Sunday, December 28, 2008

Potentially UNdemocratic Changes to Russia's Constitution Portray Putative Putin Puppet Presidency as Problematic

Russia Remains Stable Under Medvedev-Putin Rule

Xinhua News Agency

December 23, 2008

MOSCOW (Xinhua): Russia underwent a smooth transfer of power in 2008, with former President Vladimir Putin stepping down and his handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev taking over.

The new system of power seemed to function well during the past several months in spite of the Caucasus crisis, NATO's eastward expansion and the global financial crisis. The new head of state has continued the policies of his predecessor, whose eight-year presidency was characterized by a booming economy and political stability at home.


Medvedev, the former first deputy prime minister, was sworn in as Russia's new president in May, succeeding his long-time mentor two months after an overwhelming victory in the country's presidential election.

At Medvedev's inauguration ceremony, Putin called on the entire nation to support the new president and firmly advance along the path of national development.

Meanwhile, Medvedev repeatedly pledged adherence to Putin's policies, which have "set up strong foundations for long-term development, for decades of free and stable development."

Medvedev subsequently appointed Putin prime minister and sent him into power in the quickest way.

So far, Medvedev and Putin have worked in tandem under the constitution. In a swift adjustment to his new role, Medvedev has held talks with European partners, paid a visit to Latin America, and dispatched troops to Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia. He is seen as a housekeeper worth his salt and loyal to his predecessor as well.

When Putin decides to come back to the presidency, Medvedev will return the keys to him without hesitation, analysts said.

In his first state-of-the-nation address on Nov. 5, Medvedev proposed extending the presidential and parliamentary terms from four years to six and five respectively. The bill, passed by both houses of the parliament within weeks, was described by Putin as reasonable during a later televised question-and-answer session.

While Medvedev said the extension of the presidential term enables more effective implementation of reforms, it was seen by some analysts as an attempt to pave the way for Putin's return to the Kremlin.

However, in response to a question as to how he felt being prime minister, Putin said he was happy, dismissing speculation that he was planning a quick return to the presidency.

Putin, widely regarded as one who enjoys being a back-seat driver, added that his power tandem with Medvedev was very effective.

But Putin did not rule out the possibility of a second presidential term, telling reporters he would think about it and make a decision by 2012.

Once he decides to do so, Putin would be looking at up to 12 years in power, long enough to carry out his plans.


During the past half year at the Kremlin, Medvedev spared no efforts on addressing the urgent need to eliminate corruption, promote the rule of law, and diversify the economy beyond the oil and gas industries.

The president last month delivered a passionate commitment to liberal values in his annual state-of-the-nation address, which was described by Putin adviser Sergei Karaganov as "the most liberal presidential speech in the Russian history."

Speaking before the Federal Assembly in the white-columned Grand Kremlin Palace, Medvedev criticized the government for ineffectiveness and called for efforts to bolster democracy.

Ten proposed reforms to the parliamentary election procedure were then listed by the president, a former law professor.

First, smaller parties that may garner five to seven percent of the votes in parliamentary elections will be granted one or two seats in the State Duma.

In the second measure, Medvedev proposed that the power to nominate regional governors be given to majority parties in regional parliaments instead of the president. The initiative would offer the United Russia party a far stronger foothold because it controls most of the regional legislative assemblies.

He also proposed a gradual decrease in the number of signatures needed for parties to take part in elections, the cancellation of electoral fees, and even a reduction in the minimum number of members an organization must have in order to be registered as a party.

Analysts believe that the idea of the constitutional amendments, which represents a logical step in the country's political system reform, could be traced back to the Putin administration.

This package of measures began to be developed a long time ago when Putin was president, said Dmitry Badovsky, a deputy director of the Social Systems Institute.

Throughout the address, Medvedev also underlined the necessity of curbing "legal nihilism" and protecting small businesses from unnecessary red tape.

If Medvedev succeeds in these nuts-and-bolts reforms, Russia is certain to gain streamlined politics and become a more efficient and richer country, analysts say. [??]


It is widely believed that Russia has entered a period of political stability because of the Putin-led United Russia party's victory in last December's parliamentary election.

Now that the pro-Kremlin party holds two-thirds of the seats in the State Duma, authorities are able to push forward policies almost without obstacles. The party's influence was proved when constitutional changes were rushed through both houses of the parliament in November.

The 2-million-member party, founded in December 2001, is a steadfast supporter of Putin, to whom the party owes the large support it has gained.

Analysts said Putin's leadership of the party is closely connected with Russia's political reform process, as the post gave him a power base in the parliament.

At United Russia's 10th congress last month, Putin spoke highly of the party's contribution to the continuity and stability of the Russian administration.

In the face of the spreading world financial crisis, he told hundreds of fellow members that the party's grip on power depends on its ability to protect Russia from danger.

The party leader also reassured Russians concerning the international economic turmoil, vowing the use of all means within the government's reach to prevent a repeat of the economic shocks in the 1990s.

On the international stage, western threats to isolate Russia as punishment for a brief military conflict with Georgia failed to be fruitful.

Furthermore, NATO foreign ministers earlier decided to delay Ukraine and Georgia's admission to the Membership Action Plan, a key step for entry into the military alliance.

Putin was even confident enough to say that the new U.S. administration might be thinking twice about plans to deploy a missile shield in central Europe. The proposed shield has drawn sharp criticism from Russia.

The fairly stable domestic and international scenario is undoubtedly favorable to Russia's progress toward set targets and its course of resurgence as a world major power.


Russia: Putin's Cards Still Hidden

It's easy to write Dimitri Medvedev off as a puppet in the hands of his predecessor as Russian president – but the reality is far more complicated

Joshua Tucker

The Journal

Tuesday 09 December 2008

At the conclusion of Russia’s recent electoral cycle, as expected Vladimir Putin’s hand-chosen successor, Dmitri Medvedev, was overwhelmingly elected president of the Russian Federation. Somewhat more surprisingly, Putin chose to head the Russian government, technically under Medvedev, as the country’s prime minister. Since that time, Russia watchers have been fascinated with trying to understand this arrangement.

Under both Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president had clearly been the most powerful figure in Russia. Indeed, the Russian constitution grants a very large degree of formal powers to the Russian president, so much so that political scientists refer to Russia as a “super-presidential” system of government.

With Putin moving into the prime minister’s office, however, the importance of this formal arrangement immediately came into question. We can imagine that this has led to one of three possible scenarios.

