"Failure of the Soviet Union is a genuine drama" - Putin
We made promises in the past and we have failed them;
We won’t fail this time, because we won’t make any more promises! (YM)
Yesterday President Putin addressed the Russian nation with his annual speech (equivalent of State of the Union speech given annually by American President).
Putin largely quoted Russian philosophers, politicians and himself. The speech sounded entertaining, however it lacked one little thing: any national idea. "United We Stand" says the United States of America, Iran fights for Mideast hegemony and Shi'a Islam, China to become the dominant power in Asia if not the world, and Russia is...just hanging out there. The Kremlin has launched few national competitions for the best National Idea in the past, hired bureaucrats to make up one, and so far nothing has come up. And there are reasons for it – you can’t just make up a national idea, it comes naturally to the people as a result or a process of nation’s life. Well, the Russian nation hasn’t lived, it simply has existed, survived, if you will, since 1991.
There are few major things that have to be said about yesterday’s presidential address. As all the American news channels noticed, Putin was openly mourning the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. For the Russian nation it was a genuine drama.
And he is right to do so, because from the perspective of a common Russian person the Soviet Union was powerful (if not rich), secure, strong, predictable, and believable. Addressing the Soviet collapse Putin says:
Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Terrorist intervention and the Khasavyurt capitulation that followed damaged the country's integrity. Oligarchic groups – possessing absolute control over information channels – served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. And all this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances, and the paralysis of the social sphere.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of money in Moscow - you can buy anything you want – groceries, clothes, cars, planes. You can freely travel around the country and around the world, but the percentage of the population that can really enjoy all the benefits of the new "democratic" regime in Russia is 5%-15% according to different sources and estimates. The rest of the nation has been thrown back into the Stone Age: many smaller towns and cities in Russia don’t have phone lines, electricity and water. Americans call this "camping", so maybe life without the benefits of the 20th century isn’t that bad. But all these people are poor to the point that they are figuring out the 15th century approach of making a living – barter.
Someone has a cow, someone has a chicken, someone has a backyard with growing vegetables. All the "participants" of the "natural exchange" are mostly people with higher education, which they received from the Soviet regime. A teacher’s salary of $50 dollars a month, paid by the government with 6 months delay, allows one to buy very few goods, considering the fact that Levi’s jeans start at $250 (American dollars). However a bottle of vodka can be purchased for as little as $1; very good vodka for $2, excellent quality one – for $3. That creates the problem of alcoholism that President Putin also notices:
Around 40,000 people a year die from alcohol poisoning in Russia, above all as a result of drinking alcohol surrogates. Most of these people are young men, the breadwinners for their families.
There are many other problems that are going to be mentioned on this Blog comprable to the problems of Soviet times: brutality in the Russian army fueld by the draft, corrupt court systems, taxation by mafia/state, freedom of speech, etc.
Speaking of freedom - Putin talked a lot about it and democracy as well:
I consider the development of Russia as a free and democratic state to be the main political and ideological goal. We use these words fairly frequently, but rarely care to reveal how the deeper meaning of such values as freedom and democracy, justice and legality is translated into life.
One can say that the statement is very contradictory. It looks that way. Putin was very contradictory yesterday – he was very critical of almost everything that Kremlin has done in the past few years, though he has been part of the elite in charge. That reveals a very deep problem that is not quite understood by the foreign media – just like with freedom and democracy on paper. Putin is in charge, on paper, but there is absolutely nothing he can do in real life.
It’s not a secret that Russia is corrupted from street cop to prime minister, but how do you fight the corruption, if the ones fighting criminals are the prime beneficiaries of criminal enterprises themselves? How do you replace cancelled benefits for elderly people with cash refunds, if there’s no money in the budget (Russian Federal budget for the year 2004 was $95 billion dollars total for defense, education, medical care, retirement, etc)? How do you enforce people declaring their income and paying 13% flat tax, if many employers refuse to hire people who insist on being paid legally? Moscow's ATMs spit out American hundred dollar bills.
Putin might be wanting all the best for his country, but I strongly believe there’s nothing he can do about it.
As the Russian newspaper Moskovski Komsomolez notes, Putin has made annual commitments before:
In year 2000 it was the idea of strengthening the government. Instead Putin strengthened his own power and destroyed separation of powers.
In the year 2001 Putin talked about the necessity of administrative and social reform. It did start in year 2004 with monetization of benefits for elderly and failed right away, without making it to the end.
In 2002 Putin promised court reform, however, the courts don’t work. They work, but only for those who pay, or if they’re told to do so by the government (remember that separation of powers vanished in the year 2000). Actually tomorrow is the day when the CEO of YUKOS, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in jail for over a year by now, will hear the court decision on his case. Mr. Khodorkovsky is accused of tax evasion, theft of government property, and a dozen more crimes against Russia. But the major crime committed by Khodorkovsky was supporting opposition against the new Czar Putin.
In 2003 Putin promised to unite the nation in order to solve the major national problems. And he did unite it – Putin’s party United Russia took the majority in Russian parliament, giving the president unchecked power for solving Russia's problems his way.
