Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly wanted to have the last word about the year 2004. First he shifted his “traditional” lengthy press conference to December 23, and then he confidently insisted that the country is on the right course whatever question a bothersome journalist would dare to rise. The last word, however, was not his: Andrei Illarionov, the president’s economic adviser, held his own press conference on December 28, where he delivered a sharply critical evaluation of the economic and political situation in the country. His statements have received far greater attention from the international media than the president’s, not only because scandal is an irresistible attraction for journalists but also because his assessments appear much more precise and measured than the official picture of a “generally positive year” (Wall Street Journal, January 6; New York Times, January 4).
Illarionov’s previous PR bombshell exploded in early October, when he gave an interview to the Financial Times (October 8, 2004) and then published a letter with clarifications (that did not soften the main point at all) and provided a series of follow-up comments to the Russian media with pointed criticism of the government’s inconsistent and contradictory economic policy. His “end-of-the-year” evaluation is significantly more negative, boiling down to the point that the policy is no longer inconsistent — it is consistently wrong (Ezhenedelny zhurnal, December 28). It is probably not the formal ratification of the Kyoto protocol — which Illarionov opposed to the bitter end — that pushed him that much further in his assessments (Ekho Moskvy, October 22, 2004). It was rather the December 22 meeting of the government, in which Minister for Economic Development German Gref tried to explain in no uncertain terms that the slowdown of economic growth was a direct result of the current policy of no reforms, but Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov insisted on pursuing the “presidential goal of doubling the GDP” no matter what (Kommersant, December 23).
It has long become obvious that the main preoccupation of Fradkov’s government is self-improvement through the hopelessly misguided administrative reform (Gazeta.ru, January 6). But what emerged from that particular meeting was the definitive conclusion that the small group of people that sits on the very top of the “vertical power structure” has no interest whatsoever in the real situation. Putin’s press conference was an exercise in reshaping the objective trends perceived by the will of the ultimate authority, and Illarionov declared that he was not going along with this “virtual reality.”
The crossroads where the president and his advisors part company in the most irreconcilable way is marked with a signpost reading “Yukos.” Putin, unlike on several other carefully staged occasions, such as the Congress of Entrepreneurs, did not avoid the issue at his press conference. He stated firmly and clearly that everything was just fine with the dismemberment of this company guilty of so many sins; he did not need to know all the small details, like the name of the new company that grabbed the loot, but he knew the people — and that was enough. Illarionov qualified the destruction of “the best company in Russia” as the “swindle of the year” that had inflicted massive damage on Russia’s investment climate and mentioned specifically the clumsy and incompetent way of executing the expropriation.
Back in October, Illarionov had characterized the “atmosphere of fear” spreading in the country, but it appears that he is not inhaling this poisoned air. There is no issue more sensitive to the “president’s men” than Yukos; and only one man dares to step again and again on this painful toe. It was unthinkable that this behavior could be left unpunished, and, indeed, this week Illarionov was relieved of his duties as the president’s “sherpa” in the G8 (Gazeta.ru, January 4). The punishment appears quite mild, and many Russian commentators ponder about Illarionov’s boldness, applauding his skill in a situation where a “proper” reaction would only make things worse or speculating about a possible ‘”green light” for this dissent coming from Putin, who might be eager to maintain some illusions about his liberalism (vip.lenta.ru, January 7).
It is nevertheless entirely possible that Illarionov remains immune to the widespread bureaucratic fear, because he is ready to resign from his post at any moment and does not depend upon the benevolence of the highest levels. The faceless “gray cardinals” around the president could deny him access to the “royal ear,” so he gets attention by creating a public scandal. His lengthy interview with Ekho Moskvy on December 30 conveys a genuine impression that he is convinced that the wall of self-deception around the Kremlin has to be breached — and that he does not care if his one-man assault costs him the job.
Illarionov probably deserves to be called the “man of the year” in Russian politics, but there is another candidate for that honor who spent all 2004 behind bars. The president’s adviser acknowledged the moral leadership of that man by paying a surprise visit to Moscow’s Meschansky court on December 31. Nothing special was happening there that day, just a regular session in the endless hearings of the case of former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky.