The evolution of Vladimir Putin’s image: "president of hope" or "clumsy dictator"?


Duma member Anatoly Yermolin, formerly an officer with the Vympel counter-terrorism squad, was recently expelled from the United Russia faction for his “seditious open letter that revealed certain details about interaction between Duma members and the presidential administration” (as Nezavisimaya Gazeta put it). Over the past week, the press has described Yermolin as “a hero of our time.”

Besides writing an open letter to Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, expressing criticism of President Putin’s latest political initiatives, Yermolin also appealed to the Constitutional Court, reporting that United Russia faction members are regularly summoned to the Kremlin and forced to vote “blindly” for bills introduced by the executive branch. Under the circumstances, it becomes clear that Yermolin’s sudden popularity is well-deserved.

As the Russkii Kurier newspaper observed, Yermolin had been a political unknown until now (he was elected to the Duma via United Russia’s party list) – but “now there’s a scandal, and he’s out of favor, so he’s become a famous hero.”

Meanwhile, leading political analyst Alexander Dugin claims that “rebel Duma member Yermolin” had represented the interests of the YUKOS chairman of the board within United Russia. Dugin told the Novye Izvestia newspaper: “But now the oligarchs have become dissatisfied with United Russia’s position.” So Yermolin’s move “is only the start of it,” since there have been signs of late that differences are growing “between the so-called St. Petersburg clan and Vladislav Surkov, the godfather of United Russia.” The Novye Izvestia article bears an expressive headline: “Mutiny.”

In Novoe Vremya magazine, Ilya Milshtein says that the legislators have rebelled against their Kremlin bosses, and invites readers to make their own assessment of the scene with United Russia members in Surkov’s office, performed in the style of Gogol or Kharms Daniil Kharms, early Soviet satirist – translator’s note: “Dramatis personae: Surkov and a group of Duma members from the United Russia faction. Date: July 2004. They are discussing the Kremlin’s latest package of bills, which needs to be passed. The silence is broken by the voice of a certain unnamed Duma member with a background in law, who points out that the bills are flawed and unconstitutional. Surkov raises his voice to a shout, and raises the shouting to obscenities. He puts the Duma members in their place, telling them: ‘You’re not Duma members, you’re just…’ (the rest seems to be straight out of Kharms), telling them they’re all ‘bound,’ with specific individuals from the presidential administration taking personal responsibility for the actions of each Duma member, and they must vote as instructed, or by God he’ll strip them naked and send them to Africa.”

Thus, the scandal was continued in November; and its conclusion, according to Milshtein, is of importance to others besides “the retired warrior from the Vympel squad.”

If there is any kind of investigation into the Surkov situation – even at the level of the Duma (let alone the Prosecutor General’s Office) – it would signal that the status of Surkov, a deputy head of the presidential administration, has dropped significantly. Milshtein adds: “For Surkov personally, it really would mean that Russia has become ‘a besieged fortress.'”

If neither the Duma nor the Constitutional Court respond to Yermolin’s actions, but Yermolin isn’t punished in any way, it would signal that “the chances remain even.”

But since Gryzlov has already expelled the rebel from the United Russia faction, as Milshtein points out, all we can do is note an “unfortunate” but hardly surprising fact: Surkov is right – “they are not Duma members.”

Yermolin himself told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that at the faction meeting which ended with his expulsion from United Russia’s ranks, he had brought along a whole package of bills: “I wanted to propose my own program to my colleagues, with suggestions for improving the situation… But they didn’t even hear me out!”

No surprises there. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Yermolin’s bills were based on the assumption that Russia’s problems – primarily the threat of Russia’s statehood breaking down, a threat identified by the presidential administration – are caused “not by any mythical enemies of the nation, but by inept state management.”

At a press conference held after his expulsion, Yermolin explained that he had chosen to join United Russia because he wanted to try reforming “the covert system” from within.

Russkii Kurier quotes Yermolin as saying: “I spent ten years working in the most totalitarian organizations ever created, and I understand that United Russia must be reformed from within.”

At his press conference, Yermolin distributed copies of a newly-published book with the striking title of “How to Uncurse a Zombie” – enabling the author to compare the Kremlin administration, which refuses to listen to the voice of reason, to a “zombie” that needs to be “uncursed.”

All the same, Yermolin himself remains “a man of mystery,” as Russkii Kurier puts it; his manner of speaking is entirely consistent with his original profession: “I have heard a great many theories about who might be standing behind me – all of them mutually exclusive. One theory, for example, is that someone in YUKOS thought this up, and I’m practically receiving orders from Khodorkovsky inside the Matrosskaya Tishina detention center. Another theory is that all this is part of a complex game being played by the presidential administration. I have no intention of justifying myself, denying anything, or confirming anything.”

