“Who is Mr. Putin?” That question, asked at Davos four years ago, no longer seems to be of interest to either Russia or the West.

The issue of Russia – a country “cursed with natural resources,” to quote George Soros – has clearly gone out of fashion among the world’s political and economic elite.

In an interview with the Gazeta newspaper, Yabloko leader Grigori Yavlinsky was asked about the World Economic Forum at Davos; he noted that the only memorable Russia-related aspect of it was the performance by the Mariinskii Theater orchestra, led by Gergiev: “That orchestra made a great impression on everyone at Davos.”

However, says Yavlinsky, everyone has completely lost interest in Russian politics and the Russian economy: “Is it newsworthy to point out that democracy doesn’t exist in Russia? After all, it never has existed. Neither is it newsworthy to say that the Russian economy is dependent on high energy prices.”

Yavlinsky says that even Russia’s presidential election is not a significant event for the West: “Who would be interested in the fact that Russia has no real elections – that the president is essentially appointed? Is there anything new in that, for Russia?”

The Yabloko leader goes on to explain that when there was some real political competition in Russia, and some hope of “extensive economic reforms,” then the international community took an interest in Russia. “But when all that came to an end, the interest vanished.”

Actually, media reports say that Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, head of the Russian delegation at Davos, did all he could to draw the attention of Western investors to opportunities in Russia.

The Vedomosti newspaper reports that at the “Russia: where to from here?” dinner conference, Kudrin optimistically told his audience of Russia’s 7% GDP growth, stronger ruble, and growing gold and currency reserves. He said the government’s priorities include abolishing currency regulation completely, gradually reducing the tax burden, and reforming health insurance. Kudrin sais that the parliamentary election results guarantee that these plans will be carried out: “United Russia will be able to achieve the goals facing the nation.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes a passage from Kudrin’s speech: “We now have a common approach: the government, including its economic bloc, and the majority of the Duma. This is a foundation for successful reforms.”

The Russian delegation faced a great many unpleasant questions about the YUKOS affair. Kudrin described it as “an isolated incident” and advised investors to draw their conclusions once the investigation is complete and the oil company executives have stood trial.

Gazeta notes that Kudrin adopted “Vladimir Putin’s style” in responding to criticism over the YUKOS affair: “The weakness of the state in the 1990s was accompanied by a lack of accountability and no punishment for economic crimes, including some crimes in the area of natural resources.”

Commenting on this speech in Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, Yulia Latynina notes that of late there have been more and more media references to Kudrin as one of the most likely people to succeed Mikhail Kasianov as prime minister. In this connection, Latynina points out, Kudrin “is more and more often inclined to forget he’s a liberal and remember that he’s from St. Petersburg. Ever since the YUKOS oil company ran into trouble, Kudrin has been criticizing YUKOS in a very principled manner, and praising the economic policies of United Russia.”

Kudrin’s speech at Davos – especially its references to “the center-right conservative United Russia Party” which is ready to “drastically modernize Russia” – came as something of a surprise to the Russian business executives present. However, they chose not to enter into any public polemics with Kudrin.

All the same, when a Vedomosti correspondent interviewed Igor Yurgens, executive director of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RUIE), at the World Economic Forum, Yurgens was quite emotional in his response: “Well, if I’d known they were right-wing conservatives, I would have voted for them too!”

On the whole, Yurgens has no doubt that were it not for the YUKOS affair, the volume of foreign investment in Russia last year “could have been dozens of percentage points greater.”

Presidential economic advisor Andrei Illarionov did not attempt to dispel investor skepticism at Davos either, since he believes that public opinion around the world doesn’t believe any official explanations about the YUKOS affair.

Nevertheless, says Vedomosti, none of the mysteries of Russian politics or the Russian economy have managed to make our country a center of attention for the international economic elite again. Rosgosstrakh (Russian State Insurance) president Reuben Vardanian told Vedomosti: “Russia is now seen as just a big country with a small economy.”

Igor Yurgens agreed: “India and China are in first place, followed by the Arab nations, while we… are sort of on the periphery.”

The Kommersant newspaper quotes some forecasts from a report by the Goldman Sachs investment company: by 2050, Russia – along with China, India, and Brazil – will be among the top six nations in terms of GDP volume and per capita income. Meanwhile, in his comments to ITAR-TASS about the results of the Davos forum for Russia, Alexei Kudrin said he had “received confirmation from representatives of other countries and independent analysts that their assessments are close to those in the Goldman Sachs report.”

However, as Kommersant notes, Kudrin will probably try to gloss over some of the less-than-pleasant moments of his Davos talks when he reports to the president.

