Vladimir Putin

Dr. Ludmilla Selezneva, Professor, Moscow State University

neti2i.org posting April 13, 2005

   

The current Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is a member of the younger generation, compared with Yeltsin and Gorbachev. However, he is also a product of the Soviet system. He was born in 1952 into a typical Soviet family in Leningrad, (now St. Petersburg). This fact has made a big  impact on Russian politics, for the overwhelming majority of the Government are people with a St. Petersburg background; they studied with Putin or they worked with him. A recent political joke is that if you travel to St. Petersburg, it is now St Putinsburg. His father worked as a locksmith in a factory which built railway carriages. His mother, who had no qualifications,  worked as a cleaner. She came from a village family, as did her husband, also Vladimir Putin. The father of the President has roots going back to Tier, a rural region. Their son, the future Russian President, was brought up as a city child. According to the official Soviet ideology, working people, or the proletariat, were called  “upper” class, but their standard of living, like  that of almost all the Soviet people, was very low. Putin’s family lived in a so-called shared (or communal) flat. In shared accommodation, five or seven families may be found in one flat, sometimes even ten or twelve, having one common kitchen, corridor, and bathroom. (Even today, in 2003, 18% of the population of St. Petersburg still lives in communal flats). In the years immediately following the  Second World War, many times more than this used to have this type of accommodation. In one of his interviews, President Putin said that for more than 30 years of his life he lived in a communal flat.

 

The St. Petersburg experience of the Putin family was not entirely happy. Vladimir was raised  as an only child. He never saw his elder brothers, as they died in infancy, one of them during the famous and tragic siege of Leningrad, from 1941 to 1944. He was only one out of a million people who died of starvation and cold. Being anxious about her youngest son’s health, Vladimir’s mother did not work all the time, and when she did, she had part-time jobs, mostly at night, so that she could look after her son. For this reason he did not go to kindergarten, which was normal in Soviet families, but stayed at home with his mother. During the long siege, almost a whole generation of young men was wiped out, so that afterwards most families in Leningrad were being brought up without fathers. Vladimir Putin had the advantage over most other children in being brought up in a normal family, and he bonded strongly with both his parents. Thus he grew up to be a self-confident and well-balanced person.

 

The rest of his story was quite normal for millions of Soviet young people, ten years at school, (free up to the time he left, and compulsory, including high school level), until 1970, and five  years at university afterwards. Although Soviet universities were free, attendance at them was not compulsory. The final school years were a challenge for youngsters, deciding which university to apply for, and succeeding against stiff competition in the entrance exams. Putin was not an exceptional school student. The study of the sciences is compulsory in USSR schools, but during his last two years he did not give his mind fully to these subjects, because he wanted to concentrate on the Humanities, and he did quite well in his final examinations. He made the decision to enter the law department of Leningrad University in 1970. In 1975 he graduated with a Master’s degree in law.

 

Paradoxically, Putin had no desire to become a lawyer. His Master’s degree in law and a good university education were just the foundation required for him to fulfill his dream. That dream was a very special one. From the time of his last years at school, young Vladimir was determined to become a KGB officer.

 

Although not many people chose that professional path, there were quite a number of young Soviet men who had the same idea as Putin. There were several reasons for this. What was the Soviet KGB at that time? It was still one of the most powerful political structures within the Soviet Union, and it controlled the State and the minds of people in all social strata, in the economy, in the army and even in the political élite. The Head of the KGB was one of the key political figures within the Communist Party leadership. However, it was not comparable to the KGB, (or NKVD), of  Stalin’s rule, (1929-1953), when State security was the main tool of mass purges, including the arrest, torture and execution of innocent people.

 

After Stalin’s death, the new Soviet leaders started to put the KGB under Communist Party control. It was part of a general, (though not a radical and significant), democratization of the Soviet system, and a kind of “thaw” in Soviet history. The rotation of Security Service staff resulted in them being less corrupted by power and privileges, and the use of violence began to decrease. Many of  them shared quite popular ideas about modernisation and improvements in all spheres of life, whilst being at the same time dedicated followers of the communist system. One of them, Yuri Andropov, became Head of the KGB in 1967. He was a communist fundamentalist, whose ideological determination reached the level of dogmatism and fanaticism. Three times Andropov initiated Soviet army invasions to support communist governments, in  Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979. Though at the top of the pyramid of power, he personally remained absolutely uncorrupted, refusing privileges, titles and  presents, and maintaining a very modest way of life. When he, the Head of the country and party, died in February 1984, his family was left without money and property. He was determined to improve the KGB, to make it an efficient tool of a mature Soviet society, to free it of corruption and other social ills. Moreover, KGB staff should not be the executors of Stalin’s policies, nor be perceived to be so by the general public. Andropov tried to make KGB activity as open as possible. The 50th anniversary of the Soviet Intelligence Service was widely celebrated in 1967. Many wonderful books were published, and films made, on Soviet spies, and this became a cult for the whole generation.

 

One of the most popular books in the mid-1960s was Vadim Kozhevnikov’s  “Shield

And Sword” (1965). It described Soviet spying activity during the Second World War against  Germany. The film based on it appeared on the screens in 1968, and everybody fell in love with its hero Iogan Wise (the Russian agent Belov). The same year another cult film, “ Dead Season”, was produced. This was the first time that Soviet audiences across the whole country came to know that Soviet intelligence personnel had continued their activities abroad after the Second World War. They were bright and modest, intelligent and educated, smart and honest, dedicated to the idea of the common good and intolerant towards “enemies of all good people”.  They became schoolboy Volodya Putin’s heroes. (Volodya is a Russian family name for Vladimir.)

 

Putin once recalled, “ In the ninth grade, (16 years old), I conceived the desire to work for the  KGB. It came about through the influence of books and films.” At that early age he was determined to be not just a member of the KGB, but a Soviet intelligence agent in particular.

I was one of the same generation, and I can add that I met many young Soviet men of the same type as Putin, “ The Andropov generation”. They studied with me and my brother at the University. They got Master’s degrees in physics, chemistry, mathematics, history, law, biology,  geography, etc. They accepted offers of work in the KGB, which were made by the Government, and in the army, the police, the education service and industry. (Under the Soviet Constitution it was the Government’s duty to offer jobs to all school, college and university graduates). They were the best in our year. My brother chose to serve with the military, and the finest and most popular of his friends decided to go into the KGB.

 

It is also obvious that many young people made the “KGB” choice, wishing to have a better living and privileges, or to make a “career”, (and which was supposed to be the wrong motive for Soviet youth). Vladimir Putin did not belong to this latter type.

 

His secret service career, (the Secret Service was a part of the KGB), started in 1975 and

continued until 1991. The most important parts of it were training in special, closed, KGB schools, and a post in East Germany. The KGB school was a very secret educational establishment. Its students did not know each other’s real names, only their nicknames.

They had to study many difficult subjects. A foreign language was one of the key ones, 6-8 hours a day with the best professors. Putin studied German and this determined his future posting. Upon graduation he was sent to East Germany, where he spent 5 years working as a secret service agent, collecting and analyzing information on a wide range of people, mostly foreigners from Western countries. He returned with a wide experience in his field, fluent in German, and anti-isolationist in his political priorities. When a New York radio commentator asked Putin during his visit to the USA in 2001 what influence his KGB experience had had on his political views, the future Russian President answered, “I came here, to your country, because of it.”

 

In 1991 the term in East Germany was over, and  Putin returned to Leningrad, (St. Petersburg), to work as a KGB officer in his Alma Mater, the University. But the time of  the Soviet Union and its system was approaching its dramatic finale. Leningrad was the place where the democratic process made an early start. In 1991 its population voted for the first democratic mayor in its history, Professor Anatoly Sobchak, an eminent Russian democratic leader, and a courageous fighter against the Communist Party monopoly. Vladimir Putin was offered work as a member of the city government, formed by Sobchak. Putin considers himself as a Sobchak apostle in two ways, since Sobchak was his professor of law at the University, and his boss at the beginning of Russian democracy. In fact, as a deputy mayor he was the second in command of economic development, and foreign economic relations in particular. Hence the first private businesses, foreign banks, and joint ventures were established in St. Petersburg. In 1991 the population voted by a referendum that Leningrad should revert to its original name of St. Petersburg, and this had the strong support of Putin. It was his first experience in public politics. It is interesting that Putin’s KGB job finished not as an automatic result of the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of the Secret Service. The decision to leave the KGB was made when it was still a powerful body, and the head of the KGB, Kryuchkov, became one of the key figures in the anti-Gorbachev coup. During these three critical August days of 1991 he left the KGB voluntarily.

