A late spring in Russia: political parties and the presidential administration get more active, the liberal press withers away


Spring has come to Russia at last. As usual, the long-forgotten warm weather has become a powerful incentive for all political fauna of Russia. The parties have taken heart and plunged into battle.

For a start, to the accompaniment of the spring thaw United Russia obtained an increase of its election campaign fund up to 400 million rubles for future parliamentary campaigns by drawing up well-considered amendments for the bill on transition to elections on party lists.

Later on, having basked in the spring sun, United Russia discarded its idea of punishing Healthcare and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov for improper implementation of the law on monetization of benefits.

As reported by Vremya Novostei newspaper, the latter delivered an “optimistic report” at the Duma hearings dedicated to correction of mistakes committed in the implementation of the notorious Law 122 as if nothing has happened.

According to Kommersant, Zurabov inspiringly told the deputies that “no projects of similar complicacy have been carried out at least in the past 14 years.”

Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin showed slides to deputies, which prove that the regions have more money than before as a result of the monetization.

Besides, Kurdin stressed that “poor elucidation of the core and essence of the law is the main cause for people’s unrest at the start of the year. Local authorities should have provided the explanations.”

Thereby, says Kommersant, Kudrin has virtually closed the topic of the Cabinet’s responsibility for hardships which emerged in the first phase of implementing the monetization law.

According to Novye Izvestia, Valery Draganov, chairman of the Duma’s committee on economic policy, entrepreneurship and tourism admitted that “the Cabinet is to blame to a greater extent” for failing the reforms, but stated that “the dismissal issue is not as urgent as several months ago.”

Viktor Pleskachevsky, chairman of the Duma’s property committee explained to Novye Izvestia that when “the centrists mentioned a potential dismissal of the Cabinet this was done as if in revenge.” The situation has changed now: “vindictive measures” could be postponed, since the government “has done much,” not to mention the fact that “horses are not shifted at the ford.”

As explained by Kommersant, United Russia obediently followed the Kremlin’s advice of “not rocking the boat.” Even Lyubov Sliska, who had formerly demanded that the main culprits of the January confusion be dismissed, only mentioned a “disciplinary penalty” against them.

Meanwhile, simultaneously with the first spring streams the communists revived the old idea of a nationwide referendum, questions of which CPRF leader Gennadi Zyuganov entitled “17 Moments of Spring,” according to Gazeta. Zyuganov stated that the CPRF has factually composed a plan of actions to lead the way out of crisis. The CPRF intends to organize mass protest rallies on May 1 and 9 in the hope that the authorities will finally listen to the new “April Theses,” says Kommersant, “focusing on involving students in the action.”

The leftists have all grounds to mention students. According to Novye Izvestia, Russian students prepare an unpleasant surprise for the authorities – “orange examinations” – mass actions of protest against the Kremlin’s new social policy.

The actions of protest took place in Yekaterinburg, which has 80,000 students.

They demand that the government grant them free travel on public transport o replace it with equivalent compensations, of which the authorities have mentioned in passing. Students from St. Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don, Ufa, Samara, Chelyabinsk, Ulyanovsk – overall, from some 20 large cities – are prepared to join them, specifies Novye Izvestia.

“It seems that young people will be the next to organize protests, after pensioners. History shows that student unrest can develop into revolutions,” says the newspaper.

The Duma deputies have some fears as well. Oleg Denisov, deputy head of the Duma committee for education and science, said: “Officials make conflicting statements. One day the minister (Andrei Fursenko – author’s note) states that state-run high schools will be privatized, and the other day he says that this will never happen.” This generates tension – especially because this is why high schools cannot send students to summer camps and health centers: “If they have nothing to do over summer, why not organize protest rallies?”

In the meantime, Motherland (Rodina) leader Dmitri Rogozin talked about the need for extra-parliamentary methods of fighting for power, providing them with the proper declarations: “Spring has really arrived now, and we hope that spring will also come to our patriotic souls” (a quote from Nezavisimaya Gazeta).

Rogozin proposes an alliance with the Communists. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Rogozin said: “The CPRF and Motherland must do more than speak well. We should also learn to be capable of fighting, bold, and capable of leading the masses into the streets.”

