Russia: a country of "perpetual dawn"


According to some reports, President Vladimir Putin will deliver his annual address to parliament soon after Easter (April 23).

At a recent meeting with Duma faction leaders, President Putin stated that his address is “in the final stages of preparation.”

As a rule, the address is written by groups from various departments of the presidential administration. These materials are then compiled by the presidential speechwriters – now headed by Sergei Sobyanin, as the Gazeta newspaper points out.

Sobyanin was the governor of the Tyumen region before being appointed as head of the presidential administration late last year. Gazeta also notes that although this was initially considered a purely technical appointment, Kremlin rumors indicate that Sobyanin has proved adept at bureaucratic politics. Gazeta says: “He is said to have found a common language with ‘Igor Sechin’s tower,’ which is said to include Mikhail Fradkov and Boris Gryzlov – fighting Vladislav Surkov for the United Russia party, and fighting Alexei Kudrin and Anatoly Chubais for control over the Stabilization Fund.” According to Gazeta, the echoes of this power-struggle are having an impact on the process of writing the presidential address.

The overall themes of the address are evident, says Gazeta. The national projects are a “lucky find”: they will replace the “making Russia competitive” topic from previous annual addresses, since people have grown tired of that. This year’s address will also cover the fate of the Stabilization Fund and the Investment Fund, as well as Armed Forces problems and military reforms. Chechnya will be mentioned in passing, since the three-step plan for regulating the situation there is considered complete.

The main topic in annual addresses over the past few years – fighting terrorism – will be replaced this year by energy issues.

According to Gazeta, the present-day policy mainstream can be expressed as follows: “The energy sector and the energy superpower strategy make up Russia’s chief competitive advantage.” The argument that Russia’s energy might should be preserved and multiplied is likely to be linked to the key point in the address: the need to formulate a new ideology for Russia.

Gazeta explains that by becoming an “energy superpower,” Russia can gain “new momentum for national development,” and “resist the global policies of others if they threaten national sovereignty and the stability of the state.” Moreover, the overriding objective is the intention to “achieve a more equitable distribution of globalization’s benefits, in Russia’s favor.”

As yet, it’s hard to tell what this really means. However, the authorities have already encountered problems with popularizing the proposed ideas.

In order to make any concept accessible to ordinary voters, there needs to be a “key point of ideology.” In short, there needs to be a catchy slogan that the people can “associate with pride in their country.”

Some time ago, as Gazeta points out, Anatoly Chubais attempted to promote a “liberal empire” slogan – but it failed to catch on. But these days, “the rumors and jokes emanating from the Kremlin seem to indicate that its ideologues are preparing to revive the Third Rome idea.”

There is some hope that the well-known idea of “Moscow is the Third Rome, and there shall be no Fourth” will primarily appeal to the security and law enforcement agencies (siloviki). The rest of Russia’s citizens will be offered the following values: “Christian values (without any restrictions on other religions), along with justice, freedom, and equality. Nothing else.”

This would entail announcing some sort of “social consensus.” It’s been argued on more than one occasion that the present-day hierarchy of governance is being established and is functioning “solely due to the personal popularity of Vladimir Putin, who is charismatic, as a powerful, strong-willed, charming politician.”

What’s more, it’s obvious that Putin’s personnel reserves haven’t yet produced anyone else who is popular enough to support the hierarchy.

Thus, the Year 2008 Problem comes down to the task of “transferring power to a weaker leader than Putin.” Consequently, Putin needs to “come up with and promote an ideology that all the people will support.” In other words, he needs to move from the category of formal leader to that of spiritual leader.

“In some ways, this Kremlin notion resembles the government structure in Iran,” says Gazeta: that’s where the country’s spiritual leader is the head of state.

Gazeta maintains that in Russia, such an individual might emerge as head of the Public Chamber (there’s an answer to the question of how this new body might be useful; it hasn’t gained any real influence over Russia’s fate as yet).

Then Russia’s current patriotism revival would finally be personified. As prominent entrepreneur and essayist Mikhail Yuriev recently pointed out in the Izvestia newspaper, present-day patriotism “is largely confined to the masses, since the elites are mostly cosmopolitan” in all countries, including Russia.

Indisputable evidence for that assertion may be found in Forbes magazine’s latest ranking of Russia’s 100 richest citizens, as reported in the Vedomosti newspaper. The conclusion is that 2005 was a fantastically successful year for Russian tycoons, whose aggregate wealth increased by 75%.

