What does Pavel Venzera see? Presidential Elections in Russia. Several Comments on What Has Been Said in Their Context.
Presidential elections in Russia and the election campaign went smoothly and in accordance with a long known and simple scenario. The fact that the final result was decided long before the opening of the polling stations brought forth certain disinterest of population towards the elections as such. The only interesting moment came with disappearance and then retrieval of Ivan Rybkin, one of the episode actors in Putin’s one-man-show.
No surprise happened, current president has sent his competitors1 flying, and secured himself further four years in Kremlin. But it was the steps that provided for the calm election process, or we shall say rather a referendum on Putin’s popularity, that aroused hesitation and questions of foreign observers. Russian auditors and observers from CIS generally did not have any problems with the election process. But could the situation have been different? The democracy watchdog, meaning independent press in Russia, has changed during Putin’s first presidential term into a tame pet, a pet that hardly reminds of the heroic era of Russian independent journalism in the period of perestroika and the following presidency of B. Yeltsin.
There Were Better Times
A draft report of OSCE/ODIHR prepared by its observers, who followed not only the election as such, but also the pre-election campaign, states several reservations towards the approach with which Putin defended his presidential post. The opening thesis of OSCE/ODIHR press release is quite straightforward: „The Russian Presidential Election on 14 March was generally well administered and reflected the consistently high public approval rating of the incumbent president but lacked elements of a genuine democratic contest. In addition to a dearth of meaningful debate and genuine pluralism, the election process failed to meet an important commitment concerning treatment by the state-controlled media, in particular television on a non-discriminatory basis.“ 2
Such evaluation is very similar to those that one could have made in the times of former USSR and its satellite countries ruled by communists. Only the participation was by 30% higher, and considering the character of communist regimes, nobody questioned the fact of existence of only one candidate. The reality when someone is questioning it now is a proof that Russia already went through more democratic election procedures.
OSCE/ODIHR isn’t probably the only one remembering such times. Representatives of the U.S. also voiced their comments to Russia. C. Powell, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, wondered why Putin, whose victory could have hardly been threatened, did not give the elections a chance for regular proceedings: „Since President Putin has had such an overwhelming edge in this election and frankly is liked by the Russian people, and the Russian people will return him to office easily, then it's not entirely clear to me why they go out of their way to keep opposition candidates from fully participating in electoral process." 3
The answer of Russian counterparts responded with Putin’s style. President thanked for remarks of the U.S. representatives, referred to the necessity of analyzing these remarks (by which he actually turned them down), and immediately afterwards expressed his “worries" about securing democracy in the U.S. The last sentences of Putin’s quotation cited below are another proof of Putin’s specific sense of sarcasm, worth an individual analysis.
At a press conference held shortly after the end of elections he responded to question - What do you think of the statements made by Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice regarding the election here in Russia? - in the following way: „I think that their statements have a lot to do with the domestic political situation there… we listen to all criticism. We don’t just ignore it, we analyse it. If we find that there is something worth thinking about in the criticism that comes our way, then we don’t just take note of it, we draw the appropriate conclusions. …I think that no one should imagine that just because they criticise others they themselves are above all criticism. We have a proverb here, which you no doubt know – some people see the mote in their neighbour’s eye, but fail to see the beam in their own. Many of the countries with developed democracies4 also have problems with running their democratic system, including during elections. We were all taken aback four years ago at the way the electoral system in the United States ran into problems. So, I hope that in criticising us, they [Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice] will also draw some conclusions for themselves and work to improve their own democratic procedures. But overall, I think it is useful if we, as friends, draw each other’s attention to shortcomings and oversights, because I think this will not lead to confrontation, but rather, will help us improve our democratic systems and our election procedures.“ 5
Russian president is mixing here pears with apples. He is trying to put American technical election problems, when part of ballots had to be recounted because of the tie result, on the same level with the character of pre-election campaign in Russia, and with its flawless6 count procedure.
Nevertheless, American President Bush should use the opportunity to gain from Putin’s sincere effort to learn from each other. Once Kremlin gives over its know-how to current presidential administration, they will not have to worry about the final result of elections, even before the final count, which was the object of Putin’s sincere worries.
In case that Bush’s election staff would consider such approach too risky, then they could learn from the experience of candidates who helped Putin to regain his post by participating in the elections. Why didn’t political subjects, especially communists, use the only powerful weapon, e.g. abstaining from the elections, as they proclaimed they would do after the December parliamentary elections? It was probably more of an issue of personal courage of leaders of individual parties, and of their conscience7. In the case of I. Khakamada, taking into consideration further development, unfulfilled personal ambitions definitely played their role. She will have a chance to fulfill them now in her own party Svobodnaya Rossija, and only the future will give us a hint whether her participation was somehow connected to Kremlin, as the speculations suggested.
