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Bring Back The Tsar

Painting of Tsar Alexander III.
by Martin Walker
UPI Editor Emeritus
Washington (UPI) Oct 09, 2006
Russia's ruling elite should be feeling rather pleased with themselves. The high oil prices have inspired an economic boom, and the proud Western oil corporations who demanded highly favorable terms to invest in Russia are now being forced to renegotiate while Russia's own energy giants scoop off the cream.

The fury of the Chechen war no longer dominates the headlines, and the objections to Russia's latest round of bullying of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia have been remarkably muted. Even though Germany's new Chancellor Angela Merkel came to power talking of much cooler and more critical relations with Russia, her Foreign Ministry has just drafted a new policy paper that calls for much closer ties and soft-pedaling human rights.

Whether at the United Nations or in Central Asia, in Europe's dependence on Russian energy supplies or in the Middle East with the new deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Lebanon, Russia counts once again as an important player in world affairs. The highly popular presidency of Vladimir Putin has brought stable government for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union.

So why the sudden revival of interest in a restoration of the old tsarist monarchy, and the interest in last month's opinion poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion that found 20 percent of Russians wanting to restore the monarchy.

The poll coincided with an event of grand Russian pomp and circumstance. With TV cameras relaying each moment of the grand and solemn pageantry, the remains of the last tsar's mother, the Empress Dagmar, known as Maria Fyodorovna, were brought back from her native Denmark. She lay in state for two days in the Alexander Nevsky church of the old tsarist palace of Peterhof. From there the ornate coffin was taken to St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg where Patriarch Alexis II, head of the Orthodox Church of Russia, conducted the funeral service. She was finally buried alongside her husband Tsar Alexander III in the vault of the Romanov family in the Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul on the Neva River.

This brought together a potent mix of symbols, of Russia's pre-Soviet history with the Orthodox Church with the honoring of the tsarist past in the city of St. Petersburg, built by Tsar Peter the Great himself. It is also the native city of President Putin and most of his closest advisers.

The last time the Kremlin demonstrated such interest in tsarism was in 1997, under the ailing President Boris Yeltsin. His aides, worried about ensuring a stable succession, restored the coronation hall and the tsar's throne in the Kremlin. Then they organized a solemn and official ceremony to bury the remains of the last tsar, Nicolas II, and his family, slaughtered in 1918 by the Bolsheviks. In 2000, Tsar Nicholas was canonized as a saint of the Orthodox Church, an event that unleashed a tidal wave of nostalgic books, films and TV programs about the monarchy that continues to this day.

Unlike the late 1990s, Russia today is stable and relatively prosperous. There is no fear of the collapse of the state or the economy, little prospect of civil unrest or military intervention. But there is a succession problem, since the constitution limits President Putin to two terms and he is due to step down in 2008.

This is the intriguing context within which an anonymous new 380-page book, privately but expensively printed and circulated, is attracting attention. Called "Project Russia," it is a long critique of democracy as inherently unstable, and urges that for historic and cultural reasons, Russia needs continuity, preferably under an autocratic and religious monarchy.

"There is no greater authority than the power from God," it concludes. "Whether or not we believe in God, such a conclusion is absolute."

The Russian media have traced the book's origins to lecturers at the academies of the Federal Security Service (known as the FSB, and the nearest institution to a successor of the old KGB) and military intelligence academies. The journal Novaya Gazeta (editorial home of the liberal journalist Anna Politovskaya, who was found shot dead at her Moscow home Saturday) claims the lectures were then circulated in printed form for Russia's political, military, religious and commercial elites.

Certainly it seems to be fashionable in Russia these days to be a monarchist, and the VTsIOM poll found a marked tendency among the young, the better educated and more affluent to be pro-monarchy. Some of the country's best-known figures, including the exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky and the liberal reformer Boris Nemtsov (a former deputy premier) and the right-wing nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, have supported the idea of a constitutional monarchy.

A tsarist restoration looks highly impractical. The Romanov family itself does not agree on a legitimate heir, and there is no obvious mechanism in the Russian constitution to establish one. And when some Kremlin aides have mused about bringing back the monarchy, they leave little doubt that they are thinking of a vehicle to keep Putin in power. There is no obvious political heir to Putin in sight, and various schemes have been floated to let him remain in power, although with little evidence that Putin himself supports them.

Putin has said firmly that he does not want any change in the constitution. Moreover, why would Putin want to diminish his powers? The fact is that as President under the current constitution, Putin has considerably more power than did Tsar Nicholas under the constitution of 1905 -- although considerably fewer powers than those being suggested in the book "Project Russia."

This is the real irony. Most Russians who speak favorably about the return of a tsar are talking of a constitutional monarchy with very limited powers. They envision a Russian monarch like the Queen of England, whose role is to be above politics and to embody the continuity of the nation's history. They are talking, therefore, about a figure much weaker than their current President Putin or his still-unknown successor, and thus about limiting the Kremlin's powers rather than expanding them into absolute monarchy.

Source: United Press International

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