Reforms and terrorist attacks: the Kremlin’s asymmetric response to terrorist challenges


Three sociological services – VTsIOM, POF and ROMIR Monitoring – have conducted public opinion polls obtaining an assessment concerning the president’s initiative for abandoning the direct gubernatorial election. The poll results prove, says Vedomosti newspaper, that Russian society has its “feelings in confusion.”

48% of respondents questioned by the VTsIOM expressed disagreement to the presidential initiative. However, 38% agreed to convey the electoral right for regional parliaments.

ROMIR Monitoring tried to find out “to what extent” the respondents are supporting the president’s initiative: 55% of respondents supported it, 36% were opposed to this idea.

The results provided by the POF are more curious: 37% of respondents censured the idea that the president should alone nominate contenders for governorship, but 34% approved of the idea.

Both sociologists and political consultants are certain that all three sets of results are true, but that they “are evidence of the general chaos in the minds of Russians.”

In the opinion of VTsIOM, the problem of the “gubernatorial reform” as such is unclear to the people. Therefore, the sociologists received an “instantaneous model of the frame of minds” before the public has formed its opinion. As for the high percentage of “opponents” in VTsIOM’s poll, it is because the poll focuses on the “cancellation of gubernatorial election,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Politics Foundation.

“The election as such is precious for the people. The way in which the question was shaped produced a feeling that the election is under threat,” he says.

In the opinion of ROMIR Monitoring, support for Putin’s idea “is more likely the unconscious manifestation of people’s confidence for the president against the backdrop of low confidence for inefficient regional authorities.”

Indeed, despite a fall in the president’s popularity rating in September, 66% of Russians still approve of Vladimir Putin’s activities in September (2% less than in August and 12% less than in March), according to Levada-Center.

This is the source of ambiguous approach for the president’s initiative, emphasizes Alexei Makarkin, deputy general director of the Political Techniques Center: “Supposedly they are willing to support the president and don’t deny their own participation in the election.”

Dmitry Polikanov, VTsIOM’s director for international and public affairs agrees to this by saying for Vremya Novostei newspaper that “the people are ready to take specific measures aimed at combating terrorism and obtaining unity of the country, but are willing to preserve a pinfold for free declaration of their intention.”

Polikanov is certain that “the process of selecting candidates must be made more transparent, which relieves the fears and increases the support.” Moreover, only 10% of the population seconds the gubernatorial contenders from the opposition, reminds Vremya Novostei.

Besides, POF sociologists discovered that almost 50% of respondents confessed that they were hearing about Putin’s “gubernatorial reform” for the first time, and 26% “had heard something.” Only 21% of respondents are certain that they are properly informed.

Accordingly, the public opinion is still “very mobile” and the one who succeeds in explaining the effect of the reform to people and its connection to the struggle against terror is to win this struggle, VTsIOM says.

According to Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, the authorities are not to succeed in that “because they have nobody to handle this.”

Belkovsky is certain that “actions of the authorities will have no effect; they will only involve formal political techniques.”

At the same time, he says, nothing is threatening the president’s popularity rating. “Collapse of the phantom which is called the president’s popularity rating is only possible if an alternative leader, similar to Yeltsin under Gorbachev, appears,” Belkovsky says to Vremya Novostei. Such a leader is unlikely to emerge now: “Everything is being done to make politicians obliged to the presidential administration for having made them.”

Vladimir Putin has confirmed his complete absence of concern regarding the probable loss of popularity among citizens by his new attempt to explain the logic of his actions to representatives of the foreign media, rather than to Russians and the national media agencies.

As noted by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Kremlin is now actively working with the foreign media: in spring the president’s press secretary received Dmitry Peskov as a senior deputy who is now responsible for contacts with the foreign media.

Indeed, Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes ironically, following the definitive “cleanup” performed in the media, dismissal of editor-in-chief of Izvestia newspaper for “incorrect coverage concerning the Beslan terrorist attack the Kremlin has probably decided that nice work has been done with the Russian journalists” whereas the Western media are forming the negative image of Russia abroad; besides, friendly relations with heads of many foreign states are not influencing that. The situation required interference.

Commenting on Putin’s statement at the World congress of heads of media agencies the entire Russian media emphasized that the “president was at his best.”

“Putin was standing by the entrance to the congress hall (where the meeting with heads of media agencies was to take place – author’s note), his jacket unbuttoned and hands shoved into his pockets. This is a classic pose which evidences relaxation, resolution and even aggressiveness,” writes Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

This impression was confirmed over the course of the meeting: all Russian media cited the president’s phrase concerning his attitude towards the elucidation of Russian events by the foreign media: “…you know, like an entrapped lion and the jackals are running about and yapping either from fear or of joy.”

