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Putin Says Future's Bleak, and Bureaucrats Are to Blame

Russia: In state of nation speech, president stresses the need for economic growth and tries to distance himself from government's failures.

April 19, 2002|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — By most indicators, life in Russia is better than it has been at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago. But that's not what President Vladimir V. Putin told citizens Thursday in his annual state of the nation address.

Putin painted a bleak picture of his nation's future: too-slow growth, too-stiff international competition, too many poor people. And few friends willing to ease Russia's way into the global economy.

"No one is going to war with us. No one wants this, and no one needs this," Putin said. "But no one is really waiting for us either. No one will go out of their way to help us. We have to fight on our own to find our economic 'place in the sun.' "

Economists agree with Putin's dismal assessment, saying that what good fortune Russia does enjoy is more a matter of luck than policy. His analysis was not new or remarkable.

But Putin took the unusual step of seeking to distance himself from his own government's failures. And to do so, he resorted to an old trick from Russia's political playbook: the "good czar, bad boyars" routine. Problems aren't the leader's fault. They are the fault of the officials--in medieval times, the unruly nobles known as boyars; in contemporary Russia, bureaucrats and administrators--who fail to carry out his orders.

"We are used to complaining about Russian bureaucracy, about its size and slowness. And our complaints are entirely justified," he said.

Economic growth is one of Putin's oldest themes, which he articulated even as prime minister before rising to the presidency more than two years ago with the resignation of Boris N. Yeltsin. At the time, Putin stressed that "normal" rates of economic growth would be too slow to pull Russia out of its backward economic state. Extraordinary rates--in the double digits--were necessary.

Election in Two Years

Two years from now, Putin will be facing reelection. And while economic growth has been positive, and even topped 8% in 2000, it has since lost momentum.

Sergei A. Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, said Putin's problem is not so much setting goals as finding ways to reach them.

"Putin has entered a new phase of his tenure as president," Markov said. "Before, he had to work on what he inherited from Yeltsin. . . . Now he has entered a zone of not-so-obvious decisions. Now his team is not so united on the course of further reforms.

"Putin has finally picked out the main objective: to ensure economic growth," he added. "But he hasn't yet managed to work out a way to realize this goal. And that is why he didn't feel quite comfortable presenting this address today."

Implicitly, the president's speech acknowledged a second failure. Since he came to power, Putin has made a big effort to centralize power in Moscow and has largely succeeded. But Thursday, he began to talk about devolving responsibility back to local and regional authorities. Taken together with his criticism of the bureaucracy, Putin's speech suggested that the centralization moves did not accomplish what he wanted.

Vyacheslav A. Nikonov, a political analyst with the Politika Foundation, a think tank in Moscow, pointed out that Putin's difficulties embody an age-old Russian irony: the leader's power is absolute, but surprisingly ineffective.

"There is no doubt that the address was written in compliance with the old Russian pattern--where a good czar criticizes bad boyars," Nikonov said. "It has never been otherwise in this country. Russia has a czarist political culture, where the czar is not part of any branches of power and rules from the very top."

On the whole, Putin appeared uninspired by his own message, rushing through some sections so quickly that he stumbled over his words.

He showed little emotion. An exception was when he discussed the separatist republic of Chechnya, a subject that often raises his hackles. Putin praised the "courage and heroism" of the Russian forces that have fought there for the last 31 months, and he said the next task was to ensure the full rights of citizenship to Chechens.

"The military stage of the conflict can be considered completed," Putin said.

But as if to belie his words, at least 18 elite Interior Ministry police died Thursday morning when a truck and a bus struck mines buried in a dirt road near their headquarters in Chechnya. The police were local Chechens who had been trained and outfitted as part of Russia's effort to turn security in the republic over to local pro-Moscow forces. When other officers arrived at the scene, gunmen fired on them from nearby buildings.

The attack was the deadliest in the republic since last summer, and it followed a similar mine attack that killed six Russian servicemen Wednesday.

Foreign policy got only a cursory mention 40 minutes into the 50-minute speech, when Putin referred to the war on terrorism in I-told-you-so tones. "It was precisely Russia's steadfast principles that permitted the anti-terrorism coalition to form," Putin said.

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