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The Moscow Times, December 16, 2003

Who Is Mr. Putin: Successor or Reformer?

By Alexei Pankin

Alexei PankinDuring every major political campaign in post-Soviet Russia, with the exception of the 1999 State Duma campaign, the state has put its entire propaganda machine to work in the service of the president. The results have been mixed. The enormous power of television was harnessed to ensure victory for Boris Yeltsin and the "democrats" in 1993, 1995 and 1996, but each time the voters seemed to cast their ballots out of spite. In 1993, they backed the clowns of LDPR. In 1995, they got behind the Communist Party. And in 1996, when the media's efforts to secure a second term for Yeltsin amounted to psychological warfare, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov received nearly 40 percent of the vote -- nearly half again the size of the core Communist electorate.

It has been a different story with Vladimir Putin. In the 2000 presidential election he was already regarded more as Yeltsin's opposite than his successor, and he owed his victory to this perception far more than to the power of television. Constant media propaganda in support of United Russia may have played a role in the party's success this month, but it's clear that Putin's endorsement sealed the deal.

The new election laws didn't stop television from promoting United Russia or undermining the Communists, but at the same time they allowed the parties to reach out to voters directly, without the mediation of journalists, more than they had in the past. As a result, SPS suffered a dismal defeat. Unfortunately, Yabloko also fell short of the 5 percent barrier required for representation in the lower house. Then again, Rodina, the only party with a substantive platform, did far better than expected.

Television coverage of the election was not objective and the government machine once more played its part, yet because the outcome was guaranteed by Putin's popularity, this election was marred by far fewer excesses than in years past. So when the OSCE talks about regression of the democratic process in Russia, I'd like to know what their yardstick is.

I would sum up the lessons of this election as follows: The people demonstrated their confidence in Putin and their rejection of the Yeltsin legacy.

There is a fundamental paradox here that the media totally ignores for some reason. Putin was handpicked to succeed Yeltsin. He was installed in the Kremlin to safeguard Yeltsin's real legacy: a corrupt, oligarchic capitalism that served the few at the expense of the many. Putin's mandate from the voters requires him to renounce this legacy, and that can mean only one thing: The creation of a transparent, socially oriented, investment-friendly economy and the political institutions that go with it.

The president's actions to date could be interpreted in very different ways: as loyal service to his predecessor, as an attempt to preserve the system while replacing the major players, or as gathering his strength for a battle with the Yeltsin-era system.

The fourth State Duma offers the president a wide range of political options. The presence of Rodina, led by the strong and uncorrupted economist Sergei Glazyev, makes it possible for the first time to implement a real alternative to current economic policy based on judicious protectionism and a social orientation. If Putin pursues this alternative he will have the backing of the Communists, whose allure for big business has diminished along with the size of the party faction in the Duma. He would also be supported by business leaders who are interested in real production, and by United Russia deputies from regions not blessed with natural resources. In other words, serious support for reform could gather around Glazyev's banner in the Duma.

Then again, Russian liberalism these days could be summed up by the slogan "steal and let steal." By this definition, there are probably more liberals in United Russia than in SPS. And these deputies would prove just as dangerous to Putin the reformer as they have been loyal foot soldiers of Putin the successor.

Who is Mr. Putin? We'll have to wait and see.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals. [www.sreda-mag.ru]


See also:

the original at

State Duma elections 2003

Presidential elections 2004

The Moscow Times, December 16, 2003

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