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Friday, May 18, 2007

Lifting the Veil: Details of a Putin Cabinet Meeting

Yesterday Russian "President" Vladimir Putin met with members of the Russian Public Chamber and spent three hours listening to their proposals for rebuilding Russia's reality along more correct lines. Kommersant special correspondent Andrei Kolesnikov agreed with only one of those proposals.

The conversation took place around a long, rectangular table. After a bit of talk about the usefulness of the mere existence of the Public Chamber, the president got down to business. He talked about how recently the government has begun to finance social organizations out of its own pocket. (Of course, Vladimir Putin did everything he could to make sure that foreign governments stopped doing that. But it turned out that nature abhors a vacuum.) The president expressed hope that the Public Chamber will join him in that work in doing independent evaluations: deciding who should get money and who shouldn’t. I bet that after those words, no one at the table was surprised that he is a member of the Public Chamber.

Public Chamber Secretary Yevgeny Velikhov then presented the president with a report on the situation of civil society in Russia.

"There are a lot of myths afoot about that," he declared, "including abroad, so we have translated the report into English."

Just the kind of guileless device that will allow all of these pesky myths to be dispelled, I thought.

Myths that Dr. Velikhov couldn't dispel even with the assistance of a report, he decided to put paid to with his own words at this very table.

"Our society is not archaic," he said, "it is the same as in other countries."

So that's one myth out of the way.

"We have almost no social organizations," he emphasized, "in the sphere of the sciences or agriculture. We need to consider that when drawing up new lists of members of the Chamber" (soon a portion of the membership of the Chamber will be rotated, an event for which Dr. Velikhov is already preparing – A.K.).

"With regard to scientific organizations in the social sphere," replied Vladimir Putin, "that is a singular case (i.e., their absence – A.K.). In general, our journalists have social organizations…"

Clearly, that example was suggested to Vladimir Putin by the numerous calls he received yesterday about the displacement of one such organization, the Journalists Union of Russia, from its home on Moscow's Zubovsky Boulevard. The example was so vivid and fresh in his memory that the president couldn't fail to apply it so aptly.

"But if that's not enough, then we'll just need to [create more]," he added, finally uttering the phrase that Yevgeny Velikhov had been waiting so fervently to hear from him. After all, one or two such organizations are not enough for the distinguished member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (itself a noncommercial organization that purports to command colossal material resources – A.K.) to throw into the heat of the battle with the Ministry of Science and Education and to finally pull out a significant victory, chiefly over common sense.

"But I'm not complaining!" cautioned Dr. Velikhov preemptively, clearly well-aware that the president of Russia does not reward those who complain. "It's just that there are such organizations in the world…"

Quickly figuring out that saying anything more on the subject wasn't worth it, he moved on to a less touchy topic.

"So here's a project on the Russian language," he continued, picking up a slim volume. "We asked schoolchildren to explain some words. The Word is God in the Gospels! The education of our grandchildren is important!… It is important that they deal correctly with modern life, so that the spirit of enterprise flowers in them…"

Vladimir Putin took the proffered brochure and leafed through it. This endowed him with strong impressions, which he quickly turned to share with his colleagues.

"So I've taken a look at the book," he said. "The edition was prepared by an American center! That's why there you so often encounter the words 'business' and 'work' – and only then 'integrity'!

I would append that phrase as the epigraph to every meeting between the Russian president and his American colleagues. Just because it gives such a pithy summing-up of his attitude towards them.

Next, the surgeon Leonid Bokeriya recounted how he had recently returned from Chechnya. He said that his "impression is excessively rosy."

"Grozny is turning into a garden city!" exclaimed the doctor. "It has a very good airport!… Of course, there are still problems with military action there…"

In other words, he's not going to deny that. There was what there was.

"For example, there is a very high incidence of morbidity (as well as of fatality – A.K.)…Clinics aren't always up to snuff…"

"I want to thank you for your evaluation of what has been done in Grozny," said Vladimir Putin, speaking from the heart. "Earlier we couldn't invest anything [in Chechnya], because everything we invested was destroyed."

"He's got construction projects going on! After twelve days!" interrupted Dr. Bokeriya.

"That means he's at his post!" interrupted the president.

It appears to me that no one takes the name of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in vain. And anyway, for some time now there has been no other person, when talking about Chechnya, that you could refer to as "him" and have everyone immediately understand whom you mean.

Yaroslav Kuzminov, the director of the Higher School of Economics, said bitterly that "education reform has foundered on a key issue: arousing the teachers to activity."

For that I silently thanked God. It's frightening to even imagine such activity in all its glory.

"But we don't just need to cultivate talent," continued Mr. Kuzminov. "We need to keep it from leaving the country!"

In my opinion, for the sake of the students we need to pack Mr. Kuzminov himself off in whichever direction he wishes as quickly as possible.

"In the schoolbooks with which we, Vladimir Vladimirovich, studied, are [nothing but] an array of slogans!" continued Mr. Kuzminov, turning to the president. "We need to include economics, law, tax disciplines…"

The last remark finally prodded the Russian president out of his apparent indifference.

"Of course, there are some old schoolbooks," he said. "But after all, some of these new ones are impossible to read at all! They haven't been evaluated by the Ministry of Education! And I have a big request [for you] – to participate in the preparation of literature for textbooks. Some things are just shameful to even touch! You want to just put them aside!"

