Farewell to 2005, the "year of moderate optimism"


“As usual, society’s mood has improved somewhat towards the end of the year.” This sentence, almost worthy of Bulgakov, is used to open an article in Vedomosti by leading pollster Yuri Levada – a final report for December on states of mind in Russia.

According to the director of the Levada Center, when respondents were asked what 2005 has meant for them, the response option chosen most frequently (31%) was this: “It’s good that nothing bad has happened.”

Levada says: “The time of victory reports about the great achievements of the past year, and hopes of bonuses for exceeding expectations in the latest project, has long since passed. A different line of reasoning now applies: failure to complete previous projects has to be covered up with new calls and bursts of enthusiasm, which will meet the same fate. Meanwhile, people have to be content with what they’ve got, and feel constantly anxious about the instability of their situation.”

That is why feelings of exhaustion and indifference have become so widespread this year, says Levada. Expectations of a “mediocre” year ahead now prevail across all social and political groups; only respondents in the youngest age group, along with United Russia party voters, are inclined to expect the coming year to be better than average.

Another polling agency, the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), presents a more hopeful picture.

The Gazeta newspaper reports that according to the FOM, most respondents take a generally positive view of 2005 and say it can be described as “a year of returning to moderate optimism.”

But the conclusions of the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) are more reassuring still.

Gazeta reports that VTsIOM respondents described 2005 as a year of stability and expressed the hope that Russia is “gradually emerging onto the path of sustained development.” And 51% of respondents said 2005 has been a successful year for themselves and their families.

Then again, VTsIOM notes that when it asked people how they will remember 2005, 47% of respondents said they will remember it for higher electricity and gas bills, and higher costs for communal services; 46% said they will remember this year for higher gasoline prices. (Reported in the Novye Izvestia newspaper.)

When asked to name the political event of the year, 36% of respondents named the death of Altai Governor Mikhail Yevdokimov in a road accident, 27% named the unrest in the city of Nalchik, and 22% named the conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The new system of appointing regional leaders was eleventh on the list of memorable events, sharing that slot with the divorce of Alla Pugacheva and Filipp Kirkorov. Only 10% of respondents named the national projects, and only 4% named the transition to proportional voting via party lists. Slightly more respondents, 6-7%, named the establishment of the Public Chamber or the recent high-level appointments in the government and presidential administration, including Dmitri Medvedev’s appointment as first deputy prime minister.

VTsIOM analyst Leontii Byzov comments on these poll results to Novye Izvestia, saying that indifference to politics is a fairly well-established trend in Russian society: “People tend to view politics as entertainment, a kind of political theater.”

In Russia today, the proverbial “person on the street” is completely alienated from politics. People have retreated into their private lives, taking no interest at all in how politics affects them. More precisely, they’re convinced that their lives are not affected in any way by matters such as the composition of the Duma, which party wins any particular election, or Russia’s relations with the West: “Who cares? It’s all just entertainment, a performance to watch.” And that is precisely why serious political events are ranked alongside, or even below, Pugacheva’s divorce.

In this sense, says Gazeta, Vladimir Putin might be considered the most successful entertainer: poll results throughout 2005 have shown confidence in the president remaining high, even though respondents list poverty, unemployment, and government corruption among the major problems of 2005.

Meanwhile, the parliament, political parties, and other politicians continued to receive low ratings in the polls, nowhere near Putin’s figures.

“It’s disturbing to see that confidence in most state and public institutions has dropped to an unprecedented low,” says Vladimir Petukhov, VTsIOM research director, in an article for Profil magazine. “And consequently, we’re seeing a ‘non-participation syndrome’ which has taken shape over the past decade and is particularly evident among the youngest and most capable age groups.”

According to Petukhov, “there’s an entire generation of people who no longer expect anything from the authorities or from public institutions.” VTsIOM polls indicate that the proportion of citizens who don’t take part in any form of public or political activity has risen from 32% to 47%. The traditional institutions found in developed nations – parties, trade unions, civic organizations – don’t interest Russian citizens in the least. Elections are now the only form of influencing the authorities still recognized by a fairly large proportion of citizens.

And the authorities seem entirely satisfied with this situation, says Profil. At any rate, they have more than enough election-related problems and concerns, even without any exhausting political activity by ordinary citizens.

“The main, and almost the only, political problem of 2005,” according to the Vedomosti newspaper, has been the question of “exactly how Russia will get through 2008.”

Russia’s political community discussed this issue for months, in agitation, categorically refusing to admit that its anxiety may be premature. Putin received numerous hints to the effect that no one could be a better or more worthy candidate for head of state than himself. All kinds of methods were proposed for extending his constitutionally-determined period in office.

