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Boris Gryzlov: A Politician of a New Type?

Internal Affairs Minister Boris Gryzlov plays a unique role in Russian politics. He is one of the few Russian politicians to head an important federal-level ministry as well as represent, even if indirectly, a powerful State Duma faction.
Gryzlov is Russia's top cop, though he was appointed internal affairs minister without any experience in law enforcement or work within the security agencies. (His background includes engineering, trade-union activities and running a trade company.) Unlike the rest of the government, his appointment to a federal ministry was the result of his political activities, which made Unity (now part of the bloc of Kremlin-controlled parties' United Russia) the most powerful political entity in the Duma. He is credited with being a very efficient and energetic organizer as well as a loyal (to a fault) executor of Putin's Duma agenda to strengthen the Kremlin's vertical power structures. Gryzlov is perceived as being able to "organize a victory," as the Bolsheviks used to put it, and organizing one in the Duma was just the beginning.

Gryzlov's appointment in March 2001 to head the Internal Affairs Ministry surprised most of the political establishment. That he was an Internal Affairs Ministry outsider and political appointee surely meant he had been given a mandate to completely reorient this part of Russia’s security apparatus away from the 'family loyalist' Vladimir Rushailo toward officials more acquiescent to Putin and his subordinates. It did not take long for Gryzlov to replace Rushailo's proteges, while Rushailo himself was "promoted" to head the very nebulous Security Council - a place where powerful, though politically out of favor, figures often seem to wind up. Now that he has succeeded in subordinating the ministry to Putin and his people, many are curious about what the Kremlin will direct him to do next.

Over the past few months, Gryzlov has spoken out on just about everything under the sun: Foreign relations, domestic terrorism, AIDS, Chechnya, United Russia, the Duma elections, corruption, and so on and so forth. The one thing missing is economic policy. The Kremlin's struggle to rearrange the "correlation of forces" with the oligarchs may be a reason for his sidestepping this issue, waiting to see where the chips fall.

There is no other political figure in the government, with the exception of Putin, who speaks to the media on such a wide range of subjects. In the meantime, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has gained notoriety and not much else for stepping on the toes of the General Prosecutor's Office because of his remarks concerning tactics being used to investigate Yukos. It seems that, the more Kasyanov is "disappeared" from the electronic media, the more Gryzlov is visible. This could just be part of Putin’s electoral campaign - but is that everything that is going on?

Gryzlov is portrayed in the media as - if I may be allowed to again appropriate Bolshevik parlance - both a "red" (meaning loyal to authority) and an "expert" (having ability, while not being an ideologue). In another words, something of a novelty in modern Russian politics. If this is true, Gryzlov has broken with contemporary political tradition: He uses traditional bureaucratic-infighting tactics to accomplish his assigned tasks without appealing to revolutionary ideas.

As he is the Kremlin's top-ranked booster, Gryzlov's powerful backers have many reasons to present him as an efficient and loyal functionary, especially since the Duma elections are coming up. But parading Gryzlov around the way Kremlin seems to like may result in a completely different political outcome. The Having a "red expert" presenting the Kremlin's increasing populist platform has short-term political benefits, but it may actually create a new type of Russian politician in the long term. This would be a positive, though unintended, development for Russian political culture.

Putin has endorsed and then backed away from creating a parliamentary democracy that would determine the makeup of the government based on a plurality of parties in the Duma. The present Duma is sitting on a bill that could, with Putin's signature later, make this a reality. Gryzlov may well be a just-in-case candidate for prime minister if United Russia can deliver a Duma election victory for the Kremlin on Dec. 7.

Some political pundits see Gryzlov as a short-term political figure the Kremlin is using for its campaign purposes. After the votes have been counted, irrespective of the outcome, Gryzlov will supposedly slowly fade out of the picture. However, this would be contradictory to Putin’s political instincts, which appear to be to retain and protect those who serve him well.

Whatever Gryzlov's political future may be, he has invented a new political style for Russian politics. Whether, invented by Kremlin spin-doctors or otherwise, this is an important and refreshing change. Modern politics, for better or worse, is about individuals who can deliver on their promises and sense what electorates want, as well as possessing an attractive public persona. Gryzlov may be an accidental politician, but the phenomenon he represents suggests that Russian politics may slowly be changing for the better.

Peter Lavelle.