Publication: Prism Volume: 8 Issue: 1

By Aleksandr Tsipko

There’s something odd about Russia’s free press. On December 29, Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, appeared on Nikolai Svanidze’s popular Zerkalo (Mirror) program, broadcast on the government TV channel RTR, giving a wide-ranging and highly significant interview. He looked, incidentally, in excellent physical and mental condition. He seemed unchanged from the days when he ran the country, expressing himself in the same stern old Soviet style as he passed judgment on his successor, his personal qualities and actions, and on Russia today. The same day, as though intentionally–by order even–the Yeltsin interview was repeated in its entirety on almost every television channel. Yet not one of the newspapers published after the New Year had a word to say about it.

Yeltsin disdainfully judged the current president and his policies, even going as far as to criticize the Kremlin’s attempts to close down Boris Berezovsky’s TV-6 channel. The insinuating tone of the whole interview was without question insulting. Yeltsin once reserved this tone and such facial contortions for discussion of his political opponents–Mikhail Gorbachev, Ruslan Khasbulatov and Aleksandr Rutskoi. One extract from Yeltsin’s extensive interview: “We were counting on Vladimir Vladimirovich’s probity and fine moral qualities, as well as on his commitment to democratic values.” Yeltsin grimaced condescendingly as he spoke. A meaningful silence followed, then he continued: “And we were not mistaken. Putin justified our trust.” Another condescending smile. Vladimir Putin, of course, chose his own destiny and role in agreeing to be Yeltsin’s successor on certain conditions.

But it is not what Putin may feel about this that concerns me–though he has my heartfelt sympathy–but the fate of the nation. As a world-class politician, Yeltsin should not have allowed himself to descend to a settling of scores, to exposing the regime he created to such enormous risk. In putting Putin in his place like a pupil, Yeltsin diminished himself. The interview was of course prompted chiefly by political motives. Yeltsin and his old Kremlin team needed to show both Putin and his inner circle from Petersburg that they are still a force to be reckoned with. The Family wheeled Yeltsin out to put direct pressure on Putin, to remind him who he has to thank for his power and position. It has made an undisguised demand for loyalty not only to the events of the previous decade but also to the main heroes of the period. And it must be admitted that, thus far at least, it has achieved its aims. It has demonstrated, not only to Putin and his team but to the country as a whole, that the main information resources and the main television channels are in their hands and that, at any moment, they are capable of directing this powerful armory against anyone who encroaches on their power or wealth. Regrettably, in the light of the Yeltsin interview, it is clear that Berezovsky is not entirely bluffing when he threatens Putin with either early retirement or re-election. Yeltsin’s whole manner and stentorian voice was aimed at showing that Putin, far from being an independent figure, became president thanks only to his (Yeltsin’s) patronage, and that there is a power behind the scenes that controls him, rather than the reverse.

It was notable that this year-end attack was carried out across a broad front. The same day–December 29–this subject of the unknown Putin’s curious rise to power was re-enacted in the satirical puppet series “Ten years that shook our world.” Its hero, a puppet representing Boris Berezovsky, says something along the lines of: “We were looking for a president who would look like a Tsar, but still wouldn’t be able to lay a finger on us or take away our riches.” All the details of the PR show entitled “Putin’s ascent to power” are evident in this puppet series.

It is therefore as if we’re back where we were two years ago, on the eve of the spring 2000 presidential elections. Now, as then, Putin is under direct fire from opposition television channels. The year-end edition of the “Glas Naroda” (“Voice of the People”) show outdid them all for disrespect and vulgarity. Here again Boris Berezovsky took center stage–no puppet this time, but the flesh-and-blood opponent and enemy of Putin. Berezovsky’s team, a select band, consisted of all the most notorious quasi-political personalities: Igor Shabdurasulov, returning to the board of TV-6, and Igor Malashenko, currently president of NTV overseas, representing Gusinsky. But the most shockingly disrespectful and undiplomatic of them all was Georgy Satarov, the usually restrained and lucid director of the Applied Political Research Center, INDEM. For some reason, he began comparing Putin to Hitler, seeking analogies in their views on democracy and press freedom. And Satarov appeared on several other shows, taking the same harsh, anti-Putin line in portraying the president as the suppresser of freedom.

