Russian Leaders Switch Roles, Russians Want Out: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

The unsurprising role switch between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev did yield one surprise: the ouster of Alexei Kudrin, the Putin-allied finance minister beloved of foreign investors and esteemed for his fiscal conservancy, after he loudly voiced his reluctance to serve under future Prime Minister Medvedev.

Russian media immediately started speculating about who should become Kudrin's permanent replacement, and who should populate the rest of Medvedev's government, when the switcheroo happens next year. The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets termed the finance minister's defiance “political suicide,” and, sidestepping scuttlebutt about whether Kudrin himself had hoped to occupy the spot beside the throne, pointed out that “an unending stream of capital is fleeing, not entering Russia." To lure the money back, Russia “requires new managers. Not bureaucrats, not macroeconomists, not defenders of the state budget, but investment bankers who know not just how to save money but how to create it." Veterans of the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 might beg to differ.

While the outcome of the upcoming elections may be largely predetermined, elections will be held both for the State Duma (in December) and the presidency (in March 2012). The newspaper Kommersant summed up how Russia’s political parties are preparing. Sergei Mironov, who made a not-very-serious run for the presidency in 2004, will top the list of the Just Russia party, the pre-election manifesto of which stresses the need to struggle with “poverty, corruption, and the monopoly of the ruling party.” Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov, longtime opposition leaders in the People’s Freedom Party, have vowed to continue the struggle, as will the Communists, whose manifesto declares them “obliged” to win both elections and establish a new basis for development, or else Russia “will end up on the very bottom.” Veteran liberal Grigori Yavlinsky’s Yabloko Party launched a drive for qualifying signatures to take part in the Duma elections.

Meanwhile, Medvedev engaged in pork-barrel politics during a viewing of military exercises Tuesday. “We cannot get by without defense spending worthy of the Russian Federation and not of some banana republic," the newspaper Izvestia quoted Medvedev as saying. "We have a huge country that’s a member of the United Nations Security Council and has nuclear weapons.” Hence, defense spending “must be the highest state priority. It cannot be otherwise.”

The newspaper Vedomosti noted another “imperative” requiring attention: The Federal State Statistics Service reported a 10.5 percent increase, over the last six months alone, of Russians living beneath the poverty line, a neglected contingent now accounting for 14.9 percent of the population. Worsening matters is the sharp recent drop of the ruble vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar – 13 percent over the past two months. Kommersant brought to light a consequence of the ruble’s slide: Russians are buying more and more dollars, which means that “citizens have begun making their own contribution to the ruble’s cheapening. The demand for dollars has doubled over the past two weeks. …Experts fear that . . . the situation will get worse.”

Such fears seem to justify the alarming number of Russians, documented in polls by the respected Levada Center and made public by Novaya Gazeta, who wish to dump their homeland and move abroad: 53 percent of entrepreneurs, 52 percent of students, and 33 percent of specialists, for example, as of May 2011. Live Journal hosts a blog called Pora Valit? (Time to Get Out of Here?) Bloggers address such issues as the true cost of living in the United States, language requirements for emigration to Quebec, and study overseas.

On the ground in Russia, in the southern Republic of Daghestan, Russian citizens have one far less abstract preoccupation: terrorism. Last Thursday, according to Ria Novosti, the Investigative Committee for Daghestan declared that local law enforcement officers had killed 27-year-old Artur Kazanbiyev, whom they suspected of carrying out two bombings in Makhachkala earlier that day. The bombing killed one policeman and injured forty-four Interior Ministry employees. “When an attempt was made to cordon off his house in the village of Novo-Kuli, he tried to escape by car . . . and opened fire on law-enforcement authorities. He was killed by the siloviki’s [security servicemens'] return fire.”

Whether Putin makes his office in the White House (the seat of the Russian government) or the Kremlin, he will faces the same longtime intractable problems that political role-switching will do little, if anything, to solve.

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)

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-0- Sep/30/2011 14:05 GMT