- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2012

On March 4, the people of Russia will be going to the polls to elect a president of the country. Extensive discussions are currently under way across society.

I consider it necessary to state my position on a number of issues that seem to be important in this broader debate over the risks and challenges Russia will inevitably encounter.

We need a broad dialogue - about the future, priorities, long-term choices, national development and national prospects. This article is an invitation to join just such a dialogue.

Where we are and where we’re headed

In terms of the basic parameters of social and economic development, today’s Russia has emerged from the deep recession that followed the collapse of totalitarian socialism and the ensuing downfall of the Soviet Union.

Despite the 2008-09 crisis, when we “lost” two whole years, we have attained and surpassed the living standard indices reported in the best years of the USSR. For example, life expectancy in Russia now is higher than in the Soviet Union during 1990-91.

Our economy is growing - and this is, above all, about people - their work, their incomes, their new opportunities. Occurrences of stagnant poverty, when active and employable people could not find jobs or were not paid for months, are essentially a thing of the past.

Independent studies show that 4 in 5 Russians have incomes higher than in 1989 - the “peak” of development of the USSR - which was followed by the decline and imbalance of the country’s entire socio-economic organism. More than 80 percent of Russian families today consume more than their Soviet counterparts did. The availability of domestic appliances has grown by 50 percent, reaching the level of developed economies. One in two families has a car - a threefold rise. Housing conditions have palpably improved.

But what is particularly important is that over the past 10 years, Russia has produced a considerable segment of the population who, in the West, are called the middle class.

The middle class consists of people who can choose to participate in politics. As a rule, their education is such that they can take a discriminating attitude toward candidates, rather than “voting with their heart.”

In 1998, they made up between 5 percent and 10 percent of the population - less than in the former USSR. Now the middle classes are estimated to constitute between 20 percent and 30 percent of the population. These are people whose earnings are 3 times as high as the average wage or salary in 1990.

The middle class must continue to expand. Russia’s main hope lies with the high educational standards of the population and, above all, its youth. As many as 57 percent of people aged 25 to 35 in Russia have a higher education - a level seen in just three other countries: Japan, South Korea and Canada.

This “educational revolution” is fundamentally altering the key features of Russian society and the Russian economy. Better-educated people mean a longer life span, less crime, less anti-social behavior and more rational options. All of this in itself is creating a favorable background for our future.

But this is not enough.

The steady growth in Russia’s wealth in the past decade has largely been due to government policy, including a more rational distribution of the country’s commodity earnings. An innovation-based economy needs to be built for the sake of all educated and responsible citizens, whether they are professionals, business leaders or consumers.

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