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    Wednesday, September 19, 2007

    The Putin years

    Kommersant has begun what we're told will be an eight-part series examining Vladimir Putin's legacy in office (based on Kommersant's assumption that "it would seem that he is in fact going to leave office"). The period of 2000-2008, the paper surmises, will be remembered as the Putin "era" - one that will be remembered primarily for such shocking events as the tragic sinking of the Kursk, the horrifying Beslan school siege and the Soviet echoes of the Yukos affair.

    All three were scandalously managed by the Kremlin. It's difficult to imagine any Western leader surviving one such debacle, let alone all three, with his or her popularity intact.

    And yet Putin did, his popularity never dipping below a stratospheric 70 per cent for a prolonged period of time. The rest of Part One of the Kommersant series goes a long way towards explaining why.

    (It should be noted here that despite being owned by Alisher Usmanov, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin, Kommersant is still seen as a largely independent voice. Unlike most of the now-docile Russian media scene, the paper regularly prints articles that displease the authorities.)

    As they say in American politics, "it's the economy, stupid." The Kommersant series kicks off by looking at the social and economic progress made since 2008. The overall assessment is glowing:

    "During the eight years that Putin has been in office the income of Russians has grown quickly; the country’s history has hardly seen another period when the prosperity of the population improved at such a fast rate," the article reads. "The Kremlin can boldly state that as far as the population’s standard of living is concerned, he has succeeded in wiping out the consequences of the 'Yeltsin chaos' of the 1990s."

    The last line is one of the hardest truths for the liberal opposition in Russia to deal with: when they attack Putin (quite justifiably) for the systematic evaporation of freedoms during his "era," they have to be careful not to sound like they're calling for a restoration of the Yeltsin years. The West (and the oligarchs who unfortunately hover around the opposition) may remember that time as halcyon, but the ordinary Russian recalls only the chaos - and the poverty they were forced to endure in the name of "freedoms" and "democracy."

    As Kommersant explains, the Putin years saw more Russians emerge from the black market, more income from the private sector and more Russians reaching their own definition of "middle class."

    Though the black market is still bigger than the legal one in Russia - a massive problem for Putin and whoever succeeds him - legal earnings now make up 48 per cent of a Russian's income, up from 38 per cent at the start of the decade. The percentage of a family's income that comes from the legal private sector (as opposed to the black market or the government) grew from just 9.2 per cent in 2000 to 19.5 per cent by 2006.

    Perhaps most crucially, Kommersant notes that "the Russian middle class is made up of people who, because of their education and professional qualities were able to adapt to the market. According to the [Expert-Data] agency, this middle class made up 15% of the population in 2001 and 37% in 2005."

    But while the big numbers are all looking up (something many experts believe should be attributed more to rising oil prices than any policies of Putin's), Putin has clearly failed to reduce poverty, something he repeatedly identified as a government role. In fact, poverty levels remained stubbornly high during the Putin era, while income inequality grew.

    "The income of the richest 20% of households was 6 times richer than the poorest 20% of households. To compare, this factor was only 5.2 in 2005. Measured by expenditures, the split is even greater: a factor of 6.7 in 2005 and 8.9 in 2006. This spread points to a colossal difference in lifestyle – but not in terms of mansions and limousines. The best-off Russian families, compared to their poorest countrymen, spend 7.7 times more on fruits and vegetables, 10 times more on alcohol and 12.6 times more on meals outside the home.

    "The unevenness of income growth calls into question the possibility of ending poverty in Russia.... The poverty level ratings vary greatly depending on who you consider to be poor. According to Rosstat, in 2000 42.3% of Russians had incomes below the cost of living. In 2004 25.5% of Russians earned less than the cost of living. However, the percent of families who receive charity or help from relatives is growing steadily. Currently 29.9% of the population fits this category. In other words, whatever the statistics say, one third of families are poor enough to accept material support from those around them."

    It's a fascinating start to the series, which the paper promises will include future articles examining the state of the education system (my assessment: getting better, but with dark trends including politicization of the curriculum to whitewash Soviet and KGB history), governance (less open, less accountable than under Yeltsin) and the army (still decrepit, despite recent stunts intended to demonstrate otherwise).

    Last remark: the photo above (first noticed by Russian blogger Drugoi, which translates as "The Other") was taken last week on Moscow's Leninsky Prospekt, walking distance from my old home on Kaluzhskaya Ploschad. The billboard reads "Putin's Plan - The Victory of Russia!" Other bloggers say they've gone up all over the city.

    On his blog, Drugoi wonders if anyone knows what the plan is. My question is similar to one I've asked before - if Putin's really stepping down in six months (as he is constitutionally obligated to do), why are we still discussing "Putin's plan"? Why aren't we seeing billboards hailing the competing and contrasting plans of Sergei Ivanov, Dmitriy Medvedev, Mikhail Kasyanov or Viktor Zubkov?

    The only answer that makes sense is that some people in the know don't believe the Putin era really ends in 2008.

    4 comments: said...

    Hi there --

    off topic, I'm reading your book and I was surprised by this sentence on page 67: "Like Otpor, Zubr was an American invention from day one." Do you really believe that Otpor was invented by the Americans?

    Also, I'm curious: is your US book tour going to come to New York, or just DC?

    markmac said...

    Hi - perhaps "invention" was a strong term.... I go over Otpor's history at length earlier in the book - it wasn't an American invention, but rather a Serbian invention that American NGOs discovered and promoted from earliest days.

    And yes, I will be in New York for the official Oct. 4 launch date. Location to be decided, but if you're interested in coming by, please send me an e-mail.



    Anonymous said...

    Initially, Otpor had a Serb grass roots element to it, which has long since gone under the sway of Western orgs. like Freedom House. Having taken that latter route, Otpor is no longer viewed so positively in Serbia. It has little if any clout in present day Serbia. In Ukraine, during the so called "Orange Revolution", Otpor was essentially a political mercenary.

    La Russophobe said...

    Your statement about Putin's popularity is a bit confusing.

    As I've pointed out here

    Putin's popularity was below 50% in 2003, when his actions in Chechnya were at their bloodiest and most unsuccessful.

    Right after that, he simply started killing off the dissidents and shutting down the newspapers, and this practice was remarkably effective. It probably also helps that the government controls all the poll numbers, as well as all other data coming out of Russia, so it is all basically unreliable anyway.