Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#4 - JRL 7189
Wall Street Journal
May 20, 2003
Waiting for Putin

There are certainly positive things to be said about Russian President Vladimir Putin's state of the union address last Friday. For one, it's noteworthy whenever a Russian leader spends a considerably portion of a speech being frank about his country's problems. For another, it's noteworthy whenever a Russian leader acknowledges that much of the economic growth Russia has been experiencing boils down to higher oil prices. The prominent mention of the twin problems of corruption and excessive bureaucracy is another plus. And for once the president resisted the urge to shake a finger at America and Britain over Iraq.

All of this is far preferable to the usual Kremlin pap about the eternal glory that is Russia or the dangers of allowing the communists a foot in the door again. But Mr. Putin can afford to be critical. He has enjoyed a sustained period of impressive popularity. The Russian constitution gives him strong powers. He dominates both houses of Russia's parliament and holds considerable sway over regional governors as well. He gets a good press and the state controls most of the television that Russians watch.

The only thing approaching an opposition at the moment is the Russian Communist Party, which is enjoying an upsurge in popularity as disillusioned poor Russians look for alternatives. The other, unofficial, opposition is Mr. Putin's own government. If there's one skill Mr. Putin inherited from Boris Yeltsin, it is the ability to appear above the fray, chastising his own government for not doing enough while avoiding responsibility for its shortcomings.

"[Almost] a quarter of Russian citizens have income that is below the poverty line -- yes, a quarter," said Mr. Putin, sounding more like an opposition leader berating an incumbent government for ineptitude than a sitting President. "Secondly, economic growth remains highly unstable."

But while the frankness is refreshing, Mr. Putin's speech was more notable for what it didn't say. It didn't tell us how he would achieve the goals he set out. How does he intend to increase the trickle-down of the phenomenal wealth concentrated in the hands of a few oligarchs? And what does he intend to do to diversify Russia's economic base so that it is not so highly dependent on oil revenues as it is today?

He called encouragingly for "radical cuts" in Russia's bulging bureaucracy. An administrative "impetus" was promised, but no specific targets or proposals given. There were calls to tackle corruption, but again no concrete proposals for cutting the number of regulations or licenses, the source of much petty corruption.

There were other omissions too. Days after two rebel suicide attacks killed more than 75 in the region, Mr. Putin's calls for peace in Chechnya sounded hollow in the absence of any new initiatives -- other than a vague offer to amnesty rebels who put down their weapons -- for achieving a breakthrough.

Mr. Putin called, most dramatically, for a doubling of GDP in a decade. But instead of enumerating the ways this might be done -- more and faster privatizations, encouragement for start-ups, banking reform -- he merely declared that the job "will require a consolidation of all political forces in the country." While he paid tribute to Russia's developing multiparty system, he came back again to the idea of a "consolidated" society. "Without strong authorities a breakthrough for the future is impossible."

Russia may well need strong authorities to push through reforms. But strength without policy vision will achieve none of Mr. Putin's goals. Russians have clearly given Mr. Putin credit for the governing stability he has brought and even for the economic gains, attributable in large part to oil wealth. But how long will Russians have to wait to hear how Mr. Putin intends to rectify the many problems that have also festered under his watch?

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