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Russia Report: March 10, 2005

10 March 2005, Volume 5, Number 10
By Victor Yasmann

The consensus among Russian analysts is that the main achievement of the Russian-American summit in Bratislava on 24 February is that relations between the two countries did not get any worse. U.S. President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin used their good personal relations to keep a lid on bilateral tensions, although both leaders left Slovakia without having changed their previous positions.

As Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov told RTR on 27 February, "the summit confirmed that the two countries can disagree without becoming adversaries." He added that the two countries are seeking to follow the dictum of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who once said that Russia and the United States should move forward in parallel, feeling one another's elbows but not treading on each other's feet.

Most analysts agree that it was important for Russia that Bush included the meeting with Putin in his European tour, the mission of which was the restoration of trans-Atlantic solidarity and the placement of the "partnership with Russia" in that context. Margelov cited Bush's 23 February comment in Brussels that "Russia's future lies within the family of Europe and the trans-Atlantic community."

Although the two leaders had an extensive agenda of international and bilateral matters to discuss, public commentary on both sides of the Atlantic focused on two issues: the state of Russian democracy, and Moscow's resistance to the rising democratic tide in the former Soviet Union and its purported desire to restore Russian dominance over the former Soviet republics.

The two presidents spent 40 minutes of their post-summit press conference discussing the first topic. Bush said that he conveyed to Putin his concern that Russia is moving away from democratic development, while Putin defended his own understanding of democracy and said "the introduction and strengthening of democracy in Russia must not compromise the concept of democracy itself."

The topic of Russian ambitions in the former Soviet republics was even more important. Just hours before his meeting with Putin, Bush -- no doubt to Putin's irritation -- spoke openly about U.S. support for democratic trends in the CIS. Addressing residents of Bratislava, Bush said "the democratic changes that swept this region over 15 years ago are now reaching Georgia and Ukraine. In 10 days, Moldova has the opportunity to place its democratic credentials beyond doubt as its people head to the polls. And inevitably the people of Belarus will someday proudly belong to the countr[ies] of democrac[y]," "The New York Times" reported on 25 February.

Putin did not make any reaction to this statement during the joint press conference. However, Voice of Russia Director Armen Oganesyan, a member of the influential Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, said on his station on 25 February that "the future of the post-Soviet space remains a crucial issue on the bilateral agenda." Oganesyan said there are clear differences in the approaches of the two countries to the topic of how to develop democracy in the CIS and the matter of the "velvet revolutions." He concluded that it is impossible to reach consensus on such a complicated matter in the course of one meeting, and no doubt the two men will discuss it again when Bush visits Moscow in May for the 60th anniversary of victory in World War II.

TV-Tsentr political commentator Aleksei Pushkov said on 26 February that Bush's "friendly prodding" about "democracy and freedom" will produce no tangible results, and he noted that Putin left Bratislava without any particular new obligations. He said that it was unrealistic for Putin's antagonists in the United States to think that the Bratislava meeting might lead to results such as the expulsion of Russia from the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrialized countries, an easing of the Yukos affair, or the release from prison of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii.

These antagonists, Pushkov said, failed to take into consideration that both presidents wanted the summit to be a success and wanted to make progress on certain, crucial issues, including Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, and North Korea. The two leaders were so satisfied with their talks on these subjects that Putin said at the press conference "we have very small differences on these issues." Pushkov noted that neither man wants nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of Tehran or Pyongyang, and both sides want progress on resolving the Middle East situation. No one wants further destabilization in Iraq.

Of course, there are differences. In the case of Iran, Moscow believes Tehran's assurances that it does not plan to develop nuclear weapons and Washington does not. The U.S. position is at least partly motivated by the fact that it has an obligation to protect the security of its Middle Eastern ally, Israel. There are also substantial differences of opinion between the United States and Russia concerning Iraq, Syria, and North Korea, but they are differences in approach rather than goal. In general, Putin's positions today correspond to those of many European leaders who say they share U.S. aims, but differ on how to achieve them.

