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Russia Report: October 13, 2004

13 October 2004, Volume 4, Number 40
By Victor Yasmann

An influential senior Kremlin official recently defended a sweeping package of proposed political reforms, saying they protect the system from the "extreme conditions of an unannounced war" and increase President Vladimir Putin's accountability.

In style and substance, presidential-administration deputy head Vladislav Surkov used a late-September interview to signal an open departure from the liberal values that have dominated much of Moscow's stated policy since the fall of communism. Surprisingly, no one within the political opposition bothered to challenge either Surkov's assertions or the premises on which they rest.

Surkov plays a much greater role within the Kremlin than his official title implies. He is among the most ardent ideologues -- and implementers of domestic political projects -- in Putin's administration. Surkov played a key part in the State Duma elections of December 2003, which effectively emasculated the right and left wings of the Russian political spectrum.

He now appears to have taken on the role of political mastermind with respect to Putin's proposed political reforms, as evidenced by his extensive interview in "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 29 September. In that interview, Surkov sought to convince the public that the rationale behind Putin's new political course is solid.

First, Surkov reiterated the government perception that war has been declared on Russia from the outside (see ADF39DBC-0540-4D5E-AAAF-4EC569698650). He was more precise in his language than Putin has been, however, suggesting that the enemy comprises "interventionists." In the United States, Europe, and the East, Surkov railed, there are "decision makers who are living on the phobias of the Cold War and who see Russia as a potential enemy. They take credit for the nearly bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union and want to further that achievement. Their goal is the destruction of our country."

Second, Surkov identified the theater for this "secret" war: Russia's southern provinces, particularly the Caucasus. "The detonation of our southern borders as a means of weakening Russia has been used repeatedly in the 19th and 20th centuries," he added.

Third, he defined the weapon and other means that the enemy has used against Russia and that Russia itself has provided to the "interventionists." He singled out corruption; criminals, including the "fighters for independence" in the Caucasus; and a "fifth column" within Russia that he described as "people forever lost for partnership." "In a truly besieged country, a fifth column of leftist and rightist radicals has emerged. Apples and lemons are now growing on the same branch," he added. "The pseudo-liberals and genuine Nazis have a lot in common; they have a common hatred for 'Putin's Russia,' as they call it, and common foreign backers. They are sitting on various committees, waiting for 2008 [a presumed reference to the next presidential election] and talking about expediting the defeat of their own country in the war on terrorism." This appears to be a thinly veiled reference to the liberal Yabloko party, Eduard Limonov's leftist National-Bolshevik Party, and Committee 2008, which is headed by chess champion Garri Kasparov.

Last -- perhaps predictably -- Surkov seemed to dismiss any possible resolution of the Chechen dilemma on anything other than Moscow's terms, effectively suggesting that alternatives entail "treason against the state." "I'll let you in on a secret: The Chechen problem, like the problem of world terrorism, has no single, simple solution," he said.

Within this context of militant ideological thinking, Surkov then made his case for Putin's proposed political reforms. He took exception with those who see no links between the terrorism threat and the abolition of direct gubernatorial elections and single-mandate districts. Surkov said such measures will strengthen the country and boost its "immunity from extremist infection."

"Remember, the virus of terrorism has stricken the state at a time when the regions -- with their operatic sovereignty and sickly, disposable political parties -- have been unable to confront chaos in the country," Surkov said. "We experienced a period of neo-feudal fragmentation in the 1990s, and that should not be repeated."

Surkov appeared to be preparing the public for a long campaign, warning that the proposals will not provide a "quick victory over the enemy." But he claimed the moves will increase the soundness of the Russian political system "in the extreme conditions of undeclared war." The reforms would increase the level of Putin's own political responsibility, he added.

"It will bring an end to the competition between the federal center and the regions -- the competition for avoiding accountability for political mistakes and organizational mishaps that have been committed."

The senior Kremlin staffer then defended Putin from accusations that he is using the Beslan school hostage tragedy to strengthen his personal powers and to curb democracy. "Putin is reinforcing the state, not himself, " Surkov said, adding that Putin's popularity rating is high and that he has few problems in his relations with regional leaders. Finally, the new system will require substantial amendments to the constitutions of many subjects of the Russian Federation, Surkov said, so it will come into force only in 2009, after Putin has left office.

The "bottom line" of Putin's program is the "mobilization of the country in the fight against terrorism," Surkov said. "We should all realize that the enemy is at the gates. We need vigilance, solidarity, and the unification of citizens' and the state's efforts."

