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From: "Peter Lavelle" <plavelle@metropol.ru>
Subject: Untimely Thoughts
Date: Thu, 29 Nov 2001

Peter Lavelle: Untimely Thoughts - The poverty of rumor as virtual politics (re Rumors)

Apparently Voloshin has resigned again. Or is it he has signed a document signaling his resignation to be used by the president at a later time? Maybe he said he had resigned to test the reaction of his political opponents - maybe to determine if there are leaks in his own administration. Or just maybe some of Voloshin's foes simply desire to have Putin finally believe the word Voloshin means resignation. All or none of the above could be true. Miller over at Gazprom most likely does not feel alone. He learned the hard way. Simply by that taking off a few days, even sick leave, he learned he could return to his desk to find out that he missed his own funeral.

Provocations are not new in Russian politics. Rumor is an integral part of politics everywhere, during any time. The most powerful elements of a rumor are doubt, uncertainty, and an unsubstantiated source. Berezovsky enjoys the rumor probably unlike anyone else in Russia. There is not a week that goes by that a news article claims he did or did not do something. Much of what is published about him is little more than print (or air time) purchased by himself or his surrogates to remind us he still around. All things being equal, Berezovsky's political currency in Russia stands at zero. Berezovsky has abused the rumor mill and the same mill has returned to punish him into oblivion.

Rumor in Putin's Russia is virtual politics. Putin is not known to be a man of many words. When he does speak most people react positively to what he says. How could this be different? He rarely speaks in specifics and almost never says a bad word about anyone (unless the topic is Chechnya or a question is fielded about the misdeeds of a select few oligarchs).

Putin has without a doubt partly cleaned up Russian political discourse. It is what he does not say that is of interest. In this sense he has also brought back some elements of Soviet double-speak. When confronted with doubts that criminal investigations are politically motivated and by replying that it is in the hands of the courts would logically mean the whole government and most of the business community should be under investigation as well. His kind and strong words seem to create rumors for the insecure. Many in Russia's political elite and business world certainly have a lot to be insecure about.

Rumor is also a last ditch line of defense against enemies. Very often the press will speculate about the impending demise of a political figure (Kasyanov and Voloshin are the two standard favorites) when in fact Kasyanov or Voloshin are poised to finish a political battle with the source that started the rumor against them in the first place. In Russian politics it would appear going public with a political grievance is practically a declaration of near defeat. The public realm is the place of the weak and disgruntled.

Putin came to power with the intention to abolish what many have come to accept as the "virtual economy". He is making some process in this area, though much still needs to be done. Putin now needs to address the end of "virtual politics". Listening to Stepashin attack Aksyonenko and Kasyanov, Chubais and Kasyanov defending Aksyonenko, Kasyanov attacking Stepashin in return, Ustinov claiming to have no political prejudice, with a president in silence clouds not only diminishes politics in a normative sense but casts doubt on Putin's reforms in general. The behavior of the power-that-be keeps politics in the category of spectator sport for the elite. The way they bicker and threaten makes them all look guilty of something.

It is no wonder Voloshin feels so comfortable in his position. If he did in fact resign nobody would probably believe it. Though it seems to me there is some kind of leadership shakeup in the nearest term in the making. This is not because I believe rumors but due to the heightened level of rumor-mongering. The political elite appears less sure of itself as of late. Putin could go a long way to change this atmosphere by speaking out about policy in specifics, instead of constantly running for reelection.

The danger rumors can play in a country facing some hard decisions is like car alarms going off everyone can hear but no one reactions to.

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