Unexpected consequences of President Putin’s demographic program

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“He’s not a lame duck at all!” That was the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper’s conclusion after looking at the results of the latest poll from the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), which tracked changes in President Vladimir Putin’s popularity rating.

The results were impressive: President Putin’s voter support rating has increased sharply this month. When asked how they would vote if a presidential election were held right now, 53% of respondents picked Putin. Only a month ago, Putin’s electoral rating wavered between 47% and 49%. A year ago, it had dipped to just over 40%.

“All these figures certainly seem paradoxical,” says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “given Putin’s repeated assurances that he will step down in 2008.”

FOM Director Alexander Oslon provided a comprehensive explanation. “There’s one factor that is easy to name,” he said. “The address to parliament. Nothing else has been happening.”

According to Oslon, this year’s address differed greatly from previous addresses, which were only important for members of parliament and the media. Ordinary citizens didn’t take much interest, as a rule. In 2005, only about 30% of respondents said they were aware of the presidential address; this year, the figure was 41%. The discussion of Russia’s demographic issues made a particularly strong impression: 36% of respondents mentioned the part about demography as a memorable part of the address.

This popularity-enhancing topic has been picked up at all levels of government.

The United Russia party was the first: according to the Gazeta newspaper, the Duma has started discussing a bill “to regulate work on the tasks set by President Putin in his address to parliament.” The United Russia faction has already developed a plan of measures aimed at implementing the directives in the address: it’s 23 pages long.

Actually, United Russia’s haste is entirely understandable. Gazeta notes that Putin has clearly been distancing himself from United Russia of late; and Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration and curator of United Russia, has criticized the party harshly and repeatedly.

The criticism has had an effect: United Russia’s proposal for resolving the demographic crisis will be submitted to the Duma Council no later than June 5.

Meanwhile, the Novye Izvestia newspaper reports on a boom in the regional bureaucracy’s demographic enthusiasm: “The hearts of state officials are suddenly overflowing with (mostly verbal) concern for young families, single mothers, orphans, and families with many children.”

Ulianov Governor Sergei Morozov has already stated that he is prepared to donate one month’s salary to underprivileged children. Several regional officials followed his example – despite skeptics pointing out that such sums could hardly have a significant impact on the situation in the Ulianov region, where demographic problems are particularly acute.

The leaders of the Chelyabinsk region have come up with a proposal of their own: launching a new anti-alcohol campaign. First Deputy Governor Andrei Kosilov has already announced that alcoholism is “the key problem in depopulation.”

It’s worth noting that Duma member Andrei Burenin, according to Novye Izvestia, went even further: proposing to raise excise rates on cigarettes to five or six times their present level, with the aim of improving men’s health.

Meanwhile, Sverdlov Governor Eduard Rossel says that the birth rate can be boosted by “instilling social optimism” in pregnant women who want to have abortions. Rossel reports that his region recorded 50,000 births and 50,000 abortions last year, along with 60,000 deaths. But if the government could manage to “create suitable conditions for expectant mothers, the region’s population would increase noticeably rather than decreasing.”

In the Rostov region, Azov yurt (district) Cossack leader Sergei Senik simply issued an order: “Cossacks who have families will maximize their number of children – at least five.” Senik, who is 27 and single, has undertaken to supervise progress personally. Alexander Popov, speaker of the Rostov regional legislature, confirmed that the regional government is prepared to provide “material support” for the Cossack initiative – whatever that means.

In this generally uplifting atmosphere, Volgograd Governor Nikolai Maksiuta took an entirely pragmatic approach. At a meeting of the gubernatorial public-expert council on enterprise, Maksiuta demanded that the region’s private companies should do something about boosting the birth-rate. He said they should provide their workers with decent wages, “rather than paying poverty-line wages, as many do.”

The business community has followed the trend by eagerly demonstrating its interest in solving the problems identified by President Putin; however, most companies are in no hurry to provide funding for programs.

The Vedomosti newspaper informs its readers that the Business Russia association has developed its own National Demographic Development Program. It proposes that the state should provide 42 billion rubles in funding. This money would provide mortgage payment subsidies for young families (10% for a first child, 30% for a second child). Families with more than three children should be entitled to interest-free mortgages (the state would pay the interest to banks). Some other benefits for multi-child families are also proposed. Employers who agree to pay their employees one-time bonuses when children are born should have their company tax rates reduced to compensate (50,000 rubles for a first child, 75,000 rubles for a second child, 100,000 rubles for third “or subsequent” children).

Then again, the Finance Ministry isn’t too enthusiastic about these proposals. Finance Ministry officials are quoted as saying that funding all of Business Russia’s proposals would require “unsealing the Stabilization Fund,” which would inevitably lead to higher inflation and destabilize fiscal policy.

Besides, experts still doubt whether such measures would be effective.

According to a poll done by the Levada Center, as reported in Newsweek Russia, half of respondents believe that the ideal family should have two children; but only 13% of respondents say they’re planning to have a child in the next two or three years.

A quarter of respondents say they would be more inclined to have children if they were earning more money. A fifth of respondents say they would have more children if their housing conditions were better. A sixth of respondents are deterred by inflation.

But the largest group of respondents, 38%, said that nothing would change their decision to have no more children.

