Vladimir Putin

Russian realities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2000, 12:00am

Barely a month has passed since Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his grim State of the Nation address, spelling out the depth of the task ahead before the country can achieve prosperity.

National disasters did not, of course, feature in his speech. But as the President admitted following the fire in the Ostankino television tower, the disaster and similar 'extraordinary situations', including the loss of the Kursk nuclear submarine, are symptomatic of both the plight of the economy and the malaise that grips the country.

Mr Putin is not the only one to voice these concerns. A group of nationalist and communist politicians, writers and editors have issued a 'manifesto for national salvation' to combat Russia's spiritual paralysis. It called the current climate 'demoralised defeatism', a response hardly to be wondered at after the events of past decades.

Few of the expectations raised by the end of the Cold War have materialised. A handful of robber barons have stripped the country of great wealth during what is supposed to be a transition to capitalism. The population is dwindling by a million a year, life expectancy has been slashed by 10 years, alcoholism and drug addiction have reached epidemic proportions, and 37 per cent of citizens live below the poverty level. But amid the gloom, there are glimmers of light.

The economy is showing a modest pick-up, due largely to a rise in oil prices. Devaluation of the rouble is making Russian goods more attractive to foreign markets, and GDP has risen slightly. These signs may not be enough to restore optimism, but they indicate that things will get better if Mr Putin can deliver on his promise of economic reform.

If he succeeds in reining in the oligarchs, as well as trimming state bureaucracy and forcing unprofitable industries to stand on their own feet, he will have achieved more than any other leader since 1991. All this is unpleasant medicine to swallow - Boris Yeltsin's policy was to turn a blind eye to such problems for the sake of social stability - but so long as it goes unchecked, the country's ills will remain.

Present day realities, however, point to more accidents as defunct and poorly maintained equipment - civilian and military - continues to be worked to the point of exhaustion. Recent disasters may make people more vigilant and responsible, but lack of money remains a serious obstacle. For example, the Mir space station will take hundreds of millions of dollars to keep it from crashing to Earth.

While authorities debate the possibility of the 540-metre TV tower crashing to the ground, citizens are denied even the distractions of nightly television soap operas as light relief from the bleak reality of daily life. However, there is one significant improvement on the Russian scene. Press freedom makes it more difficult to hush-up scandals than was true in the past.

Mr Putin, who comes from the old Soviet school of government and the secret police, is not entirely comfortable with that fact. But the Kursk incident should have taught him that it is not truth which the Russians fear, but a return to the lies of the past.