For example, World Economic Forum participants expressed doubt about the feasibility of Vladimir Putin’s main goal: doubling the GDP within a decade.

One of the reasons for the concern expressed by Western experts is the fact that some new political risks have developed in Russia: “A contraction of democracy, expressed in the establishment of what is essentially a one-party system, harassment of independent media, and lack of accountability for the top political authorities.”

Strobe Talbott, former advisor to Bill Clinton, linked all these issues with the YUKOS affair, describing it as an example of the suppression of dissent in Putin’s Russia.

On the whole, the issue of threats to democracy in Russia – contrary to Grigori Yavlinsky’s skeptical remarks – clearly is of concern for the West.

David Atkinson, rapporteur on Russia to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), said in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Russia’s parliamentary elections had been “technically free, but not fair.” In the opinion of the PACE, December’s election campaign was “entirely and fundamentally flawed from the start.”

Atkinson explained that this is linked to the obviously biased and unobjective coverage of the campaign by “state-owned or state-controlled television.” He noted: “Preference was crudely given to one or two specific parties, at the expense of all the rest.”

Essentially, said Atkinson, the same situation is being repeated now in the lead-up to the presidential election.

Therefore, in Atkinson’s view, the PACE may issue the following recommendations to Russia: first of all, it is necessary to “create an independent television system and ensure that it functions normally – electronic media that are completely independent of any state influence or supervision.”

Moreover, in Atkinson’s opinion, the fact that senior state officials were included on party electoral lists (mayors, governors, top executives – none of whom had any intention of exchanging their jobs for a Duma seat) amounts to “direct and blatant deception of voters.” With surprising naivete, from the Russian viewpoint, Atkinson went on to say: “We will strongly recommend to the Russian Central Electoral Commission that it should stamp out this practice.”

The other points are mere trifles: Atkinson didn’t like the amendements made before the elections to the law on the media. In his view, they only led to great confusion and hesitation among the media about what they could or couldn’t report. The PACE considers that the Duma should “hold hearings on the consequences of this law, and revise it substantially.”

Thus, it’s clear that European observers have responded with condemnation – or incomprehension, at best – to practically all the campaign techniques of the Kremlin’s political strategists: taming the media and dazzling voters with well-known names and promises, while having no intention of taking any real action to keep those promises.

When asked about the instruments available to the PACE for influencing Russia, the naive Atkinson replied that continuous monitoring is a fairly unpleasant thing, even humiliating (most states take that view, at least), so the PACE will keep presenting its recommendations until it decides that “Russia has finally met our standards” and no longer requires constant supervision.

Washington is also displeased about what happened in Russia’s parliamentary elections, and what will happen in the presidential election. The fate of democracy in Russia has been one of the key issues on the agenda during a visit to Moscow by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

As the Kommersant newspaper notes, “Secretary of State Powell has come to Moscow at a time when a chill in relations between Russia and the United States has become apparent.” But since presidential elections are coming up in both countries, neither side has an interest in escalating the confrontation. Therefore, as Kommersant put it, “the most moderate and most inclined to compromise” politician in the Bush Administration has been sent to sort out the dialogue with Moscow.

Some corresponding statements were made following a meeting between Secretary of State Powell and President Putin. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, Putin said at the start of the meeting that “the essential foundation of Russian-American relations is solid enough… to enable us to overcome current discord despite some tactical disagreements related to structuring our international relations and protecting national interests.”

Colin Powell continued this line of thought: “when we do have areas of disagreement or areas of dispute, the strength of our relationship allows us to discuss the areas with candor and openness.”

All the same, as Kommersant notes, it is clear that concerns about developments within Russia, if they did exist in the past, during “the relatively brief period of close friendship between our presidents, when Russia was declared to be a strategic partner,” have remained in the shadows until an appropriate time.

Kommersant says: “Until Moscow started actively working against US policy on Iraq, Washinton preferred to ignore the creation of the ‘hierarchy of governance’ in Russia.” The turnaround came when Russia joined the camp of those who opposed the war: that’s when the United States “recollected all the flaws” of democracy in Russia, apparently heeding the words of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz: “Democracy is a powerful political tool.”

In any event, the United States clearly continues to view Russia as “a not-quite-democratic, unpredictable country” which nevertheless aspires – despite all its problems and deficiencies – to a leading international role.

Lilia Shevtsova, chief analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says the outcome of the parliamentary elections permits Russia to be described as “a hybrid society.” In an article for Vedomosti, Shevtsova notes that until recently, Russia was called a “managed democracy.” There was still the hope that given some substantial effort, this democracy could become a fully-fledged democracy. But now, “following the collapse of communism and the three revolutions carried out under Boris Yeltsin – changing the state, the form of property ownership, and the political regime” – Russia is clearly returning to traditionalism.

