“Russia is a country with an unpredictable past.” The Vremya MN newspaper recalled the famous aphorism in its new year’s article with a significant title “Three years without Yeltsin.”

Only three years ago, the paper says, on the eve of 2000 the first Russian president created a unique precedent in the country. For the first time in the history of Russia, the power was transferred in accordance with the law rather than “on the surge of the revolutionary creation of the masses”, or “of the will of tired guards”. Vremya MN says that with the help of some special intuition, President Yeltsin felt that “his mission was over – the old building of the world revolution and the communism had been destroyed, and the foundation for the new Russia had been built.”

The Russky Fokus magazine cited Yeltsin’s famous television speech three years ago, “I am leaving. I have done all I could. A new generation will replace me – a generation which will be able to do more and better.”

At the same time, Vremya MN reminds that the Russian president was first elected only ten years ago, which is nothing from the historical standpoint. “However, if recollect that ten years ago the issue of the reasonability of the private property was intensely discussed it is obvious that there has been carried out a revolution in the Russian economy and the economic viewpoints as well as in the minds of Russians which can be compared only to the Great French revolution.”

Nonetheless, Russky Fokus doubts Yeltsin’s statement about the irreversibility of the changes. Yeltsin said then, “Having seen people voting with hope and belief for the new generation of politicians at the Duma election, I realized that I had done the most important deed in my life. Russia will never return to the past. Russia will always go only forward. And I should not interfere with this natural course of the history. I should not cling to the power for six months more when there is a strong person who is worth being the president and with whom almost every Russian connects his hopes for the future.”

Today, Russky Fokus says concerning this, “Perhaps, Yeltsin should have waited instead of spasmodic promoting an unknown leader with good rhetoric and strict face.” Over the past three years, there have been no economic breakthrough despite the super-favorable situation on the oil market.

The magazine notes, “It does not feel like thinking of what would happen what Yeltsin’s successor would be doing now of oil cost not $24 per a barrel but $12.”

However, it is useless to guess what would happen if things were different. So far, oil prices have been high, and sometimes they have broken all records. Putin’s presidential rating also breaks all records. It has grown over the past year again.

The Novoye Vremya magazine reports that if in early 2002, 70% of the population would immediately vote for Putin, at the end of the year, this number have grown to 76% (ARPI’s data).

According to the data of the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM) which was published in the Profil magazine, currently 83% of respondents support President Putin!

At the same time, 80% of respondents could not say whether 2002 has been worse or better than 2001. Moreover, 40% of respondents were positive about the direct question asked by the Public Opinion Foundation, “Do you think nothing has changed in the country over the past year?”

Probably, Profil writes, those were the people who were “grateful to the head of the state that nothing has happened in their lives for a whole year.”

At the same time, it is difficult to say that the year has been poor with events. Almost all Moscow periodicals remembered about the Nord-Ost hostage taking in their end-of-the-year photo reports. Besides, they also recollected the June pogrom in Moscow, disastrous flood in the Southern federal district, an avalanche in the Karmadon gorge, peat fires in the Moscow region, the almost launched war between Russia and Georgia due to Chechen guerrillas in the Pankisi gorge, and many other events.

Besides, the chronicles mentions the tragic death of Alexander Lebed, the death of Salman Raduev, Colonel Budanov’s endless court session, the scandalous dismissal of General Troshev…. Overall, there are many reports about Chechnya, which still remains the main Russia’s problem.

The authorities are trying to resolve this issue with the help of available means: they offer Chechens to participate in the referendum on the Chechen Constitution and to elect their own president.

However, many politicians and experts in North-Caucasus issues say that these measures are hardly likely to be efficient in order to extricate the republic from the political crisis since they “do not take into account the Chechen peculiarities”.

Shortly before the terrorist act in Grozny, the Novye Izvestia newspaper published an interview with Ruslan Khasbulatov, a Moscow professor, and an outstanding Chechen politician, a participant of the Copenhagen All-Chechen Congress.

Khasbulatov is a staunch opponent of Kadyrov and he considers that all attempts of the federal center and the present Chechen administration to “build a peaceful life” are inefficient.

Khasbulatov said, “I am indignant about the miserable congress in Gudermes which supported the idea to carry out a referendum for some Constitution of Chechnya and elections. What referendum, what election can be carried out with genocide, mass violation, and people’s deaths?”

Actually, it is easy to predict that the explosion in Grozny will become a weighty argument for those who say that neither the federal forces nor the local security structures are able to control the situation in the republic and to provide the conditions for a normal election.

Professor Khasbulatov can see only one solution for the Chechen crisis – negotiations between the fighting sides. He strongly objects to the statement of the federal center that there is no one to negotiate with in Chechnya, “It is absurd! Who is it possible to negotiate with if not with the opponents?”

