Staunton, January 24 – Russian commentators almost unanimously have argued that the ouster of the Medvedev government and the introduction of changes in the 1993 Constitution are about extending the time in office of Vladimir Putin; but Yevgeny Gontmakher says that the Kremlin chose to make these changes because of concerns about a socio-economic crisis.
“While the president has been involved with global geopolitics,” the economist says, “corruption, the decline of the standard of living and a demographic collapse have approached critical levels, which are fraught with political risks.” The announced changes are an effort to prevent those from emerging (theins.ru/opinions/197929).
The question now, Gontmakher says, is “will this be sufficient … to improve the social situation of Russians?”
There are several developments which have pushed Putin to make these shifts: his new focus on domestic issues, the impact of the pension reform on his rating, problems with health care after his “optimization” program, a new decline in the Russian population as a result of deaths over births, growing corruption, and slow growth of the economy.
This combination of problems “led Vladimir Putin to the conclusion that it is necessary to shift the government machine which has begun to produce instead of progress and growth stagnation, decline and degradation,” developments that in the most direct way “threaten the firmness of his personal positions as president.”
The Russian president might have decentralized power, allowed for real competition, reduced the role of the state in the economy, reformed the law enforcement and judicial systems, and pulled the government out of the media. But taking such steps could condemn those who launch them to “very large political risks as a result of unplanned but inevitable errors.”
And therefore, Gontmakher says, Putin chose another way: a purge of cadres. But Putin wouldn’t be Putin if he didn’t cover this with many other things at the same time, some well thought out but others so poorly designed that they bear all the marks of something dreamed up for the occasion.
Most likely, the economist says, Putin moved quickly to complete the much-ballyhooed constitutional modifications “so as to complete this operation and then forget about it.” He wants the appearance of change without genuine structural changes. At the same time, however, he is prepared to distribute more money to the population.
That is a good thing, Gontmakher says, because many people are suffering as a result of stagnation and the government has money. But people are unlikely to be grateful because they understand what Putin is doing and more important what he isn’t. He may give some money but not the chances to make more and he may make the government more effective but not different.
Despite all the talk, the economist continues, “there will not be a qualitative reconstruction of the economy with the appearance of really high-technology and highly paid work places, the bubbling up of private entrepreneurial initiative, and a shift in the development of the provinces, all of which will fall ever further behind the capital metropolises.”
“In order to secure all this,” he says, “one need not change the Constitution but rather strictly fulfill its existing edition, above all in the area of the functioning of political institutions. This would be a real answer to the growing social demand for real and not decorative changes.” But Putin is prepared only to offer the latter.