Putin flexes as ‘good czar,’ but can he remake Russia?

Why We Wrote This

It is easy to get caught up in the smoke and mirrors of Vladimir Putin’s rule. But it hides a debate over whether Russia is stuck in a Soviet mindset, or if it should benefit as much as it can from top-down governance.

Alexey Nikolsky/Kremlin/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds court during his nationwide televised phone-in show in Moscow on June 20. The annual show is a prime means for Mr. Putin to show his authority and goodwill to Russians, though it obscures the Kremlin’s great country-building projects.

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Judging solely from Vladimir Putin’s annual televised town hall meeting, one might think that the Russian president’s method of governance is all about problem-solving in response to direct complaints from the public. Although that is sometimes the case, it obscures a deeper Kremlin effort to overhaul Russian society. And that effort is itself the subject of debate.

The sweeping program launched by Mr. Putin in 2018 includes 12 ambitious national projects, funded by almost $400 billion in Kremlin cash. The projects are aimed at resolving age-old problems in Russia, such as poverty, inadequate health and education, demographic decline, a deficit of vital infrastructure, a myriad of obstacles facing small business, and digitizing the country’s labyrinthine bureaucracy to make government more user-friendly.

The key division is between those who argue, on one side, that top-down state-directed development, dramatized by Mr. Putin’s performance at his town hall show, is a reversion to failed Soviet-era methods. On the other side are those who say that government-funded stimulus is needed to “prime the pump” in Russia’s underdeveloped market economy, and that whatever improvements it delivers will be better than nothing.

For many of Vladimir Putin’s critics, the Russian president’s method of governance is just a modern version of the “good czar, bad boyars” concept, a method of bamboozling the population almost as old as Russia itself. In it, the well-intentioned leader talks directly to the people over the heads of his presumably corrupt or inept officials.

Mr. Putin’s annual televised virtual town hall meeting, the most recent of which aired on June 20, appears to underscore the argument.

Sitting at what looks like a central control panel, he fields a staggering variety of questions, grievances, and criticisms that have been digitally piped into the Kremlin theater. He responds with a magisterial grip on the situation, rattling off statistics, explaining policies, criticizing lax officials, sometimes injecting a note of humor, and, quite often, actually solving problems right there on the air.

Although there is some truth in what the critics assert, their characterization is not entirely fair. In fact, behind the digital smoke and mirrors of this year’s town hall TV show lies a sweeping strategy for national renewal enacted by Mr. Putin when he began his fourth term last year. The real issue that is roiling Russia’s expert community concerns the strategy itself, rather than Mr. Putin’s theatrical presentation of it.

“This is a very, very complex subject to discuss. There is no single plan for everything,” says Natalia Zubarevich, an expert in social demography at Moscow State University. “There are many different projects in separate spheres. Some are working to some extent, some are not working, all in different ways.”

Pushing on an open door

The tension between Mr. Putin’s apparent on-demand problem-solving and the underlying grand scale projects can be highlighted in a particular moment of the June 20 program. This year’s town hall focused on the deep social and economic problems that have caused his personal popularity to plummet and triggered growing public protests against everything from proliferating waste dumps to unrestrained construction of churches.

In one example, Mr. Putin confronted a group of irate villagers from Kaskara, a small community in the distant Siberian region of Tyumen, who complained they had no accessible drinking water after 20 years of promises from local officials to fix the problem. Mr. Putin heard them out, then summoned the digital presence of regional governor Alexander Moor (one of many such officials ordered to be on standby for Mr. Putin’s show), who explained that the infrastructure was already in place, but that local residents “need to apply” to be connected to the system.

“Consider that I have just applied on their behalf,” said Mr. Putin. “Do it as quickly as possible.”

But local officials in Tyumen – who appear to have been blindsided by the presidential antics – claim that Mr. Putin was pushing on an open door. Ivan Kamilskikh, spokesman for the regional water company, Tyumen Vodokanal, says that they have been working within the overall national program and had matters in hand before the president intervened.