When giving useful advice how to succeed we shall skip O. Malyshkin, bodyguard of Vladimir Zhirinovski, but even this nomination is illustrative and perfectly depicts the atmosphere of Russian presidential elections. It also confirms that V. Zhirinovski doesn’t have to always yell and fight to express his opinion on a particular matter. Before we leave the LDPR candidate, it would be a pity not to mention at least one scene acted by Zhirinovski and his protege: „Олег Малышкин не пьет, не курит, правда говорит медленнее чем я, зато много думает, такими словами вчера Владимир Жириновский представил кандидата в президенты от ЛДПР Олега Малышкина. После чего предложил претенденту на пост главы государства продемонстрировать журналистам бицепсы.8
We can also skip S. Mironov, who didn’t even make it a big secret that his participation was actually a support for V. Putin, but whose appearance was definitely more boring compared to Malyshkin. Mironov’s benefactor simply cannot be compared to Vladimir Volfovitch as regards the inventiveness.
What was the personal experience of Putin’s competitors with the election campaign? In his thank you speech to those who voted for him, S. Glazyev only sadly remarked: „Каждый голос для меня ценен втройне, так как вам пришлось принимать решение в очень непростой обстановке. Власть делала все, чтобы замолчать мою программу, лишить вас возможности познакомиться с моими предложениями по разрешению сложнейших социально-экономических проблем, стоящих перед страной. Одновременно в контролируемых властью СМИ лился мутный поток лживых клеветнических сюжетов, фабрикуемых с целью дискредитации. Грубый административный произвол, массированная «промывка мозгов» СМИ, широкое использование грязных политтехнологий не могло не повлиять на исход голосования. Власти удалось полностью вывести за рамки дискуссии планы действующего президента и сформированного им правительства по навязыванию стране очередного витка сомнительных реформ.“ 9
When commenting about sad remarks, the author especially wants to remind of the situation before the Parliamentary elections, when Glazyev and company played an important role in weakening the communist party, and especially Glazyev was considered a Kremlin favorite, whose contribution would definitely be rewarded. After the presidential elections, all that Glazyev can do is to think about the phrase of a servant who performed his work….
I. Khakamada, who left the Union of Right Forces just before elections, answered the question Как вы оцениваете применение административного ресурса? Насколько он реально снизил ваш процент на выборах? in the following way, touching especially on the chances of Putin's competitors: “Мне кажется, что административный ресурс был все-таки сильным. Я не верю, что канал НТВ, который прислал нам прайс-листы на дебаты у Шустера, потом вдруг через два дня решил их вовсе не проводить. Я не верю, что «Первый канал» отказался от дебатов вечером по собственному желанию. Это как джин – выпустил из бутылки, а дальше эта система, как маховик, уже дальше работает даже без желания Путина. Нравится ему, не нравится. Без него бюрократы начинают закатывать в асфальт все. Это касается в первую очередь регионов. Действительно, во многих регионах было очень тяжело.“ 10
What shall one imagine about the comment that the situation in regions was not very easy? Let's have a look at the joint proclamation of the communist party leaders G. Zyuganov and N. Kharitonov: „Мы прекрасно осознавали чем силен чиновничий беспредел. Были готовы к административному и информационному давлению на партию и нашего кандидата. И мы не обманулись в своих предположениях. Услужливые чиновники в Татарстане и Башкортостане, Дагестане и Ингушетии, Чечне, и в ряде других российских регионов поспешили подсластить результаты победы действующего Президента Российской Федерации запредельными, под 100%, итогами голосования. Тем самым они собственноручно расписались в их фальсификации." 11
Communists touched at their press conference even on the opportunities to appear in the key media before the elections: „Г.Зюганов отметил, что "если бы условия доступа к информационным каналам были равными, то и результат был бы лучше". Хотя 14 процентов у Н.Харитонова в целом являются обнадеживающим итогом кампании, где, на самом деле перекос в сторону действующего президента был очевиден. Так, Зюганов отметил, что на центральных каналах Харитонов появился примерно 250 раз против 1500 показов Путина. Н.Харитонов сообщил, что неравенство кандидатов было заявлено с самого начала кампании, когда выступление Путина перед доверенными лицами было транслировано по центральному государственному каналу, и никто не понес за это никакого наказания.“ 12
There is no doubt that all complaints of presidential candidates were and will be turned down as unjustified. Nevertheless, an independent observer could wonder about the similarity of brought up complaints. Candidates for example often pitied that current president refused to participate in TV debates, where he would have had to face their arguments.
