Archive for April, 2011


Why will Vladimir Putin win once more in 2012

Vladimir Putin has given Russia’s farmers, blue-collar workers, soldiers, parents and retirees good reasons to want him back in the Kremlin… Many reasons that allow Russians to believe there not yet done with Vladimir Putin.

In a four-hour nationally televised appearance, the prime minister said not a word last week about his plans for next year’s presidential election. The topic has been a subject of fervent debate in recent weeks as President Dmitry Medvedev has shown a desire to stay on for another term.

But by portraying himself as the defender of a strong Russia and making a string of campaign like promises to improve the lives of ordinary people, Mr. Putin sent an unmistakable signal that he intends to reclaim the presidency.

“The nation needs decades of stable and calm development without any sharp movements and ill-conceived experiments” based on liberal policy, Mr. Putin, 58, said during his annual address before parliament.

Mr. Putin, Russia’s president from 2000 to 2008, was barred by the constitution from serving a third consecutive term and groomed Mr. Medvedev to succeed him. Both men have said they will decide together which one of them will run in March 2012, but the decision is understood to be Mr. Putin’s.

The uncertainty seems to suit both of them. The debate over which one will run serves to stimulate interest in the election by creating a pretense of political competition.

The uncertainty, which leaves open the possibility that Mr. Medvedev will remain in the Kremlin, also helps him carry out the mission that Mr. Putin set for him and encourages those in the West who have worked to improve relations with Russia.

Mr. Putin chose the tech-savvy Mr. Medvedev, 13 years his junior, to lead the drive to modernize the Russian economy, still based largely on exports of oil and gas, and tackle spiraling corruption. Mr. Medvedev also presents a friendlier face to the West, as Russia seeks to attract much-needed foreign investment.

Mr. Medvedev’s liberal pronouncements have helped to bring back on board the business community and educated urban elite, who had become disillusioned with Mr. Putin as he established greater state control over the economy and politics.


Will Dmitry Medvedev run for 2012?

Even as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared Tuesday that he will soon decide whether to run for a second term in 2012, the resignation of a powerful deputy prime minister from the board of state oil company OAO Rosneft the day before may provide a clue as to whether Mr. Medvedev has any future in politics.

Mr. Medvedev told Chinese media Tuesday ahead of a BRIC summit that he’ll soon decide whether to run in 2012.

Less than two weeks ago, Mr. Medvedev, perceived by many as the weaker partner of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, told key members of Mr. Putin’s government that they would have to leave the boards of the state companies they oversee. He also issued several other orders meant to improve Russia’s bad investment climate.

“It’s extremely important for Medvedev that these objectives are fulfilled. These are things that actually matter,” says Sergei Guriev, rector at Moscow’s New Economic School and a member of the Russian president’s commission on national projects.

Then late Monday, Rosneft said Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who oversees the country’s oil and gas industry, would leave its board.

As Mr. Medvedev searched for ways to reduce the state’s overbearing role in large, non-transparent companies and in the overall economy, the spotlight must have quickly focused on Mr. Sechin, the oil czar. Long perceived as one of the country’s most powerful men, the staunch Putin ally wasn’t shy about using his post in the government to get things done at Rosneft.

Kremlin watchers said any disobedience or foot-dragging from Mr. Sechin would have been a huge loss of face for the president and cast serious doubt on his political future.

Thus Mr. Medvedev appears to have received a fresh infusion of political clout. Still, he may have moved against the ministers only with the blessing of Mr. Putin. Also, it’s unclear who will replace Mr. Sechin — perhaps another ally of Mr. Putin or a so-called “independent” director.

Several of Mr. Medvedev’s plans last month to improve the investment climate strike at the very heart of what may be driving capital out of the country, such as a deeply unpopular payroll tax increase and the often-flouted rights of minority shareholders. In the words of Mr. Guriev, the Russian president’s adviser, these are things that “matter very much to the average businessman on the street.”

Although it’s not clear how far the president can go in implementing his plans, the prospect of a reform-minded president backed by Mr. Putin’s political influence would no doubt please investors.