 

Working for the St. Petersburg city government, Putin had his first experience of real political activity, meeting Thatcher, Kohl and other famous politicians. But in 1996 the government’s term was over. Sobchak was not re-elected and Putin left his job, together with the former Mayor. It was a time of insecurity. There was no job, no flat for the family, no money, and all he could offer to an employer was a sampling of political activity and management, and a connection with Presidential administration in his previous post. The President admitted recently that he was planning to work as a private taxi driver, using his own car. However, it did not happen, for he received an offer from Moscow to work in the Presidential administration. It was 1997. The new-born Russian democracy desperately needed fresh people at the top. Nobody had experience of democratic management. Frequent sudden rotations within the political élite became normal. The  Presidential administration was shaping new staff for the Government.

 

The framework of Russian politics is shaped by the current (1993) Constitution. It gives total power to the President, who appoints the prime minister, has the right to dissolve Parliament, and rule the country by decree in certain circumstances. Hence the President’s Office is the most powerful board, more powerful than the Government. As he appoints heads of departments, the President promotes them to key State and political posts. In 1997 Vladimir Putin became one of them. He was quickly promoted within the  administration. In 1998 Putin, a retired KGB colonel for seven years, was made the Chief of the Federal Secret Service. He did not stay in that position for long, and was moved further up, as Chairman of the National Security Council and, finally, in August 1999, Chairman of the Russian Government, (what we would call Prime Minister). As a public politician he appeared from nowhere. The media and most people regarded him as a person who appeared by accident. By December 1999 Putin’s popularity had considerably increased. This was a surprise only if one viewed his career superficially.

 

In September 1999 Moscow experienced an awful terrorist atrocity. Two apartment blocks were blown up at midnight. There were more than 200 victims. The new Prime Minister supported the decision to start a second war in Chechnya, in response to the terrorism in Moscow. This made him popular enough to win the next presidential election.

 

However, the story about the election is more complicated. The first Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, had been in power for nine years. He made a great contribution to the dismantling of the Soviet empire at the beginning of his leadership. He showed incredible courage, fighting against the Communist Party state monopoly, directing the infant Russian democracy towards its first multi-party election in 1993, guaranteeing it. Twice he actually saved the embryo democracy from communist revenge, in 1991, during the anti-Gorbachev coup, and in 1996 competing successfully against the Communist leader Zuganov, who obtained 42% of the votes. However, he was also responsible for the “shock therapy” which immediately followed the beginning of radical market reform, a sudden increase in crime, and political corruption on a grand scale. That, together with a not very healthy way of life, soon destroyed Yeltsin’s popularity, and in the second half of the 1990s the population was ready to get rid of him.

 

However, the solution had to wait until New Year’s Eve, 31 December 1999. New Year is the most popular holiday in Russia. The last poll showed that 94% of the population celebrate it,  whereas only 68% celebrate Easter, and 61% Christmas. The celebrations continue through the whole night with big parties, feasts, drinking, dancing, singing and fireworks. New Year’s Eve is also very special, what with cooking specialties for the main meal of the year, buying presents for family and friends, and running to the hairdresser’s and the beauty parlor. On New Year’s Eve, 31 December 1999, the Russian people received an incredible present. President Yeltsin  announced his voluntary resignation six months before the end of his term. It was a surprise for everybody, including his family and the Prime Minister. He, Vladimir Putin, became a key figure. According to the Russian Constitution, the Prime Minister automatically becomes the acting President, and his main duty is to arrange for a Presidential election within three months. Acting President Vladimir Putin followed the Constitution, arranged for an election on 26 March 2000, and won it in the first round.

 

President Putin has a nice personality. He is much younger than people of the Gorbachev-Yeltsin  generation, being born in 1952, and he has had no experience within the higher echelons of the

Communist Party élite. Hence, the Soviet legacy does not have as much influence in his life and politics. He had a very good education, graduating from one of the best Russian universities.

His Master’s degree in law explains his special attention to the legal system. He has the determination to modernize it and to develop a proper respect for the law amongst the population. This suits the current Russian agenda completely, for the lack of a mature legal and judicial system do not, in practice, permit the establishment of a proper rule of law.

