Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia Report: July 23, 2001

23 July 2001, Volume 1, Number 19
IS PUTIN LOSING HIS 'SHYNESS?' Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently taken a number of actions that may prove potentially politically risky, in an apparent shift from the Kremlin's strategy up to now of trying to maintain Putin's high opinion poll ratings even if that means backing away from desired programs (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Report," 9 and 26 February 2001). On 9 July, Putin took a public stance against the death penalty, which polls show most Russians support. And then, on 11 July, he signed a bill allowing imports of spent nuclear fuel, another policy that polls suggest most Russians oppose.

Yet another departure from the past was Putin's first official press conference with Russian and foreign journalists at the Kremlin on 18 July. Putin took no new stands at that meeting, allowing himself only a small show of temper on Chechnya, but even that was consistent with past behavior (see excerpts of conference below). But in holding such a press conference at all, Putin put himself at risk that someone might ask a question for which he was not prepared.

If the Putin administration is changing its tactics or -- at the very least -- is willing to take more risks, the question that immediately arises is, why now? The results of a ROMIR-Gallup poll released on 12 July showed continued high ratings for Putin with a only a slight erosion over the course of the previous month. The percentage of respondents trusting him dropped to 69.3 percent from 71.4 percent, according to Interfax. (The poll was conducted of 2,000 Russian citizens at the end of June and was compared with the data from a similar poll at the end of May.) But political analyst Sergei Kurginyan reported in "Rossiya" on 18 July that in contrast to this report, in certain parts of the country Putin's ratings are already sagging. Kurginyan claims that Putin's ratings overall have been falling by 3-5 percent per month since February, and in certain cities such as Irkutsk, Magadan, and Yekaterinburg, his ratings have fallen below 30 percent. If these results are accurate -- and polls in Russia are notoriously problematic -- then Putin may have changed course in the hopes of recovering his earlier standing.

Writing in "Vek" on 29 June, analyst Aleksei Bogaturov suggests an alternative explanation for Putin's apparent shift: According to Bogaturov, "as a politician, Putin has stopped being shy," and the period of "political reconnaissance is nearly over," with Putin now starting to pursue "a stable though cautious course of his own." Bogaturov concludes that Putin is changing his style of leadership: "Putin, who has previously been very careful about his reputation, today agrees to take unpopular measures, although he tries to do his best not to allow a mass of critical disappointment to form in the country." If "shyness" is indeed the factor, the Kremlin and government's recent run of success in the State Duma and Federation Council could embolden officials there to continue to take even more political risks in the future.

Of course, it is also possible that it is not that Putin or the presidential administration has changed so much as the setting in which they operate. With NTV tamed and the remaining independent media outlets more focused on their own survival than on what the Kremlin is up to, the presidential administration may feel freer to operate. After all, the Kremlin's foes in the last Duma election, Fatherland-All Russia, have been absorbed into a new union with the self-designated pro-presidential Unity party, and the voice of Fatherland leader and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov as an opposition leader has long been quieted.

Other regional leaders, like the independent media, have been more preoccupied with their own survival. They are losing their forum in the Federation Council, and this month they had to face another threat in the form of a bill that would have limited the number of terms the majority of regional leaders could seek to just two. One of the most prominent members of the Federation Council, Chairman Yegor Stroev, who had spoken against the bill allowing imports of spent nuclear fuel, registered this month for re-election in his oblast, as members of the pro-Kremlin federation group announced that they will be seeking to curb Stroev's powers (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 18 July 2001). (Julie A. Corwin)

Excerpts from 18 July press conference:

On the State Duma: "I think that in most recent history of Russia the Russian State Duma has never worked so intensively, purposefully, and single-mindedly. It would be sufficient to have a look at the statistics.... Four constitutional laws were adopted in the country and 155 ordinary federal laws, including 53 which were marked by the government as priority laws."