First—the general consensus of the international media—one could imagine that Medvedev was little more than Putin’s puppet, with ultimate authority still resting firmly on the shoulders of Putin. Proponents of this view note that Medvedev has spent most of his adult life working for Putin and that he had little or no independent power basis of his own, including, crucially, no background in the Russian security services—a marked contrast with Putin's long service in the KGB. It is important to note, however, that adopting this view requires us to suspend the belief that formal powers matter in Russia – or, at the very least, to assume that informal networks and power are more important than formal ones.

A second argument holds that formal institutions do matter in Russia, and that eventually political power will indeed flow to the holder of the Russian presidency. We can imagine two different variations of this scenario: one in which Putin is aware of the fact that power will flow to Medvedev, and one in which he is not. If it is the latter case, then we can imagine that eventually Russia is going to enter a period of heightened instability, as crucial actors begin to defect from Putin to Medvedev. It is potentially more interesting, however, to consider the former scenario: that Putin might willingly have taken on the role of prime minister even if he knew this would eventually result in real power flowing to Medvedev.

Why could this possibly be the case? One explanation might be that Putin himself desired to step down from the presidency—perhaps to enjoy a lifestyle more akin to his former diplomatic partners Gerhard Schroeder and Tony Blair—but found himself unable to do so. We can see some potential evidence of this from the repeated trial balloons that were sent out prior to the recent election cycle about various post-presidency roles for Putin, as well as in the infighting that broke out among various factions of the Russian security service around that time. Besides, had Putin wished to continue serving as president, it is very likely that he could have done so. While the Russian constitution does contain a clause limiting presidents to no more than two consecutive terms in office, there is little doubt that Putin could have amended the constitution to allow himself additional terms in office had he so desired.

Prior to 5 November, we had no idea which of these three states existed in Russia. All three would have seen a high degree of cooperation between Putin and Medvedev, which is exactly what we witnessed in the first months of the Medvedev presidency. While the tendency has been to interpret this as a sign that Medvedev is little more than Putin’s puppet, it is also consistent with a view of Putin providing a “buffer” for his protégé as Medvedev settled into the role of the president and built up his own sources of support.

On 5 November, however, Medvedev announced that he would pursue a constitutional amendment to extend all future terms of the Russian president to six years. The legislation necessary to enact this amendment is working its way through the political system, but its eventual passage is all but assured. While we can not know for sure why Medvedev chose to introduce this amendment, one possibility that can not be dismissed is that Putin is preparing an imminent return to the Russian presidency, which can be accomplished by an early Medvedev resignation. Russian law prohibits the president from serving more than two consecutive terms, but once the constitutional amendment has gone through, this would mean that Putin could return for 12 more years as president.

Why now? Again, only Medvedev knows definitively, but the most likely culprit is the Russian economy, which is currently being battered by the global economic crisis and the now rapidly declining price of oil. In many ways, the Putin era has been defined by a tacit trade-off between a Kremlin that has accumulated more and more political power—to the point where Freedom House no longer considers Russia a democracy—in return for delivering economic stability and prosperity. Despite Russia’s vaunted hard currency reserves and impressive stabilization funds, the amount of foreign debt that has been accumulated by Russian corporations—including what are largely state owned or state dominated corporations—has left Russia more susceptible than expected to the international credit crisis. Additionally, Russian exports and government revenue are both highly dependent on oil prices, which are now plunging to a previously unimaginable $40 a barrel.

If the grand bargain of the Putin era is beginning to unravel, then it would not be all that surprising that the Kremlin authorities would like to avoid another presidential election for the foreseeable future. The fact that the constitutional amendment will extend the presidential term starting with the next term suggests that the only way to take advantage of the new six-year term immediately is to have Medvedev resign, with Putin being his likely successor. If this does come to pass, it probably shows that Putin has come to realize that trying to run the country from the position of the prime minister—especially during an economic downturn—is not viable in the long term. If Medvedev does not resign, however, this will remain an open question.


Putin-Medvedev-Putin: Middle East Taking Note


Middle East Times

December 3, 2008

Dynastic rulers and dictators in the Middle East stood amazed and impressed as the upper house of the Russian parliament passed constitutional amendments on Nov. 26, paving the way for Vladimir Putin to return to supreme power in the Kremlin – or for Medvedev to hold supreme power for Putin for the next 16 years.

No family succession here, like in Jordan, Morocco, Syria, or - in the future, possibly - in Egypt. No messy, opaque Islamic politics, like in Iran.

The Russian example for the Middle East is ominous: observe the outward constitutional trappings of a power transition while deliberately destroying the democratic essence.

The Russian model of "sovereign democracy" – to use Marxist-Leninist language, "in form but not in content" – seriously challenges the American model promoted during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

The United States has insisted that an open society, multi-party democracy and the rule of law, with free press, is a sine qua non of modernization. Russia (and China) beg to differ, providing an alternative model for the Middle East.

The rulers in Moscow and Beijing feel more secure when other countries follow their authoritarian market models, and fall in line, supporting anti-American geopolitics.

President Dmitry Medvedev's announcement (Medvedev and the Constitution) two weeks ago that he may change the Russian Constitution to extend the presidential term for six years indicates that the process was orchestrated well in advance.

With the legislature and the national media firmly in the Kremlin's hands, it is little wonder that the proposal gained immediate approval in the nation's parliament and regional legislatures. If this happens, the Putin-Medvedev tandem would control the country for up to 24 years: Two terms of four years (2000-2007); a Medvedev interregnum under the Putin control (2008-2012), and potentially two six-year terms (2012-2024).

It didn't have to be that way. The Russian Constitution proclaims a presidential republic in a multi-party system, with president as a "guarantor" of the Constitution.

However, checks and balances in Russia were underdeveloped after the collapse of communism in 1991, and non-existent before that. Moreover, since 2000, Russia further suffered from a serious deterioration of those political institutions, such as the Duma and the Supreme Court, which had a potential to balance the executive branch of power.

Furthermore, the mass media has increasingly come under the state's thumb, with the government now effectively controlling all TV channels and most of the central newspapers.

Governors and senators are effectively appointed by the executive branch. Political parties were defanged and brought under the Kremlin's control, with the current 7 percent electoral barrier ensuring that since 2003 only the parties given a green light by the Kremlin get elected to the Duma.

Like in the Middle East, the economic crisis is buffeting Russia particularly hard. Being an energy and commodity exporter may be fun when global prosperity is in full blossom, but it really hurts when the world markets are tanking. And Russia is a high-cost oil producer. It is competitive when oil is above $75. It is sputtering when its Urals brand oil is below $50.

Many political analysts in Russia agree that the current rulers will not consider a peaceful power transition through election. If the Russian leaders are closing the door on the country's peaceful political change, which may be necessary due to the economic crisis, they may be planting the seeds of widespread popular discontent, if not a revolution.

