No matter what Putin does, he is unlikely to change the views of those who consider him an “enemy of democracy.” The majority of our society continues to regard Putin as all but the most lucky and successful leader. When he became president for the first time, Russia had a smaller economy than Belgium.
We have borrowed from America the tradition of judging presidents by what they accomplish in their first hundred days. We remember the first hundred days of President Vladimir Putin in 2000 by a major war in Chechnya. His second hundred days in 2004 do not arouse many memories thanks to a political lull. The third hundred days, which ended on August 15, 2012, will go down in history as a comeback of policy and rapid changes. Those who feared stagnation can stop worrying – time has sped up.
The days surrounding Putin’s inauguration were symbolic in this respect. On May 6, the opposition held an anti-Putin rally which ended in a fighting between the police and the demonstrators near the Bolshoi Kamenny Bridge. On May 7, having taken his oath in the presence of the entire Russian elite in the Grand Kremlin Palace, Putin signed 11 decrees with specific instructions on implementing his election program.
The new-old president formed a new cabinet, headed by Dmitry Medvedev, mostly from young technocrats, having replaced three quarters of the old one. That said, in his typical style, Putin found positions in his Executive Office for the key members of the old team. The rate of political reforms has gained unprecedented momentum, creating a more competitive environment and opportunities for channeling protests into legal demands. Direct election of regional governors has been restored and highly liberal terms for the registration of political parties have been established. As a result, we already have 39 parties, and another 190 are standing in line.
At the same time, the authorities were not frightened by the risk of criticism by the opposition for “unpopular” measures on toughening responsibility for unauthorized rallies, introducing registration for non-profit foreign-funded political NGOs and establishing control over websites offering child pornography, illegal drugs and suicide. Judging by public opinion polls, these measures are extremely popular.
The “repressive” Russian legislation does not contain a single norm that would not be used in the most advanced democracies. All countries prohibit or control the funding of politics from abroad because democracy is primarily the expression of the will of the majority, which is not distorted by artificial influences from the outside. Our new legislation is more liberal than in the West. We have introduced legal norms in those areas where the rest of the world already had them.
Serious anti-corruption initiatives have been taken. Government officials, deputies and their spouses will be deprived of an opportunity to own real estate and have bank accounts abroad and to own shares in foreign companies. They are often accused of having them, and sometimes not without grounds.
The first hundred days of Putin’s presidency were marked by a devastating flood in Krymsk, in which dozens of people lost their lives. Putin visited the disaster-struck area several times. His presence and quick decisions on compensation and the city’s recovery were much more important for the flood victims than the fuss of local officials and the punishment of some of them.
The economy was getting ready to absorb the predicted second wave of the global crisis. Meanwhile, the economic growth continued, while government opponents chanted that it was only possible if Russia increased prices on oil and gas, which were still in demand in the growing European economies. But what do we see now? Europe is gripped by stagnation at best; predictions of economic growth are reduced to negative values, while oil prices are lower than in the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, Russia has registered a 4.8% GDP growth in the first half of the year – one percent more than analysts of international financial institutions and investment banks predicted, and more than in any other European country. And finally, we are the only state in Europe that has no budget deficit.
Needless to say, if Europe is swept by a crisis, no country should be spared, including Russia. But Putin’s critics are sometimes not even aware that in the last 12 years, additional revenues from hydrocarbon exports amounted to only 28% in the growth of individual earnings and a mere 12% of the GDP increment. The growth rates of nominal salaries and pensions have been three times higher than those of oil prices. Our economy has long been driven by consumer demand rather than exports of raw materials.
After 17 years of negotiations, Russia has joined the WTO – to the joy of some and the horror of others. Now we are part of a club that accounts for more than 95% of the global economy and none of whose members have wished to quit so far. Moreover, our terms of accession were much better than for most other countries.
Putin made his foreign policy vectors very clear by his first foreign visits. Having ignored the G8 summit in Washington, with the excuse of the need to form a new cabinet, Putin visited Belarus, Germany and France, and later, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China. He has put the CIS at the top of his list of priorities. All serious experts predict a promising future for the rapidly developing Customs Union and the Common Economic Space launched at the start of this year.
The troubled European Union and the Asia-Pacific Region, which is becoming the center of global development, are next on Putin’s list of priorities. The United States comes after them. Putin had a negative experience of cooperation with the administration of George W. Bush, who broke almost all agreements with Russia and behaved in the world like a bull in a china shop. Putin is less acquainted with Barack Obama. Their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, was positive, and makes possible the continuation of the reset if Obama is reelected for a second term.
Polls of the Levada Center, which are trusted even by the Kremlin’s most consistent critics, revealed this summer that 45% are happy with their life. This is more than in the entire recorded history, which started in 1997 when only 14% were content with life. The ratio of those who are absolutely dissatisfied with life is 19%, as compared with 51% in 1997. Well-to-do intellectuals, office personnel, a part of entrepreneurs and students are increasingly disenchanted with the way things are. But this discontent with any government is a tradition in Russia.
Putin’s opponents are skillfully using political technology to ruin his image. Suffice it to mention the Pussy Riot provocation in which the government is put into a Zugzwang whereby any move will damage its image. The issues of the church and religion are at the epicenter of political struggle, and this is an alarming sign. A religious-related split is the worst risk for society, because people are ready to compromise practically on every issue except their faith.
No matter what Putin does, he is unlikely to change the views of those who consider him an “enemy of democracy.” The majority of our society continues to regard Putin as all but the most lucky and successful leader. When he became president for the first time, Russia had a smaller economy than Belgium. In his third one hundred days, Russia’s economy is bigger than Great Britain’s in its purchasing parity, while the inflation-adjusted incomes of the population have tripled since then.
Putin does not oppose progress. Russia's centuries-long history has shown more than once that people in this country can forgive everything to the powers that be except for weakness, which is followed by the collapse of the state. Putin understands better than others how to follow what is in Russia a very narrow path between authoritarian rule and anarchy. It is this path that is known as democracy.
This is an abridged version of the article, originally published in Russian on www.ria.ru.