Time for More Than Just Pretty Words

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In his 50-minute televised speech Friday, President Vladimir Putin offered a comprehensive overview of the achievements of eight years in office and the challenges he wants his successor to tackle.

But what he left out Friday was just as important as what he said.

Putin does deserve credit for policies that have boosted living standards, including tax reform, and for regaining the global clout that Russia lost under Boris Yeltsin.

He glossed over, however, the enormous negative legacy he leaves to the next president. And this is without mentioning any of the many steps he has taken to roll back democratic norms.

Putin rightly said there was too much state involvement in business, causing "excessive administrative pressure on the economy," threatening its continued growth.

But he made no mention of the fact that the state's involvement in the private sector has soared on his watch. Oil and television, for example, were two sectors almost completely in private hands when Putin come to power. These days, the state is involved in a broad swathe of sectors, including oil, gas, automobiles, the media and technology.

State interference is not healthy for the economy, whose robust growth over the past seven years has had little to do with Putin's policies and everything to do with high global oil prices and the fact that the economy had nowhere to go but up from the depths to which it had fallen under Yeltsin.

No one would argue with Putin's appeal on Friday to reduce bureaucracy. But the likelihood of that happening seems low. After all, Putin fired Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and reshuffled the government as part of what he called an effort to cut red tape and downsize bureaucracy in 2004. But the number of bureaucrats has ballooned in the years since, passing Soviet levels.

Putin hit the nail on the head when he complained -- once again -- about corruption. "To this day, it's impossible to start a business within months. You have to go to every office with a bribe: fire fighters, hospital orderlies, gynecologists, you name it. It's just a nightmare," he said.

But, as Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov asked, whose fault is it that corruption remains a problem? It is only logical that a government with a growing number of bureaucrats is a government ripe for more corruption. Putin has been urging a crackdown on corruption since he took office, but multiple independent surveys have shown that the scourge has only grown worse.

From his speech, it is clear that Putin knows the biggest challenges facing the economy. From his eight years in office, it is clear that his talk about the problem is still just that.