Nevertheless, says Russkii Kurier, the rumors are working to Yermolin’s advantage – and quite effectively at that.

There are reports that some other United Russia members are ready to follow Yermolin’s example: “They’re sick of it all too, and they’re telling me: just wait, we’ll quit United Russia soon.” This really is starting to look like a mutiny.

Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal says that as expected, United Russia is performing successfully as a “voting machine” in the Duma, supporting all of the Kremlin’s initiatives – but no more than that. Essentially, United Russia’s “ruling party” functions stop there.

Moreover, says Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, “being a conglomerate of various bureaucratic interest groups, United Russia is strictly supervised by the presidential administration.” A few hesitant attempts at resistance – some of them this summer, when the Duma was debating the unpopular package of social legislation that abolished benefits – can be attributed to nothing more than United Russia’s passionate desire for political self-identification, according to Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal.

In this context, Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal recalls how back in February 2002, Vladislav Surkov issued a severe reprimand to United Russia members. He told them: “If we give you power, we do so in order to gain even more power in return.” He noted that “the party’s intellectual activity is at zero level – it doesn’t have a single interesting idea.” Most frightening of all was Surkov’s statement that President Putin would not join the party, because it was unworthy of him. Surkov warned United Russia members: “Unless you become a real party, we’ll do everything ourselves, using you only as pawns during election campaigns.”

This alarmed United Russia members, according to Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal. At first, they had positioned themselves as the “Putin supporters’ party”; then as “the party of concrete action.” As a result, they concluded that their ideology ought to be “center-right conservative.”

However, even though this definition sounded good, President Putin remained uninterested in United Russia’s ideology, and did not join the party.

Novoe Vremya magazine notes that even though ministers and state officials are now allowed to be members of political parties, they “haven’t rushed” to join United Russia.

As for why they’re not rushing to join, and exactly how dialogue between the legislative and executive branches of government operates in Russia – refer to the story of Duma member Anatoly Yermolin.

It’s no coincidence that Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin recently issued a firm denial in response to a claim by Valery Bogomolov, secretary of United Russia’s general council, that Kudrin was preparing to join United Russia.

Kudrin added a rather unflattering explanation to his refusal: “President Putin’s support for United Russia, as well as United Russia’s very close cooperation with the government, mean that United Russia has every chance of becoming a real, full-fledged party.” As they say – no comment.

The patient voters of Russia are also sensing that United Russia has problems with being a “full-fledged” party. According to a poll done by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), cited in Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, 39% of respondents say the goals of United Russia are not consistent with the interests of ordinary citizens. In September 2003, shortly before the parliamentary elections, only 25% held that view. Respondents are mostly dissatisfied about the passage of that unpopular social legislation, and the state’s social policies in general. Meanwhile, Boris Gryzlov himself has only 3% support.

All this lends credibility to rumors that the presidential administration is now readying another pro-Kremlin party – a liberal one this time. And this party may well be joined by Alexei Kudrin, and Economic Development Minister Herman Gref, and Auditing Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin, who is clearly aspiring to some political influence. According to some observers, “certain structures of the Union of Right Forces” may even participate in the “liberal pro-Kremlin party” project.

If this project succeeds, the Kremlin will be well-prepared for the elections of 2007: two or three pro-Kremlin parties are much better than one. And there’s no need to fear opposition: “Everything will look democratic, outwardly, and in elections based on a proportional voting system there would be no need for United Russia to gather the ‘provocative’ 70% required for control of the Duma.”

On the left wing, the Kremlin already has the Motherland (Rodina) party, headed by Dmitri Rogozin, who essentially needs no further promotion, since he is already “a brand-name in himself,” as the Vremya Novostei newspaper puts it.

Although Rogozin hasn’t been very effective as a “political manager” (he interfered in the scandal over Tuzla Island, he played an ambiguous role in resolving the Kaliningrad problem, he’s had conflicts with the party), the Kremlin’s political strategists believe he has other advantages, according to Vremya Novostei: “He has performed well as a public politician, a tribune, who is capable – with some external help – of getting the masses to follow him when necessary.”

Politicians of this type, says Vremya Novostei, are very convenient “for use as safety-valves to let off steam from the vat of popular discontent.”

Then again, these safety-valves wear out and need to be replaced occasionally; but in the opinion of Vremya Novostei, Rogozin is entirely capable of looking after himself. The Kremlin has noted that he is “unpredictable and uncontrollable,” and this is no coincidence: “His determination to present himself as more Catholic than the Pope is already evident – suffice it to consider his comments on President Putin’s recent political initiatives.” There are suspicions that in future, Rogozin may attempt to escape the patronage of those who have helped him gain a public profile.

