Putin's Russia: better and worse

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

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.

"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

Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has steadily narrowed the scope for electoral democracy. He has squeezed small political parties out of the process and abolished elections for regional governors. He has created a Kremlin-backed colossus – the United Russia party – that critics say resembles the former Communist Party. An ex-KGB officer himself, Putin staffed government with large numbers of his former colleagues and expanded the powers of the security services.

"The Kremlin has built a system in which one man, Putin, is responsible for everything," says Yevgenia Albats, an investigative journalist and political scientist at the state-run Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "The KGB is in power in this country, their man is president, and they conduct their affairs as in Soviet times."

A chorus of such criticisms has risen in the wake of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko's fatal poisoning last month by polonium-210, a radioactive substance. While investigators have not uncovered any links to the Kremlin, which denounced Mr. Litvinenko's death-bed claim that Putin was responsible, Britain announced Sunday that nine of its policemen were headed for Russia to follow up on related leads.

Strong-handed democracy

But others argue that Putin is steering Russia toward democracy, using the country's own traditions of strong one-man rule. "Democracy isn't a state of things, it's a process of involving the people in political life as bearers of the idea of state- building," says Gleb Pavlovsky, a leading Kremlin adviser. "[In this sense,] Putin has succeeded in bringing more people than ever into the political process.... Russia might not survive if it has to endure any more shocks or revolutions."

Some experts say the second war in Chechnya, which began in 1999, as well as a series of terrorist attacks inside Russia by Chechen rebels, may have driven Putin to adopt strict measures – much as 9/11 challenged the US to tighten national security. Chechnya's uneasy peace is also generating instability and political killings inside Russia, they suggest. "The logic of the war in Chechnya, all these gangs settling scores, has a very bad impact on the situation in Moscow," says Vitaly Naumkin, director of the independent Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Moscow. "There is a spillover effect."

In: Vogue; Out: News

Few dispute that Putin has muzzled Russia's three giant TV networks, which reach all corners of this far-flung country, and compelled news broadcasts to toe the Kremlin line. But at the same time there's been an explosion of entertainment programming, Internet publishing, and satellite TV access. A typical newsstand today offers far fewer independent newspapers or political journals than a decade ago, but has sprouted numerous new consumer publications, from Vogue to Men's Health to Homes & Gardens.

"We have Soviet-style news broadcasts, but the glossy media have taken off," says Sergei Strokan, an editor at Kommersant, one of Moscow's few remaining independent daily newspapers. "Entertainment fills the niche that became vacant when serious information retreated from the mass media," he says.

Another trend that prompts sharp disagreement is "Kremlin capitalism." Russia has been steadily taking back ownership of about 30 percent of oil and gas resources that were formerly held privately – in part by seizing the assets of now-jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky – and there is growing state encroachment into the banking, aviation, telecommunications, and automobile industries. A report released this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns that the shift away from market reforms under Putin "bodes ill for Russia's growth prospects."

However, Nikolai Liventsev, an expert with the official Institute of International Relations in Moscow, argues that state direction over the economy can be a powerful tool for development. "Many countries have done this before, especially in Asia, and it can help us adjust to the world economy," he says.

The perils of rising bureaucratization, which comes with Kremlin capitalism, worry many. Transparency International, the Berlin-based corruption watchdog, places Russia's corruption level as tied with several nations for 121st place on a list of 163 countries, in company with some of the poorest countries in Africa.

"Business is not secure," says the farmer, Butovsky. "You cannot rely on the police or the courts, and this creates great uncertainty. How can there be an effective economic strategy for the country when there is no working system of law?"

But his wife, Ms. Vallik, counters that leaders may be bad, but people build their own lives. "I think society develops by its own inner laws," she says.

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