The president answered the questions of the meeting participants in this very tone – “it was impossible to realize whose interest was higher – that of a head of a foreign media agency who wished to ask the president a question or the concern of the Russian president who wished to explain his political steps to a hundred foreign journalists.”

In the end, notes Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Putin “shed light on more topics than asked.”

No question concerning reformation of the political system was asked aloud. However, Putin decided to explain why he suddenly shifted to this topic. “I want to pay attention: we have no intention to do anything what is not done in the democratic nations,” he stressed.

It is impossible to omit the fact that the president didn’t justify adoption of these measures with the necessity for ensuring Russia’s security: “He was probably guessing that the audience is realizing that these two things have nothing to do with one another.”

Nevertheless, answering the question of the head of a Danish media agency -what is more important for Russia – ensuring security or developing democracy? – Putin considered it indispensable to stress: “You’ve mentioned that the latest events, a series of acts of terror make a landmark in the history of Russia. No crucial turn will take place – Russia made its choice a decade ago.”

“I wonder what happened in 1994 that was so interesting? The start of a war in Chechnya is the only event. In this sense, no crucial turn is to take place indeed,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, a special reporter with Kommersant newspaper.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, both sides liked the meeting: according to the newspaper Vladimir Putin was leaving the center with “a feeling that his mission has been accomplished.” Judging by their statements, representatives of the media agencies were glad that “Putin doesn’t resemble politicians who often avoid communication with the press.” The president’s “urgency in stressing the democratic essence of his measures on reforming the Russian political system” was noticed as well.

Russian editions have proved to be less optimistic.

Novoye Vremya magazine writes that Russia and the West have made “the first step towards a Cold War.” This is a “timid step, which involves all proper precautions – nobody is in fact willing to come back to the Soviet epoch.”

In the opinion of Ilya Milshtein, an observer with Novoye Vremya, the new stage should be counted from Putin’s statement concerning the Beslan terrorist attack, which contains a hint for a certain conspiracy, aimed at weakening Russia with the aid of terrorism, since Russia “still poses a threat to somebody as one of the largest nuclear powers.”

It was hard not to guess, writes Novoye Vremya, which head of a large nuclear power was implied: “He was evidently driving at another largest nuclear power, his closest friend and partner in the anti-terrorist coalition.”

Further on, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accounted for the president’s standing in his interview for Voice of Russia radio station. The familiar theory concerning “double standards of the West” became the point of his statement. He also reprimanded giving refuge to those who must be regarded as terrorist accomplices in Russia’s eyes – Ilyas Akhmadov in the USA and Akhmed Zakayev in London.

Besides, Lavrov gave direct advice to the West – “don’t interfere with Russia’s internal affairs”. According to Novoye Vremya, “this is the style of Gromyko’s era,” which made many people recall the Cold War.

Lavrov stated in conclusion: “We are not commenting the system of presidential election in the United States by the electoral college, rather than via direct voting,” which generated indignant comments in many editions.

As noted by Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, “if Russian diplomacy has been lately creating favorable external conditions for economic development in Russia, as in the Soviet era it is now becoming the tool for “clubbing” all those who are concerned for our internal affairs for an unclear reason.” It appears, notes the magazine, a sacramental “Africans are hanged in your country” could soon be recollected in Russia.

However, says Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, most wonderful is that Sergei Lavrov, “the person who is a Westernizer and an intellectual by all signs” has led this process. Nothing is to be done with it, the magazine notes ironically, – this is his job.

According to Alexander Golts, an observer with the above magazine, gifted, extraordinary as he is, Sergei Lavrov is more remarkable by his “contradiction, typical of the entire Soviet and then the Russian foreign political elite.”

On the one hand, the power always needed “clever, educated people who can represent the country with dignity, conduct uneasy backstage talks, find contiguity points with foreign partners.” At the same time, the above people “must rise in a proper moment, button up, wink at a Western colleague – don’t be offended, this is my job – and start inspiringly talking nonsense about intrigues of world imperialism.” No wonder, notes the author, that many of them “inevitably changed into complete cynics.”

Moreover, says Golts, Russia’s foreign policy over the past decade “whatever it may have been, has never been consistent.”

Suffice it to recall that since 1995 Russia has been fighting for the rights of the Serbs in Bosnia and insisting that UN troops must conduct a peacekeeping operation. In 1996 Russia accepted a NATO-led operation in Serbia and even took part in it.

In 1999 Moscow wrathfully censured NATO for bombing Yugoslavia – and then participated in a NATO operation.

The story was alike with Iraq: an angered aversion for it first, and then accepting it.

If an ordinary Russian ambassador is obliged to explain the policy of his native state only to authorities of the country to which he is posted, a permanent representative to the UN (Sergei Lavrov had been to this post for many years) – is obliged to “openly protect it” and be skillful at applying new approaches in formulations of resolutions submitted to the Security Council.