The first and simplest method would be to amend the Constitution. The second would be to choose a temporary replacement (Valentina Matvienko or Sergei Mironov, for example), in order to enable the beloved president to make a lawful comeback to the Kremlin after a certain interval (not necessarily four years, since the place-warmer could step down early).

A third option: follow Ukraine’s example and shift the center of authority to the government, with Putin becoming prime minister. In those circumstances, terms in office would no longer be an issue.

Or – the fourth option – Russia could unite with Belarus, and then Putin could become president of an entirely new state.

It should be noted, says Vedomosti, that Putin himself kept up the suspense quite skillfully all year: as a rule, his “replies to questions about the possibility of staying in power after 2008 were convoluted enough to create the impression that the Kremlin already had something in mind.”

Putin’s words during a visit to Finland seemed a significant hint: although he might want to stay on, the Constitution doesn’t permit him to do so.

And everyone was completely confused in November, when one of Putin’s closest allies, Dmitri Medvedev, was appointed as first deputy prime minister, while another, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, became a deputy prime minister.

What could this mean, asks Vedomosti: “The finals of the potential successor contest? A chance for Medvedev to gain some presidential experience? A victory within the bureaucracy for the shadowy Sechin?”

No one has the answer, and the following question clearly remains central: “Does Putin himself know what he’ll do in March 2008?”

In effect, from Putin’s perspective, 2005 was a year divided into two parts, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The first half of the year was dominated by the trial and conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as well Rosneft’s “fierce (and public to the point of impropriety) battle for the YUKOS legacy.”

Late summer and early autumn became a turning point: the end of Khodorkovsky’s trial coincided with the announcement of the national projects and the signing of an agreement between Gazprom, BASF, and E.ON Ruhrgas to build the North European Gas Pipeline, which is supposed to strengthen Moscow’s geopolitical and economic influence over Europe in future.

Novoye Vremya magazine says we can now be sure that “the West won’t do anything to disrupt relations with the major oil and gas corporation known as the Russian Federation.” And from now on, despite all the complaints about Russian democracy, it can be asserted confidently that Putin’s Russia has become part of Europe.

The Novoye Vremya article on this topic is entitled “The Collective Armand Hammer.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta takes the view that Putin’s simply been lucky: “Both at home and abroad, Putin’s success in 2005 has been determined to a significant degree by external factors.”

For example, there were the mistakes made by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and his team; these essentially negated “the Kremlin’s major foreign policy failure of 2004” – its attempt to resist the Orange Revolution. And the London bombings, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, made the West “rethink the concept of terrorism and Moscow’s policy in Chechnya.” There were also the events in Uzbekistan, which the Kremlin use to rebuild its positions in Central Asia. And, of course, “the now-obvious failure of the United States in Iraq,” plus US companies’ interest in developing the Shtokmanovsky field in the Barents Sea.

According to the Vedomosti newspaper, the past year has revealed “the outlines of a foreign policy course aimed at establishing an energy-based superpower that will use its mineral reserves as its main geopolitical weapon.”

The author of the Vedomosti article, Professor Konstantin Sonin from the Russian School of Economics, says: “An indication that energy pricing will be used as a weapon isn’t the fact that gas prices for Ukraine are being raised (to $230 per thousand cubic meters), but the fact that gas prices for Belarus remain unchanged (at $46 per thousand cubic meters).”

Oil prices play an equally important role in other Kremlin plans: consistently high oil prices have made it possible to launch the national projects, “which essentially create an impression that the domestic policy efforts of Putin and his team have been successful in 2005.”

Moreover, according to Kommersant-Vlast magazine, September 5, 2005 should be regarded as the date the Kremlin started its presidential campaign: that was when Putin announced the national projects at an expanded meeting with Cabinet ministers.

The implementation of these projects is intended to produce noticeable improvements in the lives of ordinary citizens – just in time for 2008. This will help citizens make the right choice in March 2008.

All the same, says Kommersant-Vlast, it’s clear that in such an important matter as a presidential election, “the Kremlin still can’t permit itself to rely entirely on the will of the people.”

Substantial organizational efforts are required. This is precisely why some potential presidential candidates have been promoted to high-profile government posts. That tactic worked brilliantly in 1999 with regard to Putin himself: the little-known FSB director who was promoted to prime minister and “rapidly proved himself the terror of the terrorists who blew up apartment buildings in Russian cities.”