Another promise of 2003 was doubling the GDP. It did grow by 7.2%. However the reason for this growth, according to the World Bank, is higher global oil prices. Will this economic growth disappear when oil prices come down?
The year 2004 brought more promises: increase the well-being of the nation, growth of Russian GDP, fighting poverty, modernization of the army. The benefits reform mentioned above has failed and has brought thousands of people demonstrating in the streets. Growth of GDP still curves along with world oil prices, the government is overspending on social payments, but pensions still aren’t catching up with rampant inflation, and conscription into the brutal treatment of army life has reached a critical point in Russian history.
As Seattle Times noted in it’s April 1 article, Russian young men fake illnesses, enroll in non-existent universities and hide, so the ones who are drafted are usually the homeless, the alcoholics, 18 year olds from poor families, and drug addicts. The Russian military ends up with the social "rif-raff", trigger-happy sadists who enjoy brutalizing terrified conscripts, beggars, the desperately homeless, and criminal scum that should be in jail.
On paper, oil money has enabled the Russian armed forces to make some improvements: this year Russia's Navy is supposed to get two new nuclear submarines, the Air Force two new Tupolev-160 "Blackjack" long range bombers, a dozen of new fighter/bomber jets and helicopters, and 40 new tanks. Considering the fact that Russia is involved in an endless war with it’s own breakaway republic (state) Chechnya, and that Russia shares borders with 14 countries of the Eurasian continent, the military improvements don’t look very impressive at all.
On January 21 Russian Defense and interior/border police ministries reported some of the facts about year 2004. Here are some numbers:
In the year 2004 four hundred high ranking officers were caught stealing government property. Among the stolen (and never found!) goods are: one helicopter engine, 35 tank engines, 1.7 billion rubles (55 million American dollars), 11 thousand tons of petrol, and 7 thousand tons of jet fuel. Given that fuel, every pilot in Russia could’ve had 57 hours of flying time last year. However, the average annual flight hours for a Russian military pilot are less than 16. Again, in his speech, Putin decided not to be specific, and kept on referring to all of these problems with vague and general statements, blaming corruption.
Besides grieving for the Soviet times and offering promises of democratic reforms, Putin didn’t have much to say. The major goals for this year are:
First – measures to develop the state;
Second – strengthening the law, developing the political system, and making the judicial system more effective;
Third – developing the individual and civil society in general.
As you can see, the goals are too general to be goals, or to be even commented upon.
More contradictions came further in to the speech:
And finally, one more crucial problem: Russia is extremely interested in a major inflow of private foreign, investment. This is our strategic choice and strategic approach.- says Putin, and mentions few minutes later that:
Finally, if part of Russian society continues to see the court system as corrupt, there can be no speaking of an effective justice system in our country.
There’s a problem with the word "part" in the statement above. In fact "part" in this instance equals the entire Russian population. And how do you attract foreign investors, if the court and legal systems don’t work even for your own citizens?
Putin mentioned another major problem - besides alcoholism, corruption, and the implosion of the Soviet Union...the Russian nation is dissolving, dying out, committing demographic suicide:
The low birth rate is another national problem. There are more and more families in the country with just one child. We need to make being a mother and being a father more prestigious and create conditions that will encourage people to give birth and raise children.
Putin is incorrect. There are more and more families without children, and it IS prestigious to be a parent. Even if it weren’t, though how is Mr. Putin going to achieve that goal? Besides it’s none of the government business to start with. The Soviet Union gave hero medals to mothers who had many children during the Stalin years - but after World War II, the Communists sought to increase the number of women working in the factories and collectives by offering free abortions. The high cost of these policies are seen today in some of the highest rates of abortion in the world, and high rates of infertility in Russian women.
The President gets honest towards the end of this statement, saying the word "conditions". By conditions, Putin means the same package of issues: corruption, brutal army draft, low budget, poverty, etc. Yes, fixing these things will encourage people to give birth and raise children, but as the tragedy in Beslan school showed, the Russian government cannot protect Russian children who are born (much less the unborn). The reasons? Corruption, a lack of professionalism in the Russian military, and a low budget.
Putin asked listeners a few times to treat this speech as a part of the plan started in previous years. That’s a very nice excuse to redirect the public’s attention to the promises made in the past and not to make any new ones. Putin knows that no matter if he makes any promises or not, they are not going to come true.
If the Nazis or some other foreign invaders were committing genocide in Russia, as in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), Russians would fight, as their grandparents' generation fought to crush fascism. But the destruction is coming from within. There is no invader, no evil outside conspiracy spawned by the United States (though many Russian still believe in it). There's no evil plan by Russian politicians to destroy the nation – they are just "doing their jobs" – stealing as much as they can while they can hang on to office.
President Putin is not evil KGB agent. Putin is a misguided Russian nationalist who doesn’t mean to harm his nation. Putin is a helpless, desperate man. There are many problems he can see, but there’s absolutely nothing he can do about them.