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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Must Be the Luckiest Person on Earth

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With just eight months remaining before the presidential election, we can sum up the results of President Vladimir Putin's term in office.

But with the burning question of "Will Putin leave office or not?" dominating discussion, the question of what he has done for the country has taken a back seat. That is unfortunate because it is a critical issue that needs to be addressed. Of course, each person will answer that question differently, but I would say that, although there have been some real improvements, the quality of life in Russia on the whole has worsened.

Real incomes have grown under Putin. According to official statistics, incomes have increased an average of 10 percent, with the average monthly salary now totaling $400. The number of poor consistently declined, although 25 million people still live below the poverty line. At the same time, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. Even according to the notoriously inaccurate State Statistics Service, the incomes of the richest 10 percent of the population are now 25.3 times greater than those of the poorest 10 percent.

The state has brought inflation under control, which is always an important factor. Through strict adherence to the president's directives, inflation continues to fall. The ruble has strengthened so much over the past years that it now appears to be stronger than the U.S. dollar, and people prefer keeping their savings in rubles. Moreover, the country is now almost completely free of its foreign debt.

This rosy picture is somewhat darkened, however, by the fact that state-owned companies have taken on enormous debts in order to suck up new companies. As a result, they are turning into grossly ineffective and corrupt monopolies. Their collective debt to Western banks has now reached the astronomical figure of $40 billion. It is interesting to ask: Who will pay for their voracious appetites? For now, the only ones to suffer have been the tens of thousands of unhappy Rosneft shareholders, who received paltry dividends on shares.

Positive marks can also be given for the growth in pension payments. Although pension increases are insignificant, they have been adjusted for inflation. The government even instituted federal subsidies for families that have more than one child.

The financial soundness of the system -- evidenced by $400 billion in gold reserves and a stabilization fund of $150 billion -- is so strong that even in the unlikely event of a precipitous fall in oil prices, the country could continue to function without major difficulties for a few years. One is tempted to say, "Why worry? Live and be happy. And thank God for Putin who did all of this for us."

But if we consider the above-listed achievements more closely, it becomes clear that they resulted not from Putin's leadership, but from the high price for raw materials. Putin must be the luckiest person on Earth. Oil prices are exceptionally high, and thanks to this, the state was able to raise pensions and salaries. It was also able to give subsidies to families that have more than one child.

About 80 percent of the population think that life has improved. But there is another 20 percent that thinks differently.

That minority is a mixed group. It includes freedom-lovers and independents, non-conformers and those who have suffered from the current regime. They would describe life in Russia as "awful."

It is disgusting to watch the "Vremya" nightly news on Channel One, which reminds me of the broadcasts during the Brezhnev era. It is appalling how all of the famous journalists who disagreed with the Kremlin were fired. It is disgusting that the St. Petersburg clan in the Kremlin controls billions of dollars in wealth. It is offensive that the level of corruption is now twice what it was under Boris Yeltsin, which has earned Russia shamefully low marks in international corruption ratings every year.

It is reprehensible that police beat people with truncheons, not because they are guilty of crimes, but because they have taken to the streets to demand justice. It is offensive that Putin's portrait hangs in every public office. It is disgusting that the Kremlin spends millions of dollars to bring students to Moscow by bus and train from all corners of Russia to participate in pro-Putin meetings. It is simply nauseating to see how Sergei Ivanov, Putin's best friend and likely successor, was promoted to first deputy prime minister despite the vile gangsterism that is rampant in the nation's army barracks; the tragedy of Andrei Sychyov; and the embarrassing failure of the Bulava missile launch. It is offensive that Moscow is swimming in wealth while the rest of Russia lives like a poor colony.

It is offensive that under Putin the state has taken on the role of plunderer and racketeer, with an appetite that grows with each successive conquest. It began with the break-up and expropriation of Yukos, then the questionable purchase of a majority share in the Sakhalin-2 project and now Gazprom's purchase of the Kovytka gas field in East Siberia. The country's great size and wealth only means there will be much more for the Kremlin to grab. But the greatest calamity is that nobody is allowed to utter a word in protest regarding all of this. "Keep quiet," the authorities seem to say, "or things will go worse for you. This is none of your business."

It is truly disgusting that people's opinions don't mean anything. "You are welcome to elect whom you choose," they tell us, "as long as it is one of the candidates we have put forward." There used to be 100 million voters. Now there is only one. It is offensive that we have resigned ourselves to accepting as Putin's successor whomever he happens to slap on the back. According to recent polls, fully 40 percent of Russians are prepared to vote for whomever Putin supports -- no questions asked.

It is appalling that, rather than conducting a sensible and balanced foreign policy, the current administration is drawing Russia into an arms race at a time when it is completely unnecessary. It is outrageous that the number of our enemies has increased to include Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus. It is distressing that cynicism and lying have become an inseparable part of Russian politics and that it doesn't seem to bother anyone.

Where do we now stand? If we analyze Putin's presidency, it becomes clear that, year after year, he has taken away the rights of the people. We didn't have many rights to begin with, but he managed to take away what few we had. But Putin could not have achieved this without firing all the dissenting journalists, instituting censorship of the mass media, annulling the direct popular election of governors, passing repressive electoral laws, eliminating the cumulative pension system and de-privatization, to name only a few.

It would be reasonable to ask if only the authorities are to blame for all this. The answer is no, because it all happened with our approval, outright support, or, at the very least, our tacit complicity. The majority is either tired of thinking, is unable to think, has grown out of practice of thinking, or else simply doesn't care. And as long as the majority is content with the status quo, the chances are slim that conditions will improve in any way.

Under such circumstances, the political opposition can only represent the interests of the minority. This is the group that "can not live by bread alone." Restoring the rights lost during Putin's leadership and returning Russia to the path towards developing a democratic state is a mission that can be accomplished.

Boris Nemtsov, a founder of the Union of Right Forces, contributed this comment to Vedomosti.