Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Russian upper house, was talking recently about the "real threat of a fascist putsch in Russia" -- "a new fuhrer with fascist-type, nationalist ideology" emerging in the 2008 presidential campaign.
But while it would seem that so grave a danger calls for urgent and resolute action, Mironov sounded vague and nerveless about what should be done. Perhaps, he mused, the looming threat would simply impel the Russian people to ask President Vladimir Putin "to stay, not to leave" in 2008, when his constitutional term expires.
The idea that the Kremlin might use the risk of a nationalist takeover as a justification for scrapping the election and extending Putin's tenure is but one of several 2008 scenarios thought to be circulating in that body. It's telling that the one scenario missing from the political rumor mill and analysts' forecasts is a democratic transfer of presidential authority, something that has never occurred in Russia.
As in any "soft" authoritarian regime, the prospect of yielding power to a political rival is unacceptable to the ruling elite. Putin presides over a political system in which state power is basically usurped by the administration. Other branches of government are reduced to mere decoration, and decision making is confined within the Kremlin walls.
Laws and courts are bent to fit the needs of the regime. In addition, the new Putin elite has increasingly gained control over huge chunks of Russia's resources, the most striking example being the destruction of the oil company Yukos, followed by the sale of its best asset in a farcical auction and its prompt resale to a state-run company controlled by Putin's top aide. Big power and big property have become so closely entangled in Putin's Russia that a change of supreme authority would be bound to result in a new round of property redistribution, stripping those in the Kremlin's inner circle and their clients of their gains. The example of Ukraine's former president, Leonid Kuchma, provides a horrible prospect for Russia's ruling elite: Kuchma failed to preserve the status quo, and now he may be facing legal action at the hands of his political rivals.
Hence the urgency of "the challenge of 2008," as the effort to preserve the political status quo has been called in political circles.
Rumors have it that the Kremlin may attempt a replay of the anointment that propelled Putin to power in 2000, or that it might consider a change in the constitution that would provide for a transition to a parliamentary system, with Putin assuming the role of an all-powerful prime minister and leaving the now-powerless presidency to a trusted puppet. Whatever scenario the Kremlin might opt for, it is not at all sure that it would be able to handle it without provoking a political crisis.
Capitalizing on the nationalist threat appears to be especially destabilizing. Nationalism and xenophobia are not invented dangers but very real ones. Ethnic violence and even the murder of non-Russians -- ranging from Tajik children to African diplomats -- have become almost routine on the streets of Moscow and other cities. Nationalist literature is abundant in respectable Moscow bookstores. In the polls, an increasing number of Russians support ideas such as "Russia is for Russians." Young people are more likely than older ones to share the view that "ethnic minorities have too much power in our country." Overall, more people accept this idea than reject it.
Putin's policies have played a large role in the rise of ethnic bias and hatred. The ongoing, atrocious war in Chechnya has had a brutalizing effect on those who have served in it (about 1 million altogether in the past decade) and on the nation as a whole. Putin and his aides have stirred the besieged-fortress mentality by resorting to militant, Soviet-style rhetoric and implying that the West is seeking to harm Russia. A raving nationalist journalist is granted prime time on television and radio professing extreme anti-Western views to the broad public. Almost invariably the police respond to ethnic violence by denying the ethnic element in it and qualifying such crimes as "mere hooliganism."
Rather than taking drastic measures to curb the nationalist threat, the Kremlin opts for a policy of using it to its own advantage: Such a threat is a sure justification for tough policies. Even the squeamish West is unlikely to insist that democratic procedures be observed if there's real risk of a fascist lunatic emerging as the leader of a nuclear state. Putin or one of his trusted men may come to be regarded as acceptably benign compared with a "fuhrer."
Before the parliamentary election of 2003 the Kremlin masterminded creation of a nationalist party, Rodina, headed by Dmitry Rogozin. Rodina drew the nationalist vote, but it did even better than the Kremlin had expected, and today it is on the rise. To what extent Rogozin himself is controlled by the Kremlin -- or whether he'll be able to keep control of the sentiments and impulses of his constituency -- is an open question. In seeking to ensure the survival of the current political elite, the Kremlin is engaged in a highly dangerous game.
Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal, writes a monthly column for The Post.