Internal politics always matter in foreign policy. Political developments in Moscow may make it difficult for the U.S. Barack Obama administration to deal with Russians on ballistic missile defense, the race for the Arctic, and other issues, as I suggested in two separate articles: Europe Anti-Missile Defense System: Standing Up to Russia's Threats and Executive Summary: The New Cold War: Reviving the U.S. Presence in the Arctic.

Most importantly, the newly announced Obama administration's foreign policy team will need to make serious choices in relations with such Middle Eastern heavyweights as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and others, who may prefer a "sovereign democracy" to an open society.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Catherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Duma Amends Constitution, Paves Way for Medvedev-Putin Reforms

By Lyudmila Alexandrova

By Itar-Tass World Service


The introduction of amendments to Russia’s Constitution – the first ever since its adoption in 1993 – heralded the beginning of President Dmitry Medvedev-proposed political reform. Experts believe, though, that it was drafted back during Vladimir Putin’s presidency.

The State Duma on Friday approved in the final, third reading Dmitry Medvedev’s amendments to the Constitution extending the tenure of office of the head of state and of the legislators from four years to six and five respectively. The Cabinet of Ministers will have to present annual accounts of its performance to parliament.

As he addressed the Federal Assembly with a state-of-the-nation address on November 5, Medvedev, among other things, said the terms of office of the head of state and of the State Duma members should be extended by two years and one year respectively. So far, the Russians have elected the president and the legislators each four years.

The president pointed out that the proposed changes were not a reform, but fine-tuning of the Constitution, and “any reformist zeal in relation to the Fundamental Law is utterly out of place.”

“We are accustomed to thinking in broader terms,” the president said, as he explained the need for amending the duration of the presidency and of the lawmakers’ powers. He acknowledged that he gave thought to this first time several years ago.

At the next polls the president will be elected for six years, and the State Duma, for five. The presidential election in Russia is due in 2011, and the parliamentary ones, in 2012.

The new rules will be applicable only to the next election cycle in Russia, and not today’s president or the State Duma. At the same time the current prime minister will have to present his account to parliament. Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov speculated that Vladimir Putin would address the legislators to brief them on the Cabinet’s work as early as February.

While the bills obliging the Cabinet to report to the State Duma were approved unanimously and without much debate, the law extending the tenures of office sparked a heated discussion. The Communists came out against the idea as such. In the end all of the 57 Communist deputies voted against. The votes in support of the amendments totaled 392, and there were no abstentions.

The amendments will now be submitted for consideration to the Federation Council, which is to give it a go-ahead by a three-quarters majority. The outcome of the voting arouses no doubts.

In the message to the Federal Assembly Medvedev insisted that the point at issue is not a constitutional reform, but an adjustment of the Constitution, some very important, but not fundamental amendments, which by no means alter the political or legal nature of the existing institutions.

Putin supported the president, saying that the proposed amendments were devoid of what he described as “personal dimension”, and would certainly contribute to democratic processes in the country.

In the meantime, sociologists have found out that the Russian people by and large have nothing against the amendments to the Constitution and agree with the extension of the presidential and parliamentary terms.

As an opinion poll by the national public opinion studies center VCIOM on November 15-16 found, of those polled in 140 cities and villages of Russia’s 42 constituent territories more than 56 percent support Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal for a longer term of the president and the Federal Assembly, 29 percent opposed the idea, and 15 made no comment.

Two-thirds of Russians (67 percent) believe that amendments to the Constitution are permissible in principle.

According to analysts, tighter control of the parliament and government would somehow counter-balance in the public space the extension of the presidential term.

Also, Medvedev in his message declared a reform of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament. From now on the FC will be formed “only of persons elected to the representative bodies of power and of members of local self-government bodies of the corresponding territory of the federation.”

This solves a two-fold problem. The Federation Council has always been criticized for being a house of parliament uniting members of the executive authorities, which is a violation of the principle of power sharing. The second problem is a political one. The Federation Council has been a real safe haven for retired politicians and civil servants, which bred corruption and harmed the general level of competence of the upper house. Against this background the need for the residence qualification is no longer necessary, and it will be canceled.

One more important initiative concerns the exclusive right of parties that have gained a majority in the regional legislatures to approach the president with proposals for appointing this or that candidate as the region’s governor.

This gives United Russia a far stronger foothold, for it controls most of the regional legislative assemblies, and it reduces the role of presidential representatives.

Smaller parties that may collect five to seven percent of the votes in the parliamentary elections will be granted one or two seats in the State Duma. As a matter of fact, this is a step towards reducing the qualification hurdle, although Medvedev said the question is not on the agenda yet.

Dmitry Badovsky, a deputy director of the Social Systems Institute, believes that the constitutional amendments are “a logical step that continues the reform of the political system.”

“It would be wrong to say that this package of measures is tailored for Putin,” quotes him as saying.

This package of measures began to be cooked a long while ago, it was discussed back when Putin was president himself, says the political scientist.

“In this case we have before us clear continuity and an evolution of the political system laid down during the Putin presidencies,” he said.

The very instance of amendments to the Constitution is an extremely important political event, says political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya. It is worth recalling that throughout his first seven years in office - from 2000 through 2007 – Putin invariably and firmly refrained from amending the Constitution. He argued the fundamental law should stay as it is. However, a year ago, interviewed by G8 correspondents, Putin for the first time said he had changed his opinion. Apparently, it was then that the decision concerning the current amendments was made, Stanovaya said.


In Russia's Putin-Medvedev Shuffle, Putin is the Lead Dancer

Although Vladimir Putin has left the presidency and become prime minister, there's no longer any question that he's more powerful than his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

By Megan K. Stack

LA Times

November 14, 2008

Reporting from Moscow — The question has all but disappeared from Russian discourse after months of feverish debate: Who is in charge, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev?

It's been nearly a year since Putin, faced with the end of his presidency, endorsed his long-loyal underling to succeed him in the Kremlin. The speculation that once rattled around the capital after Putin restyled himself as prime minister -- whether the two men would clash, whether Medvedev would try to eclipse his onetime mentor -- has fallen away.

These days, there is a broad perception that Putin remains the dominant politician. Analysts variously describe Medvedev as a spokesman, a yes man or, more generously, a just-slightly junior partner in Russia's vertical rule.

This is all gleaned from political body language, of course. Few can say with any certainty who gives the orders behind closed doors, and many Russians now argue that it's an irrelevant question. In public, the two leaders operate in almost flawless tandem, as two complementary arms of the power structure built by Putin.

