Did you follow the events in Libya via the international media, through the imposition of the no-fly zone right to the messy conclusion? How about the frequent reports of Assad’s thugs mowing down protesters in Syria; a deliberate provocation to get NATO involved in another revolution there? A commenter on Anatoly’s blog who appeared quite knowledgeable on the subject suggested the latter intervention was a non-starter based on the relative superiority of Syrian air defence, as compared with that of Ghaddafi. I’m not sure how that will be affected as fighter aircraft edge closer and closer to unmanned vehicles – but that’s a subject for another day.
Something the two situations have in common are the use of a desired end-state (removal of the leader) as a starting point, and shoring up of the subsequent process with a blitz of media bulletins – nearly all of which relied on sources who had a direct interest in the outcome. Time after time, media reported anti-Ghaddafi forces initiating another assault in terms that expressed no doubt they would take the objective, and time and again they were hurled back until NATO bombing ahead of the advancing rebels began to turn the tide. Whenever the Ghaddafi administration offered journalists tours of Tripoli, the resulting reports complained that they “only saw what Ghaddafi wanted them to see”, and managed conveniently to overlook a pro-Ghaddafi demonstration that drew more than a million supporters. Simply put, everything Ghaddafi told reporters was a lie, while everything the rebels said was the unvarnished truth. Similarly, every report I’ve seen that details Assad’s vicious suppression of dissent is followed by, “according to activists”.
Since this blog deals mostly with Russian issues, of course there’s a Russian connection. The criminally awful coverage of Russian politics, immigration, economics and policy results almost exclusively from people who are not Russian and do not live in Russia as a part of Russian society, but have a special interest in pushing a narrative and repeating it until it assumes the appearance of truth. Kathy Lally. Ed Lucas. Leon Aron. Anne Applebaum, as well as many others you know well, all respected in the west as scholars, academics, experts….and all painters of journalistic masterpieces on Russia rendered in subtle variations of purest horseshit.
I can offer you something different. An insider’s unbiased view of the cut and thrust of Russian politics, the effect of domestic and foreign policy on the nation’s people and a candid appraisal of current events in Russia from a Russian viewpoint. I’m not talking about myself, of course – I don’t live in Russia, and have never lived there as a resident. I’m talking about kovane, whom I managed to drag out of semiretirement with the threat of a pay cut. Without further ado…..
Managed Democracy in Russia: Unmasking the Magic
The question if there is democracy in Russia long ago turned into something akin to the question if there is life on Mars. Some people are positive that there is, others are dead set that there isn’t, but the majority doesn’t care that much. Quite characteristically, as opposed to the riddle about Mars, both groups are right in a sense. The former are just looking at the standard definition of democracy – do citizens elect representatives? Check. Is there evidence of mass-falsifying these elections? No, the results largely match polls conducted by a plethora of organisations, both independent and state-owned. Well, democracy it is. The latter camp, on the other hand, try to compare Russia with a spherical model of democracy in a vacuum, where branches of power are completely independent, freedom of speech is not influenced by corporate interests and the influence of separate power brokers on the political process is negligible.
So, who is closer to the truth? While there is hardly a country that matches the Procrustean bed of preconditions proposed by the purists, one thing is undeniable – there are so many hidden terms in the equation of the political process that it places Russia very far from the said ideal. Much farther than a whole number of countries, it’s safe to say. In fact, as we will see below, the Kremlin holds so much sway over the political process that it would take a significant amount of dissent to push the situation out of control. And provided how nimble the Kremlin has been in the handling of it – mostly with reasonable concessions, but not shying away from using force if necessary – it would be a very unlikely scenario.
The foundations of Russia’s modern political system were laid in 1993 with the adoption of the new Constitution. The circumstances of its adoption were tragic, as it was preceded by bloody conflict between the president and the Congress of People’s Deputies. According to the then-current Constitution, the Congress had supreme power – something that didn’t sit well with Yeltsin. The long pent-up hostilities broke out into violence, which resulted in the shelling of the building of the Congress with tanks – definitely not an act from any Constitution. Yeltsin won and, on the tide of his success, voted through a new version of Constitution, effectively turning Russia in a presidential republic: with the balance of power tipped heavily in favour of the president, at that.
During Yeltsin’s term the Constitution and main legislations regulating Russia’s political life largely remained unchanged (save for amendments regarding regions’ name changes), so Vladimir Putin inherited the same core set of laws in 2000. Nevertheless, its prior implementation showed a wide variety of predicaments that pestered the country and impeded its development: wilfulness and separatism of regions that Yeltsin initially supported; the sweep of organised crime that became a major power in many regions capable of deciding elections, and the bacchanalia of oligarchs who had whole ministries on their payroll and owned major TV stations.