Council for Foreign and Defense Policy President Sergei Karaganov has suggested that the United States is concerned about Russian democracy for both idealistic and pragmatic reasons, RBK reported on 25 February. Pragmatically speaking, Washington worries that retreating from democracy could really weaken Russia and create a dangerous international situation. The Bush administration wants Russia to do everything possible to prevent nuclear materials from getting into the wrong hands. "It is practically never discussed [publicly], but the United States does not want our arsenal to go to another country, such as, for instance, China," Karaganov said.

In addition, Karaganov noted, Russia borders the broader Middle East, which is the largest source of international instability today and the major area of concern to U.S. national interests. International political life today is focused on this region, he said, and it is here that the future development of international order will be determined. By virtue of its geopolitical position, Russia can influence this crucial region in ways that either correspond to or conflict with U.S. interests, he concluded.

Finally, Karaganov said the United States does not want Russia to come under Chinese influence. The West does not view Russia as a future power simply because it does not demonstrate the active internal dynamics that China is manifesting. Washington understands that China has vast potential to compete on international markets, particularly because of the role that Southeast Asia now plays in the world economy. This segment is growing much more rapidly than the global economy as a whole and China has the potential to be the engine of this growth. Therefore, Karaganov said, the United States has been making great efforts to prevent Russia from becoming China's junior partner.

By Robert Coalson

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who is one of President Vladimir Putin's closest confidants and is regularly mentioned as a possible successor to Putin in 2008, made some uncharacteristic political statements in a 1 March interview with "Moskovskii komsomolets." "Only democrats, with their split personalities, could believe that we might get help from abroad," Ivanov said. "Nobody will help us except ourselves. Therefore we should be powerful and capable of guaranteeing our national security in any situation."'

He also criticized Russian liberals for viewing Russia only as "a money-making enterprise." Recent Russian media reports indicate that the Kremlin has ordered acceptable candidates to succeed Putin to increase their visibility and predict that figures such Ivanov, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, and Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu will be making more pronouncements of this sort in the future. And the platform they seem to be developing is clearly anti-American.

Even as Putin was shaking hands with U.S. President George W. Bush in Bratislava on 24 February and emphasizing the myriad shared interests of Russia and the United States, a surprising wave of seemingly Kremlin-inspired anti-Americanism was sweeping through Russian domestic politics. Commentators, officials, and others began speaking in chorus about purported U.S. designs to install a pro-Western leader in Moscow, accusations that were buttressed by charges that the CIA had already done as much in Tbilisi and Kyiv.

When former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov appeared at a 25 February press conference with harsh criticism of the Putin administration's policies -- accusing Putin of abandoning the path of democratic development -- Putin supporters latched onto Kasyanov's admission that he had recently held talks with unnamed officials in Washington. Federation Council Chairman Mironov told TV-Tsentr on 28 February that Kasyanov has no chance of winning because he is "a pro-American candidate."

Political consultant Gleb Pavlovskii told RFE/RL on 1 March: "[Kasyanov] should tell by name who it was who endorsed his views. Let the electorate listen and decide whether they want Senator [John] McCain [Republican, Arizona] approving the views of a candidate for president of the Russian Federation." State-controlled television broadcast numerous variations on this theme, leading "Kommersant-Daily" television critic Arina Borodina to conclude to RFE/RL on 1 March that "of course there was a campaign" to discredit Kasyanov.

In his TV-Tsentr comments, Mironov went even further, saying a candidate "endorsed by Washington does not have the slightest chance of becoming president of today's Russia." He seemed to be indicating that anti-American and anti-Western sentiments are rampant among the Russian electorate.

At the same time, the pro-Kremlin youth movement Walking Together has been transforming itself in recent weeks into a new national organization called Nashi (Ours) that has an overtly anti-American ideology. The architect of the new initiative is deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov, who oversees domestic politics for the Kremlin. Surkov is a staunch anti-Westerner who in a major interview with "Komsomolskaya pravda" in September said that decision-makers in the United States and Europe "are living on the phobias of the Cold War and see Russia as a potential enemy." "They take credit for the nearly bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union and want to further that achievement." He added that these external enemies are working in Russia through a "fifth column" of "pseudo-liberals and Nazis" who share "a common hatred of 'Putin's Russia,' as they call it, and common foreign backers." He specifically said that the 2008 presidential election will be a key moment in the fight against these enemies (see "RFE/RL Political Weekly," 13 October 2004).

