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#4 - 7262
Novaya Gazeta
July 21, 2003
Very soon, the toilets will be used solely for rubbing out oligarchs
Author: Pavel Voshchanov
[from WPS Monitoring Agency, www.wps.ru/e_index.html]


It seems the prediction we made some time ago is being borne out: in this federal election year, the regime is choosing to stir up the embers of the people's loathing of the new rich.

What made the difference in the last presidential election? Fear, definitely. After the shock of the apartment building explosions in Moscow and Volgodonsk, the nation feared that insufficiently resolute action in Chechnya would lead to a situation where any of us could become the next victim of the merciless "bombers". Restoring order became the key issue for most Russian citizens. There were many reasons for Vladimir Putin's victory, but just about the most important aspect was the fact that his campaign used restoring order as a slogan.

Four years have passed since then. What has happened? Expectations have remained expectations. Essentially, nothing has changed. The danger of being killed by terrorists has not diminished. Bureaucrats still take just as many bribes, if not more. For some length of time people did believe in propaganda statements about everything being on track and results being seen soon. But the waiting period has really stretched out.

According to some reports, recent assessments of public opinion have shown a very different picture from the joyful optimism demonstrated on a daily basis by politicians from the many pro-Kremlin parties. It is said that in circles close to the Kremlin there is a lot of talk right now about some sort of "confidential poll" the presidential administration commissioned from an influential, independent polling agency. The results are shocking: around 39% of respondents say they intend to vote for the Communists in December, while only 17% intend to vote for United Russia. What's more, in some Russian regions, declaring "I'm with the president!" won't even guarantee a party second place, let alone a win. If all this is true, then it turns out that the president's name is by no means a failsafe ticket to success at the polls. And that means Putin's victory at next year's presidential election cannot be secured through overwhelming popular support - only by the absence of worthy competition.

There can be no repeats in politics. What would happen if the regime relied once again on the miraculous "toilet" in which all bandits and terrorists are supposed to be harshly punished? Nothing more can be squeezed out of that kind of PR. The main question is this: are Russia's special services capable of preventing terrorist attacks in our cities, or are we are defenceless before the terrorists? Most people already give a negative answer to that question. And what if there are more explosions, and more casualties? Sadly enough, there will be.

So it turns out that the "Chechnya card" is no longer a trump card. Neither has "Operation Werewolves in Uniform", aimed against police corruption, lived up to expectations. It's an impressive move, of course; but since all Russian citizens have contact with some corrupt police, people will be looking for some sort of continuation to this entrancing soap opera. That is unlikely; firstly, because it would take more than a year or two to clean out the Augean stables of Russia's special services; secondly, because in the lead-up to elections the regime is most unlikely to do anything to disturb the agencies that provide it with services beyond the capability of all the pro-Kremlin parties put together. Therefore, the theme of police corruption is likely to be promoted for a little while longer, then dropped. Everything will be forgotten.

The oligarchs' conspiracy is undoubtedly the hit of the new political season. It's a virtually foolproof move. There's no easier way of winning votes. The play that is currently being enacted has a surprisingly simple theme: the public must support the current administration and the current pro-Kremlin party, if only because they have started (better late than never!) fighting against the oligarchs. Especially since the oligarchs, becoming concerned about the security of their ill-gotten fortunes, have united and are aiming to gather political power into their own hands. Therefore, people should forget their accumulated grievances against the regime, overcome their discontent, and vote for Putin and pro-Putin parties.

After three years of relative stability (named among the main achievements of recent times), it's as if the nation has taken the brakes off: arrests, questioning, accusations, revelations. Russia hasn't seen anything like it for the past thirty or forty years. For the second week now, the public imagination has been stirred by reports of a crackdown on people who until now had appeared invulnerable: the richest and most successful. It must be admitted that most ordinary citizens are rubbing their hands in glee, sincerely assuming that these are the only the first results of many years of laborious efforts aimed at restoring order in Russia. Therefore, any doubts expressed about the issues meet with a fairly aggressive response from the public: "If you're criticizing it, you must have your snout in the trough as well!"

While there is at least some sense of drama in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the story of Roman Abramovich is undoubtedly a lightweight genre of political intrigue. Instead of keeping his head down for a while, the oligarch-turned-governor has carried out a challenging operation: paying a great deal of money to buy the Chelsea football club in Britain. Surely he realized that this would get him targetted by the security and law enforcement people. Explanations that Abramovich was seeking a good investment for his money actually don't explain anything. Russian oligarchs have a lot of experience in acquiring assets abroad anonymously. The Chelsea football club could have been purchased in such a way that no one would know the identity of its new owner.

So Abramovich must have had some reason for wanting the publicity. Why? The superficial explanation involves basic self- protection: he needed to show that the Kremlin is not fighting the oligarchs because they're trying to subordinate the state to their own interests, but simply because the Kremlin doesn't like those who are wealthy and independent. The Russian people would never defend an oligarch under attack - but the West might.

Perhaps this was the basis for all his calculations - but if that is so, then Abramovich is an innovator, since most oligarchs have been keeping a low profile lately. Ever since it was reported that even Oleg Deripaska, "Russia's aluminum king", was having some sort of problems, there hasn't been a word from any of the other oligarchs. The most they permit themselves nowadays are ritual expressions of support for the president and his policies. For example, Vladimir Potanin made a speech at a recent forum of "firm supporters of the current administration"; and now no one in the Kremlin harbors any doubts about Potanin's loyalty. But what he said did sound rather peculiar. It could be paraphrased as: "Listen, people - we did rob you, of course, but please trust us anyway from now on!" Apparently, what mattered to the organizers of this political event was not what Potanin actually said - let him say whatever he likes! - but the very fact that he was expressing loyalty. "Look, we have the support of all layers of society, including big business!"

The current tension in relations between big business and government has been initiated by the regime. There's no doubt about that. On the one hand, the new Kremlin team needs oligarchs of its own, not oligarchs inherited from Putin's predecessor. On the other hand, it needs some kind of scarecrow to scare voters away from fields that they should not enter. Once the elections are over, everything will return to normal. The Kremlin will find a way of soothing the alarmed business community. And if one of our magnates buys something like the Madrid Real club a couple of years from now, there won't be a word of criticism. Rather the reverse: see how well our people are doing!

Be that as it may, this is the second time that oligarchs are solving the problem of ruling Russia. The first occasion was in 1996; the second one is now. Of course, there is one substantial difference: last time the oligarchs were manipulating the politicians, but now the politicians are manipulating them.

And yet the current administration is making a serious mistake by relying on the Russian people's distaste for the wealth of others. Not because ill-gotten gains should never be taken away - but because this issue must not be raised in the context of elections.

The consequences of such a policy will make themselves felt at a later date: when the regime backpedals after winning the elections, but the seeds of loathing planted in the hearts of Russian citizens (fertile soil, it must be said) have sprouted. This means that in the near future Russia will experience a painful period of social confrontation. Current events make this assumption by no means groundless.

(Translated by Arina Yevtikhova)

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