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Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Cinderella and the tsar

Vladimir PutinVladimir Putin and Dasha Varfolomeyeva go way back.

Just before New Year's in December 2008, Dasha, then nine, called the prime minister during one of his live TV call-in shows.

"Uncle Volodya! New Year's is coming soon," Dasha said, as a relative tugged her sleeve. "We live on babushka's pension - there's no work in our village. My sister and I dream of getting new dresses. I want to ask you for a dress like Cinderella's."

Instead of a Cinderella dress, Putin kindly invited her to Moscow - and said the dress would come later.

It was a beautiful Christmas story, and everyone was happy.

Last month, Dasha was on the TV news again, as Putin visited her tiny little village in Buryatia, stomped around its dirt roads and chatted to the locals.

When Putin turned up at Dasha's hose, her hair was done up prettily in Soviet-style white bows. During the somewhat tense encounter, Putin complemented her "wonderful braids," kissed her on the forehead, and joined her and her mom for tea.

In Russia, summer is a particularly good time for the country's leaders to get out and about, meeting ordinary folks and dispensing largesse and stardust in equal doses.

The winter coats come off, and there's Putin - in the wilderness humanely hunting animals, or kissing children, or walking serenely through barley fields of his fertile lands like some mythological being that locals hope will bring them good harvests.

Now such election season activities happen everywhere around the world, but here it's, well, a little different.

There isn't an election campaign every summer, and Putin's visits appear to take place for no other reason than he likes hunting animals or giving presents to children.

To get to the truth behind these displays of paternal populism, we should think less about votes, and more about Russia's budget.

Igor Yurgens, who heads a liberal think tank linked to President Dmitry Medvedev, perhaps inadvertently hit the nail on head with his suggestion that Putin become "father of the nation." Here's why.

When Americans think of "taxpayers," certain phrases come to mind, such as the famous one from 1776, beloved of today's Tea Party crowd: "No taxation without representation."

The message is clear: if you're a taxpayer, the government better listen to you.

The taxpayer beef is thrown around by left and right equally in any democracy, including Russia's "managed" one.

Anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny has positioned himself as standing up for Russia's taxpayers, while billionaire-turned-liberal politician Mikhail Prokhorov undoubtedly is one of the country's biggest taxpayers.

Yet there's a disconnect in Russia between the government and ordinary citizens, who are not by and large the people filling the government's coffers (well, not directly, anyway).

For comparison: In the United States, individual income taxes account for 42 percent - some $900 billion - of federal budget income. And U.S. customs duties make up just over 1 percent.

But in Russia, individual income tax isn't even listed as a category - instead, the bulk of federal government revenue comes from customs duties (34 percent in 2009) and taxes and other duties on oil, gas and natural resources (54 percent in 2009).

Just think, for a moment, about what those numbers mean for who really runs Russia.

In this context, Putin's visits to ordinary folks such as Dasha Varfolomeyeva and her family take on a different meaning, perhaps.

This is not so much the government communicating with its taxpayer electorate, as the proverbial good tsar reaching out benevolently to his subjects.

In a few years, young Dasha will no doubt earn her first paycheck, and pay her first, modest income tax bill. But the real "taxpayers" whose opinions count will probably remain not ordinary individuals, but the country's biggest corporations.

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