All these problems became evident to Putin shortly after the beginning of his first term, in the aftermath of the submarine Kursk catastrophe. The ORT TV Channel (now First Channel), controlled at the time by oligarch Boris Berezovsky, launched a media attack against Putin. But he clearly showed that such methods would not be tolerated, and that the house rules were about to change. After three months the Prosecutor General’s Office announced that a criminal case had been opened against Berezovsky, who preferred to not return in Russia and sold his shares of ORT to Abramovich, an oligarch who is much more loyal to the Kremlin’s cause. Thus began Putin’s campaign for reshaping the political landscape of Russia.
Enter Vladislav Surkov. He was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff to the President of the Russian Federation in 1999, and now is considered the demiurge and ideologue of Russia’s political system as well as one of the most notable thorns in the side of the liberal opposition and its sympathizers – demands for his resignations are second most popular, right after “Putin must go”. It’s remarkable that Surkov has held his post all these years and through Medvedev’s presidency, adding the title of Presidential Aide in 2004. Unfortunately, he is quite a private person, and there are very few interviews with him, which certainly aids his demonising – most recently the oligarch Prokhorov, who unsuccessfully dabbled in politics, called him a “puppet-master”. Quite ironically, Surkov’s first wife is the creator of a puppet museum.
So, what did the process of gathering uncontrolled pieces of power look like? Mass media proved its enormous strength back in 1996, when it actually revived a political corpse; Boris Yeltsin had a single digit approval rating before the election, but managed to win it after an aggressive media campaign, sponsored by a consortium of oligarchs. So Putin had to get control of such a powerful weapon, which could be directed against him. After ORT another channel, NTV – controlled by another oligarch, Gusinsky – followed. Finally, in 2002, the last independent channel (TV6) was closed.
Today of all federal channels covering news and politics only one, Ren-TV, is private; others are under state ownership. But the independence of Ren-TV is very relative: the Kremlin has more than enough measures to ensure that it toes the line. It’s no secret that Surkov stays in contact with producers of major channels and coordinates the presentation of important events. Also, there’s a practice called stop-lists – an enumeration of political figures whose appearance on TV is highly undesirable. The lists are flexible – for example, Boris Nemtsov can grace some programmes, provided that he is chaperoned by a right person; but major channels seem to be completely off-limits for Kasparov and Limonov.
But the Kremlin’s oversight is actually not the most decisive factor in limiting the freedom of press: self-censorship is. Media producers who control cash flow from advertising are so unwilling to risk losing their lucrative positions that they cut the most innocent episodes that might be interpreted as a violation. Thus, recently, First channel cut out a sketch from the humour TV show KVN mocking Medvedev’s clumsy dance moves. After some derision from Internet users they reinserted the number in a rerun. While Surkov’s deviousness is not to be underestimated, surely he doesn’t preoccupy himself with such minutiae.
But actually Russian television is not that bad. It’s certainly complicit in the sins to which all media is prone: lies by omission, presenting a limited spectrum of opinions and generously seasoning news with spin. Basically, it’s no different from any western media network; the problem is that there are other competing networks that would be quick to point out lies and inconsistencies. In Russia, only peripheral media can do that along with Internet users; so these arguments often escape the scrutiny of the general public. Another advantage of television to which the Kremlin occasionally resorts is short but vicious media campaigns against certain individuals, pressure on whom is expedient to the moment. So far the most notable victims are Luzhkov, Lukashenko and, most lately, Evgeny Roizman.
While the Kremlin reserves television as the most influential media to itself (according to this poll, TV is the most important source of information for 80% of Russians), it is much more liberal with other sources of information: newspapers, radio stations and the Internet. Moreover, having learnt the hard way the lesson of the USSR, the Kremlin strives to provide opposition with controlled media platforms for venting their righteous anger. Thus, the most popular opposition radio station “Echo of Moscow”, whose guests and hosts seem to hate Gazprom’s guts – judging by their words at least – is actually owned by none other than Gazprom’s subsidiary. And the Pravda of the opposition, “Novaya Gazeta”, is owned by former KGB spy and billionaire Alexander Lebedev. While he is no toady of Putin, there is plenty of leverage to keep him in check. But the audience of these media outlets is quite sparse – commensurate with the percentage of people who support opposition. The Internet is completely free, and because of that, gives shelter to most radical and fringe groups. Generally, the rule of thumb with media in Russia is the more influence, the firmer the Kremlin’s control.
Media control is only one side of the story. It would hardly be so important without thorough control of the political process. In the beginning of the 90’s, Russia was swept by a kind of euphoria of freedom in politics – there were dozens of different parties, sometimes with indistinguishable slogans. In the elections of 1993 the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LPDR) triumphed, whose leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky preached weapons-grade populism; in the 1996 elections The Beer Lovers Party got 0.6 percent of the votes, participating along with 42 other parties. Parliamentary sessions were spiced with fights, mutual insults and all manner of buffoonery. In other words, Russia’s political life was as disorderly as it gets.