The events surrounding the Ukrainian presidential election have definitely given impetus to this thinking in the Kremlin, although the general trend was already in place. Walking Together organizer Vasilii Yakemenko has been touring the country for the last few months, agitating among students in the regions to organize local chapters of Nashi. According to "Moskvoskii komsomolets" on 24 February, Yakemenko told a group in Kursk that "previously [Ukraine] was a Russian colony and now it is an American colony." He added that the United States now intends to make Russia its "colony."

Russia's only major nonstate television network, REN-TV, on 2 March interviewed a number of Nashi activists in Nizhnii Novgorod and found them echoing the ideology of Surkov's interview. "We think that America is Russia's main enemy," student Dmitrii Shvabinskii said. "One must remember that we always have had enemies." Fellow student Dmitrii Lyashchev said the goal of the movement "is to stop Russia from becoming a subsidiary of the United States and a supplier of raw materials."

Several of the Nashi activists interviewed by REN-TV highlighted their selfless devotion to their new ideology, emphasizing that Russia's enemies are only interested in profit and personal gain. "Some people don't think about their country," music student Maria Bystrova said. "They only think how to eat well. Such people can sell all the secrets they know." Fellow student Kseniya Baburkina added "we must work for the idea, not for money."

ORT political commentator Mikhail Leontev, who is notorious for his anti-American pronouncements on the main state television network, wrote a 2 March commentary in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that summed up the new anti-Americanism. "The United States is not our reliable ally in any area in which it declares itself one, and has never been our ally," Leontev wrote. He added that, as they did in Ukraine, U.S. politicians intend to finance "subversive organizations" because "they dislike the political system existing in Russia." "It is no secret that so-called nongovernmental organizations are now openly financed not only by foundations and suspicious private individuals with very peculiar political views," Leontev wrote. "They are also directly financed by the U.S. Congress."

Most analysts agree that the Kremlin was genuinely shaken by the events in Ukraine and the administration fears that such a scenario could occur -- or be provoked -- in Russia. The Kremlin's preemptive measures -- including the creation of Nashi; the discrediting of Kasyanov; the creation of controlled leftist and, possibly, rightist political movements to "compete" with Unified Russia; and others -- are indications that the Putin administration is sparing no effort to make sure that the 2007 Duma elections and the 2008 presidential race are managed to its liking. And that there is no need for the kind of crude falsification that stoked the unrest in Ukraine.

At the same time, the Kremlin clearly appreciates the realpolitik orientation of the Bush administration, something that Russian commentators emphasized during the 2004 U.S. presidential race. The Putin administration clearly believes that Bush values stability in Russia more than democratic development, and that Putin can only improve his international stature by appearing to be the most reliable bulwark against a seething tide of anti-Western sentiment among the Russian public. If the West accepts this notion, Kremlin analysts might well be thinking, it will ease up on criticism of Russian domestic policies -- including Chechnya, the curtailing of media freedoms, and the elimination of real political competition -- and not use economic levers such as membership in the World Trade Organization to influence Russia's domestic affairs.

By encouraging the broad perception that the events in Ukraine were nothing but a CIA-sponsored coup d'etat, the Kremlin hopes to transform its humiliating setback in Kyiv into tangible domestic and international gains.

(The following contribution was written in response to "Debunking The Case Against Putin's Authoritarianism" by Gordon Hahn in "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 18 February 2005.)

By Ira Straus

Gordon Hahn has attempted an accurate assessment of President Vladimir Putin's system; his opening paragraphs warn of the practical harm done by distortions in earlier evaluations. The attempt is helpful; it narrows the gap and may open up space to advance reasoned evaluation further. That said, however, Hahn's corrective seems itself to be in some need of correction. Unfortunately, there is no space here to dwell on what Hahn says that I think is right -- which is a lot.

