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ITAR-TASS commentators view Putin's New Year message
By Veronika Voskoboinikova, Mikhail Kalmykov

MOSCOW, January 2 (Itar-Tass) -- One New Year's Eve President Putin told the people their lives in the outgoing year had grown slightly better, which he described as the main achievement.

Everybody knows President Putin is very reserved in evaluations. He usually refrains from rose-colored promises or reports of success. This merely adds value to what he said, although people in remote Russian provinces are unlikely to agree at once they now live better than twelve months ago.

In fact, many Russians these days still are struggling for survival, but they are still prepared to demonstrate their fabulous patience, "provided there is no war" (a catch phrase many still remember since the Soviet years). According to opinion polls the problem of security worries them to a far greater degree than, say, the housing and communal sector reform. The people have been waiting long enough and they will be prepared to wait more, if only the central and local authorities do not abuse this patience, delaying the solution of social issues on and on.

The president is aware the social results of last year are not measured with how many hospitals and child-care centers he visited, how many instructions he issued to provide assistance to the population in problem regions, how many conference on pensions and wages he has held (this topic is frequently on the agenda of Monday meetings with Cabinet members in the Kremlin), or how many social bills and decrees he has signed into law.

The more so, since many social issues still lack an updated social basis. The health service is an example. Putin is emphatic: "The task of preparing a legal basis for transition to insurance medicine has not been accomplished."

The president anticipates the development of a mandatory medical insurance law in 2003. Even if that happens, though, the law will begin to really work no earlier than 2004. The growth of budget spending on the health service is expected at a level of 24 percent. However, before new principles of the health service operation have been devised, the spending growth will merely maintain the operation of an outdated, ineffective system.

The same applies to such spheres as education and culture. So far Putin's most significant steps in this sphere have been systematic rises in student grants, targeted disbursements from the presidential fund for the restoration of educational establishments, promotion of presidential educational programs and support for cultural projects. However, one has to admit that the Russian people still have a very vague idea of what type of education their children will get. Toward the end of the year the head of state declared that amendments submitted to the State Duma were geared to moving the responsibility for paying teachers' salaries from the municipal to the regional level. It remains unclear, though, how this will affect the teachers' incomes.

The general trend of the country's economic development postpones the solution of social issues till "better days."

In the meantime, the health service, education, wages, pensions and housing is the a list of social problems the country's economy is tightly pegged to. Any retiree will easily say how big his or her monthly pension is in the bread-and-milk equivalent, and how much slenderer the savings will get after yet another rise in housing and communal service prices. But very few will be able to evaluate the much-advertised 4-percent economic growth or one's benefits from the record-high grain export.

The problem is that laws that have a direct bearing on the social sphere, for instance, the law on financing the accumulation component of the pension adopted last July, will begin to really work in years, and not days or months. So the president has to spend his credibility reserve to help the people survive the "expectation period" before the benefits of "delayed action laws" are in sight.

It is the social sphere, where Putin is prepared to put at stake his credibility with the people more readily than in any other.

The president is the sole official who can dare address the 38 million Russian retirees with a phrase like "One has to wait till the new mechanisms in the pension system yield results" at a time when the pension system reform has been underway for about a year already and there have been no immediate improvements for the pensioners yet.

Harsh decisions in the social sphere are unlikely to meet with an enthusiastic response from the population. Some politicians, pursuing populist aims, have urged the authorities to backtrack.

In certain respects Putin has slowed down - not out of populist considerations, though, but by virtue of conviction that shock therapy is not on the list of instruments a president can use. No one can put people's patience to test over and over again.

The just-ended year has shown quite unambiguously that the president - faced with a stark choice between people's daily problems and the imperative of macro-economic reform - opts for the former. This is precisely what happened to the plans for reforms in the electric power industry or the housing and communal sector. Putin then told the government to be not so fast: "The plans' implementation must be accurate and balanced."

In the wake of certain economic successes one may have the temptation to speed up reform, but Putin has made it quite clear there should be no haste with reforms that may affect the people's living standards.

This is a very sensitive subject for the population, so the authorities have to follow the well-known commandment: "Thou shall not harm."

And, of course, to use every opportunity to give Russia's people "a better life." The president believes this two-fold objective was met last year.

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