On the one hand, Shevtsova explains, despite all the changes of the 1990s, Russia still retains “the system of political power being personified by one individual, a system perpetuated in Russia for centuries.” At the same time, paradoxically enough, this system is “legitimized by a democratic process – elections.”

Thus, both the continuity and rejection of Russian political traditions are maintained simultaneously. What’s more, says Shevtsova, the combination of contradictory principles – autocracy and elections – makes Russia’s system of governance internally unstable.

According to Shevtsova, the Putin regime cannot refrain from manipulating elections: that is the only way to guarantee its own future. But the more effort the Kremlin team puts into this area, the less legitimate the results become: “Those in the Kremlin think they’re strengthening the regime, but they’re really planting a time-bomb under it.” Mikhail Gorbachev did something similar “when he inserted elections into the Soviet system – causing it to self-destruct.”

Obviously, under the circumstances the goal of retaining power requires a return to authoritarianism; in Putin’s case, this is the bureaucratic authoritarianism which has replaced Yeltsin’s “elected autocracy.”

Shevtsova describes Vladimir Putin as “the leader of the consolidated bureaucracy.” She says: “The defeat of the liberal-democratic minority in the elections, and the use of force to resolve the conflict between the regime and big business – this provides confirmation of a return to a traditional state, dictating its will to society.”

What’s more, says Shevtsova, there is no hope of Russia being able to remain at the “mild authoritarianism” level: “It will be pushed back even further.”

Shevtsova agrees that Putin “is clearly not a dictator in terms of his style.” Moreover, the present regime doesn’t have the enforcement resources needed for dictatorship. Yet we shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the thought that Russia is still a long way from being a police state: “The weakening of democratic legitimacy will drive the regime towards selective repression. And the weaker the regime feels, the more it will be tempted to assert itself by using the whip.”

The bad premonitions expressed by Lilia Shevtsova are also troubling Russia’s political and business elite. Everyone knows that the YUKOS affair is a kind of “show trial.”

In an article for Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, Yulia Latynina says that one of the biggest questions among Russian oligarchs is this: “Will the new regime be content with extracting some kind of tribute from the oligarchs, or will it use cunning tactics to make them give up everything?” And they’re discussing it “almost in whispers.”

Latynina notes: “Russia’s oligarchs, who once risked everything to win the loans-for-shares auctions and change the course of Russian history, have suddenly started acting like fearful Jews in the Middle Ages – liable to be confined to a ghetto by the new rulers, blamed for bad harvests and accused of killing Christian babies.”

The oligarchs have developed “Stockholm syndrome,” according to Latynina. “Even if they do accuse anyone, it’s only those of their fellow-oligarchs who have dared to refuse to pay the racketeers and have therefore found themselves in jail.” And if they wish for anything, “it’s for a piece of YUKOS to fall into their hands too.”

In Novaya Gazeta, Marina Drachenko contradicts Latynina. “It’s not the fault of the oligarchs that Russia was about 200 years late in going through the inevitable stage of wild capitalism. And then the market in which the oligarchs became so successful was the market created by the current leaders of the Union of Right Forces – at the time, they were at the helm of the nation.”

Drachenko considers the rationalization used by the Union of Right Forces (URF) to be shameful: “We aren’t defending Khodorkovsky – we’re defending human rights in general!” Drachenko says: “No, it’s Khodorkovsky in particular who needs to be defended, or he won’t get out of jail alive!” After all, “the regime doesn’t fear Khakamada or second-rate wits like Radzikhovsky enough to send the special squads out to haul them into court.”

According to Drachenko, it’s time to call a spade a spade: “There has been a catastrophe. We are moving back to the 1930s, faster and faster.” Drachenko has no doubt that “after a few years of extreme arbitrary rule by the security and law enforcement agencies, Russia will meet the same fate as the USSR.”

It’s time to make an announcement, says Drachenko: “Wanted: a brave person capable of facing the truth, in order to unite those who have no wish to be the common herd.”

Meanwhile, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Kara-Murza, members of the Free Choice 2008 Committee, released their statement about the current regime.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta published it with the sub-title of “an open letter to President Putin’s supporters.” It is addressed to those who “don’t care about values of liberty and democracy… those who are not concerned about TV channels being closed, courts tamed, and the parliament defiled; those who are not concerned about the war in Chechnya, the growing role of the secret services in public life or harassment of business owners and dissidents; those who don’t mind a one-party system and Soviet state symbols.” In other words, to that very same “common herd.”

