Putin election manifesto vows reform, but too late for some Russians

Russia's President Putin promised to end police repression and give citizens legal outlets to challenge the government, but many people hear only empty rhetoric after years of oppression. 

Yana Lapikova/RIA Novosti/Reuters
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting of the Government Presidium in Moscow on Thursday.

Vladimir Putin has published his first political manifesto in many years, pledging to end police repression, create special courts where citizens can challenge their government, and to seriously fight corruption. 

It's probably no coincidence that Mr. Putin's charter has appeared exactly one month after tens of thousands of protesters hit the streets of Moscow to demand more democracy, greater transparency, and genuine accountability from their government. 

However, several opposition leaders contacted today derided Putin's promises as empty rhetoric. Some noted that even though Putin had a full month to think about it, his manifesto, published on a special website dedicated to Putin's upcoming presidential run, still makes no mention of the protesters' specific complaints about electoral fraud and an over-controlled political system. 

But it does appear to address some of their underlying grievances, particularly arbitrary police rule – especially directed against small business – and the inability of citizens to call out corrupt or abusive officials through the court system. 

"We need to rethink the whole system of public security and put an end to the excessive use of repression" by police, Putin wrote. "This situation distorts our society and is making it morally unhealthy. The actions of law enforcement should be aimed at protecting and supporting legitimate business activities, not fighting them." 

He pledged to create "administrative courts" that citizens can appeal to whenever they feel mistreated by authorities in matters small and large. 

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"We will create real mechanisms of peoples' control over the state, especially in areas that are most sensitive in terms of government corruption and inefficiency… The state should provide conditions to ensure the reliable protection of each Russian citizen. Every person should have the freedom of choice while freedom should be based on justice," he wrote. 

Putin also pledged to reform Russia's squalid and overcrowded prison system, where suspects can languish in pre-trial detention indefinitely, and to raise public sector wages and pensions. 

But even some of the comments appended to the "public discussion" section of Putin's website suggest that some Russians may consider Putin's desire to return to supreme power, after having served two terms as president in the past decade, as the central problem. 

"Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin)! I am sure you understand that a third term, even if it does not contradict the letter of the law, goes against basic concepts of fairness," wrote Igor Shlyabin. "If you respect Russian law and the views of tens of thousands of demonstrators in the capital and elsewhere and if, finally, you want to see truly fair elections, then you should withdraw your candidacy." 

According to the BBC Russian Service, seven similar comments disappeared from the website Thursday afternoon, though some were later restored with their popularity ratings greatly diminished.

Opposition leaders say Putin's pledges are only platitudes, some of which they've heard before, and if anything they illustrate how far out of touch he is with the increasingly radical mood of the country. 

"It's all rubbish," says Boris Nemtsov, co-leader of the banned liberal PARNAS party. "Putin in power means more of what we already have, the same police state. He can't change." 

Leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov, who was released from nearly a month of imprisonment last week, says Russians are unlikely to put their trust in mere words anymore. 

"If the authorities would begin talks with the public, and possibly come to some kind of open agreement on needed changes, this would be one thing," he says. "But anyone can write a wonderful sounding program for the election campaign, and what are all these good promises? Just words." 

Two huge December demonstrations in Moscow, and scores of smaller ones around the country, have shaken Russia's political stability and deeply punctured Putin's myth of invincibility, say experts. 

"Putin is becoming a liability" to Russia's ruling bureaucratic and corporate elites, says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the left-wing Institute for Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow. "There are already discussions among some in the elite about perhaps postponing presidential elections, and making [President Dmitry] Medvedev a caretaker president, while another strong figure is found to keep the system together. Perhaps not yet, but protests will probably become more intense, and the time may come when Putin will be sacrificed." 

Public protests are expected to resume next month, and some experts say they may draw in a wider range of participants than the mainly young, educated urbanites who mainly populated December's rallies. 

"Putin is less and less relevant," says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "He used to be a czar, and he still behaves like an absolute monarch. But now he is not, in fact, a czar. He's an increasingly weak leader, but he finds it impossible to change his behavior.… When we read his publicity materials we learn that Putin is extremely concerned with his physical condition. He works out every day. But he doesn't seem to notice that he's in very bad political shape, and it's deteriorating by the day."

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