December 20, 2001
Making Everything Nice and Easy
By Yevgenia Albats
If for nothing else, the outgoing year should be praised for having simplified things. Now everything is nice and easy. There are the good guys, for the most part faceless and led by President Vladimir Putin, who is still basking in popular support.
There are the not so good -- but still decent -- guys, now loyal servants of the state, who manage the country's wealth (i.e. natural resources) -- well, not exactly on behalf of its citizens, but definitely on behalf of its top bureaucracy.
The executive branch even has its own enfant terrible, presidential economic advisor Andrei Illarionov, whose constant clashes with everyone else on the "right" side of the Russian political spectrum introduces an element of discord into otherwise rather dull politics.
And then there are the bad guys. They are the leftovers of what was once known as the Family clan, plus the bad oligarchs who have failed to comply with the current Russian fashion known as "order and -- God permitting (which he never does) -- some law."
There are a few other characters whose identity, like the identity of the Kremlin's semi-retired insider Gleb Pavlovsky, is hard to define in clear-cut terms: part-dissident, part-snitch, part-statist, part-not.
Pavlovsky used to be full of admiration for the Kremlin newcomers -- those bureaucrats in epaulets who used to be known under a single acronym: the KGB. But no longer. Now Pavlovsky, along with Boris Yeltsin's new-old son-in-law, Valentin Yumashev, has realized that the KGB was not just the Soviet Union's most powerful institution, but also was and is a corporation with its own, quite specific organizational culture that is driven by notions of the imperial state and disrespect for individual lives, freedoms and liberties. That is why they have now started shouting loudly about how former KGB men pose a threat to the country's fragile democracy.
Yumashev and Pavlovsky could not care less about those cowards -- their fellow citizens -- whose freedoms and liberties are under attack. But they do care about their own freedoms and so all of a sudden they have recovered their sight, which they lost two years ago when they did their best to bring the very same bureaucrats in epaulets to power.
You really cannot help but ask yourself whether it can really be true that such ignorant guys ran the country on behalf of the sick president for almost four years.
So, back to the things that are nice and easy. Indeed, with the exception of the above-mentioned, just about everyone else in the country is a nobody. Of course, other institutions and names do exist, but they have no real power or influence (even those that used to have before), and no real impact on the public consciousness. The State Duma passes laws written by bureaucrats for bureaucrats; political parties conduct politics according to Kremlin blueprints; civil society receives recipes in what was the Soviet Communist Party's Palace of Congresses; courts are busy waiting to be reformed; and then there's the media.
Yes, the media used to be quite something. Some three years ago I used to entertain myself by trying to calculate the market share of this or that media group. I feel kind of sad and nostalgic looking now at the diagrams of the Russian media market that I used to piece together. Back then there were some nine nationwide groups, and the state, which de facto controlled about 40 percent of the national media market, was only one of a number of players. Now the state's share has at least doubled and a significant share of the media that are not de jure state-owned are in close alliance with the state and quite often resemble official mouthpieces for the state.
The owners -- formerly oligarchs -- are no longer eager to challenge the Kremlin and prefer the role of loyal servants (or agents, if you will). So, as soon as TV6, with Yevgeny Kiselyov at the helm, is wiped out everybody else will be free to write about politics on Mars, but not in Moscow.
It is, of course, a shameful truth that back then -- in the mid-to-late '90s -- the media were used by their owners in an often most undesirable manner ("you're gonna deliver a service and I'm gonna pay for it").
However, we did not understand our luck back then. As long as there were a number of owners (of which the state was just one) whose interests were constantly clashing, the media were able to provide quite a pluralistic picture of Russian politics. There was no lack of information, and although there may have been many dangers, a closed corporatist state was not one of them.
Alas, no longer. Now everything is nice and easy with just a few exceptions, and by and large it's a result of the closed-type bureaucratic style of politics that are the only politics in town these days.
For example, presidential administration chief Alexander Voloshin resigned, then he did not; the president would accept his resignation and then not -- in other words, a whole load of rumors, but little or no hard news. Newsmakers no longer bother to give explanations, to confirm or deny, or even to explain what and why, and when and how. After all, Voloshin is not just another Muscovite -- surely the nation has a right to know what is what in such a case.
Instead, they conduct themselves likes spies out in the cold: recruiting, retreating, buying people off, and all under a veil of conspiracy.
It is clear now that "state capture" or "oligarchic capitalism" never fully materialized in this country. People like Boris Berezovsky were capable of challenging the government and appointing or dismissing ministers only because the then president of this 150 million-strong nation was running the country in a profound state of unconsciousness and de facto surrendered his authority to a group of non-elected elements who lacked the legitimacy to carry out the job and therefore had to share responsibility with the oligarchs.
It did not take long for the young and energetic Putin, who enjoys both legitimacy and popular support, to return things to the order that has traditionally prevailed in Russia.
Make no mistake: The state in Russia is well and truly back. But don't get too excited. Never in Russian history has this redundant, unaccountable, non-transparent and self-serving machine ever been effective in delivering public goods to the people. Is there any reason why things should be different this time around?
There is no way of knowing until budget revenues from oil start to nose-dive. However, even then I am not convinced that the nation will be informed about what is really happening, as there is not exactly a lot of information available now.
For example, last week the Central Bank lost almost as much of its reserves as it did during the 1998 financial collapse. Were we informed about what happened or were we left to chew on a rumor that the government was buying Russian sovereign debt using the Central Bank's currency reserves?
Thus, the desired stabilization has been achieved, and the regime -- that mutant of unfinished and stifled political reforms -- has already been set in marble and stone.
So, the year ends with everything nice and easy, and with all efforts being made not to disturb the public from its nap. All that remains to be done is to restrict the media outlets that still remain to choosing between either reporting good news or very good news. Nice and easy.
Yevgenia Albats is an independent Russian journalist.