Vladimir Putin

Putin should use power for the people's sake

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2007, 12:00am

Russian President Vladimir Putin would seem to have resolved the intrigue about who will become the nation's most powerful person when he obeys the constitution and steps down in March. That person will be him.

Alarm bells began ringing in western democracies with Mr Putin's announcement that he would run for a seat in parliament and that it would not be unrealistic for him to become prime minister. With it likely that his party will win a two-thirds majority, he would then be able to alter the constitution and change the presidential-heavy political system. He could bring in reforms to vest more authority in the prime minister - thereby allowing him to stay in power indefinitely.

Mr Putin has long been criticised in the west for authoritarianism. During his eight years of rule, the budding democratic roots that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union have been either pruned back or killed. There is no longer a viable political opposition, free-thinking media or grass-roots network of non-government groups. In essence, civil society does not exist.

This is unpalatable for those in the US and Western Europe, who saw in the collapse of communism the opportunity for the emergence of a Russia that would adopt their ideals. As objectionable as Mr Putin has become in the west, however, he fits perfectly what Russians want of a leader: someone who brings prosperity and stability. The fall of the Soviet state brought chaos and poverty. Under Mr Putin's rule, the nation has been transformed from a stumbling pauper to a swaggering prince, with strong growth, little foreign debt and state control of strategic industries. Opinion polls give more than 80 per cent support to Mr Putin. And his decision to run for parliament is legitimate under the constitution.

Democracy takes many forms. Russians have for a thousand years been ruled by strong leaders who have more often than not stayed in power until they died. Mr Putin appears to want to continue that trend and - for now - he has the blessing of most Russians. But the country's people deserve more than a leader who can put food on tables and money in pockets. Through having political choice, free speech, an open media and organisations representing concerns, Russian society can blossom and thrive.

These are matters that Mr Putin should be tackling if, as seems likely, he is able to prolong his time in power. For Russia's sake he must put the nation's ambitions ahead of his own.