The uncomfortable truth about Putin

On every single count, Russia is a better place for more people now than it was
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The Independent Online

On Sunday, Vladimir Putin will be re-elected President of Russia for another four years. So overwhelming will be his majority that it hardly seems worthwhile anyone counting the votes. He dominated state television during what passed for a campaign. He refused to engage his dwindling number of opponents in debate, and he cynically exploited the advantages of incumbency, travelling the country on official presidential business that was really electioneering.

On Sunday, Vladimir Putin will be re-elected President of Russia for another four years. So overwhelming will be his majority that it hardly seems worthwhile anyone counting the votes. He dominated state television during what passed for a campaign. He refused to engage his dwindling number of opponents in debate, and he cynically exploited the advantages of incumbency, travelling the country on official presidential business that was really electioneering.

And we all know - do we not? - what Mr Putin intends to do with his second term. He will strengthen his already iron grip on Russia, crush the lingering opposition, exile remaining oligarchs, annihilate the Chechens, harness the resurgent Russian nationalists and install himself as a latter-day tsar. Actually, tsar is too benevolent a word; autocrat and dictator are closer to the mark.

Until recently there was no Western media consensus about Mr Putin. For the best part of his first term, he had been viewed with more fascination than suspicion as an inscrutable Russian come from nowhere, whose slight, judo-champion's physique concealed charm and will in equal measure. Now, suddenly, minds are made up: Mr Putin may be inexplicably popular at home, but he is no good at all for the rest of us and no good, in the long run, for Russia.

In part, Mr Putin is the architect of his own negative image, and not just because of the way in which he has secured his re-election. The parliamentary elections in December were dismissed as "free, but not fair" by international observers because of what was seen as media manipulation by the Kremlin. Last autumn, the vilification and imprisonment of top managers at Russia's largest oil company, Yukos, put the frighteners on Russian business and foreign investors. The Yukos affair also called into question the integrity of a judiciary that is not free of corruption and is weighed down by political interference.

Then there is Chechnya. The gulf that separates Russian attitudes to Chechen separatism from the more sympathetic view in the West is probably unbridgeable. Western reporters have seen the destruction in Chechnya and the carnage. They root instinctively for the underdog, and two centuries of warring in the Caucasus have not altered the perception that mighty Russia is intent on crushing heroic Chechens. The Kremlin simply does not understand the damage done to Mr Putin abroad by the Russian army's conduct in Chechnya and the coarseness of his own anti-separatist rhetoric.

When Vladimir Putin first emerged from the shadows of Boris Yeltsin's presidency, first as prime minister and then as anointed successor, the response abroad was largely positive. There was surprise that someone with so long a career as a KGB operative should appear so enlightened and civilised. Now, with the closure of non-state television channels, the Yukos affair and Chechnya, it is easy to depict Mr Putin as simply reverting to KGB type and Russia's passive and downtrodden masses acquiescing once again in their lot, as they have done so often through history.

It is easy, but it is also wrong. The more I have visited Russia in recent months, the more deeply the stereotype of repression has entrenched itself in Western reporting - and the further it seems from the reality I encounter. All the negatives are there and cannot be ignored, but they are not without ambiguity and they are one part of a very big picture.

Independent television stations have closed, but the programming on state channels (aside from the news) includes frank discussion programmes that did not exist in Soviet times. The multiplicity of newspapers and magazines, including Russian editions of Western glossies, has to be seen to be believed. Most striking of all is the willingness of people to talk to strangers and express an opinion, often with a smile. The pervasive fear of the Soviet years has gone.

The former head of Yukos, Sergei Khodorkovsky, is in prison, charged with tax evasion and fraud, but without a trial date and refused bail. But there has been no further purge of oligarchs. Others are flourishing. Business confidence is improving. The new rich and the burgeoning middle class are spending. Tax has gone down; pay and pensions have gone up. The supply situation, including in provincial towns, is transformed compared with even the most plentiful Soviet times. Food queues are so distant a memory that many people have forgotten what it was like to get up before dawn to jostle by the back door of the meat or dairy shop for hours in the hope of a delivery. Fruit and vegetables are available even in deepest winter. The Moscow branch of Ikea has the highest turnover of any Ikea store in the world. The new Russian urban dilemma is whether to take out a mortgage to buy a flat.

For most Russians, Chechnya is only an issue in so far as they can criticise Mr Putin for being "soft" on "terrorism". This time, unlike four years ago, Chechnya has hardly featured in the campaign, despite the recent bomb in the Moscow underground that caused casualties well into double figures. There are signs, too, that the Kremlin may be changing its tactics: steering away from the assaults and punitive raids that have drawn so much foreign condemnation, and adopting an Israeli-style strategy of "targeted" killings instead. This is no more laudable, but less visible aggression could be effective in diminishing criticism abroad.

So why does my view of today's Russia diverge so substantially from the consensus of gathering dictatorship? One reason may simply be the terms of comparison. My comparison is less with Western Europe or the United States than with Soviet Russia. That is also how most Russians judge their situation. Some European reporters I travelled with recently to the Russian provinces were shocked at the poverty of the countryside. A great deal of Russia is very poor, compared with Western and Central Europe. There is urban dereliction, too, on a truly frightening scale, that will take decades to remedy. But what I mostly saw in the countryside were the new roofs and extensions on many of the wooden houses, the new fences and well-fed cows.

Ah, you will object, I am judging only material improvements. Russians may be better off, but surely "freedom" is in decline, or at very least, at risk? Freedom takes many forms. But my judgements do not stop at the material; they derive from how willing people are to talk, how forthcoming they are, how healthy and happy they look as they go about their daily lives, how they behave towards each other, with more or less civility; the time they have for family life. On every single count, Russia is a better place for more people now than it was.

Russia's electorate may not be sophisticated - though this is a matter of time - but it is far from stupid either. The weakness of the opposition in this election, and the refusal of many better-known politicians to stand, is less because they feared persecution than because they understood that their chances were nil. Mr Putin has earned his popularity by bringing Russians what they most craved from his first term: a more predictable and comfortable life after two decades of the most extreme social upheaval. So on Sunday Russians will cast their vote, much as we do, according to their interests and experience. We should not condemn them for that.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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