Actually, the authors describe their intended audience differently: they are those who “like and respect the president for his energy and temperance, for regular payment of state-sector wages and pensions, for a stronger ruble and the growing respect Russia has in international affairs,” and so on.

In its history, the authors emphasize, Russia has not often been as fortunate as it has during the past four years: “Constantly high oil prices, a calm in foreign affairs, the outlines of a free-market economy created under President Yeltsin – all this has enabled the regime to provide economic growth and social stability without much effort.”

But this lucky chance has been wasted: “the second half of Putin’s first term in office” has turned into stagnation and restoration: “Instead of economic and social modernization, a giant with feet of clay has been built in Russia: an authoritarian regime of personal power for Putin and his friends from the former KGB, resting on the illusion of socio-economic prosperity.”

Nemtsov and Kara-Murza point to “a new socio-political formation: Putinism.” According to them, this concept includes: “a one-party system, censorship, a puppet parliament, a tame judiciary, strong centralization of power and finances, and an exaggerated role for the secret services and the bureaucracy.”

Those Russian liberals who supported Putin in the hope of seeing democratic reforms continue now feel deceived. Hence the proposal for “a qualitatively different strategy of state development – a democratic alternative to Putinism.”

The authors of the open letter emphasize: “We understand that Russian society (or rather the pro-Putin majority) will wake up only when the economic foundation of the regime – high oil prices – collapses.” Nevertheless, the 2008 Committee is convinced that if President Putin gets 80-90% of the vote at the March election (entirely possible, according to opinion polls), “this will give the regime carte blanche for both positive decisions and tyranny.”

Therefore, the 2008 Committee is calling on Putin’s present supporters not to vote for him.

However, even if we assume that the “pro-Putin majority” – which is not interested in politics, power-struggles at the top, persecution of oligarchs, or the war in Chechnya – does include some people who read Nezavisimaya Gazeta attentively, and if these people do decide to heed the call of Boris Nemtsov and his allies, they will search in vain for any advice from democratically-inclined politicians regarding which presidential candidate to vote for.

At its congress last weekend, the URF resolved not to endorse Irina Khakamada in the presidential election. According to Gazeta, Khakamada spent a long time trying to persuade her colleagues to support her – that is, to move into opposition to Putin. But she argued in vain.

Anatoly Chubais said at the congress that he could not forgive Khakamada for her statements about the Moscow theater hostage-taking. Moreover, according to Kommersant, Chubais emphasized that “the whole text of Khakamada’s statement paraphrases the well-known views of Boris Berezovsky – and Chubais has no intention of supporting Berezovsky in the presidential election.”

Yegor Gaidar told the media that he will only make his decision on March 14, election day.

In the end, only Boris Nemtsov was prepared to support Khakamada: “In my view, at this difficult time we ought to support the courageous action of our comrade.”

Meanwhile, one delegate at the URF congress even turned out to be a supporter of Vladimir Putin: the representative of a regional URF branch proposed to add the option of endorsing the incumbent to the agenda.

However, the URF finally resolved to permit a “free vote” – which led Khakamada to make a fairly sharp statement, according to Kommersant. She said that the URF had lost the parliamentary elections due to its lack of a clear stance regarding the regime: “And now we’re unable to express a position for the presidential election. What kind of party is this, may I ask, without a position of its own?”

And yet, says Kommersant, “Ms. Khakamada simply failed to realize that a ‘free vote’ is indeed a position. It’s just not in her favor.”

Actually, as Kommersant-Vlast magazine points out, “the true tragedy of the democratic parties” isn’t even the fact that they are unable to objectively assess the reasons for their failure and find a favorable position for future political battles. The real problems is that “they are no longer needed in the system of governance.”

The president and almost all leaders of the victorious United Russia party did express some appropriate regrets about the absence of right-wing parties in the Duma; but they immediately let it be understood that the place of the democrats in parliament is already occupied.

United Russia has been declared to be a right-wing party. Meanwhile, the URF is being relegated to an extremely modest role in the new circumstances: “Generating reformist ideas.”

Analysts questioned by Vedomosti express concern that the URF might follow in the footsteps of Russia’s Democratic Choice: “slowly being marginalized, then falling apart.”

According to Vedomosti, it seems that the Kremlin has decided to create a two-party system: with United Russia on the right, and some sort of political composite of fragments of the Motherland bloc and the Communist Party on the left.

But in a land of triumphant bureaucracy, as we still remember from the Soviet past, even two parties are too many.