In TV 'town meeting,' Putin tips populist hand

Poverty and services were the focus of the Russian chief's three-hour marathon.

President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday detailed the Kremlin's unexpected "left turn" to focus on poverty-fighting and social compassion, in a bravura three-hour televised public marathon that would have left Western audiences gasping for breath.

"The main priority of my presidency is to raise the quality of life for Russians," Mr. Putin said as he fielded questions from people across Russia's 11 time zones about unemployment, fuel prices, housing, declining education and industry, and tight farming markets.

The Kremlin has made an almost annual affair of the chats with Russians - who are carefully vetted. Indeed, police in the northern city of Vorkuta beat an elderly pension-rights activist who wanted to ask a question and detained the head of the teacher's union and a miners' advocate, according to Ekho Moskvi Radio station.

This year, faced with an approval rating that plunged in July to an all-time low of 43 percent and fears of more antireform upsurges like the one by pensioners early this year, Putin used the forum to rebrand himself as a populist willing to spend windfall oil revenues to boost living standards. That contrasts sharply with his earlier emphasis on downsizing government, privatizing services, and letting the market rule.

"This is largely a propaganda show, and a very effective one, aimed at showing that Putin is in touch with the problems of average Russians and has plans to deal with them," says Alexander Buzgalin, an economics professor at Moscow State University. "There is a veneer of stability and some economic growth ... but underneath there is a lot of apprehension about where things are headed."

The show featured Putin talking with worried workers on the Pacific island of Sakhalin, a group of smiling students in the Siberian center of Tomsk, peasants in a Ukrainian border area, and grim-faced locals in the bombed-out Chechen capital of Grozny.

Speaking without notes, and demonstrating an impressive command of detail, Putin kept the focus on his new social policies. He assured callers that he would reduce taxes to lower gas prices from current highs of 20 rubles (about 70 cents) per liter, take steps to make mortgages available to more than the 7 percent of Russians who are currently eligible, build two new universities, and move to improve the lot of 25 million Russians living in poverty.

Putin had little to say on the main question roiling Russia's political elite: how to manage the transfer of power to a new leader in 2008. "It is not my goal to remain forever in the Kremlin," he said. "My job is to create the conditions for long-term development."

An August poll conducted by the independent ROMIR agency found that nearly two-thirds of Russians believe Putin should be allowed to remain in power, despite a constitutional ban on third terms, after his second term expires in 2008.

Many experts say the handover weighs on Putin's mind. "Russia has no tradition of passing power from one leader to another without crisis," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst. "Each leader rejects the policies of his predecessor, and everyone connected with the old team faces troubles."

Putin ruled out "abrupt changes" in the constitution and added, somewhat cryptically, "as for me, I'll find my own place in the ranks."

Earlier this month, the Kremlin asked parliament to increase social spending by $3.7-billion, a huge figure in Russia, where average monthly incomes remain below $150. The expenditures would allow raises for doctors, nurses, scientists, and teachers, as well as a subsidy hike for farmers and failing heavy industries.

Putin said the Kremlin can easily afford the estimated 14 percent spending boost thanks to high revenues from oil, Russia's biggest export.

But many economists are critical. Andrei Illaryonov, a liberal Kremlin adviser, attacked the spending as a turn "in the direction of state capitalism, interventionism, and populism." Others say it could ignite the devastating inflationary spiral of the past decade.

Mr. Buzgalin, a leftwing economist, says the spending doesn't adequately address the social crisis. "We need a total overhaul of pensions, public health, education, and social services, just to bring the country up to a normal modern level. Instead, Putin offers a few drops of financing, and a typhoon of fine words."

The biggest controversy is whether to spend a $33-billion nest egg from oil on social policies. Tuesday, Putin ruled out using this "stabilization fund" for any purpose other than paying down foreign debt. But a ROMIR survey this month found that 90 percent of Russians want the money spent on crumbling infrastructure, education, or the industrial base.

"These TV shows create an appearance of active, openminded leadership, but the state is doing very little to change the country," says Ilya Ponomaryov, an expert with the independent Institute of Globalization Problems. "Kremlin PR is superb. Too bad it doesn't correspond with reality."

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