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Russia Report: May 29, 2003

29 May 2003, Volume 3, Number 21
With Russia's northern capital, St. Petersburg, celebrating its 300th anniversary and President Vladimir Putin set to meet there with U.S. President George W. Bush, "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly" thought it timely to review a new book by a leading analyst about how St. Petersburg's native son is governing the country. "Putin's Russia" by Lilia Shevtsova (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) is reviewed by Don Jensen, RFE/RL's director of communications. Jensen is also a former foreign-service officer, who served in the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

In Milan not long ago, I asked a man who had worked as Vladimir Putin's interpreter during his recent trip to Italy what the Russian president was like. "You know," he answered, "Putin takes more time to answer a question after hearing it than anyone else I've ever worked for." Indeed, Putin unfailingly seems to tailor his words carefully for his audience, and midway through his first presidential term, it is still difficult to get the measure of the man.

Many ordinary Russians see Putin as a reformer. To the business oligarchs, he is insurance against prosecution, while to critics of the oligarchs in the security services, Putin personifies a return to Soviet-style centralized rule. In the West, Putin is widely viewed as a partner in the war against terrorism, even as he is faulted for continuing the bloody war in Chechnya.

"Putin has become a symbol of a staggering mix of continuity and change," writes Lilia Shevtsova, perhaps the leading analyst of contemporary Russia, in this excellent new book. She convincingly portrays the young president as a product of Russia's post-Soviet disarray. Putin, Shevtsova writes, "has been shrewd enough to let people think what they want and see what they long for." She chronicles Putin's rise to power at the end of the era of former President Boris Yeltsin, when Russian elites seeking to protect themselves and their property chose the little-known former intelligence officer as president. She concludes the narrative with Putin having consolidated power and transformed Russia into a global partner of the United States in the war on terrorism.

The book highlights several important points about contemporary Russian politics:

First, Shevtsova correctly emphasizes the continuities of the Putin presidency with the Yeltsin past. Although he wishes to play the role of pragmatic manager and prefers loyalty and subordination to the chaotic, patriarchal style of his predecessor, the essence of Russian politics since Yeltsin is little changed. It blends money and power; formally democratic institutions with a weak rule of law; and constitutionalism with unfettered, often authoritarian personal power. "Leadership," writes Shevtsova, "continues to be Russia's major political institution -- in fact its only one."

Second, in contrast to many Western analysts, Shevtsova emphasizes the limits of Putin's power. The "managed democracy" he has built is, strictly speaking, managed only with respect to formal structures of power. On the one hand, the State Duma has become an extension of the Kremlin, and political parties are even further weakened than they were under Yeltsin. The Kremlin has largely intimidated the media. On the other hand, the real centers of power -- the oligarchs, the federal bureaucracy, the intelligence services, among others -- manage Putin at least as often as Putin manages them. While Putin prevails on some issues, he often does so only after lining up coalitions, and sometimes sees his goals subverted during implementation.

Finally, Shevtsova reminds us that Putin's foreign policy turn toward the United States after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks "contains not only the possibility of real partnership and Russia's integration into the West, but the threat of Russian alienation." Putin's pro-Western tilt has received only mixed support from Russia's political class. Many Russian elites remain suspicious of Washington's intentions, jealous of U.S. power, and are still interested in restoring their country's international stature. "If there were a new misunderstanding or clash of interests," she writes, "Russia would not revert to its previous hostility toward Western civilization, but rather descend into a murky zone of disenchantment with everybody and everything -- including Russia itself."

So far, Shevtsova asserts, the alliance is marked by a "Faustian bargain": The West includes Russia in the implementation of its geopolitical interests while closing its eyes to how far Russia is from being a liberal democracy. The alliance will only be temporary, she argues, until Russia embraces Western values. How the United States can foster such values, especially after the discredited policies of the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, remains unclear.

I have only few quibbles with the book. Shevtsova casts little light on the several blank spots in Putin's curriculum vitae. There is little here about Putin's role in St. Petersburg's semi-criminalized city government in the 1990s, when the future president worked for then-Mayor Anatolii Sobchak. Nor does she say much about the persistent stories that The Family -- the still-powerful Yeltsin-era entourage that virtually privatized the country during the first Russian president's final months in power -- have compromising material on Putin with which they can manipulate him.

The author also adds little new to the story of the 1999 apartment-building bombings in Moscow and some provincial cities, which provided a convenient pretext for the war in the North Caucasus that propelled Putin into the Kremlin. Above all, Shevtsova places more weight on the role of public opinion than I would. While Putin's election and high personal approval rating give him legitimacy to rule, the elites, not society, limit his power. Growing popular opposition to the war in Chechnya and to many of Putin's economic policies seems unable to change the Kremlin's course.