Census 2010: Russia facing a demographic challenge

The Russian government this week released the first preliminary results from last year’s census, so far confirming a long-running demographic crisis and sparking debate about the latest headcount’s accuracy and the government’s response.

The initial, bare-bones results contained few surprises, and appear to bear out a UN report that projects a significant depopulation of Russia in the next four decades.

Russia’s population dropped by 2.2 million — or 1.6 percent, to 142.9 million — since the last census in 2002. A disproportion in favor of women continues to grow as well, with 53.7 percent of the population female.

Aleksandr Surinov, the head of the Rosstat state statistics agency, told “Rossiiskaya gazeta” that the growing gender imbalance is due primarily to “the high incidence of premature death among men.”

The census also shows that 73.7 percent of Russians live in urban areas.

Just 20 of the country’s 83 regions saw population increases, many of them the so-called ethnic republics.

Raising Questions

Complete final results of the census — including crucial information on mortality and birthrates — is expected in early 2013.

In 2009, a UN report forecast that Russia’s population would fall to 116 million by 2050.

“The demographic process today — and I mean the decline in population — is fantastically powerful, and it is connected not only with the allocation or nonallocation of budget resources, but also with the problem of culture,” Mark Urnov, head of the politics department of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says. “We have become a hedonistic consumer culture and, as is always the case in these situations, the birthrate is in decline. This is also happening in Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States.”

Only a few regions of Russia are bucking the overall downward trend. The prosperous major cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg recorded increases, as did many of the “ethnic republics,” particularly in the violence-riddled North Caucasus. The primarily Muslim regions of Chechnya and Daghestan recorded the largest increases.

But Usama Baisayev, an activist in the North Caucasus with the Memorial human rights group, disputes the latest figures. For one thing, he notes that the 2002 census was carried out under difficult conditions in the region and so makes a poor baseline for comparison.

“I remember well how the 2002 census was conducted [in Chechnya] — in some places, the census takers simply didn’t go, particularly in the mountain villages,” Baisayev says. “At that time, representatives of the authorities were afraid to show up there because these villages were controlled — particularly at night — by Chechen fighters.”

In addition, Baisayev says both local authorities in these regions — which are almost entirely dependent on the budget subsidies from the central government — and the government in Moscow have strong incentives to inflate their numbers.

“I don’t think you can trust the results of this census, because the authorities in Chechnya today believe that the more people there are, the better,” Baisayev says. “There are reasons for this connected with the budget, with money. The Russian authorities also don’t object to this because human rights organizations are asserting that in Chechnya they are still killing people and producing evidence of this; but if the population figures show more residents of Chechnya, then that would mean the statistics contradict the reports of the activists.”

Drains And Holes

The census has once again stirred up discussion of Russia’s demographic challenges, with supporters of the ruling tandem of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arguing that the birthrate has stabilized following the demographic catastrophe of the 1990s and has even begun rising over the last couple of years. They attribute the uptick to the government’s family-promotion policies.

Other specialists, however, argue that the recent small increases in birthrates are due to the fact that the generation born in the late 1980s is now at its child-bearing peak. As that generation is replaced by the smaller and more traumatized cohort that was born in the 1990s, these specialists expect the birthrate to take another sharp downturn in the coming years.

“The population has increased [in the last few years], but there will be a decrease because those who were born in the 1990s will be having children soon,” says Flura Ildarkhanova, the head of a demographic research center of the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences in Kazan. “[Then] the population will decrease again and there will be a ‘demographic hole.'”

Political scientist Urnov notes that the demographic problem is further exacerbated by out-migration, particularly of educated young people, in what he describes as “the monstrous brain drain, the drain of energetic and enterprising people.”

“There was a recent study of the middle class in the regions of [Russia], and it found that those who are oriented toward small or medium-sized business in production prefer to save up some money, pack their bags and go somewhere else. And who remains?”

All of these issues — low birthrates, rural depopulation, out-migration — can be coped with, Urnov argues, but doing so will take dedicated effort.

“If we fundamentally — sharply and deeply — change our long-term budget policies and bring consistent spending to education, to childcare, to kindergartens, to schools, to culture and if we form a system of values that is oriented toward the long term, maybe something will come of it,” Urnov says.