Last week saw a significant shift of emphasis in the unseasonably hot political commentary in Moscow: It was not whether but how Vladimir Putin will secure a third presidential term for himself (Nezavisimaya gazeta, Grani.ru, August 3). The trigger for this re-targeting of professional speculations was his non-answer, “Maybe I would have wished, but the constitution…” given to the direct question at a press conference in Finland (Kommersant, August 3, EDM, August 5). This “Could you? Would you?” game may appear very exciting, but it misses the point: the second Russian president has nearly lost all interest in the job. He still sincerely enjoys its small perks, including the long-awaited chairmanship of the G-8, but he does not really want to do anything serious. The main demand of the job is decision-making, and it is only Kremlin-fed political “technologists” like Gleb Pavlovsky who still insist that Putin is a “model of efficiency” (Ekho Moskvy, July 27). For everybody else, it is quite apparent that the key decisions are indefinitely postponed while responsibility for past mistakes is resolutely denied.
The recent drama surrounding a stranded AS-28 mini-sub (Russian name “Prize”) in the Russian Far East illuminated yet again the structural inefficiency of Russian state governance. The unfortunate “Prize” got stuck in the first hour of Thursday (Moscow time), but 12 hours later Putin was posing in the cabin of a new locomotive and showing no awareness of the looming disaster (Kommersant, August 5).
Nor did his key advisors seem concerned. Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov chaired a cabinet meeting that morning, with his ministers about the economy’s “unsatisfactory” low growth and high inflation (Izvestiya, August 5). Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was occupied with the scandal surrounding the American ABC television network’s broadcast of an interview with Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev. Just days earlier he had toured the Far Eastern Military District, praising the Navy’s role in upholding Russia’s “great power” status (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, August 5). During Friday and Saturday (August 5-6), none of these officials made any public statement about the crippled sub. Ivanov’s press liaison did confirm that he was fully aware of the situation but did not want to “interfere” in the work of the emergency authorities (Newsru.com, August 6). The only source of information were representatives from the Naval headquarters and the Pacific Navy, who supplied a mix of face-saving reports about the rescue operation and lies about the real causes, a strategy familiar from the Kursk submarine tragedy in August 2000 (Kommersant, RBC, August 6).
Direct interference probably would be unhelpful, but the official unwillingness to speak to the millions of Russians desperate to get any reliable information about the slowly unfolding drama is a different matter. It would have been hard to explain why the bitter lessons of the Kursk had been neglected and why the Navy was again so helpless in the face of a too-predictable accident. None of the top officials is prepared to assume personal responsibility for the lack of funding to improve sailors’ basic safety when the country is awash in oil money and military spending is plentiful. Appearing on television during an unfolding crisis is considered “negative PR” that is to be avoided at any cost, so it was only after a mid-day special meeting on Saturday that Putin sent Ivanov to make the long flight to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky; he arrived just in time to greet the sailors saved by the British rescue team (Ekho Moskvy, August 6).
The Kremlin seems to regularly disappear whenever tragedy interferes with Putin’s era of stability and “normalcy,” as demonstrated last year during the Beslan hostage crisis. Putin made an emotional speech after the tragic resolution of the siege but his only — and strikingly inadequate — practical reaction was to cancel the system of regional elections. Now Moscow “suggests” governors to the regional parliaments, and the big story of last week was the “surprise” appointment of Moscow’s deputy mayor, Valery Shantsev, to head Nizhny Novgorod (Izvestiya, August 4). Consumed by the nuances of this appointment, the Kremlin missed the deadline for nominating a governor for Irkutsk oblast, obviously much less important post in the centrally planned political process (Kommersant, August 4).
Carefully reshuffling the old political nomenklatura and making sure that the former governors are placed into cozy positions as advisors or ambassadors, Putin is trying to preserve peace in the divided and fragmented political class. This is seen as sine qua non for exorcising the demon of the “color” revolution, while an equally important task is to remove the revolution’s potential leaders, either by placing Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky behind bars or by persuading former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov to take his family for long “Mediterranean vacations” (Gazeta.ru, August 2).
However, these moves only amount to buying time and postponing the accumulating problems until they can be pushed onto the shoulders of an as-yet unknown successor. Putin certainly wants to avoid being treated as a “lame duck,” and his vague statements about a third term serve this purpose quite well. Presently, many serious analysts, for instance Vitaly Tretyakov, still consider him as a “successful president” — and he would love nothing better than to depart from the political arena with such a reputation (Politichesky klass, July 2). Political time, however, is running out too fast, and current Levada Center opinion polls show that more than half of Russians see the country as going in the wrong direction, while only 3% consider the situation to be favorable (Lenta.ru, August 3).
Putin cannot slow this trend, which manifests itself in the chain of accidents and disasters; denial does not help and all PR tricks have been used already. Of the Kursk, Putin once told CNN’s Larry King: “It sank.” These brief words quite possibly may one day be used to sum up his own presidency.