The question for Russia, Shevtsova concludes, is whether Putin can trust society enough to turn directly to it for a mandate to implement a transformation of a new type -- this time, not from above, as has always been done in Russia, but with society's participation. The "urban, dynamic, educated strata have already made a choice for individual rights and freedoms and are prepared to accept liberal democracy as a system," she writes. Shevtsova expresses the hope that the March 2004 presidential elections will enable Putin "to fight his way out of the spider's web in which he has been trapped."

I am less sanguine than Shevtsova on the prospects for reform in Russia. Far more than Putin's decisive re-election on a reformist program would be needed to arouse Russian society from its current torpor. The Russian elites would be more likely to get rid of Putin, in my view, than to tolerate fundamental threats to their political and economic interests. Even Shevtsova hedges her bets. She wonders if Putin is capable of understanding that the "rule he has created will not allow him to realize his goal -- forming a civilized market economy and a modern state." I suspect that even if he understands the dilemma, which is by no means clear, he cannot and will not act differently. (Don Jensen)

Pavel Borodin, the Yeltsin-era head of the Kremlin property administration who is now state secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union, said the recently formed bloc that he heads -- the Eurasia Party-Union of Patriots of Russia -- is planning to win a whopping 30 percent of the vote in December's State Duma elections, "Gazeta" reported on 23 May.

Speaking to supporters on 22 May, Borodin described the bloc -- which includes the Russian Party of Peace, headed by Duma Deputy Iosef Kobzon and former Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev, and Duma Deputy Oleg Shein's Russian Party of Labor -- as an "electoral coalition of left-center forces." According to Borodin, the bloc is also talking to Sergei Baburin's Popular Will, Aleksei Podberezkin's Spiritual Heritage, and the Democratic Party, headed by Novgorod Oblast Governor Mikhail Prusak. Borodin said the Social Democrats, headed by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Samara Oblast Governor Konstantin Titov, and the Party of Russia's Rebirth, headed by State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev, are also thinking about joining the coalition. Borodin called Eurasianism "the future of the whole post-Soviet space," while Aushev called it "a platform for the development of a national idea."

Asked by "Gazeta" about his bloc's electoral prospects, Borodin predicted it would at a "minimum" win 30 percent of the Duma vote. "I have a precise plan for these elections, everything is arranged point by point, as [former KGB Chairman and CPSU Central Committee General Secretary] Yurii Vladimirovich Andropov taught," Borodin told the paper. "Look at what handsome men are gathered in our party. And more than half the voters are women.... Do you understand?"

Borodin's prognosis was bolder than one made on 22 May by Abdul-Vakhed Niyazov, who chairs the Eurasia Party-Union of Patriots' political council. Niyazov said the bloc would "consider it a failure" if it won only the 5 percent of the vote needed as a minimum to pick up Duma seats under the proportional-representation system.

The Eurasia Party-Union of Patriots is reportedly backed by the so-called Family, meaning the administration of former President Yeltsin, and particularly by former ORT head Igor Shabdurasulov and former Duma Budget Committee Chairman Aleksei Golovkov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 May 2003). Borodin was a member of Yeltsin's inner circle and the key figure in the Mabetex scandal, involving allegations that Borodin and various associates received multimillion-dollar payments in return for lucrative contracts to refurbish the Kremlin and other official buildings in Russia. Borodin was briefly jailed in New York in early 2001 at the request of Swiss prosecutors, who accused him of money laundering, but was released after a Swiss court dropped one of the charges against him and the Russian government posted a $3 million bond. Borodin later flew to Switzerland to meet with investigators to answer their questions, but during later court appearances in Geneva, he refused to answer the questions of Swiss prosecutors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April, 17 May, 12 June, and 3 July 2001). (Jonas Bernstein/Victor Yasmann/Julie A. Corwin)

On 22 May, the State Duma voted to revoke for one month Communist Deputy Vasilii Shandybin's right to speak in the chamber, Interfax reported. Shandybin was punished for shouting at the end of President Putin's 16 May address to the parliament, "There will be only thieves, bandits, and bribe takers in the next Duma." Duma Ethics Committee Chairwoman Galina Strelchenko (Unity) proposed the punishment, arguing that Shandybin had harmed the honor and dignity of other parliamentarians. The previous day, the Duma rejected a motion supported by Strelchenko that would have prevented Shandybin from addressing the Duma for the remainder of the spring session (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 23 May 2003).

