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Playing Doctor: As the Russian Health Ministry is Hit by Successive Scandals Putin Finds a Use for an Oppositionist's Criticism

Male Patient in Bed in Russian Hospital With Man in White Lab Coat Standing At A Slight DistanceIn a speech in front of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, an outspoken Russian pediatrician, Leonid Roshal, said "it's a shame that in the Ministry of Health and Social Development there is not one clearheaded, experienced public health official." While Roshal's statements provoked a public scandal, they were to be expected, say experts, and the fact that Roshal was allowed to speak at the event indicates Putin was playing a political move against the ministry.

The Minister for Health and Social Development Tatyana Golikova spoke with reporters today for the first time since Roshal spoke in front of Putin about his biting criticisms. "Concerning this case, I am going to come out in support of constructive criticism. I don't like it when people just make unfounded accusations like 'this is bad and that is bad,'" said Golikova. Golikova was previously cited as one of the authors of an open letter to Prime Minister Putin, posted on the website of the ministry, which attacked Roshal's criticisms of the ministry and concluded with an oddly worded request for the prime minister to "protect our honor and dignity from similar speeches, in particular those that don't contribute anything constructive."

The comment space following the letter has become a battleground where denunciations against Roshal's character and professional history intermingle with messages of strong support, mainly from other doctors. Most, it seems, are reinforcing his claims that Russian healthcare has been badly undermined by corruption resulting from the low salaries that doctors receive.

Alexei Vodovosov, a medical journalist and scientific editor for ABC magazine, told Russia Profile that Roshal gave clear constructive advice and that the ministry was ignoring clear testimony about the dire state of Russian healthcare. He further noted that the open letter of complaint to Putin has marred the ministry's image even further. "At the very least, it was strange," said Vodovosov. "It's difficult for me to say what those people who wrote the letter were thinking because it ended up hurting the ministry more than helping it."

Stranger still was a "provocation" that occurred at Roshal's Moscow clinic last Thursday. A car bearing a woman who was allegedly having a stroke drove up to the front doors of the clinic and demanded to be let through. When the clinic responded promptly to the emergency, the woman revealed that she was an actor working in chorus with a group of journalists. For the time being it is unclear who the journalists represented, although Komsomolskaya Pravda today accused them of being from state-owned NTV.

The case immediately evoked comparisons to the death of a State Duma Deputy from the Just Russia party, Maksim Goloviznin, who was driven to a hospital in Moscow with a severe heart attack just days earlier and lay for hours in front of the doors as his friends begged for a doctor to come and attend to him. A doctor only emerged when a police officer who had followed the car to the hospital handcuffed himself to a doctor and forcibly brought him to the scene, reported The Moscow Times. Some feared that the case at Roshal's clinic was designed to discredit Roshal in a similar manner.

Despite the fiery debate over Roshal's statements, however, his presentation was far from revelatory. The doctor has long been repeating his indictments of the health ministry, and a similar presentation at the event was to be expected, said Alexei Mukhin from the Center for Political Information. "We see that Vladimir Putin has pulled back the curtain a little bit by admitting that he was the one who asked Roshal to speak, and it is clear that he knew full well what to expect."

This has unleashed speculation that Roshal was being used to undermine the current head of the Health Ministry. Indeed, the scandals around Golikova have piled up over the last month, and she found herself today jumping from the Roshal affair to the case of the deceased deputy. "The doctors of the institute are being accused of not providing help to the sick man," said Golikova. "At that time, according to official reports, the man was already dead. There are currently no results from the experts, so I can't say anything."

While Mukhin said that Roshal was allowed to speak by Putin to create the necessary basis to remove Golikova before elections, Roshal, for his part, has maintained that he was not making a play to have the head of the ministry axed, nor are his sharp criticisms being used for partisan means. "I think that it's impossible to use Roshal for PR," said Roshal, speaking about himself to gzt.ru. "Roshal says what he thinks. I have never said something according to someone else's wishes to 'say so and so.' I am not a member of any party, and never in my life have I read someone else's text."

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