Khasbulatov reminds that the history of the mankind has had over 15,000 armed conflicts, many of which ended in peace settlements. “While Russia has someone to fight with, but no one to negotiate with! Even Americans are making fun of this!”

As for terrorism, Ruslan Khasbulatov considers it to be a response to the “state terror”, “If the Russian Army uses terrorist measures in relations to peaceful residents of Chechnya, what do we want – people go to the slaughter voluntarily.”

That is why, according to Khasbulatov, it is possible to break the vicious circle of mutual violence only with the help of negotiations with an obligatory participation of international observers. Professor Khasbulatov says the present attempts to strengthen peace in the North Caucasus are useless.

The results of the coming Chechen elections will not be admitted both by the local population of the republic and the international society, “Any collaboration or puppet power is transient – in such conditions the new head of the republic will not last long.”

Moreover, the started expansion of the military activities outside the republic are “the beginning of Putin’s political crash”. According to Khasbulatov, “The war has made him the president and the war will deprive him of the chance to be reelected.”

Vladimir Putin is trying to force the peace settlement in Chechnya, “in order to protect himself in the future presidential campaign as well,” the Moskovskie Novosti weekly wrote.

Apparently, that having come to power on the “patriotic surge and calls to finish off the terrorists in Chechnya”, the president will have to present the results of his efforts by the next presidential election. And there are hardly any results.

“Let’s imagine that on the threshold of the presidential election another terrorist act like hostage-taking in the center of Moscow takes place,” writes observer Sanobar Shermatova in Moskovskie Novosti. If it is directly connected with the Chechen problem, it can seriously undermine Putin’s chance for second presidency.

According to Shermatova, this is the reason for the dismissal of General Troshev from the position of the commander of the North-Caucasus military district. “The period of relative welfare in the relations between the president and the “Chechen” generals has ended.” However, the outcome of the fight is not clear as yet.

Under Boris Yeltsin, “Chechen” generals felt as losers. That prevented them from becoming an independent political force despite the hopes. The author recollects that the most popular cheers among the military at that time were “To the constitutional order in Chechnya!” which implied the answer “And in the Kremlin!”

Moskovskie Novosti writes that Vladimir Putin has managed to turn the losers into victor without a real victory. “Chechen” generals have become an official symbol of the Kremlin’s power and its new master.”

Since Vladimir Putin does not have his own powerful groups which would strictly controlled the generals, a severe though hidden war started between the Kremlin and the “Chechen” generals.

In spring 2001, Vladimir Putin visited Grozny and posed an objective: to stop oil siphoning within a month. “From the very beginning the interests of the Kremlin and the top military leadership have been different,” says the newspaper. A year and a half passed, but “caravans of gasoline trucks are still pass federal outposts without hindrances.”

Besides, since spring 2001, the authorities have three times tried to reduce the redundant military contingent. However, only 20,000 soldiers out of 100,000 federal group have been withdrawn from Chechnya, “All attempts to “drive” the army into barracks have failed.”

According to Moskovskie Novosti, the third stage of the fight was the famous order of the Chechen commander Vladimir Moltenskoi on the so-called purges, which never hit the target.

Further on, there was a fight around forming the Interior Ministry of Chechnya which would put the republic in order instead of the federal forces. However, the ministry is still being formed and due to the recent terrorist act the beginning of its work is likely to be postponed again.

Besides, the federal forces seem to be entirely unable to liquidate the most odious figures of the Chechen resistance, in particular, Shamil Basaev who assumed the responsibility for the terrorist act at the Dubrovka theatre.

Overall, Moskovskie Novsoti says, there is every reason to conclude that the military simply sabotage all orders from the Kremlin. That is why the disobedience of General Troshev caused such a violent reaction in the Kremlin.

However, the attempt to “purge Chechnya” from the generals indulging the war is doubtful, “Because now, the “Chechen” generals whom Vladimir Putin voluntarily strengthened, will rush into politics now. And this fact may change the results of the upcoming elections, including the presidential election.”

It should be said that this standpoint is close to the viewpoint of Ruslan Khasbulatov, who says he warned his American partners while visiting Washington, “If you consider Putin as your ally, you’ll have to help him.” It is necessary to immediately stop the Chechen war, “to stop the corrupted Russian generals who are making the president to dance to their tune and are using him as a screen to cover the misappropriation of the budget money, titles, positions, and the national wealth of the Chechen republic.”

One way or another, now it is difficult to say that Putin will be luckier with solving the Chechnya problem in 2003.

However, the Novoye Vremya magazine says that Chechnya has long turned into a chronic disease for Russians, and the situation “neither peace nor war” has become usual.

According to ARPI’s figures, Russian citizens see the war in Chechnya as a moderately serious problem. Twelve percent of respondents see it as very serious, while 14% see crime as very serious, and 10% see unemployment as very serious. According to this poll, the most serious problems are poverty and inflation (29% of respondents).