There is a self-defeating bias embedded in the format of the article. The argumentation is directed against the few writers who say from time to time that things are not as bad under Putin as advertised, while none of it corrects the many writers who are doing that advertising. If only the article were being published not in America, but in Moscow, where there really are lots of regime apologists who stand in need of debunking.

Hahn's article puts qualifications onto qualifications of previous criticisms of Russia. Before a synthesis can be made, it too, I fear, needs some qualifications. Let us proceed with them, taking up his three main points in sequence:

I. (Regarding the argument that print media are free in Russia, even if national television has been taken over): "It is true that there is an abundance of print media, but the overwhelming majority of publications are completely devoid of political content. Political publications have extraordinarily low print runs and even lower real circulations."

Actually, publications such as "Argumenty i fakty" and "Moskovskii komsomolets" retain huge circulation and continue to provide independent analysis. To be sure, they have lost the special intelligentsia-excitement quality of the perestroika period. It was an inevitable loss. It flowed from the end of their status of "the Government-Sponsored Opposition" under conditions of a declining Communist Party dictatorship. The scholastic dialogue between the Establishment and Its Own Opposition, in which every journalistic word had existential importance for the entire system of public belief, gave way after 1991 to genuine pluralism with all its depressing characteristics -- confusion, superficiality, marketing. Higher-toned papers continue to have influence, but small circulations.

Nor is television a monolith. There is REN-TV; cable and satellite with Western channels; a Moscow-controlled channel; NTV, though greatly weakened; and some diversity on the federally controlled channels 1 and 2, which still at times treat the right with scholastic favor. National television is stultifying in its adulation of Putin and distorts the national debate on sensitive security issues. Like Putin, it is mostly to the right of public opinion, but less so than in the 1990s. What the West criticizes in Russian public opinion is overwhelmingly due to other factors, not government management.

National television is the main news source for most Russians, and the loss of its independence is a major blow to freedom. Newspapers remain mostly independent although pressured to self-censor on issues like Chechnya. There is a full range of information readily available for the educated elites and most other Russians who want it. The governance of thinking remains a mixed system, with significant elements of self-governance alongside state management.

II. Repressing opposition parties. "The authorities' hegemony (not monopoly) over the media enables it to discredit the opposition."

This is said in distinction from the Yeltsin era. Yet only Yeltsin tried to repress a serious party, when he tried to outlaw the Communist Party. In both eras, the media's main -- and willing -- role was to discredit the Communist Party. In 1996, this helped reverse the expected election results and prevent the Communists from regaining executive power. Putin was able finally to do what Yeltsin wanted -- to send the Communist Party to the sidelines -- because he was more popular, not because he used the media more harshly.

The Communist Party is being evaluated more favorably nowadays by democrats, perhaps because it is weaker. But their evaluation in the 1990s was justified: its strength, alongside that of nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovskii and others, gave Russia a Weimar-style pluralism, not a functioning democratic pluralism.

A dirty secret of post-war Germany, and of its success compared to Weimar, is that it banned the Nazi Party while profiting from the prior Nazi destruction of the Communist Party. Russia has lacked such advantages in marginalizing its extremes. Nevertheless, by a series of far milder measures, it has had partial success. Arguably, its success went too far in 2003, but the practical alternatives remain limited; the liberal opposition parties are genuinely unpopular.

Many criticisms of Putin's management of parties depend logically on a lack of perspective on the enormity and paradoxical nature of the problem of democratic-party construction in Russia. A synthesis would have to acknowledge the dangers of a pluralism of radical parties.

II (B). "[O]pposition parties' vote tallies are tamped down through administrative resources, dirty political technologies, and the limited falsification of results. Although many of these tactics were seen under Yeltsin, they were not practiced on such a grand scale."

Actually, election results were far more falsified under Yeltsin than under Putin. A probable total of 2 percent of votes were falsified in 2003 at the expense of SPS and Yabloko. People in both parties doubt that Putin wanted them to lose. No one doubts the main results of the elections.

