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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

Halfway through his four-year presidential term, President Vladimir Putin is unhappy with the pace of Russia's progress. Economic growth has fallen off, and the gap between Russia and developed countries is getting larger instead of smaller. In the past couple of weeks Putin has made this point repeatedly, and he included it in his yearly state of the nation address. What he has not emphasized is the degree to which his own policies and practices have contributed to the problem.

While Putin's progressive vision is not fully shared by the nation or the elite, his popularity remains high, and there is basically no political opposition in the country. The pace of reform, however, is painfully slow.

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This year, as in his 2001 address, Putin focused on the inefficiency of the government as the main cause of the problem. He called the system of administration "unwieldy, awkward and inefficient."

Russia's government bureaucracy is indeed badly organized and lacking in initiative and commitment. As Putin put it, precious few "know the art of government administration." Yet it was Putin who staffed his government structures with numerous mediocrities, people with no record of achievement and no vision of the task that had suddenly befallen them. Their only "merit" was their loyalty and their St. Petersburg origins.

Putin condemns corruption and rightly attributes it to the restriction of economic freedoms. He talks about hordes of "controllers" and "inspectors" who use their power to extort bribes and make it difficult "to do civilized business" in Russia.

Yet, it was Putin who inspired the use of the prosecutor's office for intimidation rather than regular prosecution, both to destroy his political enemies (mainly media tycoons Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky) and control unruly governors and businessmen who had become too independent. He has endowed the prosecutor's office with political -- rather than legal -- authority. By entrusting law enforcers with "special missions" he encourages corruption and hampers development of the rule of law. The prosecutor's office eagerly turns its enormous power to its own benefit, and the whole army of lower-rank enforcers follows suit.

Ironically, in his address, Putin criticized his administration for being "nontransparent," closed to the public, a "black box." This is odd coming from a president whose KGB past is all too evident in the atmosphere of full secrecy in today's Kremlin. Putin's advent put an end to the practice of public press briefings in the Kremlin.

All of Putin's moves were originally intended to make the state stronger and more cohesive, to remove political obstacles and create the kind of stability that would facilitate an economic breakthrough. But the campaign of intimidation, subjugation and taming (of big business, the Duma, the governors and the press), while it may have increased government control, has done so mainly through commanding a sort of outward compliance and subservience, rather than through true cohesion based on a common cause. Underneath the seeming stability are conflicting interest groups that silently impede or even sabotage reform whenever it threatens to encroach upon them. This is why land reform is only now beginning, why military reform has barely moved, and why restructuring of Gazprom has not even started.

The yearning for stability has had another undesired effect. By sending the message to the nation that the government is in control, by bringing back the music of the old Soviet national anthem and the general atmosphere of political reconciliation, Putin is fostering in his nation the sense, if not the essence, of late Soviet times. The long decades of communist oppression had established the idea that nothing depends on the individual, and so all effort is meaningless. Putin may pride himself on his sky-high popularity, but he must also take the blame for lulling his nation further into passivity and inaction. And without active public involvement, no reform course will ever succeed. Government bureaucracy -- efficient or inefficient -- cannot do it alone.

Masha Lipman, deputy editor of Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, contributed this comment to The Washington Post.