Surkov's interview thus marks an openly declared departure from the liberal values espoused by the Kremlin in the 1990s and an equally bald-faced shift to the position of those forces within the Russian political class that profess the "ideology of national revanche" (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 4 August 2004). Is it merely coincidence that Surkov used statements such as "interventionists," which is the term used by the Bolsheviks in 1918-20 to describe Western troops fighting on Russian territory?

But despite the significance of Surkov's bold manifesto, no one from the political opposition went to the trouble of commenting on it. Another Kremlin insider noted that fact: Effective Politics Foundation President Gleb Pavlovskii. Pavlovskii complained that there was little or no public reaction to Putin's proposals, and no counterproposals or rival initiatives, according to an RTR report on 2 October.

"There was no thoughtful reaction, aside from the retrograde, dull reflection: 'Don't touch the old system, we like it.'" Pavlovskii offered that in most advanced countries, the opposition might even go so far as to disagree completely with the government, but it certainly maintains a running commentary on the ruling parties and their policies.

Pavlovskii went on to contribute to Surkov's ideological platform, averring that Russia is indeed "at war" and adding: "Terror is torture by war. It is goes, stops, and goes again." He went on to fuel Surkov's conspiracy theory, suggesting that "groups of politicians in Arab and Western terrorists: Some give them money, others encourage them, and others simply rejoice quietly." "The antiterror coalition is not sincere today," Pavlovskii said. "Every time there is a terrorist attack on Russia, we receive...moral lectures on how we should change our policy, and we are saying, 'Stop it, guys, we are not prepared to tolerate this any longer.'"

Pavlovskii also argued that pervasive corruption -- especially within law enforcement -- is among the strongest levers for terrorism in Russia (see 8d5e1e86-db24-41ae-baef-96fc4460c9f9.asp).

Then Pavlovskii got to the substance of Putin's proposed reforms, and his implicit criticism of the Russian public, suggesting that strengthening national security will likely lead to increased corruption. "But neither the president nor the government can do anything special to root out corruption," he argued. "It must be national momentum that gets rid of corruption. This momentum can be concentrated in a political party or movement. It is necessary that the whole nation says, 'Yes, there is corruption everywhere [in the world], but we are determined to rid [Russia] of official corruption."

By Robert Coalson

In the wake of the Beslan school hostage taking, President Vladimir Putin proposed a number of measures intended to combat terrorism by strengthening the unity and integrity of the country. The main goals of Putin's proposals, according to the 13 September speech in which he presented them, are "to ensure the unity of the country, the strengthening of state structures and confidence in the authorities, and the creation of an effective system of internal security."

One of the most important changes that Putin proposed -- and one whose relationship to combating terrorism has been most called into question -- is the elimination of single-mandate-district representation in the State Duma and its replacement with a system of proportional representation based on party-list voting. "Today we are obligated through our practical actions to support the initiatives of citizens in their efforts to combat terrorism, and we must together find mechanisms to strengthen the state," Putin said. "One of these mechanisms, ensuring a real dialogue and interaction between society and the authorities in the struggle against terrorism, must be national political parties. And in the interests of strengthening the political system of the country, I believe it is necessary to introduce the proportional-representation system for elections to the State Duma."

Currently, one-half of the Duma's 450 deputies are elected by proportional representation from party lists and one-half are elected from single-mandate districts.

The Central Election Commission (TsIK), however, has been advocating this change at least since May, and many observers criticized the proposal before Beslan as antidemocratic and intended to strengthen the Kremlin's grip over the legislative branch. Free Russia party leader Irina Khakamada said on 20 May that the proposal indicates "that the Kremlin has to have an even more monolithic parliament and the entire political field to itself." Duma Deputy Speaker Sergei Baburin (Motherland) told Ekho Moskvy on 6 May that he opposed the proposal because lawmakers from single-mandate districts have close ties to particular regions and their residents. Ironically, in an interview with "Itogi" in June, TsIK Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov floated the idea of electing members of the Federation Council from the same single-mandate districts now used in Duma elections, ostensibly as a way of increasing democracy through direct representation.

The history of single-mandate districts in Russia is indeed connected with the fate of its political parties. They were created by the 1993 constitution as a way of breaking the Communist Party's firm grip on the legislature. The Kremlin knew that only the Communists had the kind of strong party apparatus and broad popular support necessary to win a solid bloc in a purely proportional system. It also felt that with the support of most of the regional administrations, pro-Kremlin -- or at least anti-Communist -- figures could do well in single-mandate districts. Unlike Baburin, many observers have criticized single-mandate-district deputies for being more closely tied to local administrations than to their electorates. For this reason, for example, the liberal Yabloko party endorsed the TsIK's proposal in May.

