Last week saw another breach made in the oppositional media ranks: Friday’s edition of the Novye Izvestia newspaper failed to appear. This newspaper is one of the pool of media assets controlled by Boris Berezovsky.

Novye Izvestia journalists decided to suspend publication after Oleg Mitvol, chairman of the board of Novye Izvestia Publications, dismissed Igor Golembiovsky from the post of general director.

According to the Vremya Novostei newspaper, Golembiovsky immediately declared his intention to resign as editor-in-chief of Novye Izvestia. When asked about the reasons behind these events, Golembiovsky replied that this might be another “squabble over property”, or a response to recent articles critical of the government published in Novye Izvestia.

In an interview with Vremya Novostei, Oleg Mitvol spoke in favor of the former reason; he also insisted that he is the sole owner of a 76% stake in the newspaper, and is not managing it on behalf of Berezovsky.

According to Mitvol, an audit revealed “substantial financial irregularities connected with the company’s business activities”, and this was the reason for replacing the general director.

Novye Izvestia journalists think otherwise. Valery Yakov, deputy editor-in-chief of Novye Izvestia, told the Vremya MN newspaper that these events may be considered a “classic case of a dispute between property owners”. One of those property-owners is Mitvol, who controls a 76% stake; another is Berezovsky, the true owner of this stake.

Actually, the journalists say this conflict is only the external manifestation of what is going on. “The situation was the same a month ago, and a year ago” – but neither side had taken any decisive steps until now.

Valery Yakov and his editorial colleague Sergei Agafonov say the real reason was that recent issues of Novye Izvestia featured articles “with some fairly harsh material about Putin – such as the articles titled ‘They are terribly distant from the people’, and ‘Plus Putinization of the whole country’, and others.”

Sergei Agafonov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Friday’s unpublished edition of Novye Izvestia included an article on “the Kremlin’s foreign policy failures”.

The journalists say the publicity generated by the scandal over Novye Izvestia could be useful for Berezovsky – “since a newspaper he considered one of his own is under attack”.

Indeed, Berezovsky did not miss the opportunity to take advantage of this story. The Kommersant newspaper published his statement: “This is a continuation of the regime’s attack on my media assets. Obviously, this takeover is related to the upcoming elections. The regime’s goal is clear: to leave no print media at all in the hands of the opposition.”

At the same time, Berezovsky describes the move against Novye Izvestia as a display of the Kremlin’s uncertainty about its own power: “The regime is obviously losing the political arena. This is clear from the declining popularity of the United Russia party: over the past three years, the Kremlin has failed to make it a stable political structure.”

Berezovsky even venture to make an optimistic prediction for himself: “In my view, there is a high probability of the opposition winning the parliamentary elections in December.”

Indeed, the articles mentioned by Valery Yakov and Sergei Agafonov could not fail to draw the Kremlin’s displeasure. One of them had the title “Plus Putinization of the whole country” and the subtitle “A chronicle of glorification”; the journalists consider this article to be the immediate cause of the attack on Novye Izvestia.

The Novye Izvestia article opens by quoting presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky: “Vladimir Putin does not approve of attempts to popularize him as an individual via mass production of portraits and busts. The president dislikes that.”

However, says Novye Izvestia, Yastrzhembsky’s statement has been completely ignored by citizens and state officials alike.

State officials have liberally decorated their offices with portraits, statuettes, and bas-reliefs of the president, sold to them in vast quantities by enterprising artists at various levels, right down to the most democratic level. For example, Viktor Furman, a jeweller from a small town in the Chelyabinsk region, has long since mastered production of medallions and buttons featuring Putin’s profile. Demand is highest for brass profiles at 30 rubles each, but there are also buyers for silver profiles at 300 rubles, and even for gold ones ($100 each, weighing 8 grams).

According to Novye Izvestia, for some reason the Chelyabinsk region is ahead of other Russian regions in terms of “Putin-loving”. For example, there was the Putin cafe bar, opened in Chelyabinsk by two enterprising female students. True, they borrowed the idea from a restaurant bearing the same name, which they visited during a trip to Jerusalem. It wasn’t difficult for them to develop the idea at home. This is clear from the Putin Cafe’s menu: Hierarchy of Governance kebabs (seven pieces of meat on a skewer, corresponding to the number of federal districts); Kremlin kvas (based on horseradish); Vovochka milkshakes. They also had plans to serve Boris Berezovsky chops. Customers poured through the cafe’s doors.

