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#13 - JRL 7218
Asia Times
June 10, 2003
Renovating Putin's house
By Peter Lavelle

MOSCOW - The Russians have a saying that stoically claims that home remodeling (remont) never ends - there are only interruptions. This may be the best interpretation of Russian politics over the past decade. When the remont is on going, what could be called political stability, Western investors are delighted to talk up Russia's economy, with the Kremlin beaming with pride that the country has finally joined the civilized world.

But when the remont is interrupted due to domestic unrest such as a civil war, changes in political leadership or economic crises, the structure of what post-communist Russia has been building appears to be the eyesore that it is, showing its weak foundations, and even poor taste in design. According to a high-level think tank report released during the recent St Petersburg gala to celebrate that city's 300 years, another interruption of Russia's remont may be in the cards, giving us a look at an architectural design some are hoping for - and it's not pretty.

What is the state of Russia's remont? If the white paper "An Oligarchs' Coup is Being Prepared in Russia" circulated from the National Strategy Council - a group of elite Russian political scientists - is to be taken seriously, President Vladimir Putin may have to face down a coup d'etat against him and the Russian state organized and executed by the country's oligarchs.

According to the council, the oligarchs - Mikhail Khodorkovsky (petroleum), Roman Abramovich (petroleum), Mikhail Fridman (petroleum and banking), Oleg Deripaska (aluminum), Vladimir Potanin (nickel) and Andrei Melnichenko (banking and industry) - are dissatisfied with the pace of Kremlin reform and the current Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov - the political figure widely believed to be the custodian of the oligarchs' interests. The super rich are also apparently unhappy that Putin has centralized too much power into his own hands, as well as ignoring business interests in the areas of taxation, and the president's excessive populist approach to politics at the expense of the tycoons. In the white paper it is claimed that the oligarchs collectively support the introduction of a parliamentary system in which the position of the prime minister would be all-powerful, with the presidency rendered to the level of symbolism - or even dispensed with altogether.

This is a very interesting idea, but not original. Putin himself spoke of a political system in which the government would be responsible to the legislature during his recent state of the union address. Was he preempting the National Strategy Council's report, or was the report an interpretation of the implications of what changing Russia's political system could mean considering the enormous wealth the oligarchs could translate into power if the State Duma were to become the nexus of political influence? We may never know, but the fact that Putin and the oligarchs are speaking the same language on the same topic says volumes about what may come to pass.

Establishing a parliamentary democracy in Russia, as opposed to the present presidential system of governance, cuts a number of ways. The current presidential system is most interested in the development of engineered democracy from above. This is the traditional leadership principle familiar and even welcomed by most Russians. This is the primary reason why democracy has not taken root in Russia, much to the Kremlin's satisfaction. The antiquated and useless Communist Party approves of this style of governance as well.

If it is true that the oligarchs are planning to support or even might attempt to force a change of system of governance on the back of enormous wealth, this should be seen as an attempt to redefine Russian political culture. Changing Russia's political culture is not a bad idea - the fact that the oligarchs may attempt to buy it wholesale is, and Putin know this.

This is why this writer believes that the white paper is really a political ploy. In fact, it is a provocation of a provocation. The oligarchs have most likely picked up on Putin's suggested change of domestic political "correlation of powers" and the report was a raised flag to determine who would salute. With moneybags in hand, the oligarchs indeed saluted, just as they were expected to.

Putin's Kremlin has no intention of selling off Russia to the highest bidder. The highest bidders have very little to complain about the Russia that they already own. Having the oligarchs in complete control of the political process would only continue this country's status as being a tragic underachiever with nuclear weapons (and a heck of a lot of cash).

Putin is not a democrat of any understood persuasion. However, he is a realist of sorts who understands that Russia's moneyed interests have little interest in Russia's destiny. He has let them keep their wealth, while concerned what that wealth is interested in purchasing. Putin prizes his role as the ultimate political umpire, and it is unlikely that he will relinquish this position any time soon.

Putin may be on to something when empowering parliament over the present heavy-handed presidential system. He has stated that he is not interested in serving more than a second term as head of state - his first four-year stint ends this year. However, mixed signals suggest the he might be interested in supporting a bloc of political parties. That bloc is obviously United Russia. If Putin throws his considerable personal popularity behind United Russia, there is good reason to believe that this bloc of parties will be victorious in the fall elections.

Once Putin transforms himself into a party boss, he is positioned to become the "gray eminence" of Russian politics for a long time to come. He understands that the Kremlin, once it puts its mind to it, almost never losses domestic political battles. That is a conventional wisdom that is often forgotten when trying to understand Russia's political and social development under Putin.

The remont that the oligarchs are supposedly proposing for Russia would not create a solid political structure, nor show much interest in the development of civil society. The house that Putin has built and which he is remonting has its significant imperfections, but it is a better place to live in than any gilded cage in which the oligarchs would have Russians reside.

Peter Lavelle is a Moscow-based analyst and author of the weekly e-newsletter Untimely Thoughts.

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