Russian politics on vacation: the disturbing month of August


As a rule, summertime political apathy peaks towards the start of August – a complicated month for Russia. Over the past few days, the papers have been recalling the coup attempt in August 1991, the sinking of the Kursk in August 2000, and the default in August 1998. Various publications are discussing (some nervously, some with a touch of malicious glee) issues such as Chechnya, which the authorities are clearly failing to handle, or the show execution of YUKOS, or the impending monetization of social benefits, with all its consequences for the citizenry and the government.

Political analysis in the media becomes rather infrequent during August, and a certain amount of tension is perceptible in it: where will society find itself once it emerges from its summer hibernation?

Meanwhile, the processes are underway, as the one and only president of the Soviet Union used to say. And the measuring point in evaluating them is usually considered to be winter: election season, when political activity peaks.

The emerging picture seems to be a disquieting one for the authorities – not even President Putin’s “Teflon approval rating” is holding up, compared to last January. As everyone knows, it reached 70% at the start of the year. But now something is evidently happening to it.

According to the Moskovskii Komsomolets newspaper, two polling agencies that are quite loyal to the Kremlin – the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) and the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) – have produced figures of 59% and 49%, respectively, for the president’s support rating.

Then again, the polling agency run by Yuri Levada, which has displeased the authorities with its harsh assessments on more than one occasion in the past, claims that Putin’s rating is still 72%.

Yuri Levada himself told Moskovskii Komsomolets that “the fuss over social benefits hasn’t affected the president’s rating yet,” so all the figures – for the president and the government – still remain at their previous levels.

All the same, a downward trend has become apparent. Leading political analyst Olga Kryshtanovskaya says the FOM and VTsIOM figures are entirely plausible: “By now, people can’t fail to understand what is going on. Putin is raising salaries for himself and the bureaucracy, but ordinary citizens are getting huge utilities bills and watching prices rise in the stores.”

Under the circumstances, says Kryshtanovskaya, “Putin’s 48% support rating is not too bad.”

Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, told Moskovskii Komsomolets that the “three years phenomenon” needs to be taken into account: “Three years is how long it takes for the populace to become disillusioned with its leader. The same people who once chanted ‘Yeltsin, Yeltsin!’ at rallies were calling him a drunk three years later.”

Oreshkin admits that “Putin’s three years” have stretched out somewhat – but there are some plausible explanations for that. Firstly, Putin “didn’t do anything much during his first term in office. Secondly, during his first term he “treasured his rating like the apple of his eye.”

After this year’s election, the situation changed fundamentally – and now Putin can’t warm up the people’s love for him any longer: “He has gone on the offensive.”

Oreshkin names three specific reasons for the general decline in confidence: “Replacement of in-kind benefits with money payments, the banking crisis, and the YUKOS situation.”

Then again, according to a special survey done by the ROMIR Monitoring agency (reported in the Vedomosti newspaper), most ordinary citizens have no objection to the persecution of YUKOS.

When asked what ought to be done with YUKOS, around 30% of respondents said that the company ought to pay its tax debts and its executives should be charged with fraud. Moreover, one-fifth of respondents said that the company ought to be nationalized, with its “unlawfully acquired property” being “taken away in favor of the state.” Meanwhile, 19% of respondents said the criminal charges against YUKOS owners could be dropped, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky could be released – if the company pays its tax debts.

Andrei Milekhin, general director of ROMIR Monitoring, says the study demonstrates that the YUKOS affair is by no means among the most vital issues for ordinary citizens.

Dmitri Oreshkin made some similar comments to Vedomosti: “Most citizens have only a vague awareness of the YUKOS affair, and their responses are part of a generally negative attitude to big business.”

Essentially, says Oreshkin, what people are feeling is envy: “Over 70% of ordinary citizens feel that life is passing them by – they’ll never be able to join the ranks of those who drive luxury cars.”

Back when the arrests of Platon Lebedev and Mikhail Khodorkovsky took place, ordinary citizens were only aware that “some tycoon or other was arrested.” A year later, thanks to the efforts of pro-state media, the general negative attitude towards the rich has been joined by the opinion that “those tycoons made fortunes by stealing, didn’t pay their taxes, and maybe even murdered somebody.” YUKOS management has proved incapable of countering this wave of negativity, so it’s lost the media war against the state.