But there is only a little chance to succeed here, since it is up to each candidate to choose his/her own strategy. If we compare the situation to the U.S., any candidate refusing there the TV debate with his opponent would ruin his further chances. Not in Russia, where it even seems that a bet on invisibility brings success, as it did twice in Putin's case. Candidate V. Putin was actually almost invisible during the election campaign, citizens only saw the president taking care of the nearest ones, be it humans or animals. Let's remind of the joyous news brought by Russian media, when they reported the night before elections about the birth of puppies of the presidential dog, and how much did the president live through it.
„Chelovek-nevidimka“ Is Speaking
Even before V. Putin as a candidate gave a place in the originally constructed election strategy to the hyperactive president, he succeeded in meeting his collaborators in front of the TV cameras and foreshadowed his plans, an event strongly criticized by N. Kharitonov. How seriously was this debate taken by Putin himself could be documented by the fact that in his actually only one pre-election speech he didn’t consider it necessary to characterize his view on Russia’s foreign policy. What he didn’t forget was the sense of humor, when he mentioned towards the end of his appearance the necessity to continue building the civil society with the help of the really democratic mass media: „We must continue work to create a genuinely functioning civil society in our country. I especially want to say that creating a civil society is impossible without genuinely free and responsible media. But this freedom and responsibility require a legal and economic foundation to support them, and it is the state's obligation to create this foundation.“ 13
It is difficult to say what these words mean, what is president's idea of really independent and responsible media, and on what legal foundation does he want to originate them. If Putin used part of Matthew’s notes as a response to Powell's criticism, let us at this time use another comparison by the same prophet - by their fruits you will know them - and hopefully we will be more clever in assessing Putin's activities. If we want to characterize his activities14 in this field, then we could probably use the following term: cleaning up the field. In the above mentioned case a total erasure.
What happened with Russian media over the past four years is simply a return to the pre-perestroika period. Just have a look at the news program of ORT TV channel - it is so similar to that period both in context of the news, as well as in style they are reported. Russian journalists will be facing and media owners will be facing some difficult times. The question is what else Putin wants to improve, where does he sense weaknesses of Kremlin's media policy. Isn't it time for government and party papers to appear and start telling the nation the one and only truth?
Putin confirmed in further parts of his appearance that he lives in a different world, for example when he spoke about building a political system: „We will act consistently to strengthen our political system both at federal and regional level. I am convinced that we need civilised political competition in order to develop our state. Influential, large political parties that have authority and enjoy the trust of our citizens should be the main support in this work.“ 15
This being said immediately after the presidential spin-doctors and so-called "adminresurs" liquidated during the parliamentary elections both liberals and communists. Such Putin's words sound as a very funny piece, or maybe they could be explained as a coup of Kremlin's speechwriters. Another explanation is very difficult to find.
More similar acclamations can be found in Putin's speech. Their analysis wouldn't help us much, because mainly they are the good old kind of „ekonomika dolzhna bit ekonomicnoj“ sayings. Maybe the remaining Russian oligarchs shouldn't be asking any more to whom the bell tolls, since the president is gives quite clear hints on this topic: „We need to stop throwing away our natural resources and we must bring order to the way they are used. To do this we need to systematise the legislative base by updating the water resources and forestry legislation and the laws on natural mineral resources use. We need transparent conditions for access to natural resources and a fair payments system for their use. Instead of the pseudo-tenders that get held now, where the main condition for winning is being close to the authorities, we should introduce a system of auctions. And instead of the current administrative approval system, we should introduce a system of full-fledged civil-law contracts with clear definitions of the rights and responsibilities of both business and the state.“ 16
And those who still do not understand shall take a deeper look at the M. Khodorkovski's article „Кризис либерализма в России“ (Vedomosti, March 29, 2003) 17. His article is a reaction to the election results, and is one of the saddest documents of Putin's period. One cannot but to compare, and it is a very sad comparison. It brings the smell of 30's. Just replace the word liberalism with trockism, and try to compare the following part of Khodorkovski's article with some of the letters sent from prison and addressed to Stalin. „Так что причина кризиса русского либерализма - не в идеалах свободы, пусть и понимаемых каждым по-своему. Дело, как говаривал последний премьер-министр СССР Валентин Павлов, не в системе, а в людях. Те, кому судьбой и историей было доверено стать хранителями либеральных ценностей в нашей стране, со своей задачей не справились. Ныне мы должны признать это со всей откровенностью. Потому что время лукавства прошло - и из каземата СИЗО N 4, где я сейчас нахожусь, это видно, быть может, чуть лучше, чем из других, более комфортабельных помещений.“ 18 If it weren't for the words liberalism and Pavlov in the text, it would be very difficult to assess who wrote it. Bukharin? Khodorkovski …
New oligarchs, who are a bit more gray - as it corresponds with their former professions - are now trying to get as much stake as possible from the claims that were distributed in the 90's without their participation. No change in style, everything in the legal way as till now. Since the 90's privatization was no soft glove approach, there will be no problem to reach the goal this time. If there are any complaints, the answer will be simple: What do you have against the dictatorship of law? Who cares, that this dictatorship is a bit selective.
