#3 - JRL 7027
Putin plays nationalist card as elections draw near
January 20, 2003
Signs are emerging that Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin team are playing the well-worn nationalist card -- and turning a blind eye to Western worries -- in the run up to elections.
Putin has long had a somewhat dual personality in Western eyes since assuming the presidency three years ago -- shifting Moscow toward an alliance with Washington since the September 11 attacks while defending a Russia-first position at home.
Moscow and Washington still clashed over Russia's construction of a controversial nuclear power plant in Iran and even smaller issues like imports of US chicken.
Yet Western criticism of the Russian state's gradual takeover of independent media and the military crackdown in Chechnya calmed with Putin's decision to open former Soviet Central Asia to US troops in the Afghan campaign and his soft stance on NATO's eastern expansion. The two sides were dubbed new-found allies in the US-declared war on terror.
But now Washington is again expressing "concern" over a flurry of Moscow decisions: to kick out a European OSCE human rights mission from Chechnya and the US Peace Corps from Russia, to hold secret nuclear talks with Syria, and the latest -- engineering management changes at the private television network NTV.
Analysts here suggest the Kremlin is deaf to western complaints.
"As far as I am aware, the people organizing Putin's election campaign have decided to go tough on the West," said political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky of Moscow's Center for Strategic Studies.
"I think that they are doing this consciously. This is a consistent policy."
The latest opinion polls show Putin would win 53 percent of the vote -- similar to the figure he registered in March 2000 -- if the presidential elections were held next weekend as opposed to March 2004 as scheduled.
Armed with such steady backing, there is no apparent need for a hardline Putin policy shift.
But analysts suggest Putin is growing sensitive to even the limited criticism he receives in the Russian media while the Kremlin focuses on December parliamentary elections in which liberal opposition parties face a real threat of not sneaking past the required five-percent vote barrier for the first time.
Thus, some pundits and diplomats suggest, the Kremlin may be trying to score an early election knock-out punch by stirring the electorate's spirit of Soviet-era nationalism.
"We are deeply concerned," admitted State US Department spokesman Richard Boucher, this time speaking of the dismissal of Boris Jordan as head of Gazprom-Media, the-state linked energy giant which controls the NTV television chain.
US-born Jordan has still not spoken in public over his sacking but most media observers link it to NTV's close coverage of October's Moscow theater hostage crisis in which 129 civilians died -- most of them from a knock-out gas used by crack troops during the rescue operation.
"The television picture on one of the national channels on the day of the raid ... which showed the movement of special service forces ... could have led to a great tragedy," Putin said gravely during a meeting with media directors days after the Chechen hostage crisis came to an end.
"The unnamed channel he spoke of was NTV, and in our self-defense ... I must say we started broadcasting live only after we heard blasts, which meant that the raid was already well under way," Leonid Parfyonov, NTV board member and weekend political talk-show host, said Sunday.
He added in a separate newspaper interview that NTV directors expected the Kremlin crackdown to come on the channel "in the spring, perhaps the autumn, when the political season starts," but not so soon.
It is not immediately clear how NTV's coverage may change with the shift in management or whether it will indeed help the Kremlin storm through December's State Duma polls.
But it has further raised the eyebrows of always-weary Western investors in Russia.
"The result of the NTV management change may be that in an election year the Kremlin now has indirect financial and managerial control over all of Russia's national networks," the Aton Capital investment bank said in a research note.
"Given the power of television during Russian elections ... this suggests there will be few surprises in December's State Duma election and the March 2004 presidential election," the bank said.