It wasn't entirely clear where Vladimir Putin was getting his certainty that he would want to touch one of these textbooks after the members of the Public Chamber took the process of writing them into their own hands.

Public Chamber member Vladimir Zakharov told the president about the worrying situation in the realm of ecology. Apparently, he has learned from the newspapers that deaths from the dreadful ecological environment exceed fatalities in automobile accidents.

The president quickly offered his sincere and practical reply: "Don't listen to journalists. They're teaching you bad things."

"But I'm not talking to them. I'm talking to you," said the brave fellow.

Lawyer Anatoly Kucherena broke in and attempted to introduce himself to Mr. Putin.

"The whole country knows what you get up to," interrupted the Russian president.

Unabashed, the lawyer suggested that Mr. Putin organize something like a "social Davos [forum]" in Brussels. In Mr. Kucherena's opinion, many European human rights advocates have been thinking about that after Vladimir Putin's speech in Munich, in which they finally found what they had been seeking for so long: a father.

But Vladimir Putin rejected that paternity.

"Speaking openly, I didn't notice any activity on the part of human rights advocates on the eve of the events on the 9th of May," he said. "Where were the human rights organizations? Where was the moral and ethical appraisal? Maybe then the discussion on that topic wouldn't have taken on such a harsh tone (and it wouldn't have been necessary to deploy the heavy artillery of the youth movement activists – A.K.)."

Then Public Chamber member Vyacheslav Nikonov related how Russian civil society needs to become a global player in the world arena.

"Now it is insufficient," he asserted, "that [Russian civil society] becomes a "soft power" (i.e., not a rude government power – A.K.) in the world. In the US, 15,000 nongovernmental organizations work in foreign policy, and they have in place a global network system of influence in the world… Incidentally, some kind of Brussels social forum already exists, truth be told, under the aegis of NATO… So that's it – without network structures, we're going to lose. The question remains: how to create them? We won't manage to do things like they have in the US (they'll beat us before then – A.K.). But maybe we should think about a nationwide project to create our own instruments of "soft power"? The opinion does exist in the country that we don't need social diplomacy. Maybe you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, don't know, but it is forbidden for members of the Public Chamber to file expenses for business trips, trips to forums, etc…. That's what the Ministry of Finance decided!"

It turned out that Mr. Nikonov was giving this inspired speech about global politics only in order to complain about [Finance Minister] Alexei Kudrin, who had not only refused to dip into the government's pocket to pay for traveling members of the Public Chamber (and a hearty thanks to him for that) but who also is now supposed to appear in the eyes of all reasonable people as the person who is standing in the way of the national project of creating a "soft power."

Clearly, Mr. Nikonov's speech produced the necessary impression on the Russian president, who promised to remove "bureaucratic barriers." Mr. Nikonov had succeeded in ensnaring Vladimir Putin in his network system.

A pediatrician named Rochal talked about how he had just returned from abroad (presumably, he paid his own way – A.K.).

"There they have beautiful fields, horses, cows... I thought: maybe [Russian Agriculture Minister Alexei] Gordeev is right?! They drink so much milk there! And you know, Vladimir Vladimirovich, they have so many twins born there! And they throw children right into the water with their clothes on, and that's how they learn how to swim, while here we throw them in wearing swim trunks, because drowning fatalities are so high (i.e., we Russians can't swim in clothes and automatically drown – A.K.). So I don't like America!"

"In vain," chuckled Mr. Putin. "They've achieved a lot over there in 300 years."

"But I also saw that their public health system is moribund!" cried Dr. Roshal.

"Moribund – their public health system?" clarified Mr. Putin. "That's rather strongly put."

Then Dr. Roshal pounced on the Russian public health system.

"The people, Vladimir Vladimirovich, openly fail to understand why you're still keeping [Health Minister Mikhail] Zurabov around!" objected Dr. Roshal with such vehemence that it was impossible not to entertain the thought that the people would understand only one decision: to appoint Dr. Roshal to Zurabov's post.

"He's only getting in your way! Every cabdriver asks me why he's still sitting in his spot!"

"But he's not sitting," answered Mr. Putin, giving a brief account of Mr. Zurabov's activities in his position.

It emerged from the account that the situation with medicines was getting better and better, and that "ministers do make mistakes, and they are often criticized, but if I begin to shuffle them around, like a deck of cards…"

Here he left off, so that people who complain about the lack of medicine will believe these explanations.

The meeting ended on an address by Ethnography and Anthropology Institute director Valery Tishkov, who chairs a commission in the Public Chamber on tolerance and freedom of conscience. He proffered the same old – but, as always, fail-proof – means of resolving Russia's demographic problem: "We need to invite immigrants from neighboring countries, from Ukraine, for example. And within a few years only their names will remain Ukrainian – like Khristenko or Matvienko."

"And one more suggestion, Vladimir Vladimirovich," said Mr. Tishkov beseechingly. "It is imperative to use diplomatic channels to make 'Russia' sound like 'Rossiya' in English, not like 'Rasha.' In other words, the English letter 'u' needs to be changed to the English letter 'o'."

Mr. Tishkov had finally found a real matter for the Public Chamber, to which it can commit itself without reservation and without damage to the surrounding environment.

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