 

Putin, like many from his Government, but unlike the previous Soviet élite, speaks German well. He studied it in depth not only at the University, but also in the special secret KGB school,

studying for six to eight hours every day. Five years in his intelligence post in East Germany were not wasted, and Putin’s German became so fluent that he always speaks German without an interpreter. He is known as a great admirer of the German culture. For the last couple of years, the President has tried to improve his spoken English. He had an intensive course of English with a teacher from St. Petersburg, who was famous for his method of improving language ability  quickly. On two occasions the Russian media mentioned that Putin started his meeting with Blair  and Bush speaking English.

 

Vladimir Putin does not drink much. He is free of this bad habit, which afflicts many Russian politicians and ordinary people. This does not mean that he avoids alcohol completely. Quite moderate amounts of red wine and beer are the President’s preference. As a former intelligence service professional he can sip a glass of wine for about two hours. This is a great relief for those people who disliked the former President’s habit of drinking to excess.

 

Putin is keen on a healthy way of life, including sports. He used to have a very high level of attainment in judo. He had the opportunity to become a professional sportsman. The great dream of a glorious career in the KGB was the reason why the young Vladimir Putin turned down this suggestion, but he still practices judo as well as many other sports. Downhill skiing is a big passion of his. He tries to practice it several times a year, and the Russian political élite follows suit. Sometimes many of them took too great a risk and broke arms or legs. This is why some time ago the Russian Parliament discussed a law to prohibit politicians engaging in downhill skiing, though the bill was not passed. To engage in sports is much better than to be the champion in vodka drinking.

 

The present Russian President is devoted to his job, and has a very mature feeling of personal responsibility. He is a workaholic. The Russian people are very pleased to have such a person at the top of the pyramid of power. Putin’s personal attraction is one of the main factors in his high popularity. It has never been less than 70% in the polls. For many Russian people he is a charismatic leader. Many Russian women are very much in love with the tall, sporting, blond man with blue eyes and a serious attitude to his family and job. There is a popular youngster’s

song, “ I would like to have a boyfriend, like Putin, who does not drink, does not smoke, and always presents flowers to his beloved women”.

 

Putin’s family consists of his wife and two daughters. He married Ludmilla at the age of 30 (?) at the beginning of his KGB career. She lived in Kaliningrad, and worked as an airline stewardess for a time. Once she visited her friend in Leningrad, who introduced Ludmilla to Lieutenant Vladimir Putin, and they remained friends for several years. On his advice she moved to Leningrad and entered the philology department of Leningrad State University. They married in the year 1983  Their first  daughter, Katya, was born in 1985, and the second, Masha, in 1986, in East Germany. All members of the President’s family speak fluent German. Ludmilla was not allowed to work because she was a KGB officer’s wife, so she concentrated on bringing up their daughters. She has remained predominantly a housewife except for a very short period of time when she worked as a teacher of German in the Leningrad University at the beginning of the 1990s. She also speaks Spanish and French. When the family moved to Moscow both daughters continued their education in a special school run by the German embassy. They did not attend lessons there once Putin was elected President; teachers from the school taught them at home. There is little information about the President’s daughters, but it is known that the older one left school and entered the High School for Economics. Friends of the family say that the daughters are very well brought up, good mannered, young ladies. For the last few years Ludmilla Putin has been involved in social activities, patronizing Russian-German cultural exchange programmes and projects promoting the Russian language.

 

So the Russian President is seen as a nice person, and it is a great credit to him. However, a crucial point is the type of domestic, economic and foreign policy Putin has been maintaining during his first term. There was no certainty about the political character of his programme when he ran for President. He did not belong to any political party. He does not favour communist ideology, but at the same time he was not known to be an admirer of modern democratic political organisations. “Great Russia”, the main slogan of the campaign raised suspicions of a nationalistic fervor.

 

Economic policy is a key factor for Russian internal development at the beginning of the 21st century, and Putin is convinced of this. His economic policy is liberal, the support of private enterprise, joint ventures, the attraction of foreign capital, participation in the economic integration of the world, speeding up Russian economic growth, thus turning Russia into a prosperous country, a great economic power. In his State of the Union address on the 16th May 2003 he announced his very ambitious goals – to double Russian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 10 years, to eliminate poverty, to reach the average living standard enjoyed in the rest of Europe, and to make the Russian rouble convertible. Amongst the people who were invited to join the economic arm of the Government were the Finance Minister Aleksey Kudrin, the Economics Minister German Gref, and the consultant Andrey Illarionov, who are known as eminent liberals. The latest speech about the programme, on 12th February 2004, continues along the same lines.