In the last few weeks, as Medvedev pushed parliament to prolong the presidential term and doled out steely threats to counter American plans for missile defense, he appeared even more Putinesque than Putin himself -- more hostile toward America, more enthusiastic about alliances with anti-American governments in Venezuela and Cuba, and less concerned with the niceties of constitutional preservation.

‘Medvedev has made himself even more harsh,’ said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. ‘He's following the logic of Russian power. He has to look macho and demonstrate his muscle, especially having Putin in the background, continuing to call the shots.’

It was Medvedev who, during his state of the nation speech last week, unveiled plans to change the constitution. Explaining that parliament and the Kremlin need ‘enough time’ to "maintain a high level of authority" and carry out complicated development plans, he proposed lengthening the presidential term from four years to six, and service in the ruling-party-dominated parliament from four years to five. He also suggested giving parliament more power to oversee the government.

These are not fresh ideas. The proposed changes are a resurrection of a plan that was championed in the twilight of Putin's presidency by some of his most ardent supporters, who pushed him to amend the constitution to stay in the Kremlin longer.

At the time, Putin demurred. The constitution was sacrosanct, he insisted, and should not be altered. Now it is Medvedev who is pushing the changes -- and Putin who's staying in the background, while telling reporters he supports the amendments.

Some in Moscow speculate that the two men are laying the groundwork for Putin's extended return to the Kremlin; Medvedev has made it plain that the lengthier term would not apply to his own presidency.

Others argue that it doesn't matter which of the two men occupies the presidency.

‘I don't think the investigation into who's the leader in this duet is relevant,’ said Garry Kasparov, former chess champion and leading opposition figure. ‘The core message is both for a Russian audience and for the West. They're saying: ‘We are staying. Forget about it -- we'll decide between us who's in charge.’’

The proposed changes carry undeniable gravitas, marking the first time the post-Soviet Russian Constitution has been amended since its adoption in 1993. But the amendments are racing through the usually laborious legislature: The first reading is scheduled to be heard this week in the State Duma, the lower house.

The changes are expected to meet little resistance in parliament, which is stacked with Putin loyalists. Still, some eyebrows have been raised even among his supporters.

Sergei Markov, a lawmaker in the ruling United Russia party, said criticism of the amendments as vehicles to harden Putin and Medvedev's hold on power was ‘partly true, because really it's an increase in power.’

‘It's a change in the constitution with unclear, uncertain purposes,’ he said. ‘I think eight years is enough for any president to change the country. It's all tactical, and that's my major point of criticism. I think to change the constitution for some small, tactical things, it's not too reasonable.’

Markov said Medvedev's eagerness to change the constitution was rooted in uncertainty over shifting global dynamics, especially Russian wariness of America in the wake of Russia's war with U.S.-backed Georgia. By ruling longer, he said, Medvedev hopes to create greater stability.

Medvedev has already signaled that he's ready to play tough with Washington, threatening to deploy short-range Iskander missiles in the far-western-Russia enclave of Kaliningrad in response to U.S. deployment of a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. He also has blamed the United States for the global financial crisis.

‘These are initiatives of tandem rule, and the continuation of Putin's paradigm of rule,’ Shevtsova said. ‘This is a ruling corporation, and within this corporation they can change hats.’


Constitutional Changes Go to Duma

By Francesca Mereu

Moscow Times

12 November 2008

President Dmitry Medvedev submitted legislation to the State Duma on Tuesday to extend presidential terms from four to six years, the Kremlin said, making good on a state-of-the-nation promise to become the first leader to change the Constitution.

The legislation, which will also extend term limits for State Duma deputies from four to five years, is expected to sail through the Kremlin-controlled Duma, although not likely by the Constitution Day holiday on Dec. 12.

As president, Vladimir Putin faced pressure to amend the Constitution to stay in office beyond eight years. But he refrained from touching the 1993 document, apparently in part to avoid being lumped together by the West with strongmen such as Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Nursultan Nazerbayev of Kazakhstan, who changed their countries' constitutions to extend their reigns.

Medvedev, in announcing the constitutional amendments last Wednesday, said he wanted to extend the presidential term to enable the government to implement reforms more effectively. The extension would not apply to the current term, Kremlin aides say.

The halls of government have been filled with speculation over whether the change is an attempt to return Prime Minister Putin to the Kremlin for two, six-year terms or to give Medvedev an extended second term.

"We don't understand anything about what is going on," said a Cabinet official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "We don't know whether the move is intended to smooth the way for [Putin] to come back to the Kremlin or for some other reason.

"We live in a country where anything is possible. The decision will be made in secret and at the last moment," he said, adding that sometimes government officials only learn that they have been appointed to new posts from the media.

The official likened the current uncertainty to the atmosphere in the months before Putin abruptly named Medvedev as his preferred successor last December. In the run-up to that announcement, rumors ran fierce that Putin might bow to enormous pressure to amend the Constitution.

Duma Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin, a Communist, said he expected the constitutional amendments to clear the chamber within two months. After that, it will need to be approved by the Federation Council and then by two-thirds of the regional parliaments.

Ilyukhin said Medvedev should be focusing on the financial crisis, not amending the Constitution.

"The country is now facing a serious crisis and Medvedev is changing the Constitution," Ilyukhin said.

He also accused Medvedev of using the crisis to his own ends, noting that Putin had used the Beslan school attack in 2004 as a reason to end the popular election of governors.

Medvedev has worked in tangent with Putin since assuming office in May, and political analysts said the two must have agreed on the constitutional changes.

"Everything was ready a long time ago," said Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst with the Indem think tank.

Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the National Strategy Institute, said he did not believe that Medvedev would not leave early for Putin. "Putin had the chance to stay on, but he didn't use it," Belkovsky said.

National media reports have suggested that Medvedev might step down as early as next year, perhaps on the pretext of the need for a new election under a new Constitution, clearing the way for Putin to return.

The Cabinet official said he also doubted that Medvedev would use the constitutional amendments as a pretext to leave before the end of his term. But he added that he had heard rumors since Putin's first day as prime minister that he was already tired of being the prime minister.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed talk that Putin might become president again as media speculation and said Putin was happy in his position as prime minister.


Preparing for Putin's Return to the Kremlin

By Nikolai Petroy

Moscow Times

11 November 2008

President Dmitry Medvedev's first -- and perhaps last -- state-of-the-nation speech on Wednesday did not adequately address the problems facing the country's troubled economy. It was clear from his speech that the Kremlin does not realize the seriousness of the situation and lacks a plan for dealing with the financial crisis. There could be another explanation for this omission as well: the authorities are preoccupied with something they personally find much more important -- planning out a change in leadership.