On restructuring the cabinet: "No one ever -- not a single official -- has spoken at any time of any deadlines for a restructuring of the Russian government. And neither did know, personalities are not at issue -- it does not matter who and where will be moved or sacked -- the thing is that this should be done so as to ensure that the main administrative structure of Russia functions in a more efficient manner. To this end we are involving not only government officials themselves but management experts too. I believe we shall certainly be consulting State Duma deputies. In short, as soon as a decision is reached it will be implemented."

On federal reforms: "I believe that, throughout the 1990s, the main constitutional provisions were not adhered to. That they were not adhered to was manifest in the fact that, because of the inactivity of the federal center, a considerable number of Russia's regions took over some of the federal functions.... We have introduced the federal districts and presidential representatives in the federal districts. The basic aim of these is to return federal functions to the federation, which -- I repeat -- to a significant extent had been lost by the federal center to the regions."

Burying Lenin: I am opposed to this and I shall tell you why. Our country lived in conditions of the CPSU's monopoly control of power for 70 years. This is the lifetime of a whole generation. Many people link their own lives with the name of Lenin. For them the burial of Lenin means...that they had worshipped false values, that they had set themselves false tasks, and that their lives had been lived in vain."

The First Family pets: "The [white dog] has not gone anywhere -- it is alive and well. But she is the dog of my wife and children. We even have another one exactly the same -- white and small. But the [black] Labrador was given to me by [Emergencies Minister] Shoigu, Sergey Kozhugetovich, during a trip to a site of the Emergencies Ministry. [The Labrador] lives with us, too. So we have a kennel now. But that is my own dog. That is why I spend more time with it."

FOREIGN MINISTER WHO? "Rossiya" in its issue on 13 July carried the results of a survey of the Russian media over a recent time period, the length of which was unspecified, conducted by the Center for Regional Applied Research. The center ranked the prominence in the public eye of Russian cabinet members in terms of the number of times they were mentioned in the Russian media. According to the center, Unity party leader and Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu has recently maintained a high public profile because of his role in the recent meeting of Unity and Fatherland parties and because of his work heading the commission to restore the flood-damaged parts of Sakha (Yakutia). JAC

Cabinet official__________________Number of times mentioned in
___________________________________________Russian media

Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu_____________________164
Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref____142
Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Kudrin____________________89
Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov__________________________55
Labor Minister Aleksandr Pochinok_______________________42
Railways Minister Nikolai Aksenenko______________________34
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov_____________________________28
Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev______________27
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov___________________________27
Transportation Minister Sergei Frank______________________25

Aleksandr Albertovich Veshnyakov: First, Make No Waves On 12 July, after signing the law on political parties, President Putin met with the man who played a large role in shaping its content and who has overseen all of the country's major elections over the past two years, Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov. The new law is expected to dramatically transform the Russian political scene, trimming the number of political groups of all types from almost 200 to 12 or so large national parties. Since its first test may not come until State Duma elections in December 2003, all current political organizations have until 14 July 2003 to continue to function according to the old legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 July 2001).

Unlike many of the important political figures in Moscow these days, Veshnyakov, 48, was not plucked from obscurity in St. Petersburg; he instead rose to his position of importance the old-fashioned way. He worked his way up from a low-level Communist Party bureaucrat in the far northern city of Arkhangelsk to a spot in the Supreme Soviet in Moscow to a seat on the Central Election Commission, finally becoming its head. Along the way, Veshnyakov developed a reputation for impartiality, scrupulous attention to the letter of the law, and a lack of ties to any political party or group. It has therefore perhaps been surprising how consistently under his leadership the TsIK has taken decisions that coincide with the Kremlin's interests. But the details of Veshnyakov's biography show him to be both pragmatic and ambitious. And, bucking the Kremlin would likely not be a promising venture -- nor one that is career-enhancing.