 

Putin himself and his Government are proud of the economic growth. The year 2000 was the first year of economic growth. Neither the USSR nor post-Soviet Russia had had any in the previous 30 years. The year 2000 brought a growth rate of 7%, and in 2004 it will be 7.3%. The gold reserves increased from $11 bl to $88 bl.

 

This success is not the only result of Putin’s activity. Begun in 1992, market reform and privatisation have proved their worth. The private sector provides 80% of the GDP. It is 1.5 times as efficient as state enterprises. The development of the world oil market was very favourable to Russia, the average price being about $25 per barrel instead of the previous $16   and $18 estimated in the short-term.

 

In addition to these successes, big efforts were made to implement some fundamental reforms  for the market economy, first of all the Land Code. It is a long story about the private ownership of land in the history of Russia. At the beginning of market reform it was proclaimed and included in the Constitution in 1993. However, it did not work properly. The main reason was that public opinion accepted private ownership in many spheres of life but rejected it with regard to land. The two big parties, the Communist and the Agrarian, blocked all attempts to push the new Land Code through Parliament, (the State Duma). Until the beginning of Putin’s Presidency, there was no legal land market, and this had a serious negative impact on the whole economic process. Anyone could buy any property, including buildings, industrial enterprises and shops, but not the land on which they were built. Private farming did not progress at all. As long ago as 1992, Soviet collective farms were abolished, as a result of which 12 million people were allowed to own their plots, but 80% turned down the offer.

 

The lack of an established system of private land ownership is one of the most significant features in Russia’s long traditions. The ownership of land by the Commune dominated throughout the centuries until the beginning of the 20th, when from 1917 it was replaced by complete State ownership. This reflects the philosophical and ideological belief that private ownership does not come naturally to the Russian mentality, that land has to belong to God or the State, but not to individuals. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation and Agrarian Party adopted this ideology in their political programmes. They tried to block all efforts of the President and the Government to promote a new Land Code. At the very beginning of his rule, Putin announced this as a priority in his political policy.

 

However, the resistance was so strong that the draft was divided into two parts. The first was passed by the Duma after a rough brawl in the Parliament building. Before the deputies arrived at the Duma, they were met by about 500 protesters blocking the street and carrying posters slamming the legislation as an attempt to sell off the “Fatherland”. Inside, the Communist and Agrarian deputies, chanting, “Shame, shame, shame”, flocked to the podium to prevent the Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref from taking the floor to discuss the Bill. Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev was eventually forced to call for a closure. Later, as a result of the heightened tension throughout  the day, Seleznev was taken to the Central Hospital with high blood pressure.

 

The Communists and Agrarians were invited to meet Gref in a separate hall, but they refused and stayed in the main hall singing a rousing World War II favorite, “Stand up, great country, stand up and fight to the death with the dark forces of fascism, with the cursed hordes”. During the break, Victor Anpilov, Head of  the ultranationalist Working Russia Movement, said in an interview, “I haven’t read this draft, but it is bad. The worst thing is that the land will be sold to foreigners and that the regions will be allowed too much independence in dealing with land.”

 

When eventually Gref started speaking, Deputy Vladimir Bryntsalov head-butted and kicked the hard-line Communist Georgy Tikhonov, one of the people orchestrating the Duma protest. Eventually 230 deputies out of 450 voted for the Government draft. Since that was more than 50% of the deputies, the first part of the Land Code was passed. After a year, on 26th June 2002, again after a big discussion, the second part was passed by Parliament. The President’s supporters made a considerable concession - foreigners are not allowed to own land in Russia, but can lease it for 49 years. The Land Code came into force on 1 January 2003 and should be considered as a big success in the President’s liberal economic policy. It stimulated the flow of investment into the country.

