2006: political frosts in Russia


January’s freezing weather has become the central issue for the Russian press, pushing everything else aside.

Executives from RAO Unified Energy Systems (RAO UES) are talking to the media, explaining what their boss, Anatoly Chubais, said about the need to cut off electricity to part of Moscow’s infrastructure in extreme weather conditions. Meanwhile, the Moscow municipal authorities – who used to show such outrage at the very mention of such a possibility – have resolutely set to work, cutting off power to the city’s newspaper kiosks on the very first day of the freeze.

A boiler-stoker fell asleep on the job in Tomilino, near Moscow, leaving the whole town without heating – including a psycho-neurological clinic, from which the patients had to be evacuated to a skin and venereal disease clinic. And Roman Vilfand, director of GidrometTsentr (the state meteorological service), warned citizens not to expect the frosts to ease before the start of February.

An ordinary mid-January freeze should not be perceived as a national disaster, says Elena Ovcharenko, chief editor of Izvestia: “This is no cataclysm – this state of mind and body is normal for us, though we’ve forgotten it.”

It’s only Muscovites who start moaning when the temperature falls below minus 20 degrees Celsius and get completely hysterical at minus 30: “Go ask your parents and grandparents how they went to work in weather as cold as this, then managed to go dancing or go to the movies afterwards.” And they did it in “light autumn coats,” since they had to save up for winter coats.

“But we think of ourselves as Europeans these days, so we’re acting like Napoleon’s soldiers during the retreat from Moscow.” Not to mention the “society girls of Moscow,” who have bought “fashionably short winter jackets that don’t even cover their navels, so as to show off the piercings there.”

The Novye Izvestia newspaper considers it timely to remind readers that “freezing weather in Russia is not only a natural disaster, but also an artistic phenomenon”: the newspaper has compiled a list of the “coldest” paintings in Russian art.

First place is occupied by Shishkin’s “In the Wild North,” the painting that depicts “a twisted pine-tree covered in snow, on a very cold night – a symbol of Russian fortitude.” Second place goes to Surikov’s “Boyarinya Morozova” – a classic depiction of a classic situation, showing “the fate of dissidents in the cold land of Russia.”

In general, the key conclusion to be drawn from the January freeze is stated by Roman Vilfand, and it’s hardly original: Russia isn’t Europe. Not these days, at least.

As Vilfand explained, the borderline of the cold weather coming in from Asia has coincided exactly with Russia’s borders this time: “In Belarus and Poland, the current temperature is close to normal. And in Western Europe – Paris, Madrid, Rome – temperatures are eight to 15 degrees above zero, with no substantial cold weather expected.”

Then again, returning after the drawn-out Christmas holidays to Russia’s harsh realities, the press has been forced to acknowledge the existence of other evident signs – besides the climate – that Russia is different from European countries.

This concerns what Novoye Vremya magazine described in its first January issue as “political frosts.”

Yet again, the political diagnosis has been provided by polling agencies: the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) and the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM).

FOM poll results, as reported in the Kommersant newspaper, show a sharp drop (12%) in support for the institution of elections over the past 18 months. And 23% of respondents say they are prepared to give up their constitutional right to vote entirely. It’s unimaginable that any poll in a Western country would produce such a figure.

What’s more, says Kommersant, these changes in voter attitudes have happened during a period when both federal and regional elections took place in Russia.

Kommersant concludes that the nature and outcome of those campaigns have led voters to doubt the need for the institution of popular elections.

Answers to the question of why elections are necessary proved no less expressive: 29% of respondents described elections as “a manifestation of democracy.” That is, they’re a kind of signal that a country wishes to see itself as democratic.

Ten percent of respondents said that elections mean citizens exercising their constitutional rights (another “democratic signal”).

But only 7% of respondents said that elections are likely to improve the quality of government personnel. And only 4% believe that elections can help Russia achieve real improvements in living standards.”

“Not surprisingly,” says Kommersant, “voters for whom the priority is real improvement in their living standards, rather than abstract democracy, are concluding that elections aren’t doing Russia any good.”

VTsIOM poll results (published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta) show at least a quarter of respondents saying they see no point in the activities of political parties. A fifth of respondents say that what Russia needs is real leaders, not parties.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta says it’s useful to bear in mind that “all these polls don’t come cheap.” They are commissioned “mostly by the national leadership, seeking to gauge the moods of the citizens for whom it is responsible.” The polling agencies that carry out this “gauging” are entirely dependent on their influential client. And in order to please that client, there’s no need to falsify poll results – asking questions in a clever way is enough. “For example, a poll might ask: Are you for democracy or against it? On the other hand, it might ask: What do you value more – resistance to dictatorship, or the safety of your loved ones?” The answers will be diametrically opposed.

In the meantime, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes, state officials use poll results in making important decisions and planning Russia’s future. Thus, “it’s hardly surprising to see elections being abolished step-by-step, state control over non-governmental organizations increasing, and the opposition’s demonstration activities being restricted.”

If we believe the poll results, all this is entirely consistent with the public mood.

Moreover, according to the FOM, only 34% of respondents maintain that Russia needs a parliament. Just as many more say we could get by without one, and a further 32% of respondents have no opinion – perhaps indicating that they’re simply not interested in that issue.

In short, as leading futurologist Sergei Pereslegin notes in Ekspert magazine, “the problem is that Western democracy has proved to be non-immanent in Russia.”

According to Pereslegin, this statement applies equally to society (the electorate, the population – whatever it’s called) and the political elite.

“In a standard democratic regime,” says Pereslegin, “government rotation is a formal, routine process. In Russia, however, it’s a fateful act every time.” Indeed, “with over two years remaining before the next presidential election, the elite is already obsessed with that issue alone.”