The address to the nation included a mix of vague appeals to "further perfect" the political system and democratic institutions. But when the president offered specific proposals, they were either meaningless or openly anti-democratic. For example, Medvedev said that political parties that collected 5 percent to 7 percent of the vote for State Duma seats be given limited -- I would say "decorative" -- representation in the chamber. It is interesting to note, however, that not a single party would have met this criterion in the Duma elections in December.

Russia's governmental system is essentially a lifeless body, and Medvedev's democratic "innovations" are nothing more than a cosmetic veneer on a political corpse. To make a bad situation even worse, the president made two very concrete suggestions: to extend the term for the president from four years to six and to increase the term for Duma deputies from four years to five. The reasons behind the increase in the presidential term are probably tied to a plan to return Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the president's post before Medvedev's term expires in 2012, or else to pull off a presidential castling move that would place Putin back in the Kremlin. The reason behind the increase in Duma terms might stem from the deputies' desire to safeguard their posts against the deepening crisis with the help of early elections.

Medvedev also proposed changing the way the Federation Council is formed, which is probably intended to strengthen support from the regional elite.

Another proposed innovation is to give the party that received the most votes in regional elections -- read United Russia -- the exclusive right to recommend to the president its candidate for the presidential envoy in the seven federal districts. This suggestion is still a bit fuzzy, though -- in part, because it is unclear if it refers to just one party in each region, and how authorities would account for votes received in single-mandate districts. Until now, no strict procedure has been followed in selecting nominees for the presidential envoy post, and in some cases, the officials formally charged with putting forward the candidates first learned of some appointments from the president himself.

Despite this uncertainty, it is clear from this and other points in Medvedev's address that the president intends to increase United Russia's dominance by increasing its control over both the regional elite and the government. It is possible that if a plan for holding early elections and returning Putin to the presidency is in the works, it will be carried out not through the Kremlin, but through United Russia -- which Putin heads. That would explain a number of recent staffing changes within United Russia and rumors that Vladislav Surkov, Medvedev's first deputy chief of staff, is planning to join the party ranks. At least some of these questions will be cleared up when United Russia meets for its national convention in two weeks.

Nikolai Petrov is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.


The Other Historic Event

By Andreas Umland

Asia Times online - SPEAKING FREELY

November 8, 2008

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.

As the world watched how Americans elected their first black president, Barack Obama, it has been largely ignored that across the ocean another historic event was taking place simultaneously in Moscow.

On November 5, Dmitry Medvedev gave his first presidential address to the Federal Assembly, the two houses of the Russian parliament. In his speech, Medvedev presented to Russian lawmakers an action plan which, if implemented, could usher in a return to the policy of democratic reforms started by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s and continued by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

To be sure, Medvedev's speech was by no means a praise of the West and its values. Rather, the Russian president started with an array of verbal attacks on the US and gave vent to the rabid anti-Americanism that has become a major axiom of foreign political thinking of both the common people and elites of Russia.

Medvedev reasserted that Russia's recent activities in the Caucasus - intervention in Georgia - were justified, and that the US is to be blamed for this and other international conflicts - an idea that he, moreover, repeated again when concluding his speech. Medvedev also announced that Russia may place short-range rockets in the Kaliningrad region as a response to the installation of US anti-ballistic missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic.

However, in the middle of his long speech, Medvedev also voiced a sharp critique of historical Russian statism, and did not hesitate to hail the adoption of the Russian constitution under Yeltsin, in 1993. He proposed that "Russian democracy should develop further". In its first analyses of Medvedev’s speech, the Western media tended to emphasize a couple of technical innovations proposed by the president for the country's political system, such as the prolongation of the terms of the president (to six years) and the State Duma (the Lower House).

What was, however, more significant in Medvedev's presentation was the outspokenness with which he condemned the Russian state apparatus's interference in elections, mass media, civil society and the economy - all of which gives, in Medvedev's opinion, birth to corruption in the bureaucracy.

In view of the many deficiencies of the post-Soviet political system, the president announced a number of practical changes which, if implemented in full scale, could signal the start of a new transformation of the nature of politics in Russia.

Under president Vladimir Putin, the various official and unofficial alterations of Russia's political system amounted to a centralization and insulation of power in the Kremlin, which by 2007 had led to the restoration of authoritarianism and a de facto one-party system.

In contrast, Medvedev made it clear that he wants to return power to the people and to see politics becoming more pluralistic. Thus, Medvedev proposed that smaller parties should have a voice in the political process, suggesting that those parties falling below a 7% threshold in parliamentary elections yet reaching more than 5% should in the future be represented with at least one or two deputies in the Duma. (One suspects that this peculiar modification of the electoral system is a result of a somewhat awkward compromise between Medvedev, who apparently wants to make the composition of the legislature more diverse, and conservative forces in the government who seek to preserve the high 7% threshold. The latter was introduced only recently to secure the nearly total control of the lawmaking process by Putin’s United Russia Party.)

Medvedev also proposed that only elected deputies should become governors of Russia's regions or members of the Federation Council, the Upper House. He made further suggestions to reduce the hurdles for parties to register and take part in elections. Medvedev wants to extend the prerogatives of the national parliament and local legislatures in relation to the executive, as well as to include non-governmental organizations in the legislative process.

By proposing these changes, he apparently is looking for channels to bring supporters of democratic changes into the legislative process. It is also noteworthy that Medvedev spoke out in favor of a "strengthening of the national mechanism of the application of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms" - the major document of the Council of Europe. By doing so, Medvedev affirmed Russia’s acceptance of basic European standards and his intention to preserve Russia's membership in some major Western organizations.

However, the most remarkable statements were made by Medvedev concerning Russian journalism, the tight control of which by the state is, perhaps, the most consequential pathology of Russia's current political system. It is remarkable that the president not only acknowledged openly this fact, but even showed some resignation concerning the firmness of the government's grip on the mass media.

Medvedev proposed his own way to solve this problem: "Freedom of speech should be secured by technological innovation. Experience shows that it is practically useless to try to persuade bureaucrats to leave the mass media alone. One should not try to persuade, but extend as broadly as possible the space for the Internet and digital television. No bureaucrat can prevent discussions on the Internet or censor thousands of TV channels at the same time."

While Medvedev's assessments and proposals are sometimes pathetic, they nevertheless show that he thinks about the political system in much the same way as many Russian political scientists and Western politicians. Obviously, Medvedev will face enormous obstacles in implementing his vision for a democratic Russia. Still, in formulating its policies towards Moscow, the West should take due notice that the formally most powerful politician in Russia can be counted on as a firm supporter of democratic values.