According to an eloquent description provided by Yevgeny Kiselev, chief editor of Moskovskie Novosti, ordinary citizens – “with the detached curiosity of a young entomologist watching the helpless struggles of a grasshopper pierced by a pin” – are waiting to see how the YUKOS affair will turn out, and “which of the other oligarchs will be targeted for redistribution.” Kiselev quotes an Echo of Moscow radio listener who called in to say: “Well, so what if they take away the property of some oligarchs and give it to other oligarchs? What difference does that make to us?”

“Many people used a similar line of reasoning in 1917,” says Kiselev. “But once the Bolsheviks came to power and expropriated the property of the former masters – banks, factories, land – it was soon the turn of ordinary citizens to lose their property.” By August 1918 (the month of August, once again!) private ownership of real estate was abolished: “And those who had thought they could sit back and remain uninvolved soon found the comrades walking into their houses and apartments.”

Actually, these historical parallels have already been pointed out by none other than Boris Berezovsky, the London exile – “a colorful member of the anti-Kremlin emigre community,” as Parlamentskaya Gazeta recently described him.

Parlamentskaya Gazeta reports that Berezovsky is continuing to make gloomy predictions about Russia’s future.

During a recent appearance on the BBC’s “Breakfast with Frost” program, Berezovsky was asked: “Is Russia now moving along the path of liberal market development, or is a KGB police state taking shape there?” Berezovsky compared the situation to Portugal and Spain under the dictatorships of Salazar and Franco: “They too had free enterprise and the market, but their lack of civil and political liberties made those countries fall a long way behind Britain, Germany, the United States, and other post-industrial states.”

Berezovsky’s warning for Russia does sound strange, admittedly, if we recall that “catching up to Portugal” was named as Russia’s goal relatively recently, at the very highest level.

But Berezovsky is not the only one who’s feeling pessimistic about Russia these days. An article about the YUKOS affair, written by leading economist Yevgeny Yasin and published in the Vedomosti newspaper, is entitled “Sowers of Fear.”

When the operation against YUKOS and its leaders was only just starting, everyone in Russia was quite certain that the charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky were merely a pretext. Everyone argued over what might be the real reason for the attack: Khodorkovsky’s political ambitions, or a wish to redistribute property: “After all, YUKOS is an extremely tasty slice of the pie.” According to Yasin, subsequent developments provided sufficient evidence that both of these motives were involved.

Correspondingly, says Yasin, the problem has been resolved in two phases.

In the first phase, the political objectives were achieved. Several months before the presidential election, Khodorkovsky was “removed from the political arena” – while most voters “applauded Putin and voted for him and the United Russia party.”

After the election, it was time to achieve the economic objective: confiscation of assets.

The Taxes and Duties Ministry accused YUKOS of tax evasion to the tune of about $3 billion for 2000. And another $3 billion for 2001, afterwards.

Yasin emphasizes that the “tax optimization” of which YUKOS now stands accused was done strictly according to the law – flawed as the legislation was. The charges boil down to the following: the subsidiaries established by YUKOS in Russia’s domestic tax havens, to take advantage of the tax breaks offered in those regions, allegedly didn’t perform any of the functions for which those tax breaks were intended. The subsidiaries only helped YUKOS avoid taxation.

Yasin says: “I’m convinced that it would be very difficult – probably impossible – to make those charges stick in an independent court.” Numerous other companies used similar methods, and each of them was thoroughly audited by the tax authorities.

Moreover, Yasin, as an economist, is sure that the sums of money involved in the tax claims against YUKOS don’t make sense.

The annual revenues of YUKOS are known to be around $15 billion. Yasin says he doesn’t believe the company could have “evaded $3 billion in tax while remaining Russia’s largest tax-payer, contributing up to 5% of federal budget revenue.”

Overall, says Yasin, the Russian authorities have demonstrated for all to see that they “are capable of destroying any company they choose and taking away any property they choose.” Besides, this isn’t an isolated incident: a similar script was followed during the operation that destroyed Vladimir Gusinsky’s company in 2001. And at the regional level, it is not uncommon to see such operations carried out by regional authorities working in conjunction with law enforcement agencies.