But this successful business ran up against some interference from the authorities: Valery Tretiakov, chief federal inspector for the Chelyabinsk region, personally insisted on the cafe changing its name. The cafe owners couldn’t resist the pressure, of course; they changed the name to the Pepsi Cafe, and finally sold the business entirely.

But this unfortunate case is more an exception than the rule. Overall, there are plenty of examples all over Russia of the Putin theme being successfully and skillfully exploited.

For example, the town of Izborsk in the Pskov region offers a walking tour of places where the president has stayed. Moscow has a newspaper called “President for the Third Millennium”, published by a group of enthusiasts. And there’s the hit song “I Want a Man Like Putin” by Singing Together. And of course there’s all the literary “Putiniana”: starting from that well-publicized book about Putin’s childhood, published in St. Petersburg for schoolchildren – as well as works by such respected authors as Roy Medvedev and Alexander Rar.

Novye Izvestia says the authorities appear to have nothing to do with most such publications. However, there are also the two books written about the president by “courtier journalist” Oleg Blotsky, which “take an entirely Turkmenistan approach”.

These books include photos from Putin’s family archives, and material based on interviews with Putin’s wife, former classmates at school or university, and even former KGB co-workers. Novye Izvestia says such books could not have been written without the support of the presidential administration.

In general, according to Novye Izvestia, Putin’s oldest and closest acquaintances are perfectly well aware that he “is susceptible to flattery (though he doesn’t show it)”. And Novye Izvestia claims that Putin’s supporters take shameless advantage of this.

As an illustration, the newspaper quotes the president’s old acquaintance Sergei Mironov. After Mironov became speaker of the Federation Council in December 2001, on Putin’s recommendation, he hastened to express his loyalty: “Putin’s style of working with the legislature is something I will remember all my life. It’s a wonderful style – it ought to be recommended to all, for all time.”

Obviously, the subject of an analysis such as the one contained in this article will find it harder to live down than any form of criticism. The regime may be untruthful, crude, or unjust – but under no circumstances should it be comical. In Russia, mockery is not forgiven.

Another of the articles mentioned in the Novye Izvestia scandal is titled “They are terribly distant from the people” and concerns the widely-promoted pension increases.

Once it became clear that despite all the media publicity, the real rise in pensions would be an average of one dollar a month – 30 rubles – outraged pensioners launched a protest campaign of sending 30-ruble wire transfers to President Putin. According to Novye Izvestia, this came as a real shock to the Kremlin: after all, they’d had such good intentions…

Novye Izvestia says that nobody in the Kremlin appeared to have considered that in an election year, this incident may well turn out to be “the banana peel on which even the most successful runner slips”.

Putin ordered emergency measures to remedy the situation. Rumor has it that the new pension increases will amount to around $5 a month.

Novye Izvestia points out: “The budget can cope with the cost of correcting such a mistake, thanks to high oil prices. But if such simplistic moves are used as the basis of campaign techniques, as they were in Boris Yeltsin’s last campaign, then the consequences could also be the same: generous distribution of money in 1996, feverish attempts to patch up the budget in 1997, and a default in 1998.”

Moreover, says Novye Izvestia, the following question remains unanswered: whether the Kremlin’s political consultants understand that “directing half a dozen so-called parties and a few hundred Duma members is not at all the same as managing millions of voters”.

We can see that the Kremlin wouldn’t have liked this article either: after all, it casts doubt on the president’s authority in the eyes of voters, which is considered indisputable.

But in fact the media has already noted many times that the people’s love for the president is somewhat irrational, to put it mildly. Pollsters have repeatedly demonstrated that voters do have confidence in the head of state, but none at all in those around him – that is, in those who implement Putin’s policies.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that at the latest meeting of the Civic Debate club, leading political analysts reached a stunning conclusion: even the completely pro-Putin United Russia party is viewed by voters as a party of the bureaucracy, and thus has no more than 6% support.

According to Izvestia, “Putin’s electoral majority” is not only the Kremlin’s chief trump card for the upcoming elections, but also its main problem. That is because voter support is “based on a lack of alternatives rather than on any ideological considerations”.

Andrei Fedorov, head of the Political Studies Foundation, told the Civic Debate club that this year’s parliamentary campaign will essentially be a competition of love for the president, rather than a matter of political techniques; and certainly not a matter of political arguments.

