The elections of 2007-08 have to look convincing

Putin came to power primarily with the idea of consolidating the Russian nation and state. Besides that, however, the people expected him to deliver acceptable living standards. Putin’s success has been limited, and the Kremlin is getting nervous as elections approach.

The “September theses” which President Putin announced “all of a sudden” on September 5 are a sure sign that the Kremlin is worried about accumulating public discontent. The federal government has spent the past eight months fighting the social tension generated by its own actions at the start of the year. Last winter’s explosion of protest against Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov and the monetization of social benefits was just a vivid expression of the muted grumbling among the masses: Russia is growing richer, but life for ordinary citizens is only getting harder.

Putin had to make an extraordinary move to salvage the situation, and that’s what his September 5 speech was. The whole speech targeted the most sensitive problems: health care, the wage levels of state-sector health workers and teachers, and housing. In order to solve these problems, the Kremlin unambiguously promised to sanction the use of federal resources – which essentially means simply increasing funding for the relevant areas of government activity.

Will the September surprise mark the start of a “liberal socialist” turnaround in government policy? As yet, that remains unclear.

Putin came to power primarily with the idea of consolidating the Russian nation and state. Besides that, however, the people expected him to deliver acceptable living standards. Worn out by the ruin of Yegor Gaidar’s reforms and the Yeltsin-era looting of national wealth, Russia wanted prosperity – for everyone, not just a handful of oligarchs.

Putin has succeeded in a number of areas. In the Yeltsin era, a Fronde of regional barons threatened to break Russia apart; now they are forgotten. For example, the recent anniversary celebrations in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, looked like a triumph of rational, pragmatic federalism with colorful and beautiful ethnic-territorial characteristics. Not a tragic specter of a separate Tatar state, but a multitude of ethnic Tatar citizens of the Russian Federation and ethnic Russian residents of Tatarstan, who have apparently learned to live and prosper under the rule of President Mintimer Shaimiyev, within the framework of the common federal Constitution. And despite all the costs, the “Kadyrovization” of Chechnya is also good to see: it’s the biggest success in 15 years for federal policy in the North Caucasus, and the cause of much frustration for Western analysts of the “Brzezinski school.”

In other areas, however, Putin’s achievements are clearly limited. The Kremlin is aware of this, and as elections draw closer, it is getting more nervous and trying to maneuver.

The right-wing economic-liberal wing of Russian politics has weakened disproportionately, and this has not led to the formation of a sufficiently powerful and moderate left wing. Led by Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist Party remains an obstacle to the leftist and patriotic part of the political spectrum, while also hindering the Kremlin’s efforts to establish the “managed two-party system” it envisioned as far back as the Gorbachev era. Given that the Kremlin’s efforts to turn United Russia into a “normal” and viable party have failed thus far, it has to be acknowledged that Putin’s party-building policies have been just as ineffective as those of his predecessors.

But the Kremlin needs to go into the next elections with a more or less multifaceted opposition in place, and at least a few components of that opposition must be regarded by foreign observers as serious challengers to official candidates. Hence the complicated dilemma: Putin’s policy line needs competitors, who must be substantial enough to be taken seriously in Russia and abroad, yet posing no real danger to those appointed by Putin to continue his policies. So it appears that the Kremlin does have a recruitment problem after all. Will the solution affect the leading players on Russia’s political stage?