The elections of 1999 were probably the first occasion big business turned its eyes to Parliament – if before laws had meant much less than the person who executed them, times were changing, and the ability to set the rules became a valuable prize. Two new contenders were “Fatherland – All Russia” – led by Primakov, Luzhkov and Shaimiev – and the Unity party, supported by Yeltsin and Berezovsky. Fatherland initially supported Primakov’s (or maybe Luzhkov’s) bid for the coming presidential election, while Unity was created to back then-prime-minister Putin’s bid. The 1999 campaign was marked by an unprecedented war of black PR. Berezovsky-owned ORT clashed with Gusinsky’s NTV, who supported Luzkov, in what later became known as “The War of the TV-killers”.
The results of the election came as a bit of surprise: being a firm favourite as late as the summer of 1999, in December Fatherland came only third, with half the votes of Unity, created only months before the election. To a large extent that was a result of the smear campaign in the media – which Berezovsky won handily – and the recently started second campaign in Chechnya, which rallied the country around Putin. Including MPs elected from constituencies, the Communist party (KPRF) held 88 seats out of 450, Unity – 83, Fatherland – 47, the Union of Right Forces (SPS) – 32, Yabloko – 21, and Zhirinovsky’s bloc – 16. Besides, independent MPs formed their own parliamentary unions. Thus, no party had even a simple majority on its own.
So Putin came into a rather precarious state of affairs. He could only rely on Unity for passing required laws. In order to do that, any law should have been approved by a simple majority of the Parliament at first, and then by the Council of the Federation. Considering that the Council was comprised of regional governors and heads of assemblies, who amassed great independence and economic strength during Yeltsin’s terms, the Kremlin had little leeway in changing the legal system. Many regions wrote their own legislations contradicting federal laws; Tatarstan, Bashkiria and Yakutia decided to pay only 1 percent of the income in the federal budget instead of 10%. So naturally, curbing these dangerous tendencies became a top priority.
The first attack was launched in 2000, with new administrative reform. The Institute of Federal Districts was created, and governors received the President’s special representatives to watch them. Later, Putin proposed a reform of the Council of the Federation: appoint two representatives from each region – one by the governor, the other by the region assembly – instead of the old system. The proposal was met with approval – after all, governors spent most of their time in Moscow, so finding time to actually govern their regions came only as a second priority. The problem was that governors themselves had to approve this law, basically stripping themselves of power and – more importantly – immunity from criminal prosecution. And after the tumultuous 90’s, when the fight for assets in the regions was accompanied by all kinds of violence and crime, most of them sure as hell could use it. The other way was to override the Council decision with a constitutional majority (2/3 of votes) in the Parliament, but it was equally difficult. It’s hard to imagine what kind of coercing and appeasement it took, but the Council of Federation passed the bill.
By 2001, Unity and Fatherland bridged their differences and decided to join forces, forming a new party – the present day behemoth “United Russia”. Along with several independent parliamentary groups, the new party provided a stable platform for effective law-making – the coalition held 235 seats out of 450. That made it possible for the Kremlin to continue with core reforms. In July of 2011 the law “About political parties” was passed, obliging all parties to undergo registration at the Ministry of Justice. That gave the Kremlin an effective tool to control emergence of new parties. Today, only 7 are afloat, and several parties have been denied registration which was accompanied by public scandals. Among them liberal ParNaS, left Rodina – Common Sense and Limonov’s NBP.
Any party wishing to be registered should apply its political programme and charter and meet the following requirements (according to the latest edition of the law): it must have more than 45000 members and have regional branches in more than half the subjects of Russia. But the real trick is hidden in the possible grounds for denial: the Ministry of Justice can turn a party down if its chapter contradicts any minor law, or, more importantly, if the information it applied is incorrect. That gives the Ministry a huge field for cavilling at details. For example, a classic version of denial looks something like this: the Ministry finds some discrepancy in the charter and incorrect information in the members list. And if a dozen of the members out of 50000 suddenly issue a statement that they actually don’t have anything to do with the party, or another dozen happen to not exist – that’s reason enough. Picking on the charter is even more preposterous – in 2007 the Ministry found fault with the charter of Rogozin’s party “Great Russia”, despite the fact that it was a word-for-word copy of the charter of an already registered party. The same scenario was used against ParNaS.
With the high starting demands for a new party, the Kremlin ensures that it can be only created with serious financial backing. Therefore, the number of those who can foot the bill is limited, and they are more or less in the open. Besides, without access to media, the efficiency of money spent on a new party would be very low (in terms of boosting popularity). For the especially stubborn, the Ministry of Justice is always there to keep any undesirable party out of the official political scene. The bottom line is no party can reach the Parliament without the Kremlin’s direct consent.