In the 1990s, Russia had a large number of small political parties serving as vanity platforms for national political figures, and the Kremlin was actively working to prevent such figures from gaining any solid backing among the public. Moreover, the numerous Kremlin-backed "parties of power" fared poorly in various national elections. At that time, "Kommersant-Daily" wrote on 7 May, the Kremlin made efforts to elect the entire Duma from single-mandate districts, in an attempt to secure its power in the Duma on the basis of its control of local administrations.

Now, the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party has a well-developed party apparatus and has gained a solid majority in the Duma, controlling all of its senior posts. Moreover, as the December 2003 elections showed, the Kremlin has finally been able to convert its domination of regional administrations into support for the party of power, as governors fell all over themselves in their efforts to ensure that Unified Russia polled exactly what the presidential administration wanted it to poll. At the same time, parties such as Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces were unable to muster much party-list support and were only able to get deputies in the Duma through the single-mandate system. Although most single-mandate deputies joined one of the main Duma factions, some obstreperous independent voices continue to be heard in the chamber's back rows.

The history of Russia's post-Soviet Duma elections, then, shows that the proportional-representation system does strengthen political parties, but it strengthens those with the strongest national apparatuses and the greatest access to the resources of the Kremlin. The administration's bid to eliminate the single-mandate districts would, for example, make no sense if the Kremlin had not already established firm control over national television and the TsIK. The system does little, however, to bolster "real dialogue and interaction between society and the authorities," as Putin in his 13 September speech claimed that it would.

In fact, since parties have developed the notorious practice of presenting party lists dominated by high-profile figures who have no intention of actually taking up seats in the Duma, voters don't even know for whom they are actually voting when they give their support to a particular party. And in the Duma that is formed from party-list voting, citizens will have no particular representative with whom to hold a dialogue.

What the reform will not do is to help political parties develop grassroots support, the kind that could theoretically challenge the legitimacy of the party of power's position. As Institute of Elections Director Aleksandr Ivanchenko told "Izvestiya" on 7 October: "What does the switch to a proportional system mean? The party lists are appointed. All that is needed is for these lists to be coordinated in the Kremlin, and the voters will be left with nothing else but to vote for it. Many people still have not realized that the switch to a proportional system completely opens up a regime of the appointment of convenient candidates. Practically nothing depends on the voter."

On 7 October, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on a Moscow conference of leading liberal analysts and politicians, at which President Vladimir Putin's proposed political reforms were the main topic of conversation. Below is a transcript of RFE/RL's report.

RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Sharogradskii: The political reforms announced by President Vladimir Putin last month are a threat to all of civil society -- this was the leitmotif of a conference held in Moscow today. RFE/RL correspondent Karen Agamirov attended. Karen, tell us what you heard.

RFE/RL correspondent Karen Agamirov: For a beginning, one of the organizers of the conference, INDEM foundation head Georgii Satarov congratulated President Putin on the occasion of his birthday and told the gathering the following:

INDEM foundation President Georgii Satarov: I have uncovered the essence and the goal of his actions. President Putin, who has repeatedly spoken about building democracy in the country and who has repeatedly been convinced that not everything is going well with this building -- the results of many elections in particular have shown this -- has decided to change his tactics. Throughout the last few months there has been a sort of special operation to return democracy to Russia. What is this operation? I would use this metaphor: Imagine that you are walking around in Moscow where the air is pretty dirty, but you have gotten used to breathing air nonetheless. But if you put on a gas mask and close off the air flow, suddenly you start thinking about air. This, more or less, is what has been happening lately, that is, they put a gas mask on us and closed off not the air, but democracy. And suddenly everyone remembered about democracy. They forgot that in the last few years that had become virtually a swear word.

Agamirov: State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov has a completely different take on President Putin's proposed reforms.

State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov (independent): The president's proposals are, for one thing, inadequate. They don't have any relation to Beslan or to the struggle against terrorism and they are intended for a different reason -- the strengthening of the power of the Kremlin and the personal power of today's birthday boy. Secondly, these changes to the country's political system contradict the spirit and the letter of the constitution. The president is asking us to violate three constitutional principles at one go: the principle of democracy, by depriving citizens of their right to elect their own local leaders and single-mandate-district Duma representatives; the principle of federalism, since appointment [of regional leaders] from above has nothing to do with the principles of a federation; and the principle of a law-based state, since the president is proposing that we ignore the constitution, the laws, and the decisions of the Constitutional Court. And this means that we are stepping into a very dangerous zone, where the basic law of the country can simply be ignored and violated. Until now, we haven't had such flagrant violations. Now we have crossed that line.

Agamirov: What should be done?

