorate: human right protectors and active opponents. At the same time, it does not carry out any policies for more conservative voters, “Currently, we need to change tactics – we need a creative rather than a destructive policy.” The conservatives believe the priority objectives of the democratic opposition should be considered fulfilled.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta explains that in speaking of the wrong election policy, Nemtsov’s critics mean the growing Russian middle class, which is mostly represented by business owners. Today, they intend to vote for United Russia, and the Union of Right Forces will have to compete with United Russia for these votes rather than with Yabloko.

Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, said in an interview with Konservator that today the ring wing has lost its influence on the small businesses, which is “actually a basis for democracy”,

Pavlovsky specified that those are not only businessmen but all people who “do not depend on the budget” and make money independently. According to Pavlovsky, the Union of Right Forces “does not even know what these people look like.” Usually, speaking of business representatives, the right wing means “large shareholders, bankers – completely different people”. Pavlovsky is also convinced that “educated people are not with the Union of Right Forces at present.”

Overall, according to Gleb Pavlovsky, the issue of the Union of Right Forces is that it is presenting two positions that cannot be interesting for voters. First, “we are helping”, second, “we are helping but sometimes bite”. It is easier for voters to accept a direct opposition than such “fits of anger”. The Union of Right Forces has serious problems with its leadership: the presence of Anatoly Chubais behind the curtain and his inability to come out to the stage. At the same time, Pavlovsky does not believe that a new party will be formed.

As for United Russia, it should stop being the party of power to become a real mass party instead of “an electoral project”. Pavlovsky notes that five years from now, in November 2007, the next presidential election will take place and Putin will be unable to participate in that. However, “in 2007, there will be another parliamentary election and he will be able to participate in this as a party leader”. Apparently, he will lead the United Russia party. Having won, Putin will become the leader of the Duma majority. By that time, the party should become “a powerful mass mechanism, which will be in line with his views and his political standpoint.”

That is why United Russia should preserve itself at the 2003 parliamentary election and defeat the Communist Party, which is very difficult. “The communist party is breaking up at present, but it is absorbing new leaders and new electorate. It will be a real fight.”

As Pavlovsky explained in his other interview with the Profil magazine, Putin’s evasion from the leadership in United Russia is a vivid indicator of the party’s unreadiness to take on this burden.

Pavlovsky says the voters “believe in the party as a political brand”, as Putin’s party, but they are “turned off by its group portrait”. Meanwhile, recently the party made another attempt to improve the situation: Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, “a person with stable views and a recognized authority for the party’s core” has again become the leader of United Russia.

This appointment has caused a flood of comments in the media. From the standpoint of the Moskovskie Novosti weekly, its main reason is the intention of the presidential administration to resume control of the party structure.

Alexander Bespalov, the head of United Russia’s general council, has long made it clear to deputy head of the presidential administration Vladislav Surkov that he does not considered Surkov his boss. Bespalov demonstratively ignored Surkov’s recommendations and made political initiatives on behalf of the party without coordinating them in advance with the presidential administration. So it was time to put the party in order. The administration decided that it will be useful to use the new skills of Boris Gryzlov he acquired in the Interior Ministry.

No wonder, the Vlast magazine estimated Gryzlov’s return to United Russia as “postponed Bespalov’s end”. Unlike Bespalov, the Interior Minister is reputed as an “easy to control team player, who observes the subordination rules and never promotes his ego.”

However, the question is whether this should be considered an advantage for a political party leader. So Vlast notes, “It is not ruled out that in the next pre-election year the Kremlin will decide that Gryzlov is not good enough candidacy either.”

Nonetheless, according to the magazine, head of the presidential administration Alexander Voloshin has supported Surkov’s idea to return Gryzlov to the party leadership, while before he jealously protected the leadership of the party from “St. Petersburg security structures”. According to Vlast, Voloshin is satisfied with Gryzlov’s ministerial work style – his ability to cooperate with the Kremlin without weekly behind-the-curtain scandals and visits to the president. As for the president, according to the magazine’s data, the information on the friendship between Bespalov and Moscow Mayor Luzhkov turned to be the last straw for him. The main thing was that Luzhkov has agreed with Bespalov about inclusion of representatives of the “Moscow grouping” into the United Russia’s party lists at the preliminary election. Vlast notes there are objective reasons for changing the party leadership: the Kremlin is concerned about the absence of positive dynamics of the party’s rating.

Meanwhile, as was aforementioned, United Russia needs to win the convincing majority in the next session Duma – otherwise, the party will turn into “unbearable dumbbells for Putin while he still needs to get to the 2004 presidential election.”

On the other hand, Dmitry Oreshkin, the leader of the Merkator group wrote in the Profil magazine that replacing Bespalov with Gryzlov is an obvious indicator of a personnel shortage in the power, “The same cards are being shuffled – there are no new people. If there are, you’d better not look at them.” According to Oreshkin it is connected with the end of the elite change, “New 40-50-year old people have come to power; they are fine, and they are sitting in their chairs very well. So they ask the newcomers not to bother – the tram is not made of rubber.”