“Once handling this for a decade, one starts to separate a human being from a diplomat sooner or later,” notes the observer with Yezhenedelny Zhurnal. In other words, a necessity emerges that an “intellectual and a decent man” be distinguished from “an expert in clubbing.”

However, thinks Novoye Vremya, the West is not yet prepared to definitively cool down its relations with Russia. “It is still regretting conquests of the previous era, when stumbling and falling, a nuclear mighty power started moving towards civilization.” Besides, pragmatism is in fashion: “cruelty in the dialog with Putin seems to be redundant when the USA has a real foe in the face of international terrorism.”

In addition, writes Ilya Milshtein, the limit of confidence to Putin, “who now looks more like a confused and weak ally, rather than a cruel and dangerous enemy is not yet exhausted.

Many people share this opinion.

“I feel that he is tired of power. If we look at his photos of 1999 and 2004, we will see this tiredness. It is impossible to see the drive in his face or words now. It seems that he tries to conceal irritation and, probably, confusion,” Lilia Shevtsova, chief expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center, noted in her interview for Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

In contrast to Gorbachev and Yeltsin, during his 5th year on the Olympus of power, Putin has no problem of political survival: “He could have done nothing at all due to his rating. He could learn to ride, study English and be engaged in foreign policy.” And, says Lilia Shevtsova, he can do the latter well.

However, he started social reforms at the cost of his popularity and abolished gubernatorial election, which is likely to set regional elites against him.

Meanwhile, he could have resolved the 2008 problem without all these motions.

According to Shevtsova, Putin has a feeling of a “historic mission,” which determines his behavior.

Upgrading Russia was this mission until recently. As for now, to all appearances, public security advanced to the forefront.

The mission became more complicated: one should combine upgrading with security. Putin’s latest measures are linked to attempts of solving this problem: “He can’t leave the power as “a leader of instability”, because he came as “the president of stability.”

The matter is about the methods applied for resolution of this problem.

As noted by Vremya Novostei newspaper, “whether or not anybody in the country or in the world believes that cancellation of the gubernatorial election helps defeating terrorists is a rhetoric question.”

The newspaper says “the entire project of reinforcement launched after the Beslan tragedy proves that the process of decision-making is taking place in virtual reality,” which is being formed by the politicians and the media under their command.

Undoubtedly, continues the newspaper, propaganda has always been “a significant and effective tool of government for regimes, which are not certain of the political maturity of its subjects.” It was aimed at building a convincing virtual reality for the uninitiated. The system failed once its authors began believing in the virtual world: the “calls it receives are absolutely real and responses are based on false challenges and non-existent circumstances.” No need to mention that similar responses are inadequate.

As noted by Vremya Novostei, most of all, the authorities and their anti-terrorist initiatives resemble “a seller who wants to make a buyer purchase a useless item.” Citizens have a keen feeling for lack of security, “and they are offered to seize the opportunity and buy some more of power vertical.”

This is an unfair and cynical bargain, stresses the newspaper, “though it might seem that cynicism is misplaced concerning those who are called to fighting against the common enemy side by side.”

However, as reported at the start of the week, the Kremlin has finally decided that all required explanations concerning the reform have been provided and shelving this cause is senseless.

The president has already announced that a draft law on altering the order of forming the regional executive bodies has been submitted into the Duma – a month earlier than the date declared!

The press predicts that if no extra obstacles emerge (in contrast to the citizens the State Duma and governors have already displayed their readiness for supporting the president’s initiatives), the country will start living under the new law by the end of the coming year.

It has been decided to speed up the process of submitting this bill into the parliament because the media war surrounding this bill has been factually lost, Iosif Diskin, co-chairman of the National Strategy Council explained for Vremya Novostei.

“Tension is high in society and any pause is being interpreted as disfavor with the president. Suspicion is spreading and most fantastic projects and ideas are being forwarded, which is undermining the confidence in the president’s intentions. Submitting this project as fast as possible gives determination – the debating now won’t go beyond the well-regulated Duma procedures,” Diskin explained.

In the meantime, Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute for Strategic Assessments has made a more straightforward statement: “Governors may offer serious resistance… It is required to catch the chance now that they are “filed” and they all said on TV that this idea is brilliant, otherwise they take a break and contrive something. It won’t surprise me if the bill is considered within the week.”

Neither the governors, nor the people will manage to come around within a week, in case nothing serious occurs.

Boris Berezovsky, Putin’s most ardent opponent has lately said in an interview for Sobesednik weekly: “The people suffering from terror will no longer be able to stay as passive as before.”

At any rate, they won’t be able to stay passive for long – in case the terrorist war keeps going.

“Therefore, I think the period of Putin’s stay is counted by the number of terrorist attacks,” Berezovsky remarked philosophically.