Lucian Kim

Putin vs. Putin

Vladimir Putin probably wrote great reports when he worked for the KGB in the 1980s. He has an analytical mind and isn’t afraid to confront hard realities that fly in the face of official policy. Presumably back then he had to keep his reports short and to the point.

Today Putin’s political manifestos leave much to be desired. While he displays a firm grasp of the facts and the capacity for sober analysis, the pre-election articles he’s writing for Russia’s leading newspapers are starting to get ridiculous. With less than five weeks left to the March 4 presidential vote, he’s not even simulating a political race. Instead he’s holding off from debates with his scare-crow opponents, taking his usual inspection trips around Russia and shooting off one mind-numbing treatise after another.

On Monday the liberal business daily Vedomosti sacrificed the column space of more than half a dozen stories so that Putin could lay out his vision for Russia’s economic development (click here for the official English translation).

The target audience for the continuing series of newspaper articles is Russia’s urban middle class, which Putin discovered last month when tens of thousands of well-off Muscovites woke up from political hibernation and held mass protests against his rule. Getting Russia’s most active, independent citizens back off the streets is Putin’s top priority now. But is it reasonable to expect somebody who is already critical of the government to take the time to plow through a 5,000-word article on a Monday morning?

Blame human frailty that long-standing rulers often become convinced of their own brilliance. Communist leaders typically produced whole libraries of ideological wisdom that nobody will ever bother reading again.

Lucian Kim

Of course Soviet leaders saw no need to justify their legitimacy to their own people, while Putin does. He himself facetiously confessed that his biggest competitor in the presidential election is nobody else than Vladimir Putin. Maybe that’s why he’s campaigning in a large part against himself – with all the contradictions and pitfalls that entails.

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Like his first two articles – the first on Russia’s greatest challenges, the second on the threat of nationalism – the Vedomosti commentary resembles an interdepartmental position paper, a history lecture and a polemic for Putinism all rolled into one. It is description and prescription, defense and disavowal. More often Putin sounds like a detached Kremlin adviser than a past and future Russian president. The imperatives are clear, but the solutions are still in the works.

Putin appears to write at his pleasure, without word limits or an editor’s interference. The article carries the bland headline “We Need a New Economy,” which would be weak enough as an opposition slogan but seems completely out of place for a de facto three-term incumbent. (To Vedomosti’s credit, Putin’s article was accompanied by an editorial and opinion pieces critical of it.) “To return to our position of technological leadership, we need to carefully choose our priorities,” Putin writes, as if his helper Dmitry Medvedev had never made modernization the catchword of his presidency more than two years ago.

All of the world’s former industrial powerhouses need a new economy in the information age. The banality and vagueness of many of Putin’s observations make it just as hard to disagree with him as it is to embrace them as a plan of action. At one point he writes that “the international competitiveness of our universities should become our national mission.” At another point, he proposes “the goal that in a few years we’ll approach comparable countries in all indicators that define the ease of doing business.”

Lucian Kim

To build a knowledge-based economy, Russia will need to invest more in research, import foreign technology, improve infrastructure, foster small- and medium-sized business, maintain a balanced budget and raise labor productivity, Putin explains. For all his verbosity, however, he devotes just once sentence to the Russian economy’s biggest time-bomb, namely the growing burden on the state pension system as the number of retirees outpaces that of young people entering the labor market. (“We need a balanced pension system that will lower the level of transfers from the budget into the Pension Fund,” Putin writes.)

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Putin is never shy to recognize problems, he just doesn’t take make the link between their existence and his 12-year stewardship of Russia.

For the first time in his three pre-election manifestos, he mentions Medvedev by name or office, writing that despite his junior partner’s efforts to improve Russia’s “unsatisfactory” business climate, “noticeable progress hasn’t taken place.” On other occasions, Putin has been more than happy to trumpet his responsibility as prime minister to run economic affairs.

According to the Putin narrative, only he can guarantee Russia’s stable and steady development in a rapidly changing world full of risks. He recalls Russia’s sorry state when the Soviet Union fell apart 20 years ago and the communist command economy came crashing down. When he became president in 2000, the country required state involvement to reverse the country’s “deindustrialization,” provide investment where private money wouldn’t go and turn Russian companies into global giants. For Putin, China and South Korea are successful examples of where the state gave the necessary “push” to get economic modernization on track.

Lucian Kim

Today everything is different. “We need to change government itself – the executive and judicial branches,” Putin writes. “The main problem is the lack of transparency and societal oversight in the work of government officials, from the customs and tax services to the courts and law enforcement.” No mention of Medvedev’s quixotic attempt to reform the criminal justice system; it might as well never have happened.

Putin blasts Russia’s “systemic corruption,” as if he had nothing to do with a bureaucracy that grew bloated and greedy during the oil boom. He runs into a credibility problem when he pledges to foster fair competition; remove the last remnants of Soviet legal thinking from Russian criminal law; and destroy the connection between prosecutors, police investigators and judges to pressure private business. At times Putin sounds like an opposition politician.

It’s clear that he is addressing an incensed middle class sick of the bribery and red tape necessary to accomplish some of life’s simplest activities. For the first time Putin uses the term “creative class,” a label that many of the December protesters found described them best. Putin proposes the introduction of a luxury tax that he explicitly states will spare the middle class. To make government contracts above 1 billion rubles ($33 million) transparent, Putin suggests inviting journalists and “interested organizations” to help oversee the process. The most popular citizen initiative to monitor state procurement is a web site founded by anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, the hero of the December protests.

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Putin’s other opponent who remains unnamed in the article is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned billionaire who lost Russia’s largest oil company, Yukos, to the state. In his justification of government’s heavy hand during his first two terms, Putin writes that at the time there were oligarchs meddling in politics and trying to peddle their assets to foreigners. He seems to be describing Khodorkovsky, then the country’s richest man, who sponsored opposition parties and was considering selling a stake in Yukos to a U.S. oil major. For the first time Putin drops a hint that Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment was based on politics – and not on the charges of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement that were later piled on him. After all, Putin says the controversial privatizations of the 1990s cannot be reversed, since the new owners didn’t violate existing laws and often turned into effective managers.

Strangely enough, Khodorkovsky also appeared in print in a Moscow publication on Monday. In the eight years since his arrest, he has often given interviews and written articles via his lawyers. Long before Putin, Khodorkovsky used newspapers like Vedomosti to get his message out to the wider world. He is still the only man in Russia whose ego matches Putin’s. In his writings, Khodorkovsky speaks with a similar voice of authority and the conviction that he is indispensable to the future of the country.

Lucian Kim

While Putin devotes his article to the “new economy,” Khodorkovsky expounds on Russia’s “new opposition” and the moral choices its members must make. In an interview with the muckraking opposition weekly The New Times, Khodorkovsky philosophizes on the idea of compromise and when it’s acceptable to cut a deal with an opponent like Putin. He argues that as long as the government doesn’t use “illegitimate force,” cooperation is possible. On the other hand, compromise for the sake of personal well-being is unacceptable, Khodorkovsky says.

“The country needs a new political philosophy of cooperation,” Khodorkovsky says. He advises the opposition to escalate its nonviolent protest until the government meets its demands.

The main demand of the protest movement is the annulment of the December 4 parliamentary elections. Another one is the release of all “political prisoners” such as Khodorkovsky.

The next big demonstration is scheduled for Saturday.

(Disclosure: At present, Lucian is mentally but not physically in Moscow.)

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