Somewhat ironically, a number of human rights organizations signed an appeal to the Duma asking its members to rescind the month-long speaking ban on Shandybin, RosBalt reported on 23 May. According to the news agency, among the groups supporting the appeal, which was distributed to the legislators by Deputy Oleg Shein (Russian Regions), were Common Action (Obshchee Deistvie), the Institute of Human Rights, Civil Assistance (Grazhdanskoe Sodeistvie), and Ecology and Human Rights. These groups' members include leading liberals and veteran anti-Soviet activists like Yelena Bonner, Sergei Kovalev, and Lev Ponomarev.

The signatories to the appeal stated that the withdrawal of Shandybin's right to speak in the Duma was an attack on the foundations of parliamentarianism, an abridgement of the right of political expression, and a violation of a deputy's right to express his or her opinions in parliament. The appeal emphasized that the issue is not Shandybin, "who one may or may not like," but upholding democratic principles, RosBalt reported. (Jonas Bernstein/Laura Belin)

Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov said on 27 May that a new version of the law on the mass media will be passed at the beginning of June, RosBalt reported. Speaking to a meeting of the Media Ministry's collegium, Veshnyakov called the law's passage "the main problem that needs to be solved" before this December's State Duma elections in order to ensure that "mass media that deliberately ignore the election rules" are brought to account.

According to Veshnyakov, the draft law states that the Media Ministry can take any media outlet that has committed three violations to court and force it to cease its operations. This provision, he said, "will help stop those who start to become brazen." Also speaking to the collegium, First Deputy Media Minister Mikhail Seslavinskii said the Media Ministry and the TsIK are jointly developing "methodological recommendations" concerning press coverage of the election campaign, RIA-Novosti reported on 27 May. Seslavinskii said a single federal registry of mass media will be ready by 1 September, allowing his ministry to follow all information being published in the country.

Nina Tikhomirova, who heads the Media Ministry's territorial department, said that violations of electoral law most often involve the publication and dissemination of campaign materials prior to the legal start of the campaign and the dissemination of campaign propaganda under the guise of news. Other violations, she said, involve the publication of falsified printed material using the names and logos of existing newspapers, reported on 27 May. Yet another type of violation, she said, involves officials using "administrative resources to pressure media" into publishing "compromising material" or publishing campaign propaganda on the day of the election, when such agitation is forbidden, RosBalt reported on 27 May.

The Industrial Committee, an organization of media owners and managers that is dominated by representatives of the state-controlled media, has taken the lead in drafting the new mass media law. Earlier this month, Mikhail Fedotov, secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists and former State Press Committee chairman under President Yeltsin, warned that the proposed law represents a threat to press freedom. The draft, Fedotov said, includes provisions that "might not be dangerous under a 'good' president and a liberal media minister, but which otherwise could be used as a big stick in a political struggle" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 23 May 2003). (Jonas Bernstein)

President Putin devoted a portion of his annual address to parliament on 16 May to the issue of Russia's "demographic decline." The country's death rate, he noted, grew by 10 percent over the last three years, while the average life expectancy declined from 67 years in 1999 to 64 in 2002. Among the causes of these "sad figures," Putin said, were high rates of illness, accidents, poisonings, and injuries. "New epidemics" like drug abuse and AIDS, he added, are "exacerbating the situation."

The week following Putin's speech saw developments that added a sense of urgency to his concerns about the state of Russia's health. Valentin Pokrovskii, president of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, told a conference devoted to the country's public-health priorities for 2004-10 that only half of Russian boys currently aged 16 will live to the age of 60, reported on 23 May. The mortality rate for Russian males of working age increased 80 percent over the last decade, Pokrovskii said, the main causes being alcoholism, accidents, violations of work-place and environmental safety, and imperfections in the public-health system. Some 109 million Russians live in areas plagued by "ecological disasters," he said, with more than 30 percent of water samples taken around the country failing to meet sanitary standards. "The conditions for life have become unbearable," Pokrovskii concluded, adding that the country's future development and security depends on the physical, psychic, and intellectual health of its population. He called for an increase in health-care funding.

Speaking at the same conference, former Health Minister Vladimir Starodubov, who now heads one of the ministry's research institutes, predicted that in the best-case scenario, Russia's population will drop to 121 million people by 2050, a decrease of 24 million. According to Starodubov's worst-case scenario, Russia's population will drop to 102 million by 2050, a decrease of 43 million.