Fortunately, says Kommersant-Vlast, the latest appointments are of a far more peaceful nature: placing Medvedev in charge of the Kremlin’s national projects is supposed to ensure that by 2008 “he will be perceived as the leading benefactor of Russian citizens, and the majority of voters will love him.”

Kommersant-Vlast describes Sergei Ivanov as the reserve option, the back-up. Implementation of the national projects depends on oil prices; if those prices suddenly drop, and the allegedly-defeated Chechen separatists become active again, Ivanov will get his chance to win the battle for the title of designated successor.

What’s more, we shouldn’t disregard the state’s administrative capacities: “If voters sincerely like the future successor – that would be good, of course, but still not entirely reliable. So it wouldn’t hurt to reinforce public support with a range of safeguards like close supervision of elections.” The easiest way to do this is via reagional leaders, “who will be duly organized and instructed.”

Then again, regional leaders sometimes prove unexpectedly insubordinate. Vremya Novostei reports that in Yekaterinburg the other day, at a meeting chaired by the presidential envoy for the Urals federal district, the district’s regional leaders essentially delivered a “sudden rebuff” to the presidential administration with regard to implementing the national projects.

Governor Eduard Rossel of the Sverdlovsk region spoke out against the idea that regional leaders should be responsible for implementing the projects. The Sverdlovsk region, for example, has set up a team to work towards the objectives set by President Putin; this team is headed by the regional prime minister, not the governor, and Rossel argued that the regional prime minister should answer to Putin.

Governor Oleg Bogomolov of the Kurgan region complained to the presidential envoy that the federal government isn’t providing the full measure of funding for some national projects, and it’s cut funding for the Kurgan region’s needs by almost a third at the same time.

This turn of events is all the more surprising, as Vremya Novostei observes, given that participants in such meetings usually “remain silent, only speaking in support of Moscow’s latest initiative.” But this meeting was different – indicating, according to Vremya Novostei, that President Putin’s national projects still “can’t be described as thoroughly well-planned.”

Meanwhile, Kommersant-Vlast notes that the Kremlin has never achieved 100% success in getting the results it wants from regional leaders. Suffice it to recall the “anti-presidential movement called Fatherland (Otechestvo),” established in 1999, “which united many authoritative regional leaders, headed by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.” However, says Kommersant-Vlast, abolishing gubernatorial elections and moving to a system where regional parliaments endorse candidates nominated by the president will eventually solve that problem as well.

All the same, adds Gazeta, it’s clear that “regional forces in the form of heavyweight governors” should not be disregarded, just like other important players on the political stage: the presidential administration, the Cabinet, and the United Russia party.

The other parties, as their own leaders admit, don’t have much influence over the situation in Russia.

In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov admits openly that 2005 has been “largely a wasted year” for his party.

Motherland (Rodina) leader Dmitri Rogozin complains that as the Moscow city legislature election demonstrated, United Russia is “starting to resort to inappropriate means of fighting the political opposition.” As everyone knows, however, Motherland was disqualified in Moscow following a complaint submitted by the LDPR, not United Russia.

Meanwhile, the Union of Right Forces (URF) still hasn’t reached agreement on a common denominator. Complete support is lacking for URF leader Nikita Belykh’s idea that victory can only be attained by dissociating the party from the Kremlin.

Political Techniques Center analyst Alexei Makarkin told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that acceptance of this idea within the URF faces “two obstacles, at the federal and regional levels: the thoroughly pragmatic Anatoly Chubais, who wants to complete his electricity sector reforms,” and the even more pragmatic and cautious regions. Meanwhile, as the Kommersant newspaper reports, the URF intends to work towards an alliance with other pro-democracy forces, and if these efforts are successful they will endorse a common candidate in the presidential election of 2008, “even at the cost of the URF brand-name.”

So the Kremlin is caught up in these and many other concerns and troubles, serious and diverse, as it seeks a mechanism for transferring power. The political community is striving to play an active role in this process. Political observers are enthusiastically commenting on each new step in that direction. In general, against this backdrop, the indifference to politics displayed by most citizens seems particularly frustrating.

But such are the realities in Russia. As VTsIOM analyst Leontii Byzov told Novye Izvestia, this is known as a “‘negative consensus between the authorities and the people’ – we leave you alone and you leave us alone, we don’t expect anything from you and you don’t interfere in our affairs.”

Byzov maintains, however, that in reality this consensus has become the foundation of “Putin’s stability.” And that has enabled citizens to gradually return to “moderate optimism.”

So that’s how we’re going into 2006 – the last year before another round of federal elections.