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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Same Old Project Approach

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The word "project" sounds very similar in both English and Russian. But there is a difference between the way the word is generally employed in the two languages. The English project is something much more practical, and often already in existence -- hence the phrase "project management" in business practice. It is not simply a plan, but an undertaking that has a defined aim and the funding to achieve it. There are usually already people managing and working on the project.

In the Russian understanding, a project is something closer to a plan or to what is called a prozhekt -- something idealized but impracticable. There is also an immediate association with the Soviet-era phenomenon of the project-construction bureau, where the technical intelligentsia sketched out something concerning the bright Soviet future, but few of these plans, or projects, ever became reality. Either the money was not there, something else was substituted for the already finished plans or the system itself proved incapable of accomplishing the most optimistic plans. This was, in essence, much like the fantasies that defined the landowner Manilov in Gogol's "Dead Souls" -- his poor housekeeping reduced him to a state of permanent neglect, but instead of creating at least some basic order he spent all his time dreaming of building a beautiful bridge across his overgrown, slimy pond. Of course, he never got around to building it.

It seems to me that when President Vladimir Putin announced the current set of national projects, he was talking about something along the English model. What we have ended up with, however, is somehow Soviet, almost Manilovian.

For more than a year, the national projects have been overseen by First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whose post was created especially for the task. In this short time, it would have been unreasonable to expect any great, positive shifts in healthcare, education, housing, agriculture or anything else, even with the mammoth sums that have been committed.

Moreover, Medvedev himself, whom many in the country's political elite are touting as Putin's successor in 2008, is on prime-time television almost every day, managing one national project or another.

Surprisingly, not even all of this positive spin has given people the feeling that they have been told as much about the national projects as they should have been. Most people are pretty skeptical about the projects and have little faith that anything will change for the better in the sectors in question. After a year of talking about the national projects, only 11 percent of those asked in a VTsIOM poll said they expected serious improvement. Only 1 percent to 3 percent said the projects would be a definite success. Twenty-three percent said the healthcare project would "most likely" be a success, while the figures for education, housing and agriculture were 22 percent, 12 percent, and 11 percent, respectively. The combined figures for the options "most likely unsuccessful" and "definitely unsuccessful" were 36 percent, 35 percent, 47 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

Even with the financial support they have received, the national projects remain far short of becoming real business projects. Almost all of the proposals so far involve patching up things that already exist. There are also no plans to involve civil society or the business community. The supposition is that the wise state, under the stewardship of the wise successor to the wise president, will provide everyone with a little something to be happy about in each of these sectors. State paternalism goes hand in hand with social dependency, both of which have their roots in the Soviet era.

So we will likely see the same thing happen to the current national projects that happened to the many Soviet projects. There was a "Food Plan" and a "Living Space Program" back then, too. By 2000, every Soviet family was meant to be living in its own well-equipped apartment, and the number of times the Communist Party tried to improve Soviet agriculture or improve the nation's health is beyond measure.

Back then, though, the succession problem was not what it is today, when the chosen person will have to endure national elections. That is, of course, as long as they don't feel that all of the positive coverage isn't working for Medvedev. And assuming that the realization doesn't push Putin to choose a solution providing further evidence of Russia's inexorable backsliding into the Soviet social and political model.

Georgy Bovt is editor of Profil.