Roman Abramovich, whose fortune is estimated at $18.3 billion, leads the Rich List; he is followed by LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov ($12.7 billion) and Vladimir Lisin, chairman of the board at Novolipetsk Metals ($11.3 billion).

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former CEO of YUKOS and now a prison inmate, and Zakhar Smushkin and Boris Zingarevich (former partners in Ilim Pulp) are no longer on the list. Last year, Forbes estimated Khodorkovsky’s wealth at $2 billion, and the fortunes of Smushkin and Zingarevich at $470 million each.

But the remaining tycoons had a good year: their aggregate wealth amounted to $141 billion at the start of 2005, but now it has grown to $248 billion. Vedomosti notes that their combined assets are worth almost 50% more than the federal budget’s revenues for 2005, and five times more than the Stabilization Fund.

What’s more, the entry threshold for the Rich List has risen by 60%, from $280 million to $450 million. The number of billionaires has increased by 50%: there are now 44 of them. Only four are new to the Rich List: Euraz President Alexander Frolov ($2.8 billion), Eurocement Group President Filaret Galchev ($1.4 billion), and Promsvyazbank co-owners Alexei and Dmitri Ananiev ($1.1 billion).

Vedomosti notes that it won’t be long before the number of raw materials tycoons in the Top 100 is equal to the number of those from other sectors. Fifty-six tycoons on the list owe their fortunes to raw materials or stakes in companies dealing in raw materials. They are worth almost $200 billion. The remaining 44 tycoons on the list are worth about $50 billion. Only a handful of these 44 made their money in hi-tech or processing sectors of the economy; and that certainly indicates a specific feature of Russia’s entrepreneurial class.

Meanwhile, the Vremya Novostei newspaper presents the results of a recent poll done by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM). It shows that cosmopolitan aspirations can be found among ordinary citizens as well. Although life for most residents of Russia is by no means prosperous these days, many of them are confident that they can achieve success.

Then again, their definitions of success vary greatly.

Sixty-three percent of respondents say they are capable of achieving a standard of living equal to or better than that of their neighbors, friends and relations. Respondents in the regions and rural areas are more inclined to adopt this strategy of aiming to be as well off as those around them.

However, 12% of respondents say they are capable of achieving the living standards enjoyed by the middle class in Europe and America, while 4% say they are capable of exceeding that level. Respondents who set their sights on Western standards for quality of life are most prevalent in the youngest age group (23%), and among the prosperous residents of Moscow (27%) and St. Petersburg (28%).

All the same, relatively few respondents say they would like to start their own business. The majority (54%) say they would prefer a small but stable income and a sense of security about the future. Twenty-six percent of respondents say they would prefer to work hard and earn high salaries in the present, even without any guarantees about the future. Only 4% want a “life of freedom” – being prepared to live on a small income as long as they have plenty of leisure time.

Nevertheless, as Svetlana Babayeva maintains in the Moskovskie Novosti weekly, there are some grounds to believe that a new national idea has already been found in Russia – without much assistance from cunning political analysts.

“What are ordinary citizens doing these days?” asks Babayeva. “They’re acquiring.”

In Babayeva’s opinion, although Russian citizens have indeed grown more patriotic over the past three years, this isn’t entirely due to the tireless efforts of President Putin, political consultants, and television; it’s also because some of Russia’s oil and gas revenues have reached ordinary citizens. Babayeva says: “For the average person – any citizen who is reasonably clever and not too lazy – the 2000s have brought the opportunities that the oligarchs had in the 1990s: opportunities to enrich themselves. Obviously, for ordinary citizens this doesn’t mean mansions, factories, or oil-wells. But they can open a small store of their own, get a sales managment job, build a dacha, register their own company. They’re acquiring worldly goods and possessions. That might be why the average person supports the regime and the president who personifies it.”

The specific features of present-day reality are easy to list: “First of all, people don’t care about politics in any form. Secondly, they don’t want regime change – on the grounds that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Thirdly, there’s no alternative leader who might offer people something they don’t already have. So there isn’t much respect for the opposition, nor any interest in social upheavals.”

If citizens are focused on acquisition these days, what does this mean from the standpoint of ideology?