Neither is the public indifferent to the presidential election – in contrast to the parliamentary election. Fifty-four percent of respondents say that if any changes in the situation are possible at all, they will only come about as a result of a presidential election.

Therefore, says Profil magazine, although 2006 promises to be “the calmest year in Russia’s post-Soviet history,” it is still rather likely to produce some political surprises.

In the current circumstances of “political stability resembling stagnation,” the Kremlin has to make preparations for achieving its most important objective: “ensuring a smooth handover of power from Vladimir Putin to his successor” (as Kommersant-Vlast magazine puts it).

It should be noted, adds Kommersant-Vlast, that this time the Kremlin’s plans don’t seem to include a “small victorious war” like the one that enabled Putin to “build up his approval rating to the presidential level in 1999.” But boosting the successor’s popularity dramatically in peaceful conditions means that the campaign to promote him needs to start well in advance.

The main question still preying on the minds of politicians and observers is that successor’s identity.

So far, as Kommersant-Vlast notes reassuringly, the forecasts remain as they were: the person most likely to succeed is Dmitri Medvedev, first deputy prime minister and national projects curator. Funding allocated for the four national projects this year amounts to 130 billion rubles – enough to “ensure that quite a few citizens come to like Medvedev.”

The second successor candidate, Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, will find it much harder to achieve popularity. First of all, military personnel and defense sector workers are greatly outnumbered by state-sector employees and benefit recipients. Secondly, says Kommersant-Vlast, the Kremlin will have to spend much more than is presently allocated in the budget to win the military’s support. Citing secret opinion polls done by the Defense Ministry, Kommersant-Vlast claims that confidence in the top brass is very low among the majority of officers. This situation can only be changed by a substantial increase in remuneration for officers: “not by 20-25% a year, but by at least an order of magnitude.”

“Otherwise, the forecasts made by the most fervent opponents of the federal authorities, about a ‘colonels’ revolt’ in 2008, could well become a reality.”

Then there would be no question of Operation Successor working out.

However, Profil magazine specifies that any potential successor to Vladimir Putin would start his rise from the office of prime minister.

In this connection, the figure of Medvedev is preferable: first of all, his appointment would symbolize the succession of the course (“transact for market main lines of all social-economic system with the parallel realization of the national projects”). Secondly, according to Profil, that would underline the plan character of the prime minister’s exchange, “Well, Medvedev is a prime minister and that is a stage of his career – afterwards he would be a president.”

The possibility of Ivanov’s appointment as prime minister is considered by Profil as a realization of a “strong hand” scenario. The necessity in such scenario could be seen in critical circumstances, “for instance, on the ground of the terrorist threat escalation or under the influence of some other unhealthy factors.” Still, from the viewpoint of Profil, “a strong prime minister” would hardly be a president.

Another variant – Mikhail Fradkov would be replaced by a “man from nowhere” – somebody like the current prime minister till he took the lead over the cabinet. That could be, as Profil considers, head of the presidential administration Sergei Sobyanin or, for instance, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov.

Such appointment, according to the magazine, could be a step on the way “of staffing the bloc cabinet, the leadership in which would soon be taken by Vladimir Putin.”

At the same time, Sobyanin and Gryzlov would hardly become presidents; Medvedev could become the head of state under these conditions as well, “And why not?”

Another option, which is called “almost impossible” by Profil: the prime minister is a man not paid attention to in any political situation. For instance, that could be “liberally thinking official not from the St. Petersburg team” – Alexander Zhukov.

Such appointment would be appropriate for the President, since it would “separate various groups inside the President’s environment, which could be rather actual on the eve of Operation Successor’s final stage.” However, Profile exacts, “it is clear that this appointment would have no President’s perspectives as well.” So, Medvedev is a successor again.

On the whole, as Effective Policy Foundation President Gleb Pavlovsky told Versiya weekly, “There is no problem concerning staff, since the President knows how to shift people horizontally.”

On the other hand, he noted that “it is useless to guess. Let everyone show what he is capable of.”

Besides, Pavlovsky stressed the fact that Putin “does not need a successor in the Yeltsin-era sense of this word – as a shield from voters.” Pavlovsky is sure that by the elections Vladimir Putin would be “a powerful President and a recognized national leader.”

And, of course, he would not let any “political misters,” who have no political principles except for money, push him away.

At that, the abovementioned “gentlemen” (for example, Boris Berezovsky) hope that they would gain some profit out of “Russia without Putin” – they managed to do that in 1991, they would manage now.

But it is unlikely. Despite all the mentioned facts, Pavlovsky said that the Russians today realize that our democracy has some specific features.

Novoye Vremya magazine maintains that this kind of democracy should be called not “managed” (as in Mexico or Italy), but “people’s democracy” – as in former East Germany and the Polish People’s Republic.

The main difference between managed democracy and people’s democracy, according to Novoye Vremya is that a managed democracy has some chance of evolving into an ordinary democracy, while a people’s democracy has no such chance – for various reasons, but primarily due to the complete absence of political competition. This same situation used to exist in the countries of the “socialist camp” – everything under state control, especially rotation of government. But the majority of Russian citizens, existing under the conditions of present “political frosts” does not bother about that.

As director of Applied Politics Institute of Olga Kryshtanovskaya told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, citizens are fairly positive about President Putin’s efforts to “restore some elements of the Soviet system.” Nostalgia for the Soviet Union, says Kryshtanovskaya, is popular nowadays: “Many people believe that everything was fairly good back then – unless you count excesses like totalitarianism and an inefficient economy.” Indeed, we wouldn’t have to change very much…