Ryzhkov: In the State Duma, we -- that is, the opposition both on the left and on the right -- are trying to prepare amendments to these bills. Although, to be honest, these laws are so thoroughly unconstitutional that, in my opinion, no amendments can correct them, because they are conceptually unconstitutional. A threat literally hangs over the entire community of civic organizations. And everyone, it seems to me, must understand that this is not a surgical strike against the governors or the single-mandate-district deputies. You have to look at the whole picture. An attack is being prepared against the Internet society. An attack is being prepared against civic organizations. An attack is being prepared against organs of local self-government. An attack is being carried out against organs of regional government. An attack is being carried out against political parties. Now they are preparing an amendment to change the number of signatures needed [to register a party] from 10,000 members to 100,000, all of them notarized in the regions. That is, the Kremlin is attacking civil society in all possible ways.

Agamirov: One of the leaders of Yabloko, Sergei Mitrokhin, [spoke next].

Yabloko Deputy Chairman Sergei Mitrokhin: New conditions for the bureaucratization of the country are being created, for the final loss of the effectiveness of all systems of management, for monstrous corruption in which all of these positions, most likely, will simply be purchased. But Yabloko and I are concerned that a model of power is being set up in the country that will simply result in the disintegration of the country in the long run. After all, it is completely simple and obvious that if all branches of power are selected within a region, then any conflict between them is an intraregional conflict. But if one of those branches is appointed, then any conflict -- even the smallest one -- becomes a conflict between a region and the center, and thus a centrifugal tendency is being built into the state. It is as if we are moving into a new reality and are living in a new political reality, although we are trying to act based on the old reality. It seems to me that many actions, including some of those about which [Ryzhkov] spoke, are somewhat outdated. For instance, appealing to regional legislatures or to the Constitutional Court. Probably, we need to do that, definitely, but that all seems like a form of inertia that just creates the impression that we have not rejected our customary methods. We do not only have a parliamentary opposition but an extra-parliamentary one as well, with all the conclusions and methods that stem from that, including "street" methods and new forms of working with the population.

Agamirov: This proposal was decisively rejected by New Rightists leader Vladimir Shmelev.

New Rightists party leader Vladimir Shmelev: Calls to unite with leftist and rightist extremists and what amount to calls for people to man the barricades -- this is the most incorrect, from our point of view, response to the events going on in our country. There is no worse response and there could be no worse result of the Putin vertical of power that is being created than another Leninist revolution.

Agamirov: [Free Russia leader] Irina Khakamada expressed dismay at the shortsightedness of the Russian people.

Free Russia party leader Irina Khakamada: A very precise technology has been adopted. Oxygen is being gradually removed and, for most of the population, nothing that bad is actually happening. Something is happening within a narrow circle of people who remember something or who read political magazines. But most people don't feel anything. They are just slowly dying. The vertical of power was built here long ago. This is simply its legitimization and legalization and the drawing of everything into it. Take parliament. Why are we shouting that this is a disaster, a nightmare? Some want one thing, some want another, but it is clear that the legislature will be controlled and manipulated by the authorities.

October: President Vladimir Putin will visit China

October: International forum of the Organization of the Islamic Conference will be held in Moscow

October: State Duma to vote on ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, according to Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov.

19 October: State Duma to begin hearings on proposal to eliminate single-mandate-district representation in the Duma

23-26 October: Second anniversary of the Moscow theater hostage crisis

24 October: Legislative elections in Chita Oblast.

25 October: First anniversary of former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii's arrest at an airport in Novosibirsk

28 October: Federation Council to hold a roundtable discussion of proposed election-law amendments

31 October: Presidential election in Ukraine

November: Gubernatorial election in Pskov and Kurgan oblasts

November: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to visit Moscow.

14 November: Mayoral election will take place in Blagoveshchensk

20 November: Sixth anniversary of the killing of State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova

22 November: President Putin to visit Brazil

December: A draft law on toll roads will be submitted to the government, according to the Federal Highways Agency's Construction Department on 6 April

December: Gubernatorial elections in Vladimir, Bryansk, Kamchatka, Ulyanovsk, and Volgograd oblasts; Khabarovsk Krai; and Ust-Ordynskii Autonomous Okrug

December: Presidential elections in Marii-El and Khakasia republics

5 December: By-elections for State Duma seats will be held in two single-mandate districts in Ulyanovsk and Moscow

5 December: Gubernatorial election will be held in Astrakhan Oblast

29 December: State Duma's fall session will come to a close

January 2005: President Putin to visit Poland for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

1 February 2005: Former President Boris Yeltsin's 74th birthday

March 2005: Gubernatorial election in Saratov Oblast.