20 years under Putin: a timeline

One of the best Soviet movies, The Very Same Munchausen, has a scene in which the baron, while preparing for a flight to the moon on a cannonball, with dramatic music playing in the background, is pressing his beloved Martha: “Say something!” She is frantically searching for words that she thinks the baron would like to hear, but he only keeps crying out in disappointment: “Wrong!” While listening to Dmitri Medvedev’s attempts at saying what people would like to hear, one wants to cry out: “Wrong!” Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya reviews the prime minister’s new article “The Time for Easy Solutions Has Passed.”

 

 

Every good public relations specialist, as well as every good journalist, knows that high-quality texts are those that leave no room for questions. Everything should be transparent, logical, pure. In Dmitri Medvedev’s most recent article, however, questions arise immediately with the title: “The Time for Easy Solutions Has Passed.” When did it pass? Has there ever been such a time? What easy solutions have been reached?

The Russian prime minister then declares that this is only the “beginning” (of what?). Later, it becomes clear that he is talking about the beginning of the economic crisis that erupted five years ago. Whereas Europe and half of the world have already shown signs of recovery, we keep claiming that external factors are to blame for everything wrong in Russia. The irony of the section of the article entitled “The Beginning” consists in the fact that after praising the work of the government in 2008–2009 and mentioning all the outstanding recovery measures that were taken, Medvedev concludes that “the global economy, and consequently also the Russian economy, is improving slower than we expected.” Does this mean that recovery forecasts were wrong? Or that the government was not working efficiently enough? And this is despite the fact that in the previous paragraph, Medvedev declared that “we now know what to do.”

What then? What do you mean “what”? We must take steps, of course! Or was the reader expecting to see an outline of anticrisis measures or a clearly defined program to stimulate the economy? The government is taking steps—and not just any number of steps, but six of them, only four of which one can understand “with one’s mind”: the first one, on reducing budget spending; the fourth one, on supporting domestic business in line with Russia’s WTO commitments; the fifth one, on tax and customs benefits for state oligarchs’ megaprojects in the Far East; and the sixth one, on major infrastructure projects, which might be postponed, although Medvedev does not mention such a possibility. As for the second and third steps, their dreamy romanticism is touching. “We have linked every area-specific program both with other programs and the main budget policy parameters.” What does this mean? Maybe Medvedev wanted to say that money will be spent on industrial development in a more sensible and less lavish manner—but this is not even a step, but a hike. The only thing that is clear is that nothing is clear.

However, nothing quite rises to the heights of the following sentence, drawn from the third step: “All the key measures of the National Entrepreneurial Initiative have been implemented.” Has anyone heard about the National Entrepreneurial Initiative? Where is there a record of such a thing? Does it have actual authors? Apparently, it does. The National Entrepreneurial Initiative aims to improve the investment climate and is a project of the Agency of Strategic Initiatives, founded by Vladimir Putin on the eve of the 2011 parliamentary elections. The project includes many good ideas. For instance, the roadmap for fostering competition states the goal of reducing the role of government in the economy. Igor Sechin must be grinning now.

In short, in order to fight the crisis, the government is reducing expenditures and allocating funds to megaprojects. This is the main point that one takes away from the section entitled “The Steps.” And all these steps lead us to a crossroads. This part of the article says that everything will be fine, not now but later (in the medium term). Everything will be fine because, among other things, “production continues to expand almost solely through the implementation of major investment projects involving the state and state-controlled companies.” Wait, didn’t the “Steps” section say that the government would give benefits to state companies in the Far East and finance megaprojects that are being implemented by the state and state companies? Hasn’t it already been concluded that these specific “steps” are supposed to guarantee a crisis-free future? Furthermore, in the section entitled “Crossroads,” Medvedev admits that the budgetary rule to reduce spending is only temporary. Another question emerges here: Where are we? Are we still moving in the direction of a crossroads, or have we already reached it—or is it awaiting us in the future?

At this stage, the poor reader must be completely confused: according to the prime minister’s logic, the government is taking steps to improve the economy, but this is not what is important, and these steps are only temporary. What is important, however, is “the protection of private property and competition,” which “remains our unconditional political priority.” Suleiman Kerimov must have choked when he read that. Why does such an aim remain a political priority? Why has the government not developed a comprehensive set of specific measures aimed at protecting the institution of private property and fostering competition? Why do the “Steps” say nothing about this? Medvedev replies that it is entirely investors’ fault. “Investors still harbor irrational fears of working in an incomprehensible and sometimes unpredictable Russia,” Medvedev writes.