In an interview with Profil magazine, leading journalist Sergei Dorenko notes that the tone of Rogozin’s speeches is well-calculated: “A hardline supporter of a strong state, who uses conservative patriotic rhetoric, may aspire to a great deal. The people have been waiting for that kind of person for a long time.” But Dorenko, the former “television hit-man,” observes in his characteristically brutal style that the “father of the nation” role is not for Rogozin – the Motherland leader “looks too well-fed” for that.

Dorenko adds that Putin isn’t coping with that role either, even though the people are still favorably disposed towards him: he “plays up the idea that things don’t work out for him, just like they don’t work out for the rest of us. The idea is that he keeps fighting, keeps trying, but other people keep obstructing him.”

Profil notes that Putin remains what he was five years ago: a “president of hope.” There are no demands for him to become a “president of achievements.”

This extremely rare political phenomenon can be attributed to certain peculiarities in the “pro-Putin majority” and the specific circumstances in which it took shape.

Profil emphasizes that the pro-Putin majority is not just a figment of Gleb Pavlovsky’s imagination – its existence is beyond dispute: “One might just as well question the reality of Putin himself.”

Then again, this majority can only be described as “amorphous and dilute.” These people aren’t very interested in politics. According to Vladimir Petukhov, director of the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), they are focused on “personal interests, individual self-realization, conformity.” Their attitude to the political authorities is skeptical: “In general, members of the majority are only satisfied with Putin himself and overall developments in Russia.” That’s why they have no liking for any other politicians or state officials – not even the president’s team. Petukhov says: “Although they support the idea of ‘capitalism without oligarchs,’ these people dislike the bureaucracy even more than they dislike the oligarchs.”

Yuri Levada, head of the Levada Center polling agency, describes the typical member of the pro-Putin majority as follows: “The average Russian citizen, one of the masses, aiming to preserve the status quo in various areas of life.”

Konstantin Simonov, general director of the Political Conjuncture Center, notes that these qualities are precisely what make the army of Putin supporters the major obstacle to modernizing Russia – a goal Putin has spoken of repeatedly.

This is precisely why he has to remain a “president of hope,” balancing on the “cusp of interests” of various voter groups, entirely dissimilar in their views and aspirations.

As observers have noted on many occasions, Putin is simultaneously “a patriot and pro-West, a bit of a socialist, a bit of a liberal – in short, a centrist.”

A clearer definition is evidently required in order to make any progress in any particular direction. But if Putin did that, it would immediately split society – and that’s the whole problem. Then there would be no more pro-Putin majority, and no more of the stability valued by that majority.

And the future is also clear: “The ‘love turning to hate’ phenomenon, with Putin meeting the same fate as Gorbachev and Yeltsin and a hundred or more other politicians before them, at various times and in various countries, who made choices in favor of some specific path of development.”

Putin obviously doesn’t like that potential scenario. Of course, as Profil loyally notes, this may not be “due to considerations of his own political comfort, or any wish for political longevity.” In Profil’s view, Putin may see the prospect of losing majority support “as another step in the direction of great upheavals.”

In Sergei Dorenko’s opinion, Putin has held on for too long to the image he found in 2000: the image of a “fellow soldier,” the person who had come along to save Russia from falling apart.

The image proved to be successful, but Dorenko notes that something else should not be forgotten: “We Russians are a terribly conservative people. And Russian conservatism includes a longing to be looked after, in a patriarchal way.” But there is a problem with that: “Putin still hasn’t satisfied the nation’s demand to be looked after. He isn’t entirely as he should be, so to speak – not entirely as people wish to see him.”

The nation needs a “father,” says Dorenko – and if Putin doesn’t fill that role, “someone else will come along – someone tougher and more authoritarian.”

This is precisely why the Kremlin is currently ensuring that no one new can enter the “political field” – and steadily destroying the field itself.

It’s a risky game, says Dorenko: “Putin is setting up the conditions for authoritarianism, but he himself is a poor dictator, a clumsy dictator, who tries to restrain spontaneous developments but doesn’t do it very well.”

In any event, Dorenko is certain that “the flood-gates will burst eventually” – whether in Putin’s time or after Putin.

In an article for the Novye Izvestia newspaper, Boris Kagarlitsky explains why the regional elites take a negative view of the Kremlin’s latest initiatives.