Igor Polyakov, an analyst with the Macroeconomic Analysis and Short-Term Forecasting Center, explains that children are not the top priority in our country’s present value system. Given the consumption boom in Russia’s major cities, people’s motivation systems aren’t at all conducive to intensive reproduction. In rural areas and small towns, living standards are so low that the state’s proposed payments wouldn’t be enough to improve the situation.

“When anyone talks about ‘the nation dying out,’ we usually lower our eyes respectfully,” says Novoe Vremya magazine. “Warnings of impending apocalypse are enough to halt arguments between all kinds of political adversaries, with apprehension uniting left and right, Zhirinovsky supporters and cosmopolitans.”

But where is the catastrophe? After all, children are still being born: “Kindergarten waiting lists are so long that couples have to sign up before the wedding. We don’t see any vacant beds in maternity hospitals, and prices for educational services are rising in full correspondence with the laws of supply and demand.”

True, the death rate is also rising rapidly, especially among people of working age – not to mention military personnel (young, healthy men) who are killed in hot-spots.

Novoe Vremya says: “Rather than talking of demography, we might do better to talk of health-care reforms or ending conscription.”

But those well-worn and unpromising topics would make it much harder to boost anyone’s political popularity.

Besides the politicians, there are also the bureaucrats – who have their own expectations, as Andrei Ryabov points out in Novaya Gazeta. From their perspective, demographic issues are primarily good for producing thrilling prospects of funding handouts.

Moreover, says Ryabov, President Putin’s proposed agenda “might well work in the short term, for election campaign mobilization – in terms of making the regime more popular (in effect, this has already happened).” But Ryabov includes a proviso: “That’s if the appetites of the bureaucrats don’t prove to be so insatiable that even the insignificant sums set for child benefit payments never reach the substantial groups who are eligible for assistance.”

As for the Kremlin’s larger promises – payments of 250,000 rubles for a second child – Ryabov says that no one is taking them seriously. “Russian citizens know perfectly well that our state isn’t the Swedish government or the German government, who always do what they promise to do. Our state will always find some arguments to explain why it can’t possibly keep its promises: a sudden outbreak of inflation, or a collapse of the banking system. Anything could happen.” And here’s another significant point: the big payments are promised once a second child reaches the age of three – that is, after the next elections.

However, says Ryabov, “even the fact that the authorities are thinking of them and promising them something is enough to make many Russian voters feel more optimistic.”

Hence, says the Moskovskie Novosti weekly, we can assume that the Kremlin’s latest proposals “are by no means the last word: further populist ideas will follow,” along with calls to close ranks against new threats, internal and external.

Indeed, the notorious Year 2008 Problem continues to cause concern among the elites. The transfer-of-power model still hasn’t been developed, and it would be untimely for President Putin to become a lame duck now.

The papers have long been saying that Operation Successor has started, but the weaknesses of this transfer-of-power model are well known. And the model itself, says Moskovskie Novosti, is only acceptable because “today’s Russia lacks the conditions to produce a better model.”

First of all, it’s hard to figure out “how the successor is being selected, and how sensible that process is.” To what extent is the outgoing team guided by national interests, as opposed to its own personal interests? It’s only clear that these are rhetorical questions.

At least the chosen model does provide some rotation at the top, says Boris Makarenko, first deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, in Moskovskie Novosti: “and the rotation is reinforced by a popular election.” Thus, at least the formal requirements of the Constitution are observed: “The people have to like the successor, and there will be a change of administration.”

Dmitri Kamyshin, chief political editor for Kommersant-Vlast magazine, says that the present choice between two potential successors – Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov – “looks to be at least twice as democratic as Yeltsin’s appointment of his unique successor in 1999.”

Presumably, fierce competition between the two presidential candidates “should make it possible to choose the more worthy of them – or, if both prove unsuitable, a third person could be chosen.”

As Kamyshin points out, this choice isn’t being offered to all Russian citizens, “just to the one and only voter” whose opinion has any significance.

Still, as Moskovskie Novosti points out, the “direct successor” model has emerged in Russia only due to the lack of political self-organization in Russian society: that is, the lack of parties.

United Russia isn’t a ruling party. It’s only a function of the Kremlin, where real power is concentrated: “The true ruling class is behind the ancient walls of the Kremlin.”

The All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) has done a poll about the role of the media in Russian society. As the Vremya Novostei newspaper reports, ordinary citizens don’t take anough interest in the political kitchen, party membership numbers, or party events.

In Russia, the niche of political parties is mostly filled by television, followed by other media.

VTsIOM chief analyst Leontii Byzov: “Mass support and mass attitudes are basically determined by what the electronic media say. The present regime grasped this circumstance, and in exercising control over the media, it also controls public moods to a substantial degree.

As VTsIOM found yet again, respondents trust the media more than any other institution apart from the president; far more than they trust politicians, parties, or non-governmental organizations. It’s quite obvious, says Byzov in his article for Vremya Novostei, that the Russian media’s support for the regime’s actions and their creation of a positive image for the regime are interlinked phenomena.

The pollsters even draw the conclusion that the electronic media, far more than any other institution, provide “real unity for the values and information of Russian citizens, uniting them into a virtual political nation.”

Naturally, a society that exists politically only in virtual reality would have to be favorably impressed by the regime’s virtual plans, so convincingly presented on television.

And it doesn’t matter all that much who ends up being the successor; what’s important is that he should look good.

But people learn that very quickly these days.

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