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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Atmospheric Change: Harbinger of Coming Storm?

Analysts, the mass media and politics constitute a system of separate but connected vessels. Ideas take shape and are tested in a variety of formal and informal forums. Some of these ideas go nowhere, while others find their way into the wider public debate and/or the political process.

Beyond what gets put into words, this system of interaction has its own atmosphere, what the Germans call Geist. At times, even when nothing is obviously happening in society, this atmosphere changes imperceptibly.

I began to detect an atmospheric change earlier this autumn. By the time of President Vladimir Putin's 50th birthday, the change had become quite distinct.

Starting back in June, ORT's "experts' club" -- a gathering of well-known political scientists, sociologists and economists -- began meeting weekly to discuss foreign policy, domestic politics, prospects for economic development, the state of public opinion and the key issues and players in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. After covering the full range of topics, the experts concluded that the country was stable, and that Putin and his administration were in complete control of the Russian political scene. Everyone agreed that the elections would be a dull affair.

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Faced with this prospect, the experts themselves got a little bored back in September, and decided to spice things up by contemplating possible force majeure scenarios that could undermine stability. The discussion began as a sort of futurist game, and ended with the conclusion that not everything in our lives today is as stable and positive as it first seems. Putin may inspire confidence in Russian voters, but his sky-high poll numbers in no way indicate that the public has much confidence in the government or its policies. Society, exhausted by the stormy upheavals of the last decade, seems happy to view Putin as the symbolic guarantor of stability so long as that stability lasts.

The change of atmosphere in analytical circles led one to expect new developments in the political process as well. And we didn't have to wait long. I have in mind the Kremlin's irrational and disproportionately harsh reaction to the "Georgian threat," Yevgeny Primakov's sensational article in the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta criticizing the government's Chechnya policy and Putin's inexplicable decision to revoke the special status of Radio Liberty's Moscow bureau. These and other decisions that I have discussed in previous columns have different causes and implications, but on the whole they suggest that the Putin team isn't all that confident after all.

I found the coverage of Putin's birthday particularly interesting. Some media outlets were filled with joyous euphoria, while others raised the prospect of a nascent cult of personality around the president. But Leonid Parfyonov's wry piece on Putin's 50th on his "Namedni" (Just the Other Day) weekly news and entertainment program on NTV stood out.

We hadn't heard this kind of irreverent coverage of the president since the heyday of Vladimir Gusinsky. And not just because the presidential administration has leaned hard on the mass media, but because just a couple months ago this kind of coverage wouldn't have found a receptive audience.

On Putin's birthday a group of analysts, gathered under the aegis of the Civil Debates Club, discussed "The Putin Phenomenon as a Challenge to the Analytical Community." The group is headed by Gleb Pavlovsky, widely viewed as a Kremlin ideologue. The press was especially interested in the group's speculation about possible Putin successors. "I am certain that the regime of managed democracy will not survive the 2003-2004 election cycle," Pavlovsky told the newspaper Kommersant.

When you consider press coverage as a whole, everything is just as it seemed to the ORT experts at the beginning of the summer.

I have singled out just a few signs of atmospheric change. Only time will tell if they lead to a real change in the weather.

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