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Moscow Times
December 19, 2001
Christmas Dinner Chez Putin
By Peter Lavelle

With the year coming to an end, it is a good time to take stock. For the most part, 2001 has been a good year for the country. Good fortune has smiled on President Vladimir Putin's Russia, partly thanks to the political elite's own doing, partly due to simple dumb luck. In financial terms, Putin ends his second year in power with a surplus of political capital.

So, with the season of good cheer upon us, who is on Putin's list for some goodies under the tree? Who will get a wrapped present with a signed card or a handsome stocking-stuffer? Who will be invited to take a seat at the Christmas dinner table? And who will leave cookies and milk near the fireplace for a Saint Nick who has no intention of visiting during the still of a cold winter's night?

Most of the Cabinet can probably rest a little easy. The year ends with a number of reform packages debated and signed. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov showed the world (and Putin) that Russia would pay its debts, and that little spat with the Paris Club at the start of the year is all but forgotten. Kasyanov didn't step on the president's toes either. But those gnawing rumors of corruption have poured some cold water on an otherwise good performance. What do you bet that a brand new scooter will be sitting under the tree for Misha with a card saying "good job, well done -- now ride along?"

German Gref, Alexei Kudrin, Andrei Illarionov -- the shock workers of the Putin brigade -- can look forward to the president's good favor. All year long, they have given the president solid advice. While not the best of buddies, collectively these engineers of "number crunching" have done a reasonably good job helping Putin steer the ship of state through some very rough waters. The reward for their good deeds will be the chance to serve the president for another year. Who knows, they just might make it to next year's Christmas dinner.

The loyal cadres in the State Duma deserve something special. Passing a balanced budget for next year and backing just about every legislative initiative supported by the Cabinet, the deputies in this very thoughtful house of parliament are in line for a Christmas party with Rostik's doing the catering. Even the Communists will be invited; the opposition from these proud showmen of a deceased system they don't even believe in is never really serious. No special gifts, though; this body of lawmakers already sucks up enough of the people's limited resources.

Yury Luzhkov and Sergei Shoigu are on the list for an after-dinner mint at the Kremlin -- though only one mint. Next year could be a bit austere and discipline needs to be maintained.

Anatoly Chubais, Boris Nemtsov, Grigory Yavlinsky, Vladimir Ustinov and Sergei Stepashin are invited to Christmas dinner -- though to be seated at the children's table. Chubais, prone to childish intrigues, will be seated there to show him how adults can and should enjoy themselves; Nemtsov and Yavlinsky because they belong there; and Ustinov and Stepashin will sit together so they can finally get the story on Nikolai Aksyonenko right. Aksyonenko and Yevgeny Nazdratenko are believed to be attending a different Family get-together not far from Lubyanka -- some bash organized by the State Customs Committee.

The army will be rewarded with increased defense spending next year, even though it would appear there are those in the army who still find the war in Chechnya a profit-making exercise. This certainly must be wearing on Putin's feelings of good cheer for this group of gentlemen. But because there are some troops abroad fighting to make Afghanistan safe for democracy, all active servicemen are in line for a new "Putin 2002 Calendar" -- a real collector's item if ever there was one.

As for the navy, well, they had better wait until next year. They would be well advised to get some Western PR agency on board in the nearest future. It has been a tough year for our seafaring friends, and I fear the cookies and milk will go to naught.

The oligarchs will probably just get a card this year, though not all of them, of course. They have all the toys they could possibly want. If they have a foreign forwarding address, so much the better for all parties concerned. If an oligarch does not have such an address, it is advisable that he get one for next year, as one can easily be dropped from the mailing list. E-mail would be the best solution, in fact: no need to waste precious taxpayers' money on postage stamps for this infamous group of individuals.

Because of the mess that has been made, LUKoil will be sponsoring a Christmas Eve television special on corporate citizenship and the media on TV6. Yevgeny Kiselyov and Press Minister Mikhail Lesin are expected to answer questions from a studio audience of foreign journalists and certified public accountants. Sources close to the Kremlin firmly deny that the presidential Christmas party-goers have plans to view the program.

The self-declared Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky will not be forgotten either. Because the president likes to think of himself as a good sport, Pavlovsky will get a token presidential card and a new crystal ball in a nicely decorated stocking. Forecasting political change in 2001 was not that difficult, but Pavlovsky is going to need all the help he can get for next year.

Alexander Voloshin, the master of ceremonies at this year's Kremlin party, will decide for himself his reward for unwavering service. Voloshin should enjoy this Christmas as best he can, as next Christmas is several lifetimes away in the fast-moving world of Russian politics.

So who besides the above-mentioned and the Putin family will attend the gala affair at the Kremlin? Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov will probably be there, as the General Staff didn't send him an invitation to their rather closed and quiet celebration. The other Ivanov is expected as well -- he doesn't seem to bother or offend too many people in the elite.

Beyond that, I don't know. I suspect this year's party will be rather a private affair. Putin is the type of fellow who has few friends. During the last decade, many of Russia's problems have come about because Putin's predecessor had too many friends who had a poorly developed sense of goodwill toward their fellow man and who were only interested in what their country could do for them, rather than vice versa.

All that remains is for me to wish the president and his family a very quiet, private and thoughtful holiday season.

Peter Lavelle is head of research at IFC Metropol. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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