However, according to Konservator analysts, the next parliamentary elections – in which the pro-government party is preparing to win an “overwhelming victory” – could in themselves turn out to be a disaster for the economy: “The sight of reforms being scuttled by the Duma majority is becoming as commonplace as snow in winter.”

Once again, United Russia has postponed electricity sector reform, under the pretext that the reform plans were not good enough. In fact, says Konservator, “Duma members, anticipating elections, are mortally afraid of electricity prices rising”.

Gazprom reforms have been postponed for the same reason – Duma members fear any rises in domestic gas prices, and the subsequent response of the citizenry.

As for reforms to the Transport Ministry – due to masses of changes made by the Duma, these will be reduced to creating seven new specialized monopolies to replace one old monopoly.

Therefore, Konservator says there is every reason to assume that in 2003 the government will once again be unable to keep inflation within the figures set by the budget.

Vladimir Lopukhin, formerly fuel and energy minister in Gaidar’s government, says the present situation is reminiscent of 1992.

Lopukhin told Konservator: “During Mikhail Gorbachev’s five years in power, money supply doubled, while the availability of consumer goods shrank by 10%. As a result, when consumer prices were deregulated, they rose by 2,508% in 1992.”

Analysts say that at present, the potential for inflation is accumulating in the monopolies, not the consumer sector. By restraining prices for the services of the monopolies, the government is building up huge potential for inflation in the future. Moreover, the longer this artificial restraint continues, the stronger the subsequent inflation burst will be.

According to Konservator, the problem with the present Duma majority is not only that it has no solid long-term economic development plan, but also that it is incapable of assessing even the short-term consequences of its own decisions.

Profil magazine quotes Alexander Bespalov, a leader of the United Russia party, on the subject of RJES and electricity sector reforms: “Everyone understands that these reforms are essential; but the question is whether they ought to be done now. We need to remember the people – these are our own people, we can’t keep driving them into a corner.”

Konservator says that the approaching elections – at which the pro-government party which lacks any kind of economic policy is counting on victory – are “devouring the Russian economy from within”.

In another article, Konservator calls 2003 “Groundhog Year”. Andrei Kolesnikov writes: “There will be no changes which might hold even the slightest risk of impeding President Putin’s victory in the first round of the presidential election in 2004.”

However, Kolesnikov predicts that the hiatus in reforms which will last until the start of Putin’s second term will inevitably start to affect his popularity rating. By the middle of his second term, Putin is likely to be much less popular.

Therefore, while 2003 is economically and politically predictable, 2004 and 2005 – “when the foundations of an entirely new political system, a new ‘conspiracy of the elites’, will be created, could overturn all the predictions of even the most gifted futurologists.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta predicts that the leitmotif of the economic part of the pro-government’s election campaign is likely to be the battle against bureaucracy and corruption – “since it will be impossible to use Chechnya as a campaign battering-ram for a second time”.

The government may be expected to make every effort to demonstrate its concern about the people’s welfare.

In part, the government is preparing to raise the wages of state-sector workers by 30% in late 2003, just in time for the elections.

And Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that the Duma is turning perceptibly more leftist in the lead-up to elections; only the LDPR is an exception.

As for the economic elite, Nezavisimaya Gazeta says it is making its plans for the post-election future.

Reforms are likely to pick up again no later than the second half of 2004: “Any later would be too late. The campaigns of 2007-08 would be on the horizon, a time when the elites will face the serious problem of transferring power to Putin’s successor.”

Moreover, Putin himself probably doesn’t want to be remembered as “the president of unfulfilled hopes”.

But it’s hard to live up to expectations when it’s unclear what those expectations are.

The Inostranets newspaper cites figures provided by Yuri Levada, director of the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM): they show a clear trend – people are taking a more favorable view of the Brezhnev years, the era of stagnation.

Polls show that the proportion of respondents who agree that it would have been better for everything to remain as it was before 1985 continues to rise: around 45% of respondents in 1995, 54% in 2001. “And the trend extends across all age groups, even those who are too young to remember the years before 1985.”

Meanwhile, Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal also cites VTsIOM figures in support of its claim that 76% of Russian citizens supported market reforms in November 2002: just as many as in 1997, the golden year for post-Soviet Russia, “despite all the differences between then and now”.

This leads Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal to predict that “somewhere on the borderline between the Union of Right Forces and the more liberal wing of United Russia, a socially responsible class of citizens could form, a place for the nation to mature; and the direct evidence of that maturity will be rational voter decisions in electing the president and the parliament.”

Maybe the two newspapers are talking to different VTsIOM agencies?

However, this is more likely to be another pre-election illustration of the well-known saying: “Russia cannot be grasped with the mind.”

Happy New Year, happy elections, happy new political developments!

We will return on January 14, after the Christmas holidays.