Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#9 - JRL 7026
February 4, 2003
Putin Puts the Pride Back in Russia
By Jamie Dettmer in St. Petersburg
Jamie Dettmer is a senior editor for Insight

Vladimir Putin's three years in office have been a roaring success by almost any standard one cares to apply. Skeptics are right to remain cautious about the Russian leader's commitment to press freedom, and naysayers will continue to point to lagging development in Russia of the kind of civil society taken for granted in the United States and Western Europe. The brutal waging of Russia's war in Chechnya also remains disturbing -- and troubling too is the intimidation brought to bear by the Kremlin on both Russian and foreign journalists who try to reveal the ugliness of the conflict.

But place Chechnya and press freedom aside, and Putin must be considered a great leader. At 50 he is the youngest man to lead Russia in modern history, and in his short period in office so far he has consolidated power and achieved a measure of political stability that evaded his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

Above all, Putin has managed to instill in Russians a restored sense of pride in their country. That pride is going hand in hand with a sense of direction -- Russians, especially younger ones (those in their 20s and 30s), want a modern Russia and they believe Putin is the man who can fix the process that will allow them to have the economic opportunities to flourish. His popularity ratings now regularly top 80 percent.

The state under Putin has been strengthened -- during the latter period of Yeltsin's rule it had become dangerously wobbly. The only losers under Putin have been the oligarchs, who under Yeltsin had been allowed to mix economic and political clout to a degree unacceptable in a country eager to shake off the graft of the dying days of communism.

Overweening mafia groups, such as the Tambov organization in St. Petersburg, have found also -- and to their shock -- that their swagger and threats carry less weight under Putin. State and local officials are far more reluctant to kowtow to the criminals, fearful of the consequences if discovered.

Much headway has been made in reducing the petty graft that was everywhere in Russia. A few years ago here in St. Petersburg it was a simple matter to buy a driver's license without taking a test and most youngsters became motorists with an easy $50 bribe. But that approach now is much harder and costs a lot more.

On Dec. 19, in his second annual live television question-and-answer session with ordinary Russians, Putin clearly was proud of his accomplishments to date and rattled off improving economic statistics. He pointed to falling inflation and the reduction in foreign-debt payments as sound achievements pulled off by his administration.

He also is delighted with the results of his audacious move to combat the tax evasion that was bleeding his country -- he introduced a flat income tax of 13 percent and tax revenues increased rapidly.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the fruits of Putin's rule are apparent everywhere. Both cities are changing quickly, and the changes are all for the better. There are more shops, restaurants and hotels, and with higher standards. Tourism is increasing. People are better dressed and better fed and they seem far less desperate than just a couple of years ago.

In St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown, locals acknowledge that they are more confident now than ever before. For them Putin marks a turning point. That was demonstrated on New Year's Eve at one popular St. Petersburg restaurant where the affluent partygoers listened with clear respect to Putin addressing the nation by radio and television.

A turning point, yes, but there are challenges ahead for Putin and Russia. While improving, the country's economy still depends heavily on the sale of raw materials such as oil. An eventual fall in the price of oil would hit Russia hard, and so any potential of Iraqi oil glutting the market is seen as a real threat. Foreign investment is falling, and while economic growth has increased more rapidly than in the United States or Western Europe, its rate of increase now is starting to decline. And according to the state statistics committee, one-quarter of all Russians live below the national subsistence minimum. Russia is a world leader in alcoholism, tuberculosis, AIDS, drug addiction and crime. Russians die younger than most other Europeans.

To continue to overcome its problems, Russia seems to need a strong leader, but the price of Kremlin power is to render the Russian parliament a mere rubber stamp. That could augur badly for the future development of Russian democracy. "Civil society is very weak, and the parliament is in a humiliating position," said Ivan Rybkin, a former Yeltsin national-security adviser. "Such a concentration of power is dangerous for the president."

Putin looks set to triumph in the presidential election next year. There is no one around on the Russian political scene with the charisma, tactical skill and clout to challenge the man who has earned the respect of most Russians. For now, Putin clearly is the best choice for Russia, but he would do great long-term service to his country if he could nurture democratic development -- even if it means that his successor is less powerful.

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