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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Can Teach the World

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Russia has taken absolutely the right decision in joining with Europe and the United States to fight against terrorism. President Vladimir Putin made a very important statement on Sept. 11, when he said "We are with you" -- having in mind the United States and indeed the whole of the civilized world.

We, unfortunately, have a lot of experience of terrorism in this country -- considerably more than the Americans have -- and I believe that there is much that we can teach the United States. The most important lesson we have learned from the war in Chechnya is that there is no such thing as an exclusively military solution, and that only a combination of military and political measures has a chance of success. This holds equally for Chechnya and Afghanistan.

I hope that cool heads will prevail in the White House, in the Congress and in America at large, and that the political component of resolving the conflict will not be neglected.

I reiterate the formula that I have expounded on a number of occasions: We must destroy the terrorists and open dialogue with the people. This is a universal formula which applies as much to Afghanistan as it does to Chechnya.

I am not saying we should negotiate with terrorists -- the only language they understand is the language of the Kalashnikov. However, it is extremely important to prevent a war against terrorism from turning into a war against a whole nation.

Furthermore, I believe that we need to form a broad coalition against terrorism, which includes countries of the Moslem world. There is, unfortunately, a great deal of misunderstanding about Islam.

Islam is a peaceable religion and is essentially incompatible with terrorism. It is a misnomer to equate jihad with terrorism. A jihad is in defense of the Moslem faith and does not have anything to do with blowing up apartment blocks in Moscow or skyscrapers in New York.

It is incumbent upon prominent Moslem figures and the leaders of Islamic states, including the Arab states, to come out and say this. If, for example, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan come out in support of this position, I think this would be a very important step in the right direction.

Russia now has a unique opportunity to put its domestic situation on the right track and to make a major contribution to the international fight against terrorism.

We are prepared to fully support the anti-terrorism coalition, the only proviso being that we will not send our soldiers into Afghanistan. We suffer from "Afghan syndrome" analogous to what the United States suffers vis-a-vis Vietnam, and President George W. Bush and others must understand that it is neither politically nor morally possible for us to commit troops to Afghanistan.

New Political Season

As the new parliamentary season kicks off, we must build on the successes of the previous session and redouble our efforts to pass legislation conducive to improving the investment climate. Russia needs to present an "asymmetrical response" to the world to demonstrate that it is serious.

It is crucial that we continue the tax revolution that was started last year. The Union of Right Forces is supporting legislation to reduce VAT to 16 percent from the current level of 20 percent. Furthermore, we are seeking to abolish sales tax completely. Customs legislation must be brought into line with WTO standards as far as possible. And we must push hard for the adoption of sensible legislation on production sharing agreements.

Land reform must be broadened to encompass the sale and purchase of agricultural land, not just the 2 percent of land covered in the Land Code at present. And we must continue reform of the country's judicial system.

Another much-needed reform is modernization of the Russian army. SPS is calling for the reduction of military service from two years to six months. This would be an important first step in converting to a fully professional army, with professional soldiers being recruited from among those that wish to continue serving after the six-month period.

We commissioned a survey this summer (conducted by VTsIOM), according to which 75 percent of young people said they would do military service if it was only half a year, while only 7 percent said they would voluntarily do two years of military service. This would additionally have the positive effects of radically altering the social composition of the army and reducing the problem of hazing.

Another important area is center-regional relations and local government.

We must close the loophole that allows certain regional governors to run for a third term. This is absolutely vital to prevent stagnation of the country and to reverse the prevailing trend toward feudalization of Russia. This loophole only serves to weaken the state and encourages regional governors to behave like feudal lords ruling over their own private fiefdoms.

Legislation must also be passed to improve the financial foundations of local government. The federal government heaps expenditure responsibilities on municipalities while not providing them with adequate funds to finance them.

Local government, as in the United States, should have an independent revenue base. Certain taxes, such as income, property and land taxes, should be wholly local. In this way, municipal authorities would also acquire a direct stake in the economic prosperity of their municipality, as their tax revenues would depend directly on the health of the local economy. At the moment, most of a local government's budget is made up of funds handed down to it from above.

Putin's Performance

Assessing the record of the Putin administration over the last year and a half, there have been major successes in the area of economic reform and in the international arena. There have been major breakthroughs in de-bureaucratization, in liberalization of foreign currency laws and in the area of pension reform.

However, more remains to be done to reduce the number of government agencies that can conduct checks on businesses and/or to reduce the frequency of these checks. This would assist in curbing bureaucrats' appetites for bribes.

Insufficient progress has been made in reforming the banking sector and stock markets. Furthermore, attempts to reform the state service have been weak. I don't think that Putin has enough friends in St. Petersburg to replace the whole state machine. Of course, a lot of work needs to be done to raise civil servants' salaries, to raise the prestige of state service and to reduce incentives for corruption.

However, at the end of the day it is a question of political will, i.e. does the president want to undertake serious reform of the state service or not?

Freedom of speech and the growing state monopolization of the media remain issues of considerable concern. In fact, this is much more of a problem at the regional level than it is at the federal level.

According to data from the Glasnost Defense Foundation, as much as 90 percent of regional media outlets are controlled -- directly or indirectly -- by regional administrations.One way of tackling this would be to apply anti-monopoly legislation to the media. Thus, for example, if the state controls more than 25 percent of the television market (and this can be measured using Gallup polls etc.), then it should be made to dispose of some of its media assets.

The federal government controls something like 70 percent of national television. Surely one channel -- RTR for example -- is sufficient for the state to get its message across. The absence of diversity and pluralism in the media is very dangerous. Furthermore, greater media diversity would have a positive impact on reducing corruption.

One of Putin's problems is that as a former intelligence officer he pays far too much attention to the media and is extremely sensitive to media criticism.

Regarding NTV, however, I think the doomsayers, who predicted that the channel would completely come under Kremlin control and become nothing more than an official mouthpiece of the administration, have been proven wrong. The channel's main problem is financial and connected with the drop in its ratings.

The picture is somewhat mixed with regard to the institution of presidential representatives introduced by Putin last year, immediately after his inauguration.

On the positive side, they have reversed thousands of unconstitutional acts, have done much to create a single legal space in the country and to halt regional separatism.

The presidential representatives also serve as a counterbalance to overbearing governors and mayors. However, the fact that there is no law on presidential representatives -- only a presidential decree -- is a major problem, as legally their position is weak and their formal powers limited. They can still be a positive force for change, but their main resource is their access to the president and their ability to control governors' access to the president.

Overall, my assessment of Putin and the performance of his administration is positive, with the most important successes in the area of economic reform and the main failure being the administration's policy on Chechnya.

As far as my prognosis is concerned, I believe that Putin's fate is in the hands of OPEC. Unfortunately, the main factor influencing political stability in the country is the price of Urals crude on world markets.

As long as the oil price remains high, Putin's popularity ratings will continue to be high, reforms will be continued and nothing too bad will happen. If the price of oil falls, there could be problems -- although it will be the government that will experience them first.

Boris Nemtsov, former first deputy prime minister of Russia, is leader of the Union of Right Forces. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.