Dear friend, ask yourself a question: "Who is the most popular political leader in Russia in XX century?" In your opinion, of course. Recall the tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union. How do Russian and Soviet leaders compare with each other?
The answer is not as clear as it seems. On the contrary.
Since 1985, when Gorbachev came to power, he war advertised by the Soviet press as a young, dynamic leader. Since 1991, when Yeltsin moved into Kremlin, the same happened with his name - "Boris, the boldest and most energetic leader in the Russian history."
The name of Brezhnev was almost nonexistent in mass media. His image faded away in people's memory under scathing criticism of acolytes of Gorbachev's perestroika. At least, almost everybody believed so.
According to information we read in the Russian and Western press, Gorbachev and Yeltsin should hold the first two places of honour in Russian public opinion. The truth is quite different.
Lately a new unbiased research into popularity of Soviet and Russian leaders was conducted. The result was staggering, especially for people who believed mouthpieces of "perestroika" and "glasnost" and concocted opinion polls.
51% of those polled gave positive assessment of Leonid Brezhnev and only 10% had negative opinion of him. Nikita Khrushev with 30% positive and 14% negative vote took the second place in popularity. The third place was occupied by dictator Stalin with 26% positive and 48% negative. Even tsar Nicolas II took the fourth place with 18% positive and 12% negative.
Two darlings of the mass media, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, took accordingly the fifth and sixth places: Gorbachev with 9% positive vote and 61% (!) negative. As to Yeltsin, in March 1999, the last year of his presidency, he received merely 5% of positive vote and, believe it or not, 72% negative.
This opinion came straight from the rank and file of Russians. It is very different from the opinion of most Russian political observers. Not once they carried out their own polls but in vain you will try to find in them objective information. Former president Yeltsin always held the first place. Even his daughter Tatiana was assigned the tenth place on the list of the Russian political elite.
Nowadays in Russia the most popular political leader is Vladimir Putin. He is the president and he is our president. In the last year his popularity rose to a withering heights. His first one hundred days in Kremlin consolidated his position to the point when Russian government could choose almost any model of development. The political sky in the country was clearing, though the situation in Chechnya presented a formidable challenge. World leaders gave Putin their support, manifested at Okinava's G8 meeting.
All of a sudden everything changed. The case of Gusinski, temporary arrested under criminal investigation, triggered off a storm in some Russian and Western papers, on TV channels and radio stations (by the way, mainly owned by Gusinski). The unprecedented attack on president was unleashed.
The disaster with nuclear submarine "Kursk" fanned the fire, and the charge to downgrade Putin as a man and politician was renewed. No doubt, the Russian government handled the catastrophe with "Kursk" poorly. The leadership, including Putin, was initially shattered by the speed of events. Nevertheless, there was no solid reason to make a scapegoat out of Putin. His failure was a matter of presentation, spin doctoring, not a matter of essence. Only hypocrite would not recognise that the tragic fate of the submarine and its crew was rooted in the neglect experienced by Russian navy (as well as by the whole Russian infrastructure) under Yeltsin. In the 1990s the Russian defence spending dropped to 5 bln US dollars (the US military budget is 55 times larger).
The American military correctly stress that to support the Russian army with such meagre finances is impossible, new dangerous incidents are looming large. Their conclusion is not unexpected - cut them even more, reduce your hardware and forget about nuclear deterrent. Certainly, it smacks of geopolitics. In their turn, Russian military aspire for additional finances. But will they be able to arrange it effectively if extra layers of military top brass imposed upon the army in 1990s are not reformed?
Having overcome psychological shock, Putin put his views on the record. "I will stay together with the army, navy and the people", - he proclaimed. He met with relatives of perished crewmembers and met all their demands except one - to return dead to life.
The tragedy with "Kursk" once more clarified the situation. NTV TV channel and other mass media companies run by Gusinski and some other oligarchs were conducting a hilarious campaign against Putin. Their ferocity in attacking him underlined a simple truth: they were concerned with inflicting a maximum damage to the president, with nothing more and nothing less. It was a vivid example of behaviour of those who under Yeltsin were lavished with easy fortunes but later on discovered that the state does not want to serve indefinitely as a milch cow.
Regrettably, but USA, other Western countries had plenty of its own catastrophes. But sinking of their submarines, including nuclear ones, explosion of the space-shuttle "Challenger", bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma, embassies, etc. did not entail such a dirty behaviour of Western richest.
The unbearable situation with "states" inside the state made Putin determined to change the information balance in Russia. According to our sources, it will be done in a legal way when private mass-media companies will just lose their current de facto monopoly and privileged position. Unfortunately, most of their Western counterparts are inclined to support this antigovernment campaign under the banner of a free press. Nothing can be so far from the truth.
The obvious answer is No. Can Russia make any progress without social and economic development? Again No.
Usually economic numbers are boring. Often they can be frightening. Western society learned it in 1930s, at the time of Great Depression. Nowadays Russians take a sad ride through a tunnel of social and economic horror. Judge for yourself.
Half of Russia's population lives below poverty line. 60 million people are undernourished. 25% dwellers can't afford to pay rent for their flats. Death rate exceeds birth rate by 600 thousand a year. 40% of pregnant women suffer from anaemia. At the same time 5% of the population through back door arrangements with state bureaucrats acquired 90% of the country's wealth. Since 1992 the population of Russia decreased by 5 million. In 15 years to come Russia may lose another 12 million. By 2020-25 Russia's population will come down to 100 million and by 2075, if this trend is not reversed, to 50 million. This will be an end of Russia as a country. Geopolitically it will become a lifeless organism.
At present almost everybody understands the gravity of the situation. But a part of a ruling elite, a hang over from Yeltsin's days, is still following the same path of national suicide.
The question arises: What will Putin do? Will he manage to run a huge country with a budget of Finland or a state of New York?
Due to the flawed reforms of the past decade the present Russian rulers barely possess necessary finances to cure the country's economy and social life. In fact Russia is bankrupt. Some people believe that high oil prices, which favour Russia, may lead to economic stabilisation. This hope is slim. Oil and gas alone will not save Russia as they did not save the Soviet Union. Liberal policies without an efficient state will aggravate Russia's plight still further.
In the meantime the Russian government is too slow in dealing with the crises. It already accepted a German Gref's programme, which is liberal only by name. In reality it favours the newly rich. As a result the human potential of Russia is facing a further degradation. Instead of social economy, which is proclaimed by the Constitution, Russia is heading in the direction of social upheaval. If Putin and his team are really at the helm of power they should drastically change the course of reforms. We badly need genuine market reforms but they should be of human not of jungle nature.
Even the best of snakes is only a snake. Gref's programme is a lethal poison to 90% of Russian population. People judge their leaders by asking a simple question: Is my life getting better? In a democratic society if the answer is No, political leaders are usually doomed. There is still time for Putin to avoid this ill fortune.
Russia is not as mysterious as it seems. Read our Gromyko's Confidential Letters and learn about events in this country. Then you will not be surprised that Brezhnev is still the most popular Russian leader.
With best regards,
Anatoli and Alexey Gromyko