PREMIER PUTIN AT THE VALDAI CLUB DISCUSSION CLUB: A COMMENT
"Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that the Russian political system is imperfect, telling top experts on Russia that he is preparing a number of reforms to fix it. However, Putin, who announced last month that he would seek a new term as president next year, said the reforms would be evolutionary and gradual, according to the experts, who met with him in the early hours of Saturday. The Russian prime minister rejected what he described as “alarmist scenarios” offered by the experts, who came from around the world to debate on Russia at the annual Valdai Discussion Club.
“Of course we are thinking how to make it so that citizens both at the municipal, regional and federal level feel a greater connection to the authorities, have a greater influence with the authorities and can count on feedback,” Putin said, during the three-hour-long dinner which lasted till late on Friday night....
But Putin defended the political system that he and his allies had put in place since 2000 and credited it with helping to stop the war in the Caucasus and propelling the growth of the country’s economy and social welfare system.
“I hope [the changes] will take place in a calm, evolutionary way, in harmony between the positions of the ruling elites and the citizens,” RIA Novosti reported Putin as saying.
Georgetown University Professor Angela Stent said that her main impression was there would be continuity. “I don’t think that we got any responses that would indicate that something is going to be that different; just that he is aware of the problems,” said Stent, who is also affiliated with Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C.-based think tank....
After drawn-out debates, the experts presented Putin with a critical assessment of the situation in the country and stressed that the dominating opinion during the sessions about the likely scenarios for Russia’s prospect in a five to eight years is that of inertia. The best case scenario was what Columbia University Professor Robert Legvold called “muddling through up.” The worst case scenario was degradation.
Alexander Rahr, Director of the Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations, DGAP, said that Putin unceremoniously brushed aside those concerns. “Putin effectively told us that we don’t understand and don’t see how successful his leadership has been for Russia,” Rahr said. “He is confident that whatever was done by him was done right."
Russian Prime Minister reminded the Valdai Club members about the poor situation in which Russia had been economically and politically when he assumed presidency in 2000. He pointed at Russia’s recent growth, including growth in the real income of the population as well as the budget surplus achieved by his government despite the global economic crisis. Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said Putin looked very comfortable and confident. “He never tried to be defensive in response to any questions,” Kuchins said.
He also said Putin assured his guests that he did not want to perpetuate a personalized system of power in the country. “The main goal in the next few years will be to strengthen the institutions that would promote Russian sovereignty and would long outlast the political personalities of today,” Kuchins related Putin as saying....
In their report, the experts had warned that Russia was under a serious threat of “degradation,” but there was little pressure for change from below. “People have little respect for law and property, paternalistic attitudes are still strong, the level of political morality is decreasing,” the report said. As a result, many educated Russians are emigrating.
“By losing the class of creative, energetic, educated, mostly young people, Russia is evolving towards an ‘African’ way of development, essentially – to degradation,” the report said. The mood among the intellectual elite and part of the business elite is increasingly reminiscent of the alienation of the late Soviet period that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union".
Andrei Zolotov,"Putin dismisses pessimistic scenarios, promises vague reforms." Novosti. 12 November 2011, in en.rian.ru.
"As I have mentioned when I assumed the reins of government the country was virtually in a state of madness. The most evident signs of the breakdown of public and governmental life was the universal dissatisfaction with the status quo that united all classes of the population. They all wanted changes in the political structure, but their aspirations differed according to class and status....In any case, everyone wanted change. Everyone attacked the power of the Autocracy and its tool the bureaucracy."
Graf Witte, The Memoirs of Count Witte. Edited & translated by Sydney Harcave. (1990).
One does not have to be unduly pessimistic to not be entirely convinced by the protestations of Prime Minister, and now future President Putin, that tout va bien and that all that Russia needs is some type of 'evolutionary' changes and reforms de haut en bas. Which is not to gainsay the fact that: i) 'Putinism' was for perhaps upwards of six years a quite worthwhile and successful project for Russia; ii) that historically speaking, and 'Putinism' is no different in that respect, all reforms in Russia come from the top. The issue as I see it, is that perhaps (and in this I am speculating more than a bit with what may occur in the future), Russia is in the midst of one those odd switches of mentality. First elite and semi-elite mentality, then further down the social and economic scale. That the dissatisfaction with the status quo ante, is becoming more and more ingrained and accepted as the norm. This process (if it indeed is 'a process') can be stopped up to a certain point, after which, it becomes unstoppable. Id est., as in 1847 and early 1848, when Vormarz becomes merely a prelude to revolution.
As the Financial Times Moskva correspondent, noted in his report on the Valdai Club discussions:
"The mood in Russia has changed since the last electoral cycle four years ago. Back then, the economy was still growing at 7 per cent a year, the global financial crisis a distant cloud. Moscow’s leadership brimmed with confidence. Most Russians would have been happy to see then president Vladimir Putin remove a constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms and stay on. Instead, he installed Dmitry Medvedev as placeholder president and moved to the prime minister’s chair – respecting the letter, if not spirit, of the constitution.
Now Mr Putin is coming back for a third presidential term, Russia’s intellectual and business elites, at least, are no longer sure this is a good thing. Debates at last week’s annual Valdai Discussion Club, a Putin initiative dating from 2004 that brings together top foreign and domestic specialists on Russia, revealed deep unease. Emboldened, perhaps, by the off-the-record format, many Russian participants – including those who once broadly backed Mr Putin – openly questioned whether today’s ossified political system could deliver the modernisation Russia needs....1.”
Once again, I am not making a prediction about a Russian version of the so-called 'Arab Spring' a few years hence. What I am stating is that in the absence of some genuine reforms which shall free-up Russia's economic potential and in addition, change the dis-organized system of rampant government corruption and incompetence, then one should not be so readily assume that Grazhdanin Putin will be in the position to so readily and confidently offer up to his elite audience the plethora of sarcastic bon mots that are his wont.
1.Neil Buckley, "Rising Unease over Putin's return." The Financial Times. 16 November 2011, in www.ft.com.