 

It was essential to improve the Tax Code during the first year of Putin’s Presidency. Taxation was not significant under the Soviet command-led system, where the State took all the money and distributed it. After the beginning of market reform, taxation became one of the key issues in economic, social and political development, but the scales used were inappropriate. Newly established businesses had to pay up to 300 different taxes, and the total could be 80%, 90%, or even 105% of the profits, with the result that many businesses were made bankrupt. To avoid this, 83% of businesses did not pay their taxes. Not being not able to collect taxes meant that the

Government could not pay wages and pensions to millions of people. This made a change to the  Tax Code a matter of overwhelming importance, but it was discussed for 8 or 9 years without any progress being made. Some big businesses getting tax benefits from the State did not want to

change the situation and successfully lobbied the Legislature. Putin was determined to change the Tax Code and he began the process in 2001, with a flat rate income tax of 13%. It is one of the lowest in Europe and was greeted by the business community with enthusiasm. In 2001 the  Russian Government collected 60% more in taxes than in 2000. Such progress is reckoned by economic analysts to be one of the wonders of the world! Russia then had the benefit of a budget. Today wages and pensions are paid. The gold reserves increased significantly, reaching $86 bl, from $11 bl in 2000. Foreign debts were paid in full. In 2003 Russia paid $17 bl to foreign countries and international finance organisations.

 

The introduction of the new private land laws, and the general economic and financial stability, made Russia quite attractive for foreign businesses and investment. The year 2003 marked a turning point, in which Russia received more foreign investment than in the previous 10 years. British Petroleum began this by buying the Tumen Oil Company for $6 bl. Shell, together with

Mitsui and Mitsubishi, invested $10 bl in the Sakhalin oil project, and Exxon Mobile followed suit in July. American and European telecommunication companies were buying Russian companies one after another. Progress slowed down after Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Head of  Yukos, the biggest oil company, was arrested. He and several other Yukos directors and top-managers are charged with the evasion of taxes. Although foreign investors do not fully understand the Russian Government’s strategy on big business, they are still optimistic about the investment climate. Moody’s Investors Service has given Russia an investment index. One of the Russian Government’s statistics is that in 2003 the investment index reached 12%, instead of 3% in 2002. More than 80% of businessmen were positive about the investment climate in Russia,  according to Moody’s poll. British Petroleum recently bought one more Russian oil company, “ Slavneft”, paying $1.4 bl. The deal brings BP’s equity investment commitment in the country since the start of 2003 up to about $7.75 bl.

 

There are nevertheless big problems in the economy. Russia needs much more investment to convert industries which were formerly oriented towards the military, to modernize plants and factories, 70% of which are out of date. The economy is too much dependent on oil and gas and other primary products. Russia does not export manufactured goods. For instance, having 23% of the world’s forests, Russia exports raw logs. One of the importers is Finland which buys Russian lumber, produces quality paper from it, and exports it back to Russia. Almost all Russian magazines are printed on Finnish paper. It returns to us much more expensive than it need be.

 

There is little discernible progress in small and average business development. It still provides no more than 10% of the GDP, whereas in other European countries it is not less than 50-60%. One of the main reasons is high taxation. There are many other taxes on small businesses apart from income tax. Social Security tax is around 28%. Enormous corruption does not allow businesses to breathe. Specially-commissioned research on corruption ended with the publication of the following figures: 82% of business people admitted that they gave bribes; the total amount in business bribes, (to obtain a license, or get permission from the Fire, Police, Medical Control authorities, etc) is around $33.5 bl. Add to that $2.8 bl for things like the medical, educational, traffic police systems, etc), and it reaches $36-37 bl, comparable to the national budget.

 

Probably the main problem is that only a very small minority, (3% of the population), really benefits from the country’s natural resources. The great majority still fights for survival. The official minimum wage of  $20 a month is still less than the official minimum standard of living, $70 a month. An average monthly pension of $60 still humiliates 30 million pensioners, though the standard of living of the people has gone up in the last four years. Figures of $60 a month for a pension and $180 as salary for a month are not large, but they are three times bigger now than they were four years ago. If  pensioners had 500 roubles in 1999 and it was not paid for months and today they receive 1800 roubles and the post office delivers it on time, they are very happy and in love with President Putin!