Dr Andreas Umland teaches at The Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt in Bavaria, is editor of the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society (, and administers the website Russian Nationalism.


First Amendment, Russian Edition

By Oleg Kozlovsky, Coordinator of Oborona youth movement

Robert Amsterdam: Perspectives on global politics and business blog

On 5th November the world’s attention was drawn to American presidential elections and the victory of Barack Obama. Meanwhile, Russian authorities used this day to declare an unprecedented reform in the country’s recent history—changes to the Constitution. Dmitry Medvedev in an annual address to the houses of the Parliament suggested that the presidential term should be increased from 4 years to 6 years and the Duma’s term—to 5 years.

There is no doubt that Medvedev’s “suggestion” will be regarded as an order by members of Parliament. They have already responded to his speech and expressed readiness to vote for any Kremlin’s amendments to the Constitution. A referendum on this issue is not required, so adopting the new legislation will be easy and quick. Some deputies have even said that Medvedev’s current term may be prolonged till 2014 instead of 2012 (and Duma’s till 2012 instead of 2011). Later and rarer elections will somewhat ease the Kremlin’s fear of an “electoral revolution”—its worst nightmare since the uprising at Kyiv Maidan.

The changes, if passed, will become the first amendment to the Russian Constitution since it was adopted on a referendum 15 years ago. Medvedev’s predecessor, Vladimir Putin, has always been repeating that the Constitution doesn’t need any changes. He preferred to simply ignore it: when he abolished elections of regional governors, submitted the Parliament to himself, technically introduced censorship and political repression, violated independence of courts and property rights. But some things still couldn’t be changed without amending the Constitution, like the length of president’s term or the two-term limit. As usual with KGB, Putin didn’t do the dirty part of the work himself, he used Medvedev instead.

Ironically, the first changes to the Constitution were suggested by the person elected to his office at the staged and fraudulent elections that lacked even minimal legitimacy. Then they are to be approved by the undemocratically elected Duma lacking any real opposition and then by the Council of Federation whose members haven’t been elected at all. To add to this picture of cynicism, this is done while praising the Constitution and its standards democracy at a pompous celebration of its jubilee planned for 12th December.

The plans to change the Constiution were immediately condemned by the opposition and don’t seem to be popular among regular people. The emerging united democratic movement Solidarity called Medvedev’s actions illegitimate and antidemocratic. The Other Russia coalition plans to hold a Dissenters’ March in December that will demand that the Constitution remains untouched. People who discuss the issue on the Internet and in the street also criticize the changes. The government, however, prefers to ignore the public opinion.

As the opposition candidate in the USA receives congratulations on winning presidential elections, Russian ruling elite shows once again that it’s not going to pass power to anybody else. Comparison of Russia’s first amendment to the Constitution to the American First Amendment perfectly symbolizes that development of democracy here has gone terribly wrong.


No Laughing Matter: Cartoons and the Kremlin

The UK Independent

April 30, 2008

With his easily recognisable features, his omnipresence in every area of Russian politics and foreign policy, and his penchant for withering, snappy one-liners, Vladimir Putin is a cartoonist's dream. At the beginning of his eight-year reign, he was launching a bloody war in Chechnya and promising to "waste" terrorists; as it draws to a close he is denying rumours of secret plans to marry a 24-year-old gymnast, and telling journalists to keep their "snotty noses and erotic fantasies" out of his private life. There's plenty of material for even the most unimaginative cartoonist to have a field day.

There's only one problem for Russian cartoonists, however – they're not allowed to draw him. Mikhail Zlatkovsky is perhaps the most famous cartoonist in Russia, with his sketches appearing daily in Novye Izvestia newspaper and a history of political cartoons and existential artwork dating back to the 1970s. He was the first Russian cartoonist to draw Mikhail Gorbachev, and actively caricatured Boris Yeltsin. He has also drawn Stalin, although the cartoon that he did as a teenager in 1959 took until 1988 to be published.

When Yeltsin named Mr Putin as acting president on New Year's Eve 1999, Zlatkovsky drew the ailing Yeltsin dredging a mermaid-tailed Putin out of the sea and putting a crown on his head. Putin became a regular feature of Zlatkovsky's cartoons. But the new President was officially inaugurated on 7 May 2000, and the next day, Zlatkovsky's editor at Literaturnaya Gazeta, where he then worked, came into the newsroom, fresh from a Kremlin reception.

"He said to me, 'Misha, we're not going to draw Putin any more,'" recalls Zlatkovsky. "The young lad is very sensitive." From that day onwards, Zlatkovsky has not had another cartoon of Mr Putin published. Nowadays, the only cartoons of the Russian leader to appear in the Russian press are those that depict him in a positive, or even heroic light.

As Mr Putin's rule went on, says Zlatkovsky, the number of taboo subjects increased – ministers, Kremlin aides, Chechnya and top military brass all became off limits. Recently a cartoon depicting Alexy II, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, propmpted a phone call from the patriarchate and a strong request never to draw him again.

"There's no central censor these days," says Zlatkovsky. "Instead, we have the censorship of the fire safety inspectorate; or the censorship of the tax police." Satirise the ruling class today, and tomorrow the newspaper offices will be paid a surprise visit by fire inspectors who will find a bureaucratic regulation that the office does not meet, and close it. Or there will be a call from the printworks stating that the price of paper has inexplicably risen tenfold. Many cartoonists have given up, finding other work, and newspaper editors prefer to err on the side of caution and not publish cartoons at all.

Zlatkovsky is taking part in a series of Cartoonists for Peace exhibitions to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He has worked as an artist and cartoonist since 1971, but during the Soviet period he would never have dared to draw cartoons depicting party leaders. The cartoons that appeared in the press praised socialist development, or railed against the imperialist West. Perhaps the only cartoonist at the time who was bold enough to subvert the system was Vyacheslav Sysoyev – his cartoons were published in the West, and he was arrested in 1983 and jailed for "distributing pornography".

Then came perestroika, and one day in 1987 Zlatkovsky got a call summoning him to APN, a Soviet news agency. He was met by three young men – probably KGB agents – who told him that they urgently needed cartoons featuring Mikhail Gorbachev

"They told me that Mikhail Sergeyevich [Gorbachev] travels abroad all the time, trying to show off the new, human face of socialism," recalls Zlatkovsky. "But at a conference in Paris, a journalist had asked him how there could possibly be democracy in the Soviet Union if there were no cartoons poking fun at the leader.

"They told me I should come the next day with a cartoon of Gorbachev, and offered me very good money by the standards of those times. But they made it clear that I shouldn't draw anything too offensive or cutting."