According to Kagarlitsky, the Kremlin’s move to monetize social benefits was perceived by the regional leaders as another of Moscow’s attempts to redistribute resources in its own favor. Understandably, these decisions did not promote greater loyalty in the regions. And the fact that Putin followed this up by promising to reappoint regional leaders was perceived by them as weakness: “In other words, they crack down on regional leaders, and immediately try to reassure them. It would have been better if he’d promised to dismiss all of them.”

As a result, says Kagarlitsky, at the level of regional leaders Putin is “no longer viewed as a real force.” Rather, he is viewed “as a source of problems, a person who constantly makes threats without really being feared.” In Kagarlitsky’s opinion, this “psychological breakthrough” happened after the Beslan school siege.

In an interview with Novaya Gazeta, Yuri Levada also mentions signs of an impending political crisis in Russia.

Levada, a leading pollster, explains that the Putin administration hasn’t managed to achieve any particular successes over the past five years; “and now, for numerous reasons – both external and subjective – it is falling into something like confusion, and becoming even less successful.”

The trend is indisputable: “False measures and false goals are being announced, and incompetence is being seen.” It’s hard to think of any successful moves made by the authorities, says Levada: “Nothing but traps. The Caucasus is a trap, the economy is a trap, oil is a trap, and personnel reshuffles – another trap.” Even Cabinet ministers – despite their constant assurances about a favorable economic outlook, growing gold and currency reserves, the Stabilization Fund, and so on – now look like “helpless people who devote all their efforts to moving from job to job, not knowing how long they’ll last in any particular post.”

According to Levada, this can’t go on for long: “Neither the elites nor the mechanisms of governance can cope with it. They will have to extricate themselves from this, if they can.”

“Something strange has been happening in Russia over the past few months,” says Novoe Vremya magazine. “In the past, there have been understandable responses to the actions of the authorities and the statements of senior officials: agreement, disagreement, outrage, satisfaction. Now, however, most people are experiencing incomprehension mixed with fear.”

In domestic policy, this reaction has been generated by “September’s political counter-reforms, quite inexplicably linked to the need to fight terrorism – and the bizarre Pumane affair, of course.”

Things are no better in foreign policy, with “the Russian government’s overt participation in the election campaigns of Abkhazia, Ukraine, and the United States.”

In Abkhazia and Ukraine, this turned into a complete embarrassment for Russia: despite all its efforts, the Kremlin was unable to change the situation to what it viewed as its own advantage.

Why Moscow got involved in Abkhazia’s election at all, or what it really wants from Ukraine, and what it fears – these questions remain unanswered. Just like it’s impossible to work out why Raul Khadzhimba is preferable for Moscow, or what’s wrong with Sergei Bagapsh. Or why the Kremlin thinks Viktor Yanukovich would be more loyal to Moscow, and thus less focused on the West, than Viktor Yushchenko. However, says Novoe Vremya, either of these politicians, should he come to power, will carry out the policies that circumstances permit. And from this point, neither of them would benefit from quarraling with Russia.

No less strange was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to offer support to George W. Bush during the election campaign – especially Putin’s statement that the goal of the terrorists was to prevent the re-election of “our friend George.”

Novoe Vremya notes: “The logical implication is that Kerry was a creature of international terrorism, no more, no less.”

Baffled, Novoe Vremya asks: To whom was the Kremlin trying to send a message? “The American people? But they’re not at all interested in the position of Russia and its president. The Russian people? But they don’t care who becomes the next president of the United States.”

The impression is that in intensifying its foreign policy efforts in this surprising manner, Moscow “is guided not by common sense and Russia’s interests, but by some sort of odd ideas – perhaps relating to Russia’s grandeur and the need to demonstrate it by interfering in everything on the planet.”

Or maybe the situation is even worse: “Those responsible for Russia’s foreign policy are living in a dream world, a product of over-heated imaginations and ignorance.”

Indeed, in no country does the head of state develop foreign policy personally – “that’s what the diplomatic corps is for.” But in Russia, says Novoe Vremya, it seems that foreign policy is being shaped not by professional diplomats from the Foreign Ministry, but by “bureaucrats who are especially close to the president and ignorant about foreign affairs.” And the results of this amateurish approach speak for themselves.

Novoe Vremya says that what is happening now in Russian politics “resembles a breakdown in a computer system, producing piles of viruses, spam, and other garbage – anything and everything apart from what the user needs.” The user in this case, unfortunately, is Russian society.

It’s a striking image: a structure the size of Russia, controlled by a malfunctioning computer.

Actually, as human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin once said, “we aren’t intimidated by the Motherland.” It’s entirely possible that even these conditions will be accepted as normal by a substantial part of Russian society.

In any event, the Russian people are well-accustomed to a “besieged fortress” atmosphere.