Fedorov: “The winner will be whoever can offer the most convincing demonstration that their love for the president is returned.”

According to Izvestia, even the Communists have a chance of boosting their ratings – if they change their rhetoric and focus attention on Putin’s socially-oriented initiatives (such as the abovementioned pension increases). Of course, using “Putin is our president” as a slogan is not a realistic option for the left; but the number of voters who support Putin while voting for the Communist party may increase.

However, the problem is that according to opinion polls, the level of support for Putin is approximately equal to the number of people who fundamentally don’t care about parties: “Both figures are around 80%.”

Andrei Ryabov, a member of the Carnegie Foundation research council, says the problematic political apathy of Russian voters these days is the natural result of what the government has been doing for years.

Ryabov writes in the Vremya MN newspaper: “The experience of almost 13 years since the collapse of communism in this country shows that even well-planned and well-developed economic reforms can be implemented in such a manner that only a small number of people reap the benefits of them.” Tens of millions of Russian citizens remain outside the new economy – and the authorities don’t care.

Ryabov goes on: “For years, Russian reformers of all kinds have marvelled at how our people, under the pressure of painful reforms, don’t demand anything, contenting themselves with what little they have – for example, growing their own vegetables. After that, it cannot come as a surprise that one-third of the population regularly votes for the Communists, and at least another third is prepared to support others who adopt Communist slogans.”

Indeed, even right-wing parties are showing signs of using leftist slogans in the election campaign.

According to Gazeta, Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov has said that his faction will not vote in favor of the bill on local government submitted to the Duma by President Putin. The reason for this polite refusal does not lie in the contents of the bill; rather, it is because what is most important “at this stage is raising the wages of state-sector workers, ensuring security for citizens, and social protection for the poor.”

Gazeta comments that this statement, somewhat unexpected for a right-wing party, is evidence of a deliberate shift to the left; the URF’s popularity has been stuck at around the 5% mark of late.

Igor Kuraev, a department head at the Social Systems Institute of Moscow State University, considers that such a shift in position by the URF is probably linked to the fact that the URF has failed to become the party of small business and medium-sized business, as it initially planned to do.

In Gazeta, Kuraev explains: “Having failed to find support among the most independent but least politically active part of the electorate, the URF is now forced to rely on the oligarchs. And the oligarchs have all started talking of social partnership and social responsibility, an approach which is more in line with the paternalist attitudes of centrist voters.”

But the fact that the URF is adopting such a stance creates problems for the Kremlin. Dmitrii Badovsky, another analyst from the Social Systems Institute, told Gazeta: “When the government needs to implement some unpopular economic decisions, there should be someone on the right wing proposing solutions more radical than those of the government.” Indeed, who is now going to make the government’s proposals appear relatively balanced and well-considered?

Gazeta points out that most parties of any substance are now grazing in “the comfortable centrist field”: of around thirty parties registered by the Justice Ministry, most have declared themselves to be centrist.

Nobody wants a confrontation with the Kremlin these days – absolutely everyone apart from the Communists now supports Putin; thus forming, in the words of Andrei Ryabov, “an all-encompassing center”.

But the Communist Party’s situation isn’t entirely straightforward either. Dmitrii Olshansky says in the Konservator weekly that today’s liberal critics of the left are simply ignorant of the Communist Party’s current program: “These days, the Communist Party is about supporting the Russian Orthodox Church, patriotism, and small business – in other words, it’s essentially a New Economic Plan and a new era.”

Argumenty i Fakty cites some figures released by Gennady Zyuganov to mark the tenth anniversary of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. According to the Communist leader, his party now has over half a million members and recruits around 20,000 more every year. Russia is covered by a network of 17,636 branches of the Communist Party; around 11,000 party members are employed in government bodies. The major current problem is age: the average age of Communist Party members is 55.

The party’s second problem is internal conflicts. Throughout the past decade, the Communist Party has been fighting a war on two fronts: not only against the Kremlin, but also against “casual fellow-travelers, born-again communists and traitors” in its own ranks. Over the years, this list has included: V. Semago, A. Podberezkin, A. Tuleev, N. Gubenko, S. Goriacheva, and G. Seleznev.

The latest scandal has concerned “red oligarch” Gennady Semigin; according to Gazeta, he was declared a “Kremlin mole” and accused of having links with Boris Berezovsky, who has allegedly “planned a complex game with the aim of destroying the leftist movement”.

