President of the Politika Foundation
Vladimir Putin's first presidential term is coming to an end. One can be in no doubt that the incumbent leader will be re-elected for another four years, as no other candidate comes close to him in the popularity ratings. In the run-up to the March 14 elections, it would be appropriate to take a brief look at President Putin's four years in office.
These years have undoubtedly been successful. State management has been re-established, which is President Putin's major achievement. When Mr Putin took office, Russia resembled a sinking ship abandoned by the captain and seized with panic and chaos. Thankfully, the man who stepped onto the bridge knew what had to be done to overcome the grave economic crisis, restore legal order and the central government's authority.
President Putin understood that the unlimited power of regional governors and their defiance of the central government threatened the country's territorial integrity and the smooth functioning of the state. By dividing the country into seven federal districts, the President ensured improved co-ordination between the Russian Federation's constituent members and enhanced the centre's efficiency and authority. Vladimir Putin restored the vertical of power by forcing the governors, who enjoyed unlimited power under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, to comply with Russian legislation. He settled all contradictions between the Russian Constitution and local laws.
Russia's economic growth is another of President Putin's achievements. Russia is developing more dynamically than any other country in Europe. This means that the President and the Government have created a most favourable economic environment. Russia's economic upturn is not due to high oil prices alone, which have remained unchanged on the world market for some time now. Indeed, experts say the energy sector has not played the leading role in the country's unprecedented economic growth.
In recent years, Russia has accumulated considerable foreign currency reserves. The latest information says the reserves exceed $80 billion, which is a record both for the Russian Federation and the former Soviet Union.
Economic growth has been the trigger for an improvement in living standards. In the late 1990s, wage arrears were common, whereas today wages are paid regularly and on time across the country. They are also being raised, although perhaps not as quickly as they might be. Growth in living standards is outstripping GDP growth, which is an important point.
Considerable progress has been made in the foreign policy sphere over the past four years. When President Putin took office, Russia's relations were strained with too many countries. The country was in a kind of political isolation. Fortunately, this problem has been solved. Russia has re-established co-operation with the European Union, while France, Germany and Russia often have similar positions on key international issues.
By 2000, relations between Moscow and Washington had deteriorated almost to the level of the Cold War. The USA wondered who was to blame for the loss of Russia as a partner. The Republicans held the Democrats responsible and vice versa. However, both believed that Russia would never be seen again as a partner.
However, they were wrong. Russia and the USA overcame the serious crisis in their relations. Moscow stretched a helping hand to Washington after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and Russia and the United States emerged as allies against international terrorism. Vladimir Putin demonstrated his diplomatic abilities and developed friendly, trusting relations with George Bush. The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty was signed in Moscow in 2002 mainly thanks to their good personal relations.
Russia and the USA have not settled all their differences, particularly over the Iraqi crisis, which will, apparently, remain the stumbling block in Kremlin-White House contacts for a long time. However, Moscow and Washington have learned to conduct a dialogue and understand each other better.
Over his four years in office Mr Putin has accomplished many of his ideas, although not all of them. Many crucial reforms, for example in the judicial and administrative spheres, are being implemented too slowly. The efforts against corruption, Russia's age-old problem, are not being conducted quickly or effectively enough. The development of the structure of civil society must be accelerated. These and many other issues will dominate the agenda of President Putin's next term of office, which will hopefully begin with the March 14 elections.