- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

As Russians cast their presidential ballots yesterday, observers from around the world criticized President Vladimir Putin’s “managed democracy,” claiming it involves too much management and not enough democracy. About 80 percent of the Russian people, though, believe Mr. Putin is managing just fine, and his election triumph is a foregone conclusion.

Mr. Putin can be fairly criticized on a number of fronts, but his domestic support is buttressed by tangible accomplishments. This indicates that Mr. Putin’s popularity supercedes a personality-driven appeal. While Mr. Putin knows how to draw on Russians’ nationalistic sentiments, he has also instituted structural reforms that will benefit the country after he is no longer in power. Mr. Putin has been the first Russian leader in decades to streamline government by eliminating half of government ministries and many posts. He has also made taxation policies more open and consistent.

The Russian economy has grown every year since Mr. Putin was elected in 2000, while external debt has steadily declined. Inflation has been restrained and fiscal health has been restored after the 1998 default debacle. Gold and foreign exchange reserves have topped a record high of $86 billion. Pensions and civil servants’ salaries are paid on time. Late last year, Moody’s granted Russia investment-grade status for the first time. Luck, in the way of high oil prices, has aided this success. Still, high levels of foreign investment presage future stability. Mr. Putin has signaled his willingness to further liberalize the economy by bolstering the power of key reformers in his cabinet.

But industry continues to stagnate in far-flung regions. Criminal networks still have tremendous economic power in Russia and endanger the country’s progress. The government’s willingness to crack down on corporate corruption seems conveniently selective and politically self-serving. Media freedoms are also on shaky ground. Media companies in some poor Third World countries enjoy a more vibrant role than do outlets in Mr. Putin’s Russia.

And although Mr. Putin has presided over greater federal power, he has been unable to bolster the professionalism of the military, which commits abuses in Chechnya and threatens the territorial integrity of some of the country’s neighbors. If the Russian public were to focus more dispassionately on the prosecution of the war in Chechnya, Mr. Putin’s popularity could begin to suffer.

All the same time, the Russian people appear to welcome Mr. Putin’s competence, despite his occasional heavyhandedness.

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