March 26 of this year marked the midway point of President Vladimir Putin’s first term as president and, as such, was a convenient date for drawing intermediate conclusions about his presidency. In reality, Vladimir Putin has been in power de facto since August 9, 1999, when he was promoted from the post of Federal Security Service (FSB) chief to that of prime minister. In addition, he appears to be well positioned to win the next presidential election and thus a second term in office. What is clear is that during the relatively short time he has been in power, Russia has changed a great deal and attained a certain level of stability. It is not, however, the stability of a society bored by its economic prosperity and political predictability, but that of a society tired of economic chaos and political turmoil and ready to pay whatever it takes to avoid further upheavals.
REVOLUTIONS TO SEAL STABILITY
The presidential mid-term coincided with two events: the outcome of a tender for the TV-6 television channel’s frequency and the ousting of the Communists from their committee chairmanships in the State Duma–events which would have been unthinkable just a couple years ago. But despite their revolutionary character, these events not only did not undermine the achieved stability, but also sealed it. They also turned out to have best illustrated the current situation in Russia.
On March 26, the license to broadcast on the Russian TV channel 6 was given to MediaSotsium, a team of the journalists headed by Yevgeny Kiselev and backed by a group of well-known Russian entrepreneurs, including Anatoly Chubais, the “father” of Russian privatization and now the head of the state electricity monopoly, in alliance with Yevgeny Primakov, the head of the Russian Chamber of Commerce (RTP), and Arkady Volsky, the head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP). A stranger alliance is hard to imagine. In the last two years, Kiselev’s team first left NTV and then TV-6 as the authorities, eager to put in practice Putin’s declaration that “all oligarchs should be equally far from power,” drove the owners of the channels–Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, respectively–from Russia, stripping them of their television ownerships in the process. Kiselev, who has long portrayed himself as a fiery fighter for the freedom and independence of press, then found new sponsors in a group of well-known businessmen, many of whom he had not so long ago sharply criticized–given that they belonged to a rival political clique, along with Volsky and Primakov, both notoriously statist in their views and the latter particularly known for being unable to handle media scrutiny.
Under President Boris Yeltsin, the mass media in Russia, not satisfied with their role as the “fourth estate,” asking the authorities inconvenient questions and provoking public debate on various issues, usurped the role of political prophets and powerbrokers. It was the anticommunist propaganda in the mass media that helped Yeltsin defeat Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov in the 1996 presidential election. Afterwards, the media magnates considered themselves the real power in the country and used their outlets as heavy artillery in feuds and power struggles. During Putin’s presidential campaign, Boris Berezovsky’s media backed the acting president while Vladimir Gusinsky’s opposed him, but both oligarchs lost out after Putin’s victory. Two years and a number of court decisions later, both men are living outside Russia, and not one media outlet dares play powerbroker.
Unfortunately, neither do any of them dare any longer to ask the authorities inconvenient questions. Interestingly, no one has actually prohibited them from doing so. Many in the profession have simply assumed that it is out of the question. Kiselev was no different: During the first press conference after MediaSotsium won the tender for TV-6’s broadcasting license, he and Primakov, even before saying a word about the new TV station’s creative concept, began discussing the main principle for their future work together–self-censorship.
As the echo of the media revolution died down, a parliamentary revolution was starting. During a closed meeting on April 1, the leaders of four centrist factions in the Duma–Unity, Fatherland-All Russia (OVR), People’s Deputy and Russia’s Regions–along with two rightist factions, the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) and Yabloko, decided to reconsider the package agreement on the distribution of committee chairmanships reached at the start of 2000 between the centrist factions and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). On the April 3, the Duma voted to sack the Communists from the leading positions in seven of the nine committees they chaired. (Altogether there are twenty-eight committees in the Duma.) In protest, KPRF gave up two other committees and appealed to the speaker Gennady Seleznev, who is a party member, to leave his post. Seleznev refused to do so. The Communists also lost their grip on Duma’s material resources, including postal, printing, telephone and other services, which they were known to use excessively, when their representative, Nikolai Troshkin, was sacked as the Duma’s superintendent.
The ousting of the Communists happened quickly and smoothly, as if it had not been preceded by a decade-long attempt to strip them of political influence. Under Yeltsin, the Communists and their left-wing allies dominated the parliament, effectively blocking the actions of the reformist government. Reforms were implemented by presidential decrees rather than by laws. The KPRF’s position was seriously shaken after the 1999 parliamentary elections, when they lost their majority to centrist factions. In March 2001, a rather clumsy attempt was made to weaken their influence further. The centrists threatened to support a vote of no confidence against the government of Mikhail Kasyanov proposed by the Communists, which could have resulted in dismissal of the Duma and new elections, in which the centrists hoped to steal away more votes of the KPRF’s electorate. The plot was not implemented, however, and the Duma rejected the no-confidence measure.