I do not understand the origin of this cavalier behavior of the Family and the old Kremlin team directed so narrowly at Putin. Where does it come from? Either from fear or from impunity–and I believe chiefly the latter. The Family is telling the nation that it is unafraid of Putin and his “Chekist” team. They are on the offensive, claiming that there is no real alternative to the Family, and that only they–with their financial, intellectual and information resources–have the means to secure Putin’s re-election for a second term. And the tragedy for Russia is that this is in fact how things are. If he fails to free himself from the influence of the Family, Putin will be unable to launch Russia forward into the future, even a market-based future. And that is leaving aside the problem of dealing with corruption. At the same time, however, it will be very difficult now to secure the stability and survival of the regime without these Family members. The old Kremlin team began the new year with some notable achievements behind them. In a strategic alliance with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Anatoly Chubais, head of the electricity utility, EES, managed to clear the company’s debt, as an essential step towards the reform, or more accurately, the privatization of the company. Chubais then used a shell company to acquire Russia’s debt to the Czech Republic at a major discount. As a result of complex machinations involving this debt, the company cleared its 40 billion ruble (US$1.35 billion) budget liabilities for just US$550 million, and in the process the government succeeded in off-loading its US$2.5 billion debt to the Czech Republic. The old Kremlin team had in effect given a virtuoso performance, giving notice of their intention to hold on to their positions of authority. The same might be said of Kasyanov’s triumph in his discussions with OPEC, which began by demanding that Russia cut oil production by some 300-500 thousand barrels per day, but eventually settling for a purely notional reduction of 150 thousand barrels.

In his New Year’s television address, Putin gave a very up-beat assessment of the country’s economic situation: “We have succeeded not merely in continuing the process of economic growth but also in improving standards of living, however modestly. We have shown that last year’s respectable results were not fortuitous. They were not just a passing phase in our lives.” There is no question that this assessment referred chiefly to the achievements of the government. In assessing its performance, most analysts stressed that, overall, the cabinet ended the year with some definite achievements to its credit, and some even claimed that Putin, who values stability, was unlikely to meddle with the government, as this would threaten to create increased uncertainty and instability. Moreover, the professionalism of the St. Petersburg team leaves something to be desired. Compared with Mikhail Kasyanov–a seasoned negotiator with a gift for effective bluffing–their candidate for prime minister, Mikhail Prusak, lacks experience in handling the debts that are the main problem for Russia’s economy.

The Russian press probably kept quiet about these attacks on Putin for fear of exposing the true state of affairs in the country. The Family’s ongoing struggle for survival is tantamount to a struggle against both the very regime it created and political stability in Russia. The more often Yeltsin and his entourage remind the country that it was they who selected Putin for president and that the elections were no more than a successful PR operation, the greater the likelihood that Putin, who is riding on the people’s hopes and emotions, will forfeit the authority he now commands.

Yeltsin remains true to form. In the past, it was his pride that drove him to bring down Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, that is, historical Russia. Now, in attempting to assert his supremacy over his successor, the same Yeltsin is destroying the political stability of the new nation as it struggles to rise from the ruins of the Soviet state. And this has nothing to do with emotion. In an interview published by Novye Izvestia on December 27, the head of the Department of Sociopolitical Studies at the Russian Center for Political Opinion and Market Research (VTsIOM), Lev Gudkov, predicted the inevitable onset of a period of political instability as a result of the grubby intrigues and faction-fighting in the Kremlin. Furthermore, he claimed that a weakened Putin, unable to shake off the Family, will be incapable of controlling the situation in the country in the event of a major crisis.

Aleksandr Tsipko is a senior associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for International Economic and Political Research and a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta.