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Putin's Russia: better and worse

The mysterious poisoning of an ex-KGB spy has heightened debate over the nation's direction.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 4, 2006


Hearing Yevgeny Butovsky and Antonina Vallik describe the state of their nation, one would think they live in two different countries. In fact, they share a home.

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"We are eating our future, and we are being too quiet about it," complains Mr. Butovsky, a successful private farm manager increasingly concerned by the autocratic political system built since President Vladimir Putin was elected in 2000.

But for his homemaker wife, Ms. Vallik, those years have yielded a rise in living standards that has enabled her to widen the scope of her passion – taking in homeless pets. "Any regime is OK for me," she says.

They're not the only ones having this discussion. The debate is rising in Russia, and around the world, over what kind of a state Putin has built, whether it's bearable for its population, and if it is safe to invest in, or be friends with. A recent spate of apparently political killings that some have blamed on the Kremlin – the victims include ex-KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko and investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya – imparts urgency to these questions.

But depending on whom you talk to, the answers often seem to apply to two completely different countries. In the Russia described by one set of observers, democracy has been extinguished and the media straitjacketed; civil society is gasping for breath and a Soviet-style Kremlin dictatorship is utilizing the country's oil wealth to restore its old superpower status. In the other Russia, people have never been freer, more secure, or more prosperous. That second Russia is building democracy according to its own historical traditions and stepping out as a responsible member of the international community.

"These two extremes reflect an imbalance in our civil society," says Ivan Safranchuk, Moscow director of the independent World Security Institute. "Most people are exhausted with politics, and disengaged from it. For them, private values are what matter. There is a kind of deal, in which the population agrees not to try to make government accountable, and the state agrees not to intrude into peoples' private lives."

But for activists in Russia's beleaguered civil society, the growing sense of being shut out of the political process is the central concern. "There was a time when society could influence the state in the sphere of human rights, but now it cannot," says Oleg Orlov, chairman of the Moscow Memorial Center, a coalition of human rights groups. "Pressures on nongovernmental groups are growing."

Economic boom – but not in rural areas

Even amid the differences, however, everyone agrees on a few things. Under Putin, Russia has experienced seven years of petroleum-fueled economic growth, averaging about 6 percent annually, and some of that has trickled down. "Real incomes have been growing by about 10 percent a year, and that can't fail to be visible to the population," says Yevgeny Gavrilenkov, an economist with Troika Dialogue, a Moscow investment bank.

The boom has been unevenly distributed, with citizens in the largest cities – particularly booming Moscow – and resource-rich regions enjoying most of the benefits so far. Overall, average Russian monthly incomes still hover around $350, extremely low by European standards. Among pensioners, low-skilled workers, and majorities inhabiting much of the country's blighted, Soviet-era industrial heartland, the struggle to survive remains harsh.

"About 30 percent of Russians live in dying towns and villages, where there is almost no economic activity," says German Pyatov, coordinator of the Murlandia Foundation, a charity group that sponsors orphanages in poor regions. "These places are completely left behind."

But the increased cash flow for millions has brought an unprecedented flood of consumer choices into Russian households, including travel, home appliances, and entertainment options. This may partly explain Putin's public approval rating, which recently soared to a celestial 87 percent. Putin's tough consolidation of Kremlin power also brought an impression of national unity and purpose, which was welcomed by many after the seemingly rudderless 1990s. "Russia has a predictable, active leader whose policies are consistent," says Valery Fyodorov, head of the state-run VTsIOM public opinion agency. "Stability is very important, because it means people can make plans."

Fewer political parties