Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

If Putin Told Us the Truth

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

The other day I caught myself imagining what it would be like if President Vladimir Putin gave a real address to the nation. In my imagination he begins, as usual, by stating that he and his government had good intentions, but things turned out … "well, not exactly the way we expected."

Yes, the president continues, thanks to some $32 billion of oil revenues, we managed to increase pensions and have started to pay salaries more or less on a regular basis. Yes, we changed the tax system so that some businesses could emerge from the gray zone. But, he confesses, we only went halfway and, as a result, the majority of companies are still cheating.

Finally, Putin says, we managed to alter the state-oligarchs relationship. Whereas before they struggled hard to use the mass media to get the ear of President Boris Yeltsin — who, as the joke goes, ran the country without actually being conscious — we now assign sectors of the economy to various oligarchs in exchange for "voluntary" contributions (sometimes as much as $30 million) to specific non-budgetary funds.

What is really bad, Putin continues in my imaginary speech, is that the reforms of the banking and pension systems have been postponed until the beginning of 2002. Ditto for the reforms of the natural monopolies and the courts. Military reform may become a reality sometime toward the end of the decade. The long-anticipated land reform (which we have been talking about as long as we have been talking about reforms at all) was castrated before it even reached the Duma. The reform of the administrative system is far away as well. Don't hold your breath waiting for it. In fact, the state bureaucracy grew by about 91,000 last year.

In the field of political reform, Putin continues, we invested considerable efforts to reinstate the vertical of power between Moscow and the regions. But so far instead of a clear vertical structure, we have received a competition with elected governors pitted against the seven appointed "super-governors." This means that the transactional cost of doing business in Russia has gone up.

Capital flight out of the country was also up last year. The level of bribes paid by businesses to bureaucrats increased as well. High expectations of huge foreign investment vanished unrealized.

Basically Russia this year has seen another round of property redistribution through corrupt means. Those who were mere stepsons of the Yeltsin regime (the people in epaulets) are now rushing to grab power and all its benefits.

Although the FSB is monitoring the computers of top officials and former KGB people occupy many crucial posts throughout the government and even though the hands of law-enforcement structures have been completely unfettered, corruption is up, not down. As some Kremlin insiders are saying, "Someday we will remember Pavel Borodin as an angel."

Then my imaginary Putin turns to the sphere of international relations, admitting that there too the situation is not ideal. So far we have failed to define our national interests. While claiming that Russia would like to be an equal partner on the global stage —and part of Europe particularly — we have somehow found ourselves marginalized along with other exotic regimes. This in turn has hardly helped us to resolve our debt problems. Should world energy prices fall, all the money that we get by selling arms to Iran and the like won't cover our expenses on debt by 2003.

Then Putin comes to the end of my imaginary speech. "I should admit that we had a great window of opportunity based on my high popularity rating and high expectations. But we missed it." Then comes a dramatic pause.

"I am grateful to everyone who gave me the benefit of doubt a year ago. I failed to live up to it and therefore I am resigning, so as not to do any more harm to my country."

No, this isn't going to happen. On the contrary, Putin told journalists last week that: "On the whole, I am satisfied with the results of our work during the last year."

In fact, one national paper labeled the first year of Putin's presidency "stagnation Putin-style."

I was among those who gave Putin the benefit of the doubt a year ago. I deeply regret that now.

Yevgenia Albats is an independent journalist based in Moscow.