As a result, says Yasin, it isn’t the oligarchs who have been humiliated – it’s the whole private sector. And with the private sector humiliated, it’s impossible to make Russia prosperous. Neither is it possible to create a fully-functional civil society.

Yasin quotes Arkady Volsky, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, who said in a July 21 television interview: “This bankruptcy is made to order, and I have a clear impression of who issued the order. But I won’t say who it is: I have six grandchildren, and I’m simply afraid.”

Volsky isn’t the only one who’s afraid, Yasin concludes: “I’m afraid as well. And that seems to be precisely what they want from us.”

“The state appears to be drunk on the freedom of petrodollars,” says Leonid Radzikhovsky in Novye Izvestia. “Of course, our authorities don’t seem to have done anything to deserve this – after all, Moscow doesn’t set world oil prices. But that’s not a problem. The Arabs have been getting high on the same thing for the past 40 years, so why shouldn’t we?”

Indeed, it’s now safe to say that “the Kremlin controls everything… within the limits of television and the Boulevard Ring.”

Opposition is nonexistent. Oil prices are high. “Television is full of society news, the papers are full of society gossip, ordinary citizens fear losing their meager social benefits, and the elite fears losing its stolen mansions.”

All the same, the economy is not subject to the Kremlin’s will: “Despite the intoxicating rise in oil prices, the shares of Russian companies continue to fall. There is no economic boom, and not even professional politicians are venturing to recall the goal of doubling GDP.”

But all this isn’t considered important, “as long as the petrodollars keep raining down.”

With some irony, Radzikhovsky says that all we can do is voluntarily adopt the slogan of “truth is good, but happiness is better.” So as long oil prices don’t fall, and the regime “allows us to keep a few small spaces where we can direct some mostly harmless criticism at it – then praise the Lord! We won’t ask for anything more.”

Besides the YUKOS affair, another focus point for simmering passions in Russia today is Chechnya.

As the Kommersant newspaper reports, the Kavkaz Center website recently displayed a second batch of video footage, provided by Shamil Basayev, from the guerrilla operation in Ingushetia on June 22.

Basayev is shown standing next to “President of Ichkeria” Aslan Maskhadov. Kavkaz Center reports that Maskhadov, unlike Basayev, did not take part in this operation personally – but he did give his “permission” for it.

This seems to be the first real confirmation of what Maskhadov said in a Radio Liberty interview about separatist plans to step up combat missions beyond the borders of Chechnya.

Kommersant also considers the very fact that Maskhadov has been shown standing side by side with Basayev to be quite revealing. Before the assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov, Maskhadov made a point of distancing himself from Basayev, accusing him of acting without authorization (starting from the incursion into Dagestan0, and on several occasions removing Basayev from the command of the separatists’ “western front.”

As some “counter-terrorism specialists” explained to Kommersant, back then Maskhadov was trying to “maintain his image for the West” – emphasizing that he, unlike Basayev, was not a terrorist, not the creator of the Black Widows regiment of female suicide bombers, but the “unlawfully deposed leader of an independent state.” Meanwhile, Basayev used to call Maskhadov an “operetta president” who wasn’t even in control of his own home village.

The same “counter-terrorism specialists” say that the sudden display of unity between Maskhadov and Basayev is primarily aimed at sending a message to their Arab sponsors, in the hope of further financial support.

Khaled Yamadaev, a leader of the Chechnya branch of the United Russia party, told the Vremya Novostei newspaper: “After all, they really need some funding right now – in order to disrupt the election, obstruct it, blow something up.”

Yamadaev doesn’t give much credence to Maskhadov’s sudden show of unity with Basayev and his supporters. Yamadaev notes that Maskhadov is constantly engaged in a balancing act: “When their fortunes are falling, he gives them a boost; when we’re doing badly, he moves towards us.” In fact, according to Yamadaev, all of Chechnya has now “divided into two parties: Al Qaeda and United Russia.” And the question of which party is more popular in Chechnya is not for those with sensitive nerves.

All the same, the leadership of the federal forces in the North Caucasus appears to have an unambiguous response to that question.

The sources of the Novye Izvestia newspaper say that of late, “prominent representatives of the General Staff and the command of the Joint Group of Federal Forces in the North Caucasus have been trying to persuade President Putin and other federal government leaders that there is an urgent need to cancel the presidential election in Chechnya.”

