Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

No. 48
December 2001
President Putin tries hiding the lack of domestic policy behind activity in the international arena.
Author: Vladimir Zmeyuschenko
from WPS Monitoring Agency, www.wps.ru/e_index.html]


"Politics in this country is now history. Only economics has remained," a prominent political consultant was quoted as saying sadly when cynicism of the "bearish" election in 1999 Russia, to which Russians were not yet accustomed, was crowned by Vladimir Putin's smooth ascent to the pinnacle of political power. These last two years confirm the truth of the assessment.

Domestic policy pver the last two years has been restricted to the process of steady regaining of the powers of the federal center lost over 15 years and establishment of controllable democracy. Both tasks are being accomplished. The Kremlin has elegantly and quietly removed governors from political processes by changing the order of formation of the Federation Council. As for the Duma, the victory of Unity in the election and establishment of the People's Deputy on the one hand, defeat of the Fatherland which is drifting closer to the new power party nowadays on the other, have solidified the Kremlin's positions in the lower house of the parliament. Strange as it may seem, oil prices helped the Kremlin some. Steady growth of prosperity of the population has transformed the Communist Party into marginals and made the Duma left much more agreeable.

In other words, there is virtually no opposition in Russia nowadays. Public opposition, at least. It goes without saying that not all initiatives of the Kremlin are met in the parliament with applause. Even so, the infrequent anti-Kremlin alliances are never viewed as a coherent opposition.

All of that is ascribed to one thing only - absolutely fantastic popularity and unprecedented rating of trust President Putin has kept these last two years. Opinion polls conducted by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center indicate that over 80% Russians approve of the president nowadays and 54% ready to vote for Putin.

All the same, the next political year is unlikely to be as tranquil and optimistic as the previous one. Oil prices are going to fall. It is clear that salaries of budget sphere employees will not be lowered even under the worst of circumstances, but private sector - the one that survives thanks to direct or indirect export revenues - will surely find itself in trouble. The planned reforms of the living and communal sphere, economically justified as they undoubtedly are, are not going to win the regime the people's love either.

It does not really matter. Trust in the president will remain considerable for longer than a year in any case. There is a different problem. Dissatisfaction with the federal authorities has been growing. Established in its new version to promote dialogue between the regime and businesses, the Russian Union of Businessmen and Entrepreneurs castigates the tax reform suggested by the government. The major arguments are as follows: bureaucracy does not want to lower taxation, and interests of the budget are considered more important that interests of businesses. Presidential Adviser Andrei Illarionov says that corruption in Russia is institutionalized and a serious obstacle for development of businesses and economy in general.

In other words, it turns out that there is an opposition in Russia. It comprises precisely the "real businesses" and the middle class the regime intends to rely on. This is something the regime would have preferred to do without. This is something dangerous in fact because the opposition uses economic arguments to back up its position. It says out loud that it does not find living under this regime comfortable or profitable.

There are several modes of behavior the authorities can choose from. "Three monkey position" is the first one: see, hear, speak no evil. It is quite possible if the bureaucratic vertical were reinforced and if the regime were able to rely on the president's unprecedented rating. This behavior will do for a couple years at least.

"Constructive dialogue" is the second mode. It means attempts to meet with businesses' and society's demands. The mode is all right but the regime is unlikely to choose it. Among other things, it will require a war on bureaucracy. old and new alike. It will also require some sort of compromise between interests of the people and "hateful oligarchs".

There is another mode as well. The president may use discontent of the masses as an excuse for revision of his obligations to Yeltsin's old elite and the new elite from St. Petersburg. He might even decide to promote a new team to the corridors of power. The question is if he has enough political will for that.

All this is for the future. We can only repeat once again that what is called domestic politics has been lacking for these last fifteen years. Nature does not tolerate a vacuum, and domestic politics is replaced with foreign affairs.

Two months ago everybody thought that a new period of warmth was beginning in Russian-American relations and that the rest of the world was prepared to close ranks against international terrorism. The bright hopes have lost their glamour this week. Analysts agree that Washington's decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty and to deploy a national missile defense system is going to radically change the correlations of forces in the world.

At first sight, the United States' intention to withdraw from the ABM treaty does not concern Russia in the least.

Vladimir Ryzhkov: No missile defense system will neutralize our nuclear potential. Among other things, it is so because national missile defense systems cannot deal with nuclear submarines. Only Russia, the United States, and Great Britain have them. Bush and Putin are going to sign a bilateral treaty on strategic offensive arms reduction in spring 2002. I think that this is when all other problems will be settled - problems related to Washington's determination to build a national missile defense system.

Aleksei Arbatov: We do not know what kind of relationship we will have with the United States ten or fifteen years from now or what kind of a national missile defense system Washington intends to build. The ability to pierce the enemy missile defense system is estimated from the point of view of this penetration after a nuclear attack. Assuming that the mutual strategic arms reduction leaves Russia with 20-30 warheads after a nuclear attack, we may assume that the future American national missile defense system will somehow manage to deal with them. It means that Russia will have to revise all its defense policy so as not to find itself less secure. It will require serious investments in nuclear potential modernization...

Besides, America's withdrawal from the ABM treaty may prompt China to build up its own nuclear arsenals. Beijing's decision in its turn will force India to follow suit. Its missiles are targeted on China. Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea may start thinking in terms of building their own nuclear arsenals as well. A new round of the arms race becomes a grim possibility, in other words. Revision of Washington's position offers the only solutio, analysts say.

Arbatov: When the United States regained consciousness after the shock of September 11, some its leaders got carried away all over again. They think that America will be the unquestioned leader, the whole international community following in its wake and never uttering a word of protest. Fortunately, only a part of the ruling elite thinks so, and more level-headed people may return to the power structures again...

The war on international terrorism and rogue states is going to become one of the most important spheres in international politics in 2002. No one doubts that the Afghani conflict will be more or less settled by the middle of 2002. Other countries and first and foremost Iraq will probably become the next target. Perhaps, the matters will be restricted to some special operations there. Russian-American and European-American relations will depend on how fast and "tactful" these operations are. If the conflicts become extended, Russia and Europe will become positively jittery. Europe - out of general democratic considerations and to spite the "pan-Americanist" tendencies, Russia - out of more practical considerations. Iraq is one of Russia's largest debtors, and hostilities in this country will automatically tell on the possibility of return of the debts.

NATO membership for the Baltic states is going to become one of the major events of 2002. This membership is not going to benefit Russia in the least, either in terms of international influence or respect. The Kremlin has come to terms with the prospect. Moscow can only hope that its relations with NATO will truly become relations of partnership aimed at prevention of local conflicts.

2002 is not going to be short of foreign policy news in other words. Their abundance will probably be used to compensate for the lack of domestic news. Or at least they will distract public opinion in Russia from domestic problems.

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