As a child, Aleksandr Albertovich dreamed of becoming a pilot, but growing up in a small village in a family of fishermen, he took the more practical route of applying to Arkhangelsk Oblast's school for mariners, one of the most prestigious in the country at the time, according to "Profil" on 9 June 1999. There he distinguished himself with his high marks, aloofness, and single-minded dedication to study. According to his schoolmates at the time, Veshnyakov was never unprepared and gave the dual impression of being older than he really was and of always having known what he wanted from life, the journal reported.

After finishing school in 1972, Veshnyakov toiled at North Sea Steamship Line for about 10 years before making his first tentative steps toward a career in politics. In 1982 he became deputy secretary of the company's Communist Party committee. And by 1987, when he was 35, he had finally entered politics full-time, becoming the secretary of the Arkhangelsk City Committee of the CPSU. In that role, he developed a reputation locally for his orthodox principledness and his imperviousness to bribes. In 1990, he became a member of the USSR Supreme Soviet, where he was deputy chairman of the Council of Republics. In 1991, he was one of six deputies who expressed their opposition to Boris Yeltsin, who was then chairman of that legislative body, asking him to resign, according to "Profil." According to the weekly, this letter earned Veshnyakov the reputation of a person who supported the August 1991 coup. In an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta-figury i litsa" on 16 March 2000, Veshnyakov explained the letter as "the unnecessary idealism of a provincial fellow who had become swept up in national politics." "I believed that it was possible to act with clean hands," he said. In the same interview, he claims that he quit the Communist Party in 1991 because of the coup.

During his political career, Veshnyakov has managed not only to avoid making long-term enemies but to successfully forge alliances among various political groups. Veshnyakov managed to become elected to the Central Election Commission despite his earlier public opposition to Yeltsin. And earlier, even as a Communist deputy in the Supreme Soviet, he attended gatherings of new politicians and liberals, and Democratic Russia supported his candidacy for the post of deputy chairman of the Supreme Soviet. Likewise, Viktor Sheinis, who was a Yabloko deputy at the time, said that he and other deputies interested in election reform in the mid-1990s found that they could work with Veshnyakov at the commission on this common goal.

When asked by "Nezavisimaya gazeta-figury i litsa," what he had learned from his experience of a life linked with the sea, he concluded that he learned "two important qualities -- order and decency. The sea does not like people who are unorganized and who have no feeling of comradeship." Veshnyakov's respect for order and decency can perhaps be seen in the decisions of the election commission under his stewardship. No regional or national election outcomes have been challenged or overturned despite extensive reports in some cases of election rigging. For example, "The Moscow Times" documented a number of election violations in the presidential election in March 2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 September 2000). And people whom some might consider dubious such as Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii, Russian National Unity head Aleksandr Barkashov, and Kursk Oblast Governor Aleksandr Rutskoi, have either been barred from running or faced considerable obstacles.

More recently, the commission found that of the 2.5 million signatures gathered by environmental and human rights groups to hold a nationwide referendum on environmental issues, some 600,000 were invalid. The activists had gathered some 500,000 extra signatures, anticipating that their efforts would face substantial scrutiny (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November 2000). Apparently, they did not anticipate just how much scrutiny their efforts might be subjected to or how dangerous the Moscow leadership and Veshnyakov personally would view the referendum they wanted. (Julie A. Corwin)

SENATORS RUBBER-STAMP MOST LAWS PASSED BY DUMA... On the upper legislative chamber's last day, senators passed a large number of bills that the State Duma had passed during its busy final weeks, such as a series of amendments to the Tax Code which will reduce the tax on profits from 35 to 24 percent and set the excise duties on alcohol, tobacco, and other goods. Representatives also approved bills designed by the government to assist in the de-bureaucratization of the economy. The bills will reduce the number of activities that require a license and simplify the procedure for registering a legal entity (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 16 July 2001). Another bill approved favorable to business amends foreign currency legislation by lowering the amount of foreign currency earnings that exporters must sell from 75 percent to 50 percent. A bill protecting individuals' and firms' rights during government audits also passed. JAC