In the opinion of Rogozin, “psychological preparations for the roughest possible scenarios in the course of the parliamentary campaign” is the chief task now. In general, Rogozin preferred to use military terminology: “The elections of 2007 will be a total minefield for us. But if the election campaign proceeds with no interference from Putin, that well-known landmine planter and sapper, we will take power.”

In the opinion of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Rogozin doesn’t know what to do with power, but he is resolute: “And if we can take the parliament, taking control of the executive branch won’t be far behind.”

Andrei Ryabov, member of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s research council, commented on these mysterious words to Gazeta.

According to Ryabov, the CPRF and Motherland will approach the 2007 elections separately and will be “zealously competing for the electorate.” However, after the elections are over both parties may form a consolidated leftist bloc at the Duma, following an example of recent parliamentary elections in the Voronezh region – especially if the “trends are maintained when Rogozin’s influence is growing and the CPRF is making no headway.” In this case, especially if Moherland manages to get considerably more votes than the CPRF, Rogozin might become the common candidate representing the leftist opposition in the presidential election.

According to Novaya Gazeta, Rogozin’s resolute stance at present can have only one explanation: “Dmitri Rogozin has received another order from his masters in the Kremlin.”

The Kremlin has always needed a controlled and controllable opposition, and Rogozin is just the man for it.

This assumption is indirectly confirmed by the fact that the Kremlin has not yet responded to the statement of the newly hatched enemy of the regime.

Besides, the Motherland leadership (Skokov the Secretary of the Political council and Babakov, Chairman of the Presidium and official sponsor, who owns some assets in the energy industry of Ukraine and had financed Yushchenko’s campaign) officially supports Rogozin.

Meanwhile, notes Novaya Gazeta, in their due time they quickly set the distance to Sergei Glaziev, who fell into disgrace.

Besides, not a single representative of the upper echelons of the Motherland denounced the assumptions made during the scandalous hunger-strike that “the protest action was in fact an attempt on Rogozin’s part to get additional funding from the Kremlin.”

Meanwhile, the media reports indicate, Eduard Limonov’s national Bolsheviks (of the National Bolshevik Party, NBP) have already got into the streets wasting no time to words.

NBP activists have recently celebrated the 763rd anniversary of Alexander Nevsky’s defeat over the Teutonic knights at the Lake of Chudovo with a meeting in Pushkinskaya Square. According to Kommersant, the festivities were held under a slogan “A nation is opposed to a tyrant:” NBP members demanded that their imprisoned companions be made free and Putin be dismissed.

There proved to be a direct link to events of 1242, since “Alexander Nevsky averted a threat moving from the northwest and we are now facing a new threat from the northwest – Putin; we must now avert this threat from Russia.” However, according to speakers at the meeting, obtaining replacement of the power won’t be hard: “Putin only exists on television, he’s virtual. But we are real!”

In general, maintains Vedomosti newspaper, the Russia’s body politic is undergoing a “baby boom” this spring. Political analysts now agree that political youth organizations “will play an active role in the 2007-08 elections.” Youth organizations of various orientation have appeared of late, whereas the organizations set up in the 1990s, but unknown to the general public, have gained a second wind.

Youth organizations of various orientation are particularly numerous. The best-known are the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), which has gained glory in its notorious actions – seizure of Mikhail Zurabov’s office, and the president’s public waiting room, the Union of Communist Youth (UCY), the Vanguard of Communist Youth (VCY), and the Youth Left Front (YLF).

The UCY is a youth organization existing under the CPRF aegis; a kind of successor to the VLKSM (Komsomol); according to its leaders, it has some 28,000 members. This is quite a respectable organization: its leader Yuri Afonin said that “young people join the UCY because they are aware of the role they are doomed to in Russia nowadays – it’s impossible to get an education, start a family, or get a well-paid job.” Nevertheless, they organize their pickets and rallies together with the “senior comrades” of the CPRF.

