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POSTED AT 08:00 AM 11-03-2018

Russia without Putin: It’s inconceivable

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin seeks re-election in the upcoming Presidential election on March 18, 2018. In Russia, a president is elected for six years with a two consecutive term limitation. Putin held the office of president for two terms from 2000 to 2008, served as prime minister from 2008 to 2012, and won a third term as president in 2012. Terms were extended from four to six years in 2008.

There are eight mediocre candidates seeking the presidency including three candidates who have previously contested against Putin.
A newcomer, Ksenia Sobchak, a 36-year-old media mogul, is the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, a former St. Petersburg Mayor, who brought Putin from obscurity into politics. She criticises corrupt cronies around Putin and calls the annexation of Crimea illegal.

Putin’s most vocal critic, Alexei Navalny, who has staged many demonstrations against Putin and those in power has been barred from running for president over a criminal conviction that he says is politically motivated. Navalny is asking his supporters to boycott the election.
All candidates complain about government corruption, lack of economic growth, low living standards, rising poverty levels, and high cost of living. Some complain about Putin’s efforts to glorify Stalin, declare the Czar’s family as martyrs, and for unduly suppressing dissent.
But none can defeat Putin who enjoys an approval rating of over 80 percent. If reelected, he’ll be Russia’s second longest serving leader, trailing only Joseph Stalin’s 30-year reign.

Putin is a master strategist who has selected March 18 (the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea) for his re-election. Also, on March 1, he delivered his annual State-of-the-Nation address to the Federal Assembly, in which he passionately outlined his domestic and foreign policy priorities.

 

The chaotic downfall of Russia

When I first visited Moscow in 1962, the former Soviet Union was a proud nation with a thriving economy, marvels of industrialisation, advances in science, technology and medicine, escapades into outer space, and basking in the glory of a superpower.
Later as a frequent visitor to Russia every two years, I witnessed the dramatic sea-change of its political leadership and their successes and failures.

The downfall of the former Soviet Union began in the 1980s as its social, political, and economic problems began to accumulate.
After years of stagnation under sclerotic leaders, the situation worsened as Mikhail Gorbachev’s political freedoms “openness and restructuring” paved the way for open criticism of the communist regime.

That caused the disintegration of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991. Putin described the collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

Later, Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999) embraced free market principles, and eliminated price controls, privatised major state assets, and allowed for the ownership of private property.

That resulted in a few well-connected people grabbing State properties and becoming wealthy “oligarchs”. The reforms failed and drove Russians deeper into poverty.

When I visited Moscow in 1996, it was heartbreaking to see the downfall of Russia. I noticed that bribery, corruption and criminality had penetrated the entire state apparatus and businesses. Foreign investors were fleeing the Russian market.

There was food rationing; unpaid salaries and pensions, rampant crime and gang rivalry were the norm. Russian politics, economy, military and society were in disarray, and by 1998, a third of Russia’s population was below the poverty line.

Western countries vilified Yeltsin for his antics and slurring on television, and his regime brought outright disgrace to Russia. In August 1998, Russian government was officially bankrupt having devalued the ruble, and defaulted on its debts.

Finally, on December 31, 1999, Yeltsin resigned, and handed over to Vladimir Putin a run-down military and a bankrupt Russia in a deep recession and complete chaos.

 

Make Russia great again

Election of Putin as President in 2000 was Russia’s first democratic transfer of power.
Making economic stability a cornerstone of his leadership, Putin gradually began to inject law and order into the society; signed into law a series of liberal economic reforms; developed the economy with new industries and investments; decreased poverty by boosting agricultural production and construction; and increased workers’ salaries and pensions of poor pensioners who had silently suffered for decades.
To stabilise the economy, he introduced a flat tax rate, reduced corporate taxes, and established a stabilisation fund to accumulate oil revenue to repay all of Russia’s debts. Later the fund was split into the Reserve Fund to protect Russia from future financial crisis, and the National Welfare Fund to enhance pension reforms.

But the last 17 years of Putin’s rule have been an unprecedented balancing act of consolidating his own power while reviving Russia’s economy, and protecting the country from foreign interference.

During his previous election in 2012, there were hundreds of massive anti-Putin political protests all over Russia.
Fearing that foreign-funded NGOs were fomenting revolution in Russia through the distribution of grants to political groups, the Russian government adopted stringent NGO legislation such as the “Foreign Agents” law, the “Undesirable NGOs” law, and ousted from Russia several foreign NGOs including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Putin once said: “The path towards a free society has not been simple. There are tragic and glorious pages in our history”.

 

External pressures

Having failed to fulfil the eternal desire to capture Russia and its vast resources — a dream that Napoleon and Hitler unsuccessfully cherished – the West now wants at least to destabilise and dismantle Russia into several parts as it did in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the United States and the European Union imposed on Russia a barrage of sanctions that continue to date – too many to describe.

On alleged interference in the 2016 US election, there have been several reciprocal diplomatic reprisals in the closure of compounds and expelling diplomats.

Last month, Washington released a list (that looks like a “who’s who” book) of 114 senior politicians close to Putin, and 96 Russian oligarchs with a net worth of more than $1 billion– though without specific sanctions on them.

These destabilising actions have inflicted an economic toll on Russia even though Putin said that these have failed to “defang” and “declaw” Russia.

Perhaps aimed at the hostile West, Putin once said, “Russia will continue moving forwards, and nobody will ever be able to stop this forward movement.”

 

Unrivalled military power

Russia’s unrivalled military complex that has been a great power for centuries thanks to its once-mighty Russian army has been revamped to its former glory.

In his speech last week, Putin revealed that the Russian Armed Forces adopted more than 300 new pieces of military equipment over the last six years.

Among those are a number of “invincible” defence systems including a new prototype missile that can reach any point in the world, a supersonic weapon that cannot be tracked by anti-missile systems, and a new hypersonic aviation and missile system.

Insisting that Russia should build new weapons to counter the potential threat posed by the US missile defence system, Putin said, “No one has listened to us. You listen to us now.”

 

Putin’s foreign policy

Putin has been critical of foreign policies of the United States and other Western countries.
In a 2014 speech, Putin said, “Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right.”

Putin abhors external pressure and would not change his foreign policy to please the United States or Western countries. He advocates a multipolar world and a bigger role of the United Nations to enhance global security.

He has often said that “we do not want confrontation: we want to engage in dialogue but a dialogue that acknowledges the equality of both parties’ interests”. This could be the premise for United States and Western nations to form better relations with Russia.

 

Russia and Putin would prevail

Contrary to the criticism of Putin’s opponents, the Russian economy is improving again — thanks to Russia’s increasing oil production, stabilising oil prices, improvements in the military-industrial complex, and growth in its agricultural sector.

During my visits to Moscow and its suburbs during the last few years, I found that the quality of life is even better than in the 1960s.
The streets and parks are clean and safer than ever; there are massive department stores, cafes and restaurants, indicating that the private businesses and the middle class are thriving, and that people are prosperous and happier.

In his impressive speech last week, Putin promised to further diversify the Russian economy, improve education, healthcare, agriculture and infrastructure, and attract more foreign investment.

Russians love their country more than anything else, and they love a strong leader who would not only develop the country but also zealously protect Russia from foreign intervention.

Somar Wijayadasa, a Moscow educated international lawyer, was a UNESCO delegate to the UN General Assembly and was Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations

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