Putin Sounding More Like a Candidate
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have kept the pundits and public guessing on their plans for next year's presidential election. Is Medvedev interested in running for a 2nd term even if it means taking on his former mentor Putin? Will Putin make a triumphal return after a term in "exile" as Prime minister? Are the differences between the two genuine or merely an attempt to portray the United Russia party as all things to all men.
This weekend Putin sounded like a definite candidate unleashing a series of pronouncements and stomping in Volgagrad, a city that the Russian prime minister also referred to by its former name of Stalingrad..
Perhaps worried by the decline of his ruling United Russia party, Putin promised a facelift in the form of a popular front where United Russia would serve as an umbrella for allied parties, unions, unaffiliated activists, women's, veterans, youth groups and what have you.
The list of groups even includes Russian motorists who perhaps more than the opposition parties have mounted a few effective anti-government demonstrations. The common bond for this front is the none too specific support for patriotism, national well-being and social justice.
Obviously it is hard to argue with this Russian equivalent of motherhood and apple pie. The front claimed Putin was part of an effort to inject fresh blood into United Russia.
This amalgam suggested by Putin is all too reminiscent of Communist times. United Russia seems a replacement for the Communist Party and presumably works hand-in-hand with mass social organizations of dubious independence and non-party do-gooders.
This was the main piece of news for the regional party conference in Volgagrad, but Putin had more in store.
Since the region grows tea and wine United Russia, promised Putin would eat only domestic produce. There won't be a paparazzi catching one of the elite with French champagne. Regional schools were promised a major injection of capital to upgrade sports facilities, school canteens and maintain rural schools.
On Friday, Putin promised to set up a new government agency that would promote new projects and support young professionals. This is apparently intended to squelch charges that under Putin Russia has suffered a brain drain because young ambitious Russians could not advance due to the prevalent cronyism.
Now Putin himself was complaining that Russia needed a springboard to help such ambitious people move up the ladder. Typically, his solution was to do things from the top down rather than eliminate the blockages to competition.
In déjà vu style Putin also took on the fuel shortages and drought related grain shortage. Russia has attempted to keep domestic fuel prices low in comparison with world prices. Now, as In Soviet times, artificially low prices resulted in shortages as oil companies preferred to export abroad at the higher world prices.
Putin promises a crackdown against the oil companies. Russia has already banned grain sales abroad to cope with the shortages produced by the droughts and forest fires. The unfortunate culprit is a grain minister who misreported the amount of grain collected.