VCY began its existence as a youth branch of Viktor Anpilov’s Working Russia. It drifted away from Anpilov in 2004, and – like the NBP – chose direct action. It was a VCY activist, notes Vedomosti, who threw an egg at Education Minister Andrei Fursenko in Krasnoyarsk three weeks ago.

The YLF is headed by Ilya Ponomarev, who was responsible for the Internet projects of Yabloko and the CPRF and gained notorious for a recent action in St. Petersburg. On February 28, about 50 YLF activists organized a flash-mob in St. Petersburg and marched through the streets wearing Putin masks, shouting, “Vladimir, go home!”

Young democrats and liberals are doing all they can not to be left behind. The media are mainly mentioning Moscow Youth Yabloko, members of which smeared red paint over a plaque honoring Yuri Andropov on the Federal Security Service (FSB) building in Moscow last year.

As reported by Vedomosti, Youth Yabloko leader Ilya Yashin is also trying to form Defense, a coalition of young democrats – something like what the YLF is on the left. Defense organized its first protest on April 3. It was a march of about a hundred activists, using the slogan “Enough of Putin!” A lack of sponsors is their main problem now, despite Yashin’s statement that many people in Russia are prepared to invest in protests and “offer their $1,000, or whatever, for the purpose.”

The NBP, UCY, and Defense point to the Our Own movement as their enemy. Our Own hasn’t been registered yet, and its constitutive congress is still to come, but the leader is already known: Vasily Yakemenko, formerly with the presidential administration, the same person who founded the pro-Putin Walking Together movement in 2000. Yakemenko seems entirely sincere when he claims he can raise membership of Our Own to 200,000 and promises instead that Our Own will fight fascism in Russia. When asked to explain which organizations he meant, Yakemenko described the NBP as fascists.

Former NBP member Alexander Dugin, who founded the Eurasian Youth Union in January, doesn’t rule out the possibility of street riots between the opposition and supporters of the regime soon.

“Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina was fighting enemies inside the country. Our movement is being set up as a symmetric response to protect statehood, including protecting it in the streets in 2007-08,” Dugin told Vedomosti.

he claims to have 24,000 members already, and expects to have 150-200,000 by 2007. Dugin says he is growing more and more disillusioned with Putin, but he is prepared to defend Putin as “the lesser evil.”

However, experts asked by Vedomosti recalled that only two to five percent of young people are politically active at all; so any statements made in the name of Russia’s youth should be taken with a grain of salt.

Boris Berezovsky, emigre and sponsor of numerous political projects, says only the NBP is “really promising.” Berezovsky said: “They are ready to take action.”

Dmitri Oreshkin of the Mercator Group says leaders of many youth organizations are ambitious enough to try their luck in the 2007-08 elections. “On the other hand, don’t expect them to start a youth revolution like Paris 1968.” Oreshkin says that the leaders of the youth movements will thus pave their way into big-time politics, while the remaining activists will “scream themselves hoarse for a while, and go home.”

Nevertheless, youth crowds may face the authorities to encounter problems, which the authorities realize: this is why the people are advised at ORT of late how they should behave in the streets in case disorder breaks out (according to TV hosts and “professional bodyguards” invited to attend the programs, avoiding to join the street actions is the best method to avoid troubles).

The spring mobilization has evidently influenced the presidential administration as well.

Its director Dmitri Medvedev gave an extensive interview to Ekspert magazine, in which he touched upon nearly all burning topics: altering the order of gubernatorial election, the business situation and the case of YUKOS, development of the party system and the making of civil society in Russia, “phantom fears” of the West with regard to the trends of Russia’s development. Most surprisingly, he has formulated a Russian national idea, which the brightest minds have been seeking for so long and in vain: according to Medvedev, this idea implies “retaining effective statehood within the existing borders;” he added to make this utterly clear: “All other ideas are secondary.”

Medvedev reminded Ekspert readers that “state unity” has been consolidated considerably in the past few years and “proper stability for economic growth” has been provided.

He warns, though, that if “one relaxes and let it go, this will bring to appalling consequences and “the disintegration of the Soviet Union would seem like a harmless prank compared to the collapse of the Russian state in its present form.”

Besides, Medvedev is confident that despite the abovementioned stability “there’s a risk that the country’s development could be altered drastically.”