The 2003 elections were the next step in establishing full control over political life. Capitalising on Putin’s popularity and through generous use of state-controlled media, United Russia improved on the previous results: it got 37.5% of the votes. But the true miracle took place in regions, where United Russia won an overwhelming majority of elections in constituencies. That brought the total count of UR’s seats to 220 – almost a simple majority. For the first time both liberal parties – SPS and Yabloko – failed to pass the election threshold. Parliament finally fell under the Kremlin’s control, as United Russia could easily press other parties in order to get a constitutional majority. All that was needed to launch the most cardinal reforms was a good excuse.
Which followed shortly. In 2004, after the terrible terrorist attack on Beslan, Putin brought forward a law repealing governor elections, allegedly as a measure in the war on terror. Needless to say, Parliament found no objection to that, and the law was approved without a hitch. It stirred a wave of protest among the opposition (KPRF and SPS in particular), and to this day remains one of the most anti-democratic reforms of Putin. On the other hand, it certainly quashed any remnants of chaos in regions and restrained local barons. Thereafter, by the terms of the new law, governors have been appointed from candidates proposed by local assemblies. Considering that the latter were dominated by UR representatives, most governors preferred to join the party or were replaced. Also a campaign for ousting governors that held the post for too prolonged a period was started, finishing only in 2010.
After that the framework of the new system was largely finished. Only small touches remained, and by the 2007 elections laws were passed raising the election threshold from 5 to 7%, cancelling the option “Against Everyone” on ballot papers and repealing elections in constituencies. Those measures almost completely eradicate any chance that random people can get into Parliament and effectively hide the last legal way to displaydiscontent. It goes without saying that the 2007 elections resulted in a tremendous win by UR with 64% of the votes.
The present-day political system displays all kinds of duality: it’s democratic by formal indications, but in reality every step is controlled by the Kremlin; the opportunities for the opposition are severely restricted, but there’s no true support for it among the general public, while the Kremlin enjoys genuine popularity. All of the numerous restrictions that exist are completely legal and were adopted after due deliberations, but they to a great extent contradict the spirit of the Constitution. For all that, the Kremlin continuously shows real effort to tune the political system to real demands among the public and seems to use data from polls. For example, while liberal parties flopped on the last two elections, Surkov tried to bring to life the idea of a liberal party under the Kremlin’s wing, or at least that was the pretence.
One frequently raised issue by the Kremlin’s critics is if elections are rigged or not. While the opposition regularly bemoans a welter of violations, and watchdogs from the OSCE wag their finger, nobody presents viable evidence supporting the allegation of mass falsifications. Moreover, the question why the results of elections almost precisely match exit-polls and party ratings remains unanswered. On the Internet, stories about falsifications often surface, some of them stating that poll stations were throwing in ballot papers, but for all participants proportionally. For United Russia the main enemy now is not any other party, but the apathy of voters, so polishing the turnout numbers is important. All the aforesaid applies only to federal elections, local ones are still the subject of much more manipulation.
While it’s fun to have a Beer Lovers party in Parliament or skimp on HBO and watch great fights in its sessions, the need for a more mature political system was understood and supported by many. And it was anticipated that these changes might be taken too far. Some figures associated with the Kremlin hinted that the tight regulations might be eased in the future – thus, Medvedev promised to lower the election threshold, and the Minister of Justice supported the repealing of the mandatory party registration. The artificial conditions created for United Russia are certainly harmful for political life in general, and the party itself above all. Adding to natural weariness from the party, the pressure and discontent will only grow, and the authorities will be forced to react and compromise.
Here, and in many Western publications, the terms “the Kremlin”, “the state” and “Putin’s regime” are a bit overused, and no explanation as to what is behind those vague descriptions is provided. Though it’s hard to make out the true disposition of forces that participate in the power struggle under the carpet, the main architects of the described political reforms are Putin and Surkov. That endeavour was evidently supported by the group known in the West as “siloviki”. The integrity of pro-Kremlin forces shouldn’t be overestimated – for example, Medvedev, the closest ally of Putin, made several critical statements about the present political system and is of moderately liberal leanings.
Looking back at where Putin started, and comparing it with his present position, some self-evident observations can be made – he is a brilliant politician. And the meaning of “politician” here is someone who seeks personal or partisan gain, often by scheming and manoeuvring. The political system he created and the popularity he commands allow him to pursuit any policy he pleases. His critics often emphasize that Putin has done very little for the country and he has been just lucky, using growing energy prices. There’s certainly a grain of truth here – he used simple and obvious measures: stabilising the financial system, reining in oligarchs and regional barons, putting the tax system in relative order. The impression of simplicity should not fool anyone – their implementation was extremely difficult. But even those measures were enough for the country to bounce back from what seemed at the time a free-fall. Now the country faces very different problems, and their solutions are not as evident. Will Putin be able to prove himself a great statesman as well?
We have at least 6 years to see.