In addition, he predicted that the percentage of children and adolescents in the population would drop from 26 percent of the total to 19 percent and that the number of working-age adults would drop from 55 to 47 percent and the percentage of elderly would increase from 19 to 34 percent. The main causes of mortality due to factors other than aging or chronic illness are defects in the health-care system, "the drop in living standards of part of the population in the process of reform," and alcohol poisoning, Starodubov said, adding that deaths from the latter have reached a "crisis" level. Earlier this month, the State Statistics Committee reported that 7,829 Russians died of alcohol poisoning in the first two months of this year, up 5.5 percent over the same period last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 May 2003).

As if these depressing statistics weren't enough, the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute declared Russians the heaviest smokers in the world. Citing research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the institute reported that in 2002, Russians smoked 1,931 cigarettes per capita -- more than twice the world average, reported on 23 May.

Meanwhile, Vadim Pokrovskii, head of the Federal Center for Preventing and Combating AIDS, said on 21 May that while there are officially 238,405 HIV-infection cases in Russia, experts believe the real number of cases is 500,000-1.5 million (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 May 2003). Official statistics from Tolyatti, Irkutsk, and Orenburg indicate that one in 100 people in each area are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, reported on 22 May. As these statistics suggest, the health situation in some of Russia's regions is nothing short of catastrophic. Tula Oblast currently has more than 3,000 registered HIV-infection cases, including 102 babies born to HIV-infected mothers. The infants are now being cared for in the oblast's AIDS clinic, Regnum reported on 16 May.

Meanwhile, the average life expectancy for men in Arkhangelsk Oblast is 57.5 years, Regnum reported on 15 May. A region-wide children's health drive conducted in Arkhangelsk Oblast last year found that 65.6 percent of those children examined were sick and 58.7 percent suffered from chronic illnesses.

Russia's overall demographic and health situation, while alarming, is not totally bleak. As President Putin noted in his annual address, birthrates over the last three years grew by 18 percent, and infant mortality dropped by 21 percent. Infant mortality, the president said, is at "an absolute record low in our history." (Jonas Bernstein)

30 May: Commonwealth of Independent States summit will take place in St. Petersburg

31 May: Russia-European Union summit will take place in St. Petersburg

31 May-1 June: Czech President Vaclav Klaus will visit St. Petersburg

1 June: U.S. President George W. Bush will hold a summit with President Putin in St. Petersburg

1 June: Deadline for Russian veterinary inspectors to complete inspections of U.S. chicken farms

1 June: Date by which President Putin has instructed the government to complete consultations on a plan to convert Russia to a professional army

1-3 June: G-8 summit will take place in Evian, France

12 June: Liberal Russia faction that supports Boris Berezovskii will hold extraordinary congress in Moscow

15 June: Karachaevo-Cherkessia will hold presidential elections

16-22 June: A meeting of 25 Nobel Prize laureates on the topic of "Science and the Progress of Humanity" will be held in St. Petersburg

17-21 June: Seventh International Economic Forum will be held in St. Petersburg

27 June: Gazprom will hold annual shareholders meeting

July: Month by which a working group of European and Russian legislators wants to create a "road map" for implementation of the joint Russian-EU accord on Kaliningrad of 11 November 2002, ITAR-TASS reported on 3 March

1 July: Date by which the new State Committee on Drug Trafficking will be created and new Federal Service for Economic and Tax Crimes will be formed, according to the committee's head, Viktor Cherkesov, on 8 April and ITAR-TASS on 10 April

1 July: United Arab Emirates national airline will begin regular flights from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport

14 July: Deadline set by President Putin for Russian regions to bring their laws into compliance with federal regulations

15 August: Date by which Duma should approve new map of single-mandate districts; if it fails to do so, the Central Election Commission will have the right to confirm the map

September: Second Russian-U.S. Commercial Energy Summit will take place in Moscow

September: Gennadii Seleznev's Party for Russia's Revival will hold a congress in Moscow

1 September: Campaign officially begins for State Duma elections

1 September: Date by which government commission will have drafted 2004 budget

14 September: Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel's second term officially expires

23 September: The first European-Pacific Ocean Conference will take place in Vladivostok devoted to improving dialogue among intellectuals in European countries and the Pacific region, reported on 6 March

1 October: 33 percent salary hike for budget-funded workers to go into effect

6 October: British court to consider Russia's request to extradite Boris Berezovskii

October: Days of Bulgarian Culture will be held in Russia

October: President Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will meet in Yekaterinburg, Novyi region reported on 14 April

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

29 October: 85th anniversary of the founding of the Komsomol.