In his opinion, this risk “is less than in 1996” but “serious problems which may shake society and cause a series of social cataclysms persist now.” As such problems Dmitri Medvedev regards “terrorism, poverty and crime.”

Moreover, he told Ekspert “that the legal transfer of power has almost always been complicated as such.” Nonetheless, unlike in the Soviet era Russia has finally “got an opportunity to form the tradition of legal transfer of power on the basis of real democracy.” The “multiple reiteration of this tradition will form a firm fundament of democratic power in Russia, changes the quality of its development.”

Therefore, in Medvedev’s opinion, “destabilization of public life” which could occur “as a result of terrorist attacks and economic blunders and is actually taking place against the backdrop of elite’s fighting” must be regarded as the major risk. The consequences of such destabilization could be very grave: it leads to another redistribution of property and “appearance of regional barriers, separatization of the public and economic spheres,” Medvedev warns.

It must be mentioned that the Medvedev interview strongly resembles publications of interviews with “Soviet-era big-shots” before perestroika: developed opinion on all cases, weighed formulations, polished phrases without a slight sign of the author’s individuality.

As Alexander Ryklin noted in Novaya Gazeta, it seems like the interview was composed by a single person: “That is, an impression is formed that a reply is a continuation of a question.” If that’s the case, says Ryklin, “this is no interview, but a public action of a high-ranking official, prepared in compliance with all laws of the genre. We don’t care who has composed this text: it contains no answers to questions which are really important to us.”

Nevertheless, politicians, political consultants and analysts continue debating over the publication in Ekspert; the message of the power has undoubtedly reached the recipients.

One thing to be added is that against the background of the generally increasing activity this April, the liberal press has been alone displaying the spring inability of late.

A long-lasting scandal surrounding the Moskovskiye Novosti publishing house (MN) has unfolded into a real requiem on this edition after its co-owner Leonid Nevzlin announced that he is suspending funding for MN.

“I don’t need it. What would I do with a newspaper that isn’t profitable?” Nevzlin said in his interview with Vremya Novostei.

However, the same article shows that the matter is beyond the fact that “the newspaper is not making a profit, and is not influential in terms of public opinion.”

“Dragging the owner into a public scandal” is the main incrimination against the editorial staff.

As explained by Nevzlin, “all problems could be resolved quietly.” It would have been easier for him if the journalists had known better than to make the scandal public.

It should be recalled that Nevzlin’s resolute response to the conflict between Yevgeny Kiselev, editor-in-chief of MN and the group of journalists he had sacked only after the supervisory council called the owners to leave Kiselev as general director of MN publishing house and restore the journalists dismissed in their posts. It was recommended to appoint Lyudmila Telen, former executive secretary of MN who had led the opposition inside the editorial staff, as editor-in-chief.

Kommersant newspaper was assured at MN publishing house that they have enough money for the next issue, but the “newspaper’s future could only be predicted after Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s position is declared,” but this might be difficult for some well-known reasons.

Meanwhile, Russkii Kurier newspaper ceased to be published on April 1 – both economic (simpler speaking its being unprofitable) and political causes contributed to this.

According to Novye Izvestia, “mysterious events” happen in Nezavisimaya Gazeta: the editorial staff was expecting their removal from the staff. The cause of this in “Berezovsky’s newspaper” remains unknown.

Editor-in-chief has been replaced in Gazeta: Petr Fadeyev, former editor-in-chief of Russkii Fokus magazine will replace Mikhail Mikhailin.

Mikhailin maintained in his interview with Izvestia that he has done his best to make Gazeta profitable, preserving it in the segment of high-quality press. As reported by Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the circulation of Gazeta is 76,000 copies now; its annual maintenance is about $2.5 million.

However, Vladimir Lisin, the owner of this edition and owner of the Novolipetsk Metallurgical Works intends to reformat Gazeta into a tabloid.

It is hard to tell whether this “newspaper pestilence” (quoted from Novye Izvestia) comprises links in a single chain, or some sort of “cleanup” of the newspaper market, or just an odd coincidence.

As the media reports often say, we can only wait for an update on spring events.