Sunday, February 10, 2008

Putin's address to Russia

Vladimir Putin just gave his last major address as Russia’s president. If you read the Western press, you would think that he walked in, announced there was a new Cold War underway , that Russia was therefore increasing its military budget, and then promptly left the room. Amazingly, Putin did talk about some other topics, giving an interesting insight into Russia’s future domestic policies. Since Putin is all but certain to be Russia’s next prime minister, it might be worth looking at what he actually said about his plan for the future of his country.

Like you would expect from a president giving a major speech at the end of their term, Putin looked back at the accomplishments of his time in office, taking credit for Russia’s transformation from the economic crisis of the late 1990s to the stable and growing economy today. He said that in 2007 Russia became one of the seven largest economies on Earth, passing fellow G8 members France and Italy.

Russia’s challenge now is to make sure all the regions in the vast country share in the economic growth. Putin called for the development of regional “social and economic development centers” across the country, and cited innovation as being the key to future success. “The transition to the innovative way of development will require heavy investments in human resources. The development of the person is the prime goal and an essential condition for progress in modern society,” Putin said.

Frankly, its good to see Putin linking social and economic development. If you studied Russia’s transition from Communism in the 1990s (like I did in grad school), you see that a lot of emphasis was put on the economic transition with the idea that society would just follow along. Leaving the people out of the equation made the transition much harder on many of Russia’s citizens then it had to be - if you were told for your entire life that capitalism was bad, it’s a lot to expect of a person to suddenly become a capitalist over night. But the economic advisors imported into Russia in the 90s didn’t worry too much about the average citizen.

Two other important points raised in his speech were Russia’s problems with demographics and corruption. While life expectancy for Russian women is roughly on a par with that of women in western nations, the average life expectancy for a Russian man is only 58 years. Putin called for making that at least 75 years by 2020. He also signaled his intention to grapple with the petty corruption that plagues everyday life in Russia. I’ve heard a number of versions of the story of someone being told they may be in violation of a law, and that they could go to headquarters and spend hours sorting it our or pay a small “fine” on the spot and go about their day. Addressing corruption, he said, is a major factor in ensuring Russia’s continued development.

And finally a word about the military talk. Yes, it was part of his speech. But, as discussed in several other posts here, the “new Cold War” talk is really pretty silly.

Look at the numbers. For 2005 (the most recent year figures were available), Russia spent about $50 billion on their military. By comparison the US spent about $650 billion, or thirteen times that amount (France and the UK each spent almost as much as Russia on their militaries as well). Russia’s military declined sharply during the last days of the Soviet Union and then in the 1990s, so - according to Russian military officials - an increase in spending is needed just to maintain the readiness of their forces.

Putin accused the West of starting an arms race, based mostly on the expansion of NATO and America’s intention on putting interceptor missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. He promised that Russia would respond with a build-up of their own. But in reality even a sharp increase in military spending would still leave Russia far behind the US. Tough talk though keeps the people at home happy and makes them feel like the government is taking steps to protect them (much like the elaborate layers of security you find at airports here in the US). Readers in the West should realize this and not try to blow a speech up into a new Cold War.
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