“Here in Tyumen we have our own program, ‘Clean Water,’ and we are working on it,” he said. “But you can’t just make it happen overnight by waving a magic wand. There’s a lot of technical work that needs to be done.”

The Tyumen project is but one facet of the sweeping program launched by Mr. Putin in 2018. The program includes 12 ambitious national projects that are funded by almost $400 billion in Kremlin cash, and should be supplemented with resources from regional authorities and private investors. The projects are aimed at resolving age-old problems in Russia, such as poverty, inadequate health and education, demographic decline, a deficit of vital infrastructure, a myriad of obstacles facing small business, and digitizing the country’s labyrinthine bureaucracy to make government more user-friendly.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
A woman protests the raise in pension ages during a rally in front of the Russian State Duma in Moscow in August 2018. Pension control is one of Mr. Putin's national projects, though the accompanying raise in ages of eligibility is highly unpopular among the Russian public.

But few in Russia’s expert community believe that it will lead to a takeoff that will make Russia the world’s fifth-largest economy within five years, as the Kremlin claims. Nor do they expect that it can reverse long-term demographic decline in which Russian women are having too few babies to renew the population, or that it can eliminate the poverty that persists in dying Soviet-era single-industry cities and languishing rural zones.

Free market or Soviet redux?

The key division is between those who argue, on one side, that top-down state-directed development, dramatized by Mr. Putin’s performance, is a reversion to failed Soviet-era methods. On the other side are those who say that government-funded stimulus is needed to “prime the pump” in Russia’s underdeveloped market economy, and that whatever improvements it delivers will be better than nothing.

“Putin has adopted this program to give Russians an illusion of progress,” says Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economic sociologist and member of the liberal Committee of Civil Initiatives. It was founded by Putin protégé Alexei Kudrin to champion what is today the minority viewpoint that Russia needs to develop through free market economic approaches, stimulation of entrepreneurship, and pursuit of a foreign policy that emphasizes partnerships with advanced Western countries.

“This old Soviet style of state management is the road backwards. It is incompatible with modern innovation and economic dynamism. Maybe older people expect it and feel reassured by the spectacle of the president solving their problems on TV, but young people do not respond positively to it. The youth say they want to live as people do in Europe, at peace with the world and without all this corruption and politicization,” Mr. Gontmakher says.

Opinion polls show that nostalgia for the former Soviet Union is near all-time highs. A survey released last week by the independent Levada Center found that nearly 60 percent of Russians thought the defining feature of the USSR was that “the state took care of ordinary people.” Amid stagnating incomes and slow growth in economic opportunities, that perception has spawned some strange forms of protest, including at least one group that argues the Soviet Union still legally exists and its laws should be obeyed.

Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters
Pupils of a local nursery school are accompanied as they walk past a monument to Vladimir Lenin in Vorgashor settlement outside the city of Vorkuta, Russia, in September 2018. Stabilizing population growth, which has been affected by a drop in domestic birthrates, is another of Vladimir Putin’s national projects.

Some experts argue that it’s too soon to judge the impact of the multi-pronged six-year program, and even if it works, it may not have the Kremlin’s desired effect of boosting Mr. Putin’s popularity or warding off public protests.

“Some of these projects may well have positive impacts; we need to wait and see. We should assess them separately, and each in its own right,” says Mikhail Chernysh, an expert with the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. “In the past, efforts like this have delivered some good results. I doubt we will see a complete overhaul, but real improvements in the lives of real people are quite possible.

“And why shouldn’t our government spend some of the money it’s accumulated on goods and services for the population? In this sense, the Kremlin is responding in a healthy way to pressure from below, to provide things people want. This is not like the USSR, which was a totally centrally planned economy,” he says. “Building infrastructure, improving social benefits, investing in high-tech research and such can change the social landscape, even just a little, and enable self-sustaining development.

“It’s just about using the power of the state to effect some positive incremental changes. Nobody should expect a revolution.”

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