From the viewpoint of the author, the main problem for United Russia is that the leadership of the party is “instinctively convinced everything in our country is done at a hidden level – by a bureaucratic agreement or by order.”

This misunderstanding of the public component is more and more obvious in the party’s activities. However, it is apparent that closer to the election the Gryzlov’s style will become more and more “losing”.

However, according to observers not only centrists but also the right wing cannot see the difference between the public and the real activities. Chubais and Kirienko in the Union of Right Forces are “solidly doing business” while Boris Nemtsov prefers public politics.

As Leonid Radzikhovsky noted in the Vremya MN newspaper it is clear that “tycoons Chubais and solid official Kirienko are tired of paying the promissory notes that Nemtsov is so generously giving.” Besides, Nemtsov’s repeated “oppositional breakthroughs” cause the necessity to make it up with the Kremlin.

However, according to Radzikhovsky not only the different political temperaments matter: the public ideology of the right wing greatly differs from their political practice. The author stresses that the Union of Right Forces is a large capital party which differs from United Russia by its slogan “Do you want to live like they live in Europe?” Further on, the slogan lists “promoting basic values of civil society.”

This demonstrative program that traditionally attracts democratic voters to the Union of Right Forces has nothing to do with the actual actions of the right wing ministers, tycoons, and officials. Radzikhovsky writes, “There is a distribution of duties: Nemtsov makes speeches while Kirienko and Chubais are making business behind the curtain. Public ideology brings millions of votes, the real activities bring millions of dollars.”

At the same time, this is the foundation for the right wing stability, despite its seeming unreliability. Leonid Radzikhovsky says there will be no split in the Union of Right Forces. The problem for Russia is that the Union of Right Forces occupies the niche of a right wing party while it is not really such a party: “A real right wing party is needed as an ideological driving force for bourgeois reforms!”

Experts do not doubt that it is high time for liberal reforms. The Vremya MN newspaper publishes extracts from a report prepared by a group of economists headed by Yevgeny Yasin. The report is called, “The burden of the state and economic policy: a liberal alternative” and it contains very impressive data.

According to the authors of the report the state’s share in the economy still makes up 65%: 82,000 enterprises and 55,000 state-funded organizations are owned by the state. Colossal resources are necessary to maintain this great number of enterprises. That is why in 2002 state spending has been at 41% of the GDP; and it will remain approximately the same in 2003.

Despite the declarations of the government concerning the tax reform, there is unlikely to be any reduction of the tax burden on businesses – consequently, the authors conclude, it is impossible to reach high tempo of the economic growth.

On the other hand, there are unlikely to be more liberal reform, taking into account the upcoming election – the Russian “economic winder” has again been postponed.

Meanwhile, the author says if the budget spending is reduced by 2007 to 27-29% as well as the state’s share, the economic growth rate would be able to achieve 8-9%. Alas, the election is coming up too soon.

The authorities have to be careful not to let down “people’s expectations”.

The Moskovskie Novosti newspaper also published the results of some research concerning Putin’s “Teflon rating”. The Finnish Academy of Sciences has studied the changes in the values of Russian citizens since 1990. The values have really changed. On the one hand, the level of trust in the president is great. On the other hand, today “Putin’s majority” is in the lower social layers: uneducated, poor people mostly from rural areas. Yeltsin’s voters were mostly urban residents, young and educated people. Plus, there is always a “traditionalist electorate” which always votes for the president just because it always does.

According to Moskovskie Novosti, the point is that the “traditionalist electorate” considers the real power to be “from God”, never from the people. In these terms, Yeltsin was hardly legitimate, unlike the Soviet regime, which became legitimate only decades after its existence.

On the other hand, Yeltsin passed his powers to Putin without the people’s participation! – thus, he legitimized the presidency in Russia.

The main Russian principle has been observed: “It does not matter what the czar’s policies are – the main thing is that he does not depend on the people, and rules independently of his courtiers.” So people consider Putin to be such a czar.

In such a situation it is strange to speak of democracy and parliamentary system in Russia. Moreover, Konservator says, the president “is not the master of his popularity rating”.

However, every time such an alternative-free traditional regime entrenches itself in Russia, the supporters of modernization, liberalization, and human right groups intensify their activities as well. Sooner or later, they inevitably have “a change of fortune” – though, often the results are rather unexpected. Moskovskie Novosti notes that this has happened many times in the Russian history: in 1917, 1991. At present, when the authorities have officially announced their policy to be cooperation with the West, all natural processes have significantly accelerated. That is why it is not ruled out that the present record popularity rating of President Putin is just another prologue to a “new Time of Troubles”. Time will tell….