Under Yeltsin, the constitution was ratified by padding the number of voters. In the 1996 presidential election, one estimate was that 10 percent of votes were falsified in Yeltsin's favor, and 5 percent in favor of Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov.

III. De-federalization. Most of this actually consists of strengthening the federal government in face of excessive decentralization -- something the original U.S. Federalist Party also did. For want of space, I refer the reader to my comments in "Johnson's Russia List," Nos. 8392, 8399, and 8413; see also Hahn's thoughtful responses JRL 8397 and 8405.

Hahn adds now that what may be worst about Putin's federal reforms is not their specific content but the fact that they come in context of un-democratic changes on the national level, serving to reinforce the damage. The point is well taken. But it has a counterpositive. If vertical centralization can reinforce the horizontal concentration of power, then horizontal dissipation of power (weakness of the executive) can reinforce decentralization. Thus, Hahn's argument could be used to provide a justification for Putin's horizontal concentration of power as a cautious, peaceful means for overcoming the widely perceived dangers of national disintegration in the late 1990s.

In fact, this has been part of the motivation under Putin. Fissures within the central government were contributing to its lack of authority in the provinces. The extremism of the largest Duma parties and the Duma-president tensions had given added scope to provincial independence. To balance and hold off the Duma, Yeltsin had to make enfeebling and corrupting deals with many governors. It was the Duma elections of 1999, creating an elected legislature that could work normally with the executive for the first time, that changed this. It made possible the reining in of the governors. Feudal decentralization was gradually replaced by something closer to a normal modern state.

While further recentralization is still needed, the latest reforms have used a harmful method, abolishing gubernatorial elections, which is a direct blow to democracy.

Three points in conclusion:

1. Russia is still in transition. It has neither a democracy nor an autocracy, but a mixed transitional regime. Its primary Westernizing orientation remains an important part of defining what it is; its loss would be very damaging.

2. Russia is not an occupied country. Influence on it depends primarily on persuasion.

3. Most Western commentators have done the Western cause a disservice, failing to distinguish between functional and dysfunctional forms of pluralism, offering Russia a Hobson's choice of either disintegrative pluralism or authoritarianism. Russians need to see that a more discriminating choice is available. Westerners were supposed to be imparting the subtleties of real democratic experience; instead they have contributed to oversimplification. This has coincided with punishing Russia geopolitically for its Western orientation, reducing its foreign policy options also to a Hobson's choice.

These conclusions suggest changes in method are needed for sound diagnosis, prescription, and reception.

Ira Straus is U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO and former Fulbright professor of political science and international relations in Moscow at Moscow State University and the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).

March: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to visit Japan to discuss Russian-Japanese summit, scheduled to be held in Tokyo in April, according to many media reports

March: EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner to visit Moscow

10 March: Journalists of Ekho Moskvy to select a new managing editor

14-17 March: International Olympic Committee inspectors to visit Moscow in connection with the city's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games

18 March: State Duma to select new auditors for the Audit Chamber

19 March: President Vladimir Putin to visit Kyiv

20 March: Legislative elections in Voronezh and Vladimir oblasts

20 March: Mayoral election in Chelyabinsk

27 March: Mayoral elections in Surgut and Omsk

27 March: City of Saratov to hold a referendum on whether the city's mayor should continue to be directly elected

27 March: Legislative elections in Amur Oblast and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug

April: Term of Tula Oblast Governor Vasilii Starodubtsev to expire

April: Russian Soyuz spacecraft to bring new crew to the International Space Station

17 April: Krasnoyarsk Krai to hold a referendum on the question of merging the krai with the Taimyr and Evenk autonomous okrugs

9 May: Commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II

23 June: Yukos shareholders meeting

4 July: 750th anniversary of the founding of Kaliningrad

6-8 July: G-8 summit in Scotland

2006: Russia to host a G-8 summit in St. Petersburg

1 January 2006: Date by which all political parties must conform to law on political parties, which requires at least 50,000 members and branches in one-half of all federation subjects, or either reregister as public organizations or be dissolved.