Zlatkovsky duly complied, drawing a cartoon that satirised Gorbachev's political battle of wills with the top brass of the Soviet army. A suited Mr Gorbachev, with a hammer-and-sickle birthmark on his forehead, tries hard to toss a giant bear in military uniform over his shoulder.

The agency was pleased, but when Zlatkovsky asked where the cartoon would be published, the commissioners looked at him in disbelief: "It's not going to be published anywhere in the Soviet Union!" they exclaimed. "We'll just distribute it in the West to show that we have real democracy."

As Mr Gorbachev's perestroika gathered force, the sham freedom of expression became more and more real, and then came the Yeltsin era. Western reminiscences of the Yeltsin period as halcyon days of media freedom and democracy often gloss over the many flaws of the time. In fact, local and national media were widely used to serve business and oligarchic interests, and the media agreed to play by Kremlin rules to get Yeltsin reelected in 1996 and ward off the Communist threat. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the opportunity for satire and humour was far greater during the 1990s.

"Satirists ought to build a monument to Yeltsin," says Zlatkovsky. "Of course there was a lot wrong with those times, but in comparison to what we have now it was a golden age."

Many newspapers employed cartoonists to poke fun at the government, mocking Yeltsin's drinking and ailing health. Television also got in on the act. NTV's Kukly, a Russian version of Spitting Image, was merciless in its mocking of the ageing Russian president and his dubious entourage, and drew enormous viewing figures.

When Mr Putin was made prime minister, and then acting president, a puppet of the neophyte politician soon appeared and became one of the stars of the show.

In one Putin sketch, he is portrayed as a young king on his wedding day, marrying a woman called Federation (the Russian Federation). Egged on by cronies and advisers, he takes Russia into his bedroom but finds himself impotent and does not know what to do with his bride. In another sketch, Mr Putin is portrayed as a malevolent baby who is put under a spell by a fairy-like Boris Berezovsky, who was then seen as the kingmaker in Russian politics.

Like Zlatkovsky's Putin cartoons, there was not much future for Kukly. Shortly after Mr Putin was inaugurated in May 2000, the channel got calls from the Kremlin requiring that the Putin puppet be removed from the show. The show was eventually axed. Comparing its biting satire and merciless mocking of top political figures with the bland variety shows and sitcoms that pass for comedy on Russian television today, it's hard to believe they are products of the same country.

Yuly Gusman, a satirist and head of the Russian Film Academy, agrees. "Yeltsin can be reproached for many things," he told Radio Liberty. "But he attached great value to freedom of speech and of the press which attacked him and bit him. He ground his teeth but bore it all."

Gusman presented a film award ceremony in Moscow earlier this year, and made a light-hearted joke to the audience that nobody knew who the real president was these days. A spoof film of Mr Putin as a tsar with Mr Medvedev as his son was also shown. But during the televised coverage of the ceremony, all of this was cut.

For now, the internet remains a place where Russians can laugh at their leaders, and blogs and websites are full of Putin jokes. In one joke currently doing the rounds, Mr Putin calls an aide to his office and says that as he is standing down, arrangements need to be made for every eventuality. He sends his advisers to Israel and instructs them to arrange for him to be buried next to Jesus, whatever the cost. After painful negotiations with all the parties involved, the aide returns and says that the plans are sorted but it will cost $10bn. "Ten billion dollars?!" asks Putin incredulously. "For three days?!"

But many fear that as Mr Putin prepares to leave the Kremlin next week, even the internet is coming further under governmental control. Purposefully vague "anti-extremist" laws have been used against websites critical of authorities. Last week, the internet site of a local paper was closed after users wrote derogatory remarks about local authorities on the paper's blog.

"The authorities fear satire and mockery more than anything else," says Zlatkovsky. "Nothing dents their aura of greatness like satire."


Making Fun of Medvedev Favorite Russian Pastime

By Claire Bigg, Radio Free Europe

April 21st, 2008

Russia swears in its new president, Dmitry Medvedev, in just under three weeks. But while he won the voters' ballots in a landslide victory last month, Medvedev has yet to win their respect.

His March 2 election-- which critics say was merely a prearranged transfer of power -- has prompted a flurry of jokes about the future president.

Most revolve around his boyish appearance, diminutive stature, and reputation as a puppet of President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to become prime minister after stepping down in May.

What is "nanotechnology" in Russian politics? goes one joke. Answer: When each new leader is shorter than his predecessor.

In another, Putin takes Medvedev out for dinner. Putin orders a steak. "What about the vegetable?" the waiter asks him. "The vegetable will have a steak, too," answers Putin.

Perhaps the most popular gag so far is a video that lampoons the cult Soviet film "Kavkazskaya Plennitsa," or "Caucasus Prisoner." The clip has been viewed more than 1 million times on the video-sharing website YouTube.

In the original scene, a local tricks a naive Russian tourist into kidnapping a young woman by persuading him that abductions are a local tradition. In the overdubbed spoof version, the tourist is Medvedev and he's being asked to snatch not the woman but the Russian presidency.

"So what's my role?" asks Medvedev. "Collect signatures, put forward your candidacy," the local tells him. "My candidacy?! That's also part of the tradition? Brilliant!" exclaims an enthusiastic Medvedev.

The local then explains that things must look "natural" even if the vote is bogus. "The candidates will resist, kick, even bite, call for observers, shout that they're going to complain to the United Nations," he says. "But don't pay attention -- it's all part of a beautiful old tradition!"

No Laughing Matter

The Kremlin, if aware of the clip, is unlikely to be amused.

Such jokes are a far cry from the reverent portrayal of Medvedev and Putin in Russia's state-controlled media.

Yuly Gusman, humorist and head of the Russian Film Academy, says the Kremlin has become particularly intolerant of political satire under Putin's tenure.

"It's disappearing from the social sphere and from television debates. It's gone, and I think it will be gone for a long time. I think this began under Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]," he says.

"[Former President Boris] Yeltsin can be reproached for many things, but he attached great value to freedom of speech and of the press, which attacked him, bit him. He ground his teeth but bore it all."

Gusman knows this from firsthand experience.

The television station covering the Nika film awards ceremony -- Russia's equivalent of the Oscars -- in Moscow last month cut out part of his speech, in which he made a tongue-in-cheek remark about the Putin-Medvedev power tandem.

"Traditionally we have a message from the Russian president," he told the star-studded audience. "Since clearly no one knows who our president is, you can consider it coming from me."

A spoof film sequence shown to Nika guests in which Putin and Medvedev were portrayed as a tsar and his son was also skipped over in the television report.