The Times Can Get Worse
In the second half of 1999 there were discussions about who will succeed Yeltsin; Basayev entered Daghestan; Moscow was shaken by terrorist acts; and the second Chechen war started. At that time, a recently appointed, young and suddenly energetic Prime Minister V. Putin promised Russians that terrorists will be thrown into a cesspool, and immediately became the nation's favorite19. It was the main reason for speculations that appeared later that a new round of Russian - Chechen confrontation might have been connected with the efforts to push new Prime Minister into Kremlin. It is of course difficult to exclude such version of the story, but further development suggested rather a different reason for Putin's popularity, which brought him to Kremlin and secured him a mandate for further four years.
If his popularity would really have been connected to the situation in Chechnya, then his chances in March elections were very low, because there was nothing to praise with. So there must be something else that makes Putin an attractive person for Russians. At the times of independent public opinion polls, e.g. before Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VCIOM) got under stricter supervision, it was apparent that Russians did not agree that much with his economy policy, that they did not feel any improvement of their life situation, and more to that, they did not completely agree with some of his foreign policy acts (for example approximation to the U.S.). On the other hand, his fight with oligarchs and his lifestyle were approved, but that isn't probably enough for one to become a president. So there must be still something else. And there is.
Putin's "managed democracy" gives Russians the feeling that they can look forward to tomorrow, that life became more stable compared to the Yeltsin's era. It seems that Putin realizes this moment very well, and he often uses it: „I would like to say the events of the early 1990s gave rise to great hopes and expectations among our people. This thirst for change led to a fundamental and dramatic change in our entire way of life. At times it seemed as though this flood of upheavals would never stop. Now we can see that the time of uncertainty and anxiety is over.“20
The ruthlessness, sometimes close to anarchy, which was characteristic for Yeltsin's period, is gone - but so are gone the democratic features, brought by charismatic president. As it seems, majority of Russians does not mind. The chance to believe in future, without any cataclysms, is stronger. But for how long?
Several Questions at the End
Russia has a president who gained a very strong support both in Parliamentary and Presidential Elections. Even if he didn’t use some unfair approaches, his victory would have been unanimous. But why did he then act in that way? It is most probably his way of thinking and acting, which he learned in structures where the only accepted approach is fulfilling the order up to 100%. This is also characteristic for his team members, who come from a similar sphere.
By winning both elections, Putin fulfilled strengthening his personal powers. He has fortified himself at the top of the power pyramid, and he manages all the important power tools. He has a chance to choose now the way of great Russian reformers, but also the way of great Russian despots. What will be the direction of the famous power vertical in the following four years? Whichever way he chooses, he will always be followed by the question what will happen after 2008. Will he prefer the Yeltsin’s way, which brought him to the top, or will he try to extend his mandate? So far it doesn't seem that we could expect standard elections.
The elections with their unanimous results liquidated any options for alternative in Russian politics. When euphoria passes, Kremlin will realize how narrow is its space for manoeuvres. Putin doesn't have an opponent yet, the Parliament ruled by United Russia is doing what the president wants, the government is on the same side. But what is going to happen when this machine starts to hinder, for example as a result of economy problems caused by the developments on the global oil and gas markets? Where will Putin look for support, when he betted everything on one card? It wouldn't bring much profit to Russia if managed democracy would turn into a managed president. Non-existence of strong opposition also means non-existence of safety fuses against mistakes that anyone, including president, government or Parliament can make. Even this can cause problems.
The future of democratic, liberally oriented parties in Russia is closely connected to the problem of the power mirror installation. Are they able to recover from the suffered wounds, or is there a space for a new group? The liberal wing is a witness to certain movement, but not a very interesting one. Nor Nemtsov's, nor Khakamada's activities seem to be too promising. Russia needs a democratic alternative, and not only because of Putin. It cannot be excluded that a new wave of newly found patriotism, brought on the scene with Putin, could give a space to radical variants. Formation of these is already noted in Russia these days. 21 It is Putin who absorbs this potential to a big degree, but again, how long will this last?
Russia is on another stage of its difficult journey to reforms. The choice was made, and it is necessary to respect it. It is decided that Putin has everything in his hands, but he shouldn't rely much on the old Russian habit that the problems are always caused by boyars, not by the Czar. How much is he willing to do, and for what price, is the last question of this analysis.