Russian President Vladimir Putin's Feb. 12 address to his election promoters at Moscow University leaves no doubt that the incumbent is running for a second term with a clear goal in mind-one of creating an economically strong, democratic Russia as a legacy for those who will come to the Kremlin after him. His phrase about the Russians' irreversible choice of freedom is no mere rhetoric. It is a central premise underlying his political philosophy and a slogan of his election campaign.
Putin is perfectly aware that in Russia, where, as he himself admits, one-third of the population live beyond the poverty line, the word "freedom" may have a bittersweet taste. Sensitive to public sentiment, as befit a true statesman, he cannot help wondering about the price the Russians have to pay for their freedom. He revealed a profound understanding of the crisis facing the country, for which he is in charge, as he spoke to his promoters about wage and pension arrears, miner strikes and teacher walkouts, tax hikes, the challenge of sustaining livelihoods, mass-scale bankruptcies, the huge foreign debt, the widening gap in incomes, and separatism-turned-terrorism. The President stopped short of stating explicitly that the Russian state had been on the brink, but this bitter conclusion could easily be drawn from his remark about "the loss [by Russia] of the basic attributes of a united state." Is this about shifting blame to one's predecessors, a device so popular with all Russian leaders since the 1917 Bolshevik revolt? Not likely. Putin is not trying to blame Boris Yeltsin, whom he succeeded as President, for Russia's present woes. Such a publicity stunt would be too cheap for him as a representative of the younger generation of Russian politicians. Rather, his idea is to show to the elector that he had to start from scratch. He is being rather harsh on himself as he admits that his efforts to reform the country are not efficient enough. Analysts closely following Putin's presidency right from its start will remember the emotive remark that he made shortly after he took the job: "The state mechanism is disorderly, wobbly, and shaky." A lawyer by training who made a career as intelligence officer, Putin had the insight to see the impotence of the state machinery as he embarked on the presidency. Bullied by democrats of the perestroika wave, he promised to put an end to the omnipotence of regional barons by consolidating the presidential branch of government. And he has brought those ideas of his to fruition, so that no one today can dispute the fact that public administration has become much stronger and more effective over the past four years. Russia's government, army and law-enforcement agencies are in far better shape now than they were at the outset of Putin's presidency, observers admit.
Putin's administrative reforms have helped him pull the national economy from the brink of collapse. Over his first term in office, Gross Domestic Product has grown by 30 percent; the inflation rate has decreased by a factor of three; investment in fixed capital has been on the rise; and the domestic market has been expanding due to a growth in domestic consumption. The national currency has been getting stronger against the dollar, so more and more Russians now prefer to have their savings in roubles. The President is, of course, aware that pensioners and public-sector workers still aren't paid enough for a decent living. But payout delays are today an exception rather than a rule. Over the four years of Putin's presidency, pensions have been increased by 99 percent on average, while public-sector pay has been doubled and the unemployment rate has been lowered by a factor of three. All this gives him grounds to believe that he has indeed managed to bring about a positive change in public attitudes to reform. The latest parliamentary polls, where the Communists suffered a crushing defeat, attested to this shift in public opinion.
Addressing his election promoters, Putin acknowledged that public discontent was still strong and that the living standards of many Russians were still too low. But it wouldn't be an overstatement to say that the incumbent, who is the frontrunner in the current presidential race, has at least paved the way for a crucial turn in Russia's economic development.