There is not a single other developed country where lawyers and businessmen are thrown in prison on a charge of having stolen assets from themselves. There is not a single other developed country where the government takes companies’ employees hostage in order to force owners to sell their assets.

“Irrational fears”? Does this mean that investors simply have complexes—complexes that apparently result from a lack of knowledge and understanding, when, in reality, everything is fine in Russia? Does this mean that if one thinks soundly, there is nothing to fear? In the next sentence, however, Medvedev sadly admits that an “absolutely explainable distrust” of public institutions, the judicial system, and law enforcement agencies exists. So what suggestions are offered for increasing investors’ trust in Russia and its institutions? Here, investors studying the prime minister’s article will begin to read carefully, looking for specifics. But a few seconds later they will inevitably think, “Wrong!” Medvedev talks about the large share of state banks and the low levels of competition in the financial markets. It seems that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Sergei Magnitsky, Andrei Kozlov, thousands of convicted businessmen, judicial corruption, tax terrorism, impunity for law enforcement agents, and other issues have nothing to do with the current situation. What is Medvedev talking about, when we consider that investors swear by Sberbank, which is the only “blue chip” investment today that looks solid and promising? Also, competition in the banking sector is rather tough. Why wouldn’t Medvedev talk about the oil market and the fate of TNK, which was subjected to pressure so that Gazprom could get its hands on the Kovykta gas condensate field and eventually Rosneft could gain control of the entire oil business in Russia? Why wouldn’t he mention the mass closures of businesses by individual entrepreneurs in Russia or the refusal to allow private companies access to the continental shelf? What do banks have to do with this?

“Not a single country with an advanced legal and political system finds itself in such a situation. And we must end this state of affairs if we want to become a competitive country with a developed economy,” writes Medvedev, expressing his indignation at the high interest rates for credit. However, there is not a single other developed country where lawyers and businessmen are thrown in prison on a charge of having stolen assets from themselves. There is not a single other developed country where the government takes companies’ employees hostage in order to force owners to sell their assets. Here, Medvedev’s indignation is replaced by sadness.

In the best tradition of “all that is good against all that is bad,” the head of the Russian government then provides a list of measures that should be taken. Here, the reader once again faces the prime minister’s cast-iron logic: “We have virtually reached a crossroads. Russia can continue to move ahead very slowly and to show close-to-zero economic growth rates, or it can take a major step forwards. The second option is fraught with risks. But if we choose the first scenario, which supposedly may make it possible to preserve current prosperity, then this would be even more dangerous. This route leads to losses, to an abyss.” In fact, we seem to have moved from one crossroads to another. What happened to the six steps that Medvedev praised so lavishly? Do they also lead to an abyss? And where should we go—or run—then? Should we run for our lives?

Medvedev, however, claims to have a “strategy,” which is presumably the very same “major step forward.” This part can be skipped altogether because of its frightening emptiness. It is simply a beautiful text about nothing, made up of declarations and dreams that will never come true and have nothing to do with reality. “Our long-term goal is to build a smaller, decentralized and more efficient public sector of the economy,” Medvedev writes. We have been hearing this rhetoric for 22 years. This “strategy” has not changed in two decades, and it seems that we are getting farther and farther away from its final goal.

Medvedev, however, also has “solutions,” which consist in freezing tariffs on the services of monopolies and supporting small and medium-sized businesses. As the heroine of the Russian cartoon Masha and the Bear said: “That was yummy, but I want more!” Is this really all that is needed to implement the strategy that it took Medvedev 15 paragraphs to describe? The prime minister, however, reassures the reader by concluding his article with a section on “The Future,” which will, of course, be bright. Medvedev also warns that the government’s efforts are not enough to achieve complete happiness and that the assistance of “socially responsible individuals” is required, those who will be the government’s “equitable partners” and will “take full responsibility.” In other words, if something goes wrong, it will be the people’s fault.

In 2009, when Gazeta.ru published Dmitri Medvedev’s article “Go Russia,” he seemed bigger than he actually was, which explained the high level of interest shown toward the article. That article was seen almost as a declaration of the president’s maturity and as proof that he would seek a second term. The public did not know at the time how all this would end. It all ended in Medvedev’s total political capitulation and in the severe disappointment of the “liberals,” who had supported not only the president himself but also his policies, in which they had dared to believe. Medvedev’s new article, written in a pompous style, reads like the delusional dreams of a small man, whose influence, although he may wield control over a cabinet of ministers, is still limited by the domination of the decision-making center in the Kremlin. In any case, no one believes either Medvedev or his empty words anymore.

Russia under Putin

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