 

From these key figures defining living standards there is only one which is higher than the minimum - an average official monthly salary of $180. However, this figure has little value, because it is computed by the Government from figures provided by the private sector, figures whose veracity is highly questionable. There is still 30% of the population living below the poverty line, less than $2 a day for each member of a family, according to the World Bank criterion. Low living standards limit market volume, because of the inability of the people to pay, and this has a big negative psychological effect. On the other hand, the current retailing boom is more evidence of social improvement. Last year the retail sector attracted four times as much revenue as the gas and oil industries, which are the leading arms of the Russian economy. People buy all kinds of goods, furniture, clothes, books, taking money from their stockings and out of their mattresses, where they hide an estimated total of $48bn. There are also 33 million cars in Russia.

 

However, the obvious progress in the last few years, even if relative, proves the possibility of fulfilling the very ambitious programme which President Putin enunciated in his State of the  Union speech on the 16th May 2003: to double the GDP in 10 years, to eliminate poverty, to create a sizeable middle class, to reach the average European standard of living, and to make the Russian rouble convertible. The latter could even be done by the year 2007. There are obvious positive changes in the social sphere, giving the population more stability.

 

Demilitarisation has progressed considerably since the days of Gorbachev’s rule. The Army was cut from 5 million at the end of the Soviet era to 1,200,000. It is planned to make it smaller still, to consist of only 800,000, but that is based on conscription. Conscripts join at the age of 18, and serve for two years. They are sent far from their homes and have very bad living conditions. However, the main problem is the brutality practiced by officers on soldiers, and especially by more experienced  soldiers on newly-enlisted conscripts. These young men are physically abused, humiliated, and sometimes even beaten to death by the older soldiers. In Soviet times conscripts were used widely on the construction of dachas for generals, and on other personal and housekeeping tasks, and were not paid for it at all. There is no Human Rights protection in the forces. Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, there has been a powerful public movement towards bringing an end to conscription and building up a professional army instead. It has not brought much in the way of results so far, and the evasion of conscription has become widespread. About 40,000 boys of conscription age find ways of evading service every year. The current plan for military reform provides for a cut in the length of service of conscripts to one year in the year 2008, when half of the Russian forces are supposed to be professionals, with contracts. This has to be done first of all in the nuclear-powered fleet based in the Far North. Another way to limit military service by conscription is to offer an alternative form of public service. For many years young men have had no real opportunity to use their constitutional right to opt for an alternative type of service. The idea was strongly opposed by the military top brass, and this was the main reason why the law on alternative service was never passed. In the year 2002, under the new President, this law was passed and it came into force this year, 2004. Military reform is still a big issue, a subject of hot political discussions, but “there is light at the end of the tunnel”.

 

The key words in Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy are PRAGMATISM and NON-ISOLATIONISM. Russia is determined to co-operate with all other countries for the sake of their mutual benefit, regardless of their ideological differences. Europe is seen as Russia’s partner. Considering the internal political and ideological discussions taking place in Russia, as to whether it is a European country or not, Putin’s statement that Russia follows Peter the Great’s policy, 300 years ago, of moving Russia towards a European type of civilisation, is extremely important. In practice it takes the form of co-operation between Russia and EU bodies under the guidance of  an EU-Russia committee. There is no movement towards membership of the EU, mainly because the Russian economic and legal systems are too far from being compatible with the European ones. The enormous size of Russia also has to be taken into consideration. The collapse of the Soviet empire is being followed by a general search for a national identity and dignity. It is so sensitive a matter for many in Russia that it is hard to imagine that the Government can even broach the question of limiting its powers by accepting any interference from Brussels.

 

Military co-operation has been quite successfully developed within the framework of the Russia-NATO council, especially from the time of the NATO meeting in Rome on 28 May 2002, at  which Russia was accorded some rights in decision-making.

 

Amongst the various European countries, Great Britain and Germany are the main trading and economic partners. Russia has also turned its eyes towards Asia. In July 2001 President Putin signed an agreement on economic and trade partnership with China for a 20-year term. His pragmatism was demonstrated in May 2004, when, after years of delay and indecision, he agreed to support the ratification of the 1997 Kyoto Pact on the global reduction of gaseous pollutants, in exchange for EU support for Russia’s application to join the World Trade Organisation.