According to the generals, the election campaign is only provoking instability in the region and exacerbating guerrilla activity.

The top brass argues that the policy of “Chechenizing” the crisis, symbolized by the late Akhmad Kadyrov, has failed. In their view, what Chechnya needs is “a tough military regime headed by a Russian general.” That new general should have very broad powers in the civilian administration, as well as command of all federal forces on the territory of Chechnya. This would enable him to “activate the counter-terrorist operation” and conclusively defeat the guerrillas.

According to Novye Izvestia, “the generals’ attack on Chechnya stems from dissatisfaction among the top brass with the results of the military operation in Chechnya,” an operation the Kremlin has declared complete. From the generals’ perspective, this is yet another case of Moscow-based politicians and bureaucrats preventing the military from finishing off the guerrillas.

One possibility, says Novye Izvestia, is that “the lobby group of the generals is preparing the ground for a new stage of large-scale military operations – not only in Chechnya, but also in the adjacent regions of Dagestan and Ingushetia.”

Against this turbulent backdrop, Russian politics in general – six months after the elections – seems sluggish indeed.

Support for political parties is falling. Citing VTsIOM polls, Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal reports that even United Russia’s support rating has declined from 37% in April to 32% in July. Valery Fedorov, general director of VTsIOM, told Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal that United Russia has a “pulsing electorate,” which expands at critical moments and contracts “when political challenges are not immediate, and people can focus on getting on with their own lives.”

For the average citizen, says Fedorov, politics simply ended once the presidential election was over. And people are still less inclined to care about politics during the summer vacation season.

Igor Zadorin, head of the Tsirkon research group, told Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal that there is only a weak correlation between attitudes to political parties and attitudes to specific actions. For most citizens, the parties are “some sort of formations that make a lot of noise during election campaigns, then sit in the Duma and don’t do very much.”

But analysts say there could also be a political component in the decline of United Russia’s rating. “Society is currently seeking scapegoats for the package of social welfare bills.” According to VTsIOM, United Russia and the government will be held responsible for that; the people’s displeasure is less likely to affect the president.

The other political parties, United Russia’s rivals in the parliamentary elections, can’t boast of any rises in voter support either.

The Communist Party, Russia’s largest opposition party, is generally recognized as the loser of the season. In the 1999 elections, the Communists got 24% of the vote; four years later, their total was only 12%. Worse still, the election defeat led to an unprecedented drop in support for the Communist Party: in January opinion polls put it at only 7%.

True, things have improved somewhat since then for the Communists: recent polls show them holding steady at 10%. All the same, it can be said that the Communist Party still hasn’t entirely recovered from the shock of the elections, and part of its electorate has been irretrievably lost – especially with the debut of Motherland (Rodina), which took about 6% of the vote away from the Communists.

Actually, things aren’t looking all that good for Motherland either right now: since the departure of Sergei Glaziev, the party has lost almost half of its social-democrat supporters. According to Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, Dmitri Rogozin – usually considered the leader of the “patriotic nationalists” – is now attempting to fill the vacant social-democrat niche. However, as Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal notes, most observers are skeptical about Rogozin’s efforts.

Support for the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), which got 10% of the vote last December, has dropped back to what it was before the election campaign: 5-6%. Political analysts consider this normal. Igor Zadorin describes Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party as having a “preventive effect” – at elections, the LDPR gets the support of “political fringe” voters who might otherwise give their votes to more radical movements.

The LDPR serves its purpose very well indeed: it catches those “errant votes” and redirects them into the proper channels, so they end up working in favor of United Russia.

Then again, the latest VTsIOM poll indicates that ordinary citizens trust political parties less than any other institution: no more than 5% of respondents said they trust the parties.

VTsIOM Director Valery Fedorov explains: “These days, people assume that their participation in politics doesn’t make much difference at all – so they think that voting or joining political organizations isn’t a very rational use of one’s time.”

Therefore, the “relatively young, prosperous, and optimistic” citizens generally focus on their own careers. Those who are older, poorer, and less well-adapted to today’s conditions are preoccupied with simply making ends meet.

Valery Fedorov: “In any event, the life strategies of the overwhelming majority of citizens today are detached from politics: they focus on private enterprise, state service, the family, or leisure – not politics.”

That’s normal enough, perhaps – at least in August, the vacation month.