'Approved Humor'

The Kremlin, however, has tolerated -- sometimes even encouraged -- mild political satire.

As Russians cast their ballots on March 2, national television broadcast images of Medvedev attending KVN, a hugely popular student humor show dating back to Soviet times. Medvedev was shown smiling good-naturedly as some of the performers poked gentle fun at his sudden rise to power.

Yuly Gusman (right) says, "Yeltsin can be reproached for many things, but he attached great value to freedom of speech and of the press" (AFP)"It's meant to show that we supposedly have democrats in our country, freedom of speech, not like under Comrade Stalin," says Gusman. "It's approved humor; it's very pleasant, but that's all."

The more scalding satire that flourished in the 1990s following the Soviet collapse has all but vanished. "Kukly," a satirical puppet show, was one of the first television programs axed after Putin became president in 2000.

"Kukly" showed Putin in a variety of guises, from an indecisive leader struggling to choose a new prime minister to an impotent young king on his wedding night.

One of the most caustic episodes was based on "Little Zaches Called Zinnober," a tale by 19th-century German author E.T.A. Hoffmann in which a wicked dwarf bewitches a city, tricking its residents into worshiping him as a great ruler.

The show depicted Putin as the wicked, foul-mouthed dwarf, and oligarch Boris Berezovsky -- the former Kremlin kingmaker who eventually fell out with Putin -- as the magic fairy helping him put the nation under his spell.

"In the outhouse, waste them all! Waste everyone in the outhouse!" screams the Putin puppet at the start of the episode, in which he is still a baby in his crib -- a reference to Putin's famous statement about Chechen separatist rebels.

"Lie still, boy. Now we'll make a human being out of you," says the Berezovsky-fairy.

Vanishing Nation?

The episode enraged Putin's supporters, a handful of whom published an open letter calling for the show's authors to be prosecuted.

The man behind "Kukly," the well-known humorist Viktor Shenderovich, was not dragged to court. But he left the show in 2001 after the television station broadcasting it was taken over by a state-controlled company. [GAZPROM] A significantly tamer version of "Kukly," without the Putin puppet, was finally ditched in 2003.

Since then, says Shenderovich, political satire has been driven underground.

"It's not the 'Kukly' program that disappeared, it's the country in which the 'Kukly' program existed that disappeared," he says. "Beyond the realm of the Internet, we've returned to a Soviet model. Biting personal satire, the kind that goes for the most sensitive spots, is absolutely impossible in the federal framework. It escaped entirely to the Internet; it escaped entirely to folklore."

Russia has a rich tradition of political satire. For centuries, sharp-tongued "chastushki" -- short, rhymed folk songs -- were devised to ridicule the country's rulers.

Russians also used "lubki," hand-colored folk prints, to poke fun at the elite. Peter the Great, whose drive to secularize and Europeanize the country earned him many foes, was a favorite target of lubok artists. Famous lubki portray him as a cat or a crocodile.

While biting satire has long been an inherent part of political life in Western countries, Russia's history of despotic regimes means this type of humor has almost always been confined to the private realm.

Precisely because it is so deeply entrenched in the Russian psyche, the Kremlin is unlikely to ever succeed in uprooting political satire.

"In Russia, mocking authorities is an exclusively oral, folkloric tradition," says Shenderovich. "There were jokes about Stalin under Stalin's rule; there have always been jokes about leaders, there have always been harsh chastushki, there has always been an entire world of satire -- including satire that is foul-mouthed, popular, vulgar, but incredibly talented. This has always existed, and will always exist."


Kremlin Pulls Strings on TV Puppets

BBC News

Monday, 5 June, 2000

Political aides to Russian president Vladimir Putin are increasingly irritated by the portrayal of the president on commercial NTV's satirical puppet show "Kukly".

In recent weeks, Putin aides warned NTV to avoid using the puppet representing the president.

The pressure suggests that Mr Putin is less tolerant of ridicule than his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, who tolerated "Kukly" for years after an initial unsuccessful attempt to shut the programme down.

"Kukly", which is similar to Britain's "Spitting Image" programme, has repeatedly presented Mr Putin as weak and indecisive.

Unflattering images

In recent weeks Mr Putin's puppet has appeared in a variety of satirical guises. He was portrayed as:

  • an impotent young king on his wedding night

  • an indecisive leader trying to select a new PM

  • a new king choosing his coronation outfit

  • an ignorant censor of literary works

Such negative portrayal can be damaging, as "Kukly" is one of the most popular TV shows, with 40% of Moscow viewers tuning in.

The Russian media has linked the Kremlin's growing exasperation with the Media-Most group - which includes the NTV channel - to a raid on the group's Moscow offices last month.

In the raid, dozens of armed and flak-jacketed men in balaclavas descended on its Moscow offices saying they were looking for documents.

Kremlin not amused

The steady onslaught of satire has prompted Kremlin pressure on NTV to tone down the show, on top of criminal and bankruptcy proceedings against its parent company.

"People from the Kremlin made transparent hints to us," producer Vasily Grigoryev said. "They told us to be more balanced and to try not to cause a scandal every week. But we do not intend to change anything."

The programme's audience, he maintained, was as large as the number of people who voted for Mr Putin.


NTV announced in May it was temporarily removing the Putin puppet in response to Kremlin pressure.

"Because someone at the top is upset by the presence of a rubber puppet representing Mr Putin on the show, we decided to experiment by having one show without the Putin puppet," NTV Director-General Yevgeny Kiselev said.

The Putin puppet was absent from the next edition of "Kukly," but the barbs fired at him were not.

The show presented Mr Putin's chief of staff as Moses bringing pronouncements down from God - Putin - who was so exalted no one was allowed to see him or even pronounce his name.

KGB man

The latest edition of "Kukly" portrayed Mr Putin - a former KGB man - trying to recruit President Clinton to work for the KGB during Mr Clinton's visit to Moscow.

"His codename: the Saxophonist. Lieutenant Maria Ivanovna Levinsky has already made contact. He likes cigars."

Mr Putin himself said he has watched "Kukly" "but only a couple of times." "It doesn't annoy me," he said, "but my friends take offence."

Political foes

NTV and its parent company Media-Most have been under pressure for months from the Putin government, with Mr Putin's aides treating Media-Most owner Vladimir Gusinsky as one of their main political foes.

The pressure on "Kukly" probably reflects this political hostility, and resentment at the programme's portrayal of Mr Putin.

For its part, NTV appears to have no intention of modifying "Kukly" to mollify Mr Putin, and is counting on the show's popularity to hold off more drastic action.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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