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The Second Comeback of Democracy
Dmitry Babich - RIA Novosti - 4.11.12 - JRL 2012-68

Vladimir Putin's speech in the State Duma marked the culmination of the "thaw" that has taken place in Russian policy during the past year. When the procedure for the prime minister's report was taking shape in the first years of Dmitry Medvedev's presidency, it was hard even to imagine that the future head of state would be interrupted by disapproving remarks and that an entire parliamentary party would walk out in protest during his speech.

However, Putin, who backed Medvedev's initiative to introduce this annual report, proved to be fully prepared for the new format of communicating with parliament. Not a single remark or even the most critical question caught him off guard or caused him to lose his cool.

But political analysts did not get what they truly wanted ­ they did not hear which ministers will step down and who will replace them. Putin merely mentioned that he will "change up the team" because that is what you do with ministers.

The hint of a deputy's question was clear ("there is an alternative to your entourage"). The way Putin began his answer ("I agree with you") gives us hope that at long last we will hear at least a few new names.

Nonetheless, Putin again displayed a major character trait ­ he does not betray his people. He did not scapegoat any unpopular ministers, and he replied in detail to critical remarks about specific ministries without hiding behind the copout about how a prime minister cannot know everything.

Interestingly, Putin responded to these political attacks in a liberal and sometimes even Western style. Is the Unified State Exam expensive and inconvenient? But such exams are used throughout the world. Do we want Russian diplomas to be recognized abroad? In this case we must adopt international standards.

Are there apprehensions about Russia's forthcoming entry into the World Trade Organization? Yes, some industries may suffer but "we won't modernize our economy without the WTO." Besides, WTO membership will not only force us to compete, it will also help us protect our producers abroad. And we should not avoid competition forever: "Until they sense real competition, they won't invest in modernization."

Putin responded as a pragmatist, without any misgivings about the West, even when confronted with the somewhat paranoid suspicions of the communists about the transshipment of cargo in Ulyanovsk for NATO forces in Afghanistan: "We don't want our soldiers to fight on the Tajik-Afghan border... Therefore, we should help them [the international forces in Afghanistan]. Maintaining stability in Afghanistan is in our national interests."

Probably only in one instance did Putin transcend the bounds of the liberal "mainstream" ­ the special significance that he attaches to everything that concerns the country's sovereignty, primarily its economic sovereignty.

Many of the successes of his tenure as prime minister that he cited were obviously met with skepticism from the audience, but he and the audience were unanimous on one achievement ­ the country has retained its right to sovereign decision-making.

Some may question this achievement. One tenet of the neo-liberal dogma of the 1990s was the conviction that economic integration and the expansion of the current (Western) world order automatically led to prosperity and democracy.

Putin was obviously struck by the example of destitute Greece, which the European Union simply did not allow to hold a referendum on