In an era of rampant corruption, the message is a variation on an old and cynical Russian idea: that it’s better to stick with the crooked leaders who have already gotten their take than to open the door to a new crop of bribe-takers.
Putin says nothing about electoral fraud, the issue that has spurred the street protests on the heels of the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. Russians will elect a president on March 4, and the conduct of that vote is sure to be under intense scrutiny, in part because of popular anger at Putin’s decision to seek a third term as president, after stepping aside for four years as required under the constitution.
Critics were quick to suggest that voters might no longer have much faith in Putin’s sincerity, because of the nature of the government he leads, as prime minister under outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev.
“There is no use trying to ‘correct’ anything in a state that exists in order to promote its own interests and not those of its population and society,” Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Institute of Globalization Problems, told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. “Total corruption, lies and violence are diagnoses incompatible with decent life.”
A leader of the Communist Party faction in the State Duma, Ivan Melnikov told the Interfax news agency that Putin’s essay would be fine, except that it ignores “the absence of people’s trust in any new promises made by the government against a background of lost hopes.”
Putin traces Russian stability and growth to his victory over Chechen separatists a decade ago. He implies that all good things have flowed from that reassertion of Russian national power. He addresses neither the corruption that has mushroomed in recent years nor the capital flight that has accelerated — it reached $84 billion in 2011, according to the latest figures — in what appears to be a silent vote of no confidence in the Russian economy.
Toward the end of his essay, Putin takes a few shots at the United States, without naming it. He criticizes countries that try to “export democracy” and says that the results are often unintended, and negative, consequences. He argues that Russia must play an active role in shaping the world, rather than passively watch as other countries take the lead.
To demonstrate its support for democracy, Medvedev’s government has introduced a bill that would allow once more for the election of regional governors, who are now appointed. The bill would allow the president to remove governors for corruption or failing to address conflicts of interest; critics say the wording is so vague that it would give the president a free hand to dismiss any governor he doesn’t like.
Dwelling on Russia’s material progress over the past decade, Putin says in his essay that his goal is to foster the gradual development of the middle class, democracy and even civil society. That last category would represent a turnabout for a leader who saw a particular threat in nongovernmental organizations when he came to power, and did everything he could to intimidate, prosecute and neutralize them. In his essay, he notes, without irony, that civil society’s biggest obstacle in Russia will be the hostility of those in the government.
“In the modern world, stability is something that can only be achieved through hard work, by being open to change and ready for long-overdue, well-planned and well-calculated reforms,” he writes.
Putin seems to imply that with the growth of a genuine middle class — thanks to the guidance of his government — only now can Russians start to be trusted with democracy. He fails to note, though, that a majority of the protesters who have demonstrated against him have been drawn from that new middle class. Having achieved a level of material comfort, they are demanding that their government obey its own laws.