Novoe Vremya magazine says the current disputes all stem from ambitions to gain control of the party’s finances, as well as the power-struggle over places on electoral lists. Novoe Vremya says the left “has failed over the years to integrate its financial and electoral resources – hence all its internal disputes”.

But Novoe Vremya emphasizes that no one doubts the Communist Party will “once again get its usual 30% of the vote, plus or minus a couple of percentage points.” The question is what will happen after that.

According to Argumenty i Fakty, the main issue on which the Communists will have to make a decision is who will be their presidential candidate.

Many observers consider that Gennady Zyuganov cannot achieve anything more. The name of Sergei Glaziev, “economist and supporter of a strong state”, is being mentioned more and more often in media analyses of the Communist Party’s prospects.

An “authoritative expert and former deputy prime minister” told Argumenty i Fakty that right now, Glaziev’s sails “are filled with the wind of big-time politics”. It is even said that Glaziev is very close to becoming prime minister. It is assumed that he might be appointed either after the first round of voting in the presidential election, or even by the end of this year. “Because by November the Communist Party’s rating will be up around 50%, and in order to retain power the president will have to ‘listen to public opinion’ and move a ‘bourgeois specialist’ from the Communist Party into the Cabinet.”

However, it’s hard to believe that Gennady Zyuganov would ever surrender the party leadership to anyone of his own volition.

The centrists will also have to make some decisions about party leadership before the elections.

United Russia will hold a congress on March 29, which should see a resolution of the confrontation between Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, who heads the party’s supreme council, and Alexander Bespalov, who holds two positions: chairman of the general council and the central executive committee.

According to Izvestia, “it is believed within United Russia that Bespalov in particular has been responsible for leading the party into failure”. Everyone knows that the party’s approval rating has halved in recent months. Moreover, observers say Bespalov’s numerous and extravagant initiatives have also had an impact – from his proposal for regional leaders to be appointed by presidential decree, to his ambitions to monitor the payment of wages to state-sector workers and provision of gas supplies to rural areas.

In general, as the “Bespalov problem” was summed up by Izvestia, his “ambitions for power are clearly out of proportion to his management abilities”.

United Russia members started saying that Bespalov was not only destabilizing the party, but discrediting the government as well. However, dealing with Bespalov turned out to be more difficult than expected: he takes every opportunity to present himself as “the president’s personal friend”. (Bespalov has indeed known Putin for some time, since the days when they both worked for the St. Petersburg municipal government.)

Izvestia quotes “a Kremlin official” on this topic: “Whenever people have no other arguments to support their images, they make use of skeletons in the closet.” Apparently, Bespalov periodically takes out one such “skeleton” and starts selling it: “I know Putin, I’m his friend” and so on.

What embarrasses his audience most is that he never produces any evidence of his friendly relations with the president: “It’s all at the level of a pretty story.”

Meanwhile, Izvestia heard another story from United Russia – one which isn’t so pretty. This looks back to the time when Anatoly Sobchak was mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin was deputy mayor, while Bespalov headed the public contacts directorate. Izvestia notes that Bespalov’s performance in this position had some unhappy results for Sobchak.

A source in United Russia told Izvestia: “He would save himself by one cunning maneuver. He’d come to see Putin and throw himself on his mercy. Putin disliked such scenes and always tried to get rid of his visitor. In order to do so, Putin might promise him anything.”

A dangerous precendent – especially given Bespalov’s current ambitions.

In this context, it is interesting to recall what Bespalov said at the United Russia congress last December. His statement related to the presidential election of 2008 (the election of 2004 obviously isn’t a problem in Bespalov’s view, notes Izvestia).

Bespalov: “We must build a stable political system over the next six years, so that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin can hand over power to a person nominated by the party.”

It’s interesting to consider whom Bespalov might have had in mind, says Izvestia.

One way or another, despite what political consultants may say, it appears that the Putin brand-name is still working as well as ever. And in the upcoming power-struggle for places in government structures, being able to use that brand-name effectively is likely to prove decisive.

Therefore, the president really doesn’t have to worry about attacks from the media and the opposition: whatever ill-wishers in London may say, Putin’s approval rating remains a kind of magic wand, transforming recent opponents into fervent supporters and distant acquaintances into loving friends.

After all, who would presume to make the goose that lays the golden eggs the target of their irony?