Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 1

Vladimir Putin’s second year as head of state could have been far worse, all things considered. Indeed, Russia ended 2001 with the year’s economic growth estimated to have been in the range of 5.2 to 5.5 percent. This was considerably more modest a result than the previous year’s robust 8.3 percent growth, but a healthy rate nonetheless, particularly in comparison to every other year in Russia’s decade-long post-Soviet history. What is more, the year ended with Putin’s rating still leagues ahead of all other Russian politicians–73 percent of those polled by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) over December 21-24 said they approved of his job performance–and untarnished by public relations slip-ups like his handling of the Kursk submarine disaster the previous year.

Still, while the economic news was positive, perspective was provided by a World Bank expert, who noted to The Moscow Times that even if Russia’s economy were to continue growing at 5 percent annually, it would take the country eighteen years to match Portugal’s per capita income. Likewise, Putin (who was, in fact, the first to use this invidious but accurate comparison between the economies of Russia and a small Iberian state) refrained from crowing during his nationally televised New Year’s Eve address. The president told Russians that his administration had managed to achieve “perhaps limited but tangible results” by maintaining “the trend of economic growth” while improving people’s lives “at least to a small extent.” Putin added, moreover, that not all Russians were living better, a reality that he said had to be kept in mind when drawing up plans for the future.

But if there were any possible storm clouds on the horizon, Standard & Poor’s certainly didn’t see them. The international rating agency announced on December 13 that it expected to boost Russia’s ratings because of the country’s improved investment climate–a result, it said, of the structural reforms that Putin had pushed through the State Duma. Russia’s image was also reaching a high point–perhaps the highest point ever–in the Western press. A New Year’s Day headline in the Los Angeles Times reflected the growing bullishness: “After Fitful Start, Revolution Finally Underway in Russia.”

“[M]ost analysts and observers,” the paper claimed, “believe that Russia is well on its way to becoming what many Russians and almost everyone in the West would have wished for: a country of free markets, democratically elected government and private property operating under the rule of law.”

The L.A. Times, however, obviously did not interview Putin’s own economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov. In addressing a Moscow roundtable on December 20 devoted to assessing Putin’s performance at midterm, he declared that the growth of the last two years had been exclusively the result of petrodollars and that the last year had seen the “shattering of illusions.” Illarionov claimed that the power struggle between rival political clans and corruption were even worse than during the Yeltsin era, adding that the main source of these problems was the concentration of power in the executive branch. He predicted that without structural changes, Russia would go the route of the Soviet Union–toward dissolution.

Yet pessimism like Illarionov’s was the exception, not the rule, and as the year came to a close, Putin even began to acquire the image of a leader who is open and responsive to the people–something that had previously not been his strong suit. What helped the Russian president immensely in this department was his December 24 appearance on a special televised phone-in program, during which he spent two hours fielding questions from callers across the country on issues ranging from pensions and salaries to drugs and homelessness to bribe-taking by officials and international relations. While the putatively spontaneous exchange won mostly rave reviews in the West, the home audience was somewhat more cynical and skeptical about how spontaneous the event had actually been. This led one leading Russia-watcher–herself Russian born–to suggest it was the Russian people, not Putin, who were not ready for democracy.

Correspondents for Radio Liberty later reported that prior to the December 24 call-in show, which was broadcast on the two state television channels, questioners in Vladivostok and St. Petersburg had been pre-screened and rehearsed. A Vladivostok journalist who had wanted to ask the president about official corruption, among other things, was kept away from the microphone.