...BUT KILL BILLS THAT WOULD ALTER STATUS QUO IN REGIONS. As expected, Federation Council members did not support amendments that would restrict the number of regional leaders who could seek a third term from 69 to 10. The Committee for Constitutional Legislation and Regional Policies argued that the bill violated provisions of the constitution which guarantees the equality of Russian regions. Voting against the bill were 132 senators, only 10 votes were cast supporting it, and four abstained, according to ITAR-TASS. After the vote, according to Interfax, Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroev told journalists that even if Duma deputies manage to find enough votes to overcome the upper house veto, he does not believe that the bill would be signed, according to Interfax. Senators also rejected a bill that establishes a procedure for the merger of regions or the absorption of new regions into the federation (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 18 April 2001). Only 22 senators voted in favor of the bill. The bill will now go to a conciliation commission. A conciliation commission's version of the bill amending the law on the police did pass, but a number of senators such as Ingushetia's President Ruslan Aushev and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov continued to express their strong disapproval. The bill in its newer version gives regional leaders the right to be consulted on decisions appointing top law-enforcement officials in the regions. The vote on the bill was 103 in favor, 27 against, and 12 abstentions. JAC

Legislation Name of Law_________________________Date Approved

Tax Code, Part II______________________________20 July
(article 20, sales tax)

Tax Code, Part II______________________________20 July
(article 22, excise duties)

On foreign currency regulation__________________20 July

On the licensing of various types of_______________20 July

On state regulation of legal entities________________20 July

On the defense of rights of_______________________20 July
legal entities and entrepreneurs
during government audits

On combating money laundering__________________20 July

On insolvent credit organizations__________________20 July

On the police__________________________________20 July

COMINGS & GOINGS IN: Former deputy of the Moscow city Duma Yurii Sharandin was confirmed by the Federation Council on 20 July as a representative for the administration of Evenk Autonomous Okrug. Also confirmed as a new member of the upper legislative chamber was Gleb Fetisov, a former president of the Alfa-Eko group, who will represent Voronezh Oblast.

POLITICAL CALENDAR 26 July: Security Council will discuss Kaliningrad Oblast

28 July: Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov to visit Primorskii Krai, according to the website

29 July: Gubernatorial elections in Nizhnii Novgorod and Irkutsk oblasts

End of July-beginning of August: Former President Boris Yeltsin to visit Samara, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 17 July

12 August: First anniversary of the sinking of the "Kursk" submarine

14 August: Finance Ministry will submit draft 2002 budget to the cabinet of ministers

15 August: Deadline by which the 2002 federal budget should be submitted to the State Duma, according to ITAR-TASS

End of August: New U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow will take office in Moscow, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 11 July

First half of September: Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero will visit Russia

September: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir ibn Mohamad will visit Russia

6 September: Aeroflot shareholders meeting will be held

7 September: Russian Public Television (ORT) will hold a shareholders meeting at which a new board of directors will be selected, according to ORT General Director Konstantin Ernst on 29 June

19 September: State Duma will hold the first full plenary meeting of its fall session

23 September: Gubernatorial elections in Rostov Oblast

End of September: The cabinet of ministers will examine the question of reform of the country's banking system, according to Prime Minister Kasyanov on 16 July

2 October: EU-Russia summit to take place in Brussels

7 October: State Duma by-elections will be held for the single-mandate districts in Amur and Arkhangelsk oblasts. Two seats were vacated when former State Duma deputy Leonid Korotkov was elected governor of Amur and deputy Aleksandr Piskunov was named an auditor at the Audit Chamber

13 October: Fatherland will hold a congress to reorganize the movement into a party

20-21 October: President Putin will take part in the ninth informal summit meeting of the Asia Economic Cooperation forum in Shanghai, according to ITAR-TASS on 2 July

28 October: Gubernatorial elections in Orel Oblast

28 December: Duma's fall session will come to a close, according to ITAR-TASS on 13 July.