 

Immediately after 11 September 2001 he expressed sympathy with the American people and pronounced the fight against international terrorism to be the prime aim of Russian foreign policy. However it does not mean that full-scale military activity is considered as the most efficient way to prevent terrorism. Without going into the current discussions on this subject, we would say that for only the first time in post-Soviet history, there was no dissent in Russia on the condemnation of a war; the nation, the Government and the President were all united against the war in Iraq.(Editor's note: see Previous Columns - B. Gough)

 

Stability, economic growth, and relative social improvement made the results of the Parliamentary elections on 7 December 2003 quite predictable. The system of electing the Russian Parliament is that half of the MPs are elected as independents, by proportional representation, whilst at the same time voters also vote for a party. The other half of the MPs are then chosen from the party lists. The top six political parties, (of 44 existing in Russia), together with their success rates in the election, are as follows:

 

United Russia....................... 37 %

Communist Party of the Russian Federation....................... 13,7%

Liberal-Democratic Party....................... 11%

Motherland....................... 9%

Yabloko....................... 4.1 %

Union of Right Course....................... 3.8%

 

As the Yabloko and Union of Right Course parties did not reach the 5% threshold, they have no MPs in the new Russian Parliament. This is one of the most regrettable results, as for the first time in post-Soviet history there is no representation by democratic parties in the Legislature. They seemed to be very weak and unpopular parties. At the same time, there was a failure of the Communist Party, from its point of view. It had been for long the biggest and most influential political force in Russia, never collecting less than a third of the votes. Their 13% share means the political death of the Communist Party. The success of the United Russia Party proves that the electorate moved to a kind of political centrism. Although it is a slightly bogus party,  controlled by the Presidential Administration, it should be seen as a positive tendency, after the threatened split of the nation in the 1990s. The United Russia Party today has 302 seats out of 440, more than three quarters of the Legislature, which is a big enough majority to enable Parliament to change the Constitution if it wishes to do so.

 

Three months later, the Presidential elections followed the Parliamentary ones, because in March 2004 the first term of Putin’s presidency was over. The result of the election held on the 14th March was even more predictable. Vladimir Putin had remained very popular throughout the whole of his first term, so much so that there was not one serious alternative candidate at the time of this next election. At the beginning of the latest campaign all politicians of any significance refused to run for President, and many party leaders began to prepare their campaigns for 2008, when Putin is not allowed by the current Constitution to run for a third term.

 

The Presidential election results were as follows:

 

Vladimir Putin....................... 71.2%

Nicolay Kharitonov (Communist Party)....................... 13 %

Sergey Glasyev (leftist)....................... 4,2 %

Irina Khakamada (liberal)....................... 3,9 %

Oleg Manshikov (nationalist)....................... 2,6%

Sergey Mironov....................... 0,8%

 

The elections were free and expressed the real popularity of Vladimir Putin. However, it would be more useful to explain that he appeals to people for different reasons:

 

32% who voted for him had HOPE for further improvements under him,

22% voted for Putin because he has an attractive personality,

22% supported him because they approved of his policies during his first presidency,

21% voted for him as being the least of several evils.

 

After four years in power Vladimir Putin is still regarded as the “President of hope”. The Russian people really do hope that the main problems will be efficiently dealt with. The really important one is the low standard of living and real poverty, and the absence of a sizeable middle class. The second is bureaucracy and corruption. A radical reform of the Government structure, and a  change of Government staff, together with its Chairman, is seen as the way to decrease the power of the bureaucrats. 

 

The main political problem lies in Chechnya. It is a running sore. Serious attempts were made to find a solution in the year 2003. A referendum on Chechnya’s status showed that 98% of its population now wants  to stay within the Russian Federation. The Russian Government began to make direct provision of the financial help essential for refugees and other people for the restoration of their homes. But Chechnya remains the birthplace of terrorism and instability. The policy of the President and the Government is, “To kill terrorists and not to negotiate with them”. It has brought some improvement, but it does not give much hope of breaking the cycle of violence.

 

Analysts describe Putin’s rule as a “managed democracy”. There is some limitation on the freedom of the media, as is proved by the absence of a strong opposition. At the same time, Putin is determined to act within the legal framework and he puts much effort into improving and developing an efficient legal system. The important point is that the overwhelming majority of the population accepts this type of political regime, benefiting from more stability and some social improvement in return. It may be that the current managed democracy is an inescapable step on the way to a mature, developed democracy, a kind of reaction to the anarchy of the rampant capitalism of the 1990s. It appears as if it may be quite successful. The necessary condition for its success is an incorruptible person at the top of the pyramid of power, and so far, Putin is such a person.

 

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