“Acquisition of property is always accompanied by a growing desire to protect that property,” says Babayeva. “Under the circumstances, demand for ‘strong hand’ government could become dominant in the public mood, especially since it’s shared by other social strata as well – such as those who still consider the Soviet Union a model of order and justice.”

However, says Babayeva, efforts to restore the Russian people’s pride in their motherland haven’t taken due account of national peculiarities: “Mild patriotism won’t happen in a nation that traditionally prefers extremes.”

This is what the authorities are telling the people: “We shall resist nationalism, create a shield against terrorism, stop the West’s attempts to install an imported version of democracy, detect and isolate anyone who tries to sabotage the national projects. Sovereign democracy needs to be defended against enemies and those who are envious. The developed world wants to turn Russia into a raw materials appendage!”

Thus, says Babayeva, it appears that “today’s main socio-political idea paraphrases the basic principle of the special services: detection and prevention.”

Positive arguments are far less apparent. “If nationalism is bad, what are they proposing instead of it? If Western ideology is harmful for Russia, what should we use instead? Being a raw materials appendage is terrible, but what should Russia be instead? All we hear is incoherent muttering about gas supplies to all rural areas, work on the latest breakthrough programs, and so on. Clearly, ordinary citizens don’t find this particularly inspiring.”

A VTsIOM poll that asked people to describe Putin’s policy course provides some revealing answers.

First of all, 72% of respondents say that Putin’s policy course means reinforcing law and order.

Seventy percent of respondents indicate reinforcement of state institutions and the hierarchy of governance. At the same time, 65% say that the policy course aims to develop political democracy, civil rights and civil liberties – along with defending the interests, national values, and traditions of the Russian people.

Meanwhile, 52% of respondents say that Putin’s policy course is right, but implementation is faulty.

Seventy-four percent of respondents want Putin’s policies to be continued by the next president. However, 71% say that the next president “should concentrate on… restoring social justice and improving the lives of ordinary people.” A third of respondents say that the next president should concentrate on restoring law and order for the state and society. Seventy-six percent want the authorities to pursue policies that are more strictly focused on the interests of Russians; an equal percentage say the authorities should “fight the oligarchs to restore the state’s role in the economy.” And 53% say that the authorities should reduce their focus on cooperation with the West.

“That’s the picture of what ordinary people want,” says Babayeva.

In short, there seems to be no sign of any revolutionary situation in Russia. Not surprisingly, the chances of the opposition seem fairly ephemeral – even the “nomenklatura opposition” (term used by Alexander Privalov, observer and academic editor at Ekspert magazine) headed by Mikhail Kasyanov, an authoritative figure for all who might be capable of providing sponsorship. Not surprisingly, the support ratings of the pro-democracy parties (according to a Levada Center poll published in Novye Izvestia) are vanishingly small: 4% for Yabloko, 2% for the Union of Right Forces, and 1% for Green Russia, recently merged with Yabloko.

Neither is it surprising that the left-wing opposition, as Izvestia reports, obviously doesn’t know what to do now that all its prime slogans have been appropriated by United Russia. “Democratic popular patriotism,” “people’s solidarity,” “social justice,” “direct public oversight” – all these expressions are quoted by the Kommersant newspaper from speeches at a recent meeting of United Russia’s general council. As for the Motherland (Rodina) party, fairly popular until recently, no one has even noticed its disappearance from the political stage.

However, as Vedomosti reports, at the abovementioned general council meeting First Deputy Duma Speaker Oleg Morozov made an emotional speech about United Russia’s commitment to traditional Russian conservatism, based on “the ideas of Russia’s unity – preserving territorial, socio-economic, and political integrity as necessary conditions for achieving national state sovereignty.”

“In contrast to Russia’s right-wing and left-wing parties, we consider ourselves the heirs of both Tsarist and Socialist Russia. Loyalty to centuries-old traditions of serving the Fatherland – that’s what high conservatism means for us.” Morozov’s words drew loud and prolonged applause from the audience (to borrow an expression from Soviet-era newspapers).

Of course, the speeches of United Russia leaders aren’t having the necessary propaganda effect as yet. Now it’s up to the real spiritual leader – like in Iran. Gazeta is quite right about that.

As Svetlana Babayeva says in Moskovskie Novosti, all this is reminiscent of an expression used by German historian and sociologist Kurt Breysig. “Peoples of perpetual dawn” – that’s how he described nations that “fail to find the strength to emerge onto the path of sustained global development.”