And rightly so, given that the same result was achieved a year later with almost no time or effort expended. This was possible because Russian politics, largely nonideological and prone to factionalism, has been restructured into a clear three-party political system. Following the merger late last year of Unity, OVR and other smaller groups into a new party called United Russia, the centrists have become the dominant political force, and a clearly pro-presidential one. Centrist deputies in the parliament began acting as a group and before long realized that they no longer had to make deals with leftist factions in order to get pro-presidential legislation approved. The parties on the right, the Union of the Right Forces (SPS) and Yabloko, which were largely excluded in the divvying up of committees two years ago, seized on the opportunity to improve their own situation, taking over three committees from the Communists.
What Russia’s democrats were unable to achieve in ten years has been done in two under Putin. Unfortunately, the process of reaching a societal consensus on key issues through representative democracy appears also to have been handicapped, because all pro-presidential Duma legislation can now be approved without serious debate. This is without doubt stability, but it is also stability at the expense of plurality.
STABILITY AT A PRICE
These two developments illustrate the situation in Russian society under President Putin very well. Having inherited a huge country in a state of economic and political disorder, his administration has acted swiftly and consistently to achieve stability. But it has come with a price.
The separatist tendencies of the Russian regional leaders were quickly suppressed after major changes in the procedures for forming the Federation Council meant the end of the upper chamber of the parliament as an independent political factor. With its new speaker, Sergei Mironov, who began his term by proposing that the presidential term be extended from four to seven years, the Federation Council shall no doubt be a useful presidential instrument. The Constitutional Court recently ruled that the president has the right to sack the elected governors if they abuse power. Thus the threat of the country becoming a confederation has been eliminated, but the Federation Council has virtually ceased being an important part of the legislative branch of state power.
As part of the war on corruption, the president has initiated judicial reforms aimed at making the courts more independent and preventing human right abuses by the law enforcement agencies. From now on, arrest warrants will be issued, not by prosecutors, as before, but by the courts. The green light to uncover abuses of power and economic misconduct, however, has led to activities on the part of the Tax Police and Prosecutor General’s Office that have aroused concerns. The latter has launched investigations into a number of well-known Russian companies, in some instances causing a dramatic fall in their share prices. Some observers contend this is being done on command “from above” and thus could undermine the efforts to make Russia’s judicial system modern and effective.
In the economic sphere, success has been evident in statistics. The economy grew 5.5 percent in 1999, 8.3 percent in 2000 and 5 percent in 2001. Inflation has dropped–36.5 percent in 1999, 20.2 percent in 2000, and 18.6 percent in 2001 (which was still higher than the 12-14 percent envisaged in the 2001 budget and the 11 percent registered in pre-crisis 1997). The government has also launched a number of structural reforms, the most important being the 13-percent flat income tax now in effect. It could not, however, present a coherent economic development program, one that would give the business community a clear orientation. No effective steps have been taken, especially in the tax sphere, to stimulate the development of small and medium-sized businesses.
In the international arena, Russia under Putin appears to have turned from an outsider into a darling of the West. Putin was the first world leader to call President Bush after September 11 terrorist attacks, conveying Russia’s sympathies and its readiness to cooperate and thereby making it almost a strategic partner of the West. The results of this rapid rapprochement have been mixed. On the one hand, Russia was promised help in entering the World Trade Organization and being recognized as a market economy. During Putin’s recent visit to Germany, for instance, he was able to set the exchange rate for the Soviet Union’s debt of 6.35 billion rubles to the former German Democratic Republic at 500 million Euros. On the other hand, Russia’s declared closeness to the West and the United States in particular has impeded its ability to maneuver and thus allowed the U.S. military to gain a presence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and even in Georgia.
And so while there is a stability, it comes at a price for both Russia and Putin. Some observers have already begun to compare him to Mikhail Gorbachev during the Soviet leader’s latter years in power, who became a popular figure in the West but lost all his popularity at home and was eventually forced to leave his office as the country plunged into a decade of turmoil. Another such outcome would be too high a price to pay, even for the current stability.
Elena Chinyaeva, who holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University, is a writer with the leading Russian political weekly Kommersant-Vlast.