TEN YEARS. Putin became acting President on the last day of 1999 and was elected in March. When he came to power, judging from the essay he wrote, he set himself four tasks: 1) to reverse the economic decline; 2) to reverse the disintegration of Russia; 3) to increase Russia’s influence in the world; and 4) to introduce a rule of law or, as I prefer to put it, a rule of rules. Then economic indicators were trending down; Russia seemed to be literally breaking up (this fear often featured in his early speeches); most world capitals slighted it as a negligible and declining power; and the “rule” in Russia was that of corruption and incompetence. No one can deny that he has made great progress in these aims. The economy has turned around: here he had luck with high energy prices, but his policy did not squander the money. He has certainly restored central control – too much in my opinion – but no one now talks about the coming disintegration of Russia. Russia is taken much more seriously today although here the result is mixed. To those who will ever regard a weak Russia as a danger and a strong Russia as a threat, Putin’s effects have been wholly negative; but these people will never be pleased. Russia must now be taken more seriously (even though I think that Putin and his team sometimes overestimate its power and influence). But there has been little progress on the fourth aim. Nevertheless, few have been as successful at accomplishing their purpose as Putin and his team have. The team is still in place and is moving on the second half of the program. Putin stopped the decline and it is Medvedev’s task, as he ceaselessly says, to “modernise” Russia. The economy may be improving but it needs a new “modern” basis; the over centralisation of the Putin period should be relaxed; Russia has to improve its standing in the world so as to be seen as more of a problem-solver and less as a problem-causer (which, of course, requires a certain change of attitude in the rest of the world as well as a change in Russia’s behaviour); and finally the “rule of law” must replace “legal nihilism”. Medvedev will not see the resolution of these problems, but he will move them along. I am reminded of a remark made by Dr Leonid Abalkin about 15 years ago: reform will be in three stages, the first stage will take one year, the second five years and the third thirty years. The Putin team is popular in Russia today for a very good reason: it has delivered what governments are hired to do. Altogether, it has been quite a turnaround in the last ten years: no one would write “Russia is Finished” today; now conventional wisdom has moved to the “Russia resurgent” meme (but, note, Russia remains a problem!). The plain fact is that Russia is doing better than any of the final 12 members of the USSR and the ruling team has broad, real and persistent support firmly based on things that Russians can see happening around them. This, incidentally, is the principal reason why Russian elections are so unsurprising: Russians vote for more of the same and that means voting for the team’s pedestal party. In Ukraine, for example, this broad support does not exist: support there for the government is “the lowest in the world”.
ANTI-ALCOHOL CAMPAIGN. PM Putin has approved an anti-alcohol campaign. Certainly a major problem in Russia (and for a long time – English sailors in Murmansk in the 1500s are reported to have been pretty stunned by what they saw) and a major contributor to the death rate. But, Gorbachev’s efforts only resulted in the destruction of ancient vineyards in Georgia and Moldova and a sugar shortage when samogon production took off. We’ll see whether this campaign is more successful. Distilled alcohol consumption is a problem in northern countries generally and it is moderated by high prices.
HAITI EARTHQUAKE. The ever-efficient Russian Emergency Ministry has got its rescue teams off to Haiti.
RUSSIA INC. FOREX and gold actually grew last year by US$13.52 billion to US$440.6 billion and have gone up a bit so far this year.
UKRAINIAN ELECTION. For what it’s worth, a VTsIOM poll suggests that Serhey Tyhypko is catching up to Tymoshenko. The consensus of other polls is that Yanukovych will lead on the first round and he and Tymoshenko will go into the final round. But, maybe not. A possible decision by voters sick of the post-“Orange” stalemate might be that Tymoshenko and Yanukovych were part of it because each served a term as PM under Yushchenko. There may, therefore, be a chance for someone not involved. We’ll find out next week.
© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/)