In a fierce fit of free-market commercialism, ads in Moscow subway insist that the real new millennium will start today. With the economy weakened by crisis, revenues from the advent of Y2K were not as impressive as in the West, and now Russian boutiques, travel agencies and software stores are trying to make up for profits unclaimed 12 months earlier. Here we go: invitations to celebrate New Year with pyramids in Egypt, golden necklaces that will be remembered by grateful recipients until Doomsday, new software with which to log on to your computer in the new year.
There is also a more charitable explanation for this widespread anti-Y2K mood: The year 2000 was not something Russians would like to remember as the beginning of a new century. In spite of both gloomy prophecies and hopeful promises, Mother Russia remained precisely where she has been for the last 10 years: nowhere.
True, the Russian economy is doing better than couple of years ago. Soaring oil prices, which raised prices for Western consumers, supplied Russia with cash to pay higher pensions and salaries. But this is hardly something to be ecstatic about. Oil prices are very likely to drop again soon, and the higher salaries and pensions are being devoured by rapidly increasing living expenses. An average pension of $40 a month is barely enough to buy food, and a retired person in Russia is still supposed to get his or her clothing and medicine out of thin air. Moscow hospitals charge several hundred dollars for a surgery — cheap by U.S. standards, but a fortune for rank-and-file Russians. Streets remain full of beggars, the Russian complexion is becoming paler all the time, and the only affordable remedy for illness and anxiety is vodka.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in office for exactly a year: not enough time to achieve dramatic change but long enough to lose support. Putin’s platform was Russian nationalism. In this sense he did not deceive voters. He promised to fight Chechen separatists — and the war in the Caucasus has not stopped for a single day. Zinc coffins containing Russian boys sent from Chechnya to their hometowns are the price Russians are paying now for their new national assertiveness. Not many seem to mind, though: The casualties do not look overwhelming to people who are not losing their sons. There is zero compassion for Chechen losses and Russia could care less about international public opinion.
Recently, the president and the Parliament reintroduced the old Soviet anthem to the nation and the czarist red flag to the armed forces. This was a more controversial move. The liberals were appalled by this reminder of Josef Stalin’s regime, while the conservatives did not see much substance in this symbolic gesture. The red flag does not amount to much as long as it is is still defeated by the green banner of jihad.
Putin’s Machiavellian foreign policy, with its emphasis on international contradictions — be it between Europe and America or between rogue states and the West — is too sophisticated for people in Russia to appreciate. Earning some acknowledgment beyond our borders, it passes almost unnoticed domestically. This is hardly surprising. How can a poverty-ridden Russian connect with Cuban leader Fidel Castro? How could he possibly care about Europe’s move toward establishing an military force? Is he really concerned about North Korea’s missile program?
Putin frequently speaks of “the new respect” of the international community toward Russia. Maybe there is some new apprehension — but this hardly influences the domestic situation in the country.
With each passing week, more Russians question Putin’s effectiveness. His political path increasingly resembles that of his predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin: much ado about nothing.
Putin’s mild offensive against democracy in Russia has not brought any tangible fruit so far — thank God. His attempts to do away with critics in mass media have been rather cautious and, perhaps, could be attributed to personal biases rather than to firm antidemocratic convictions. He definitely sees himself as a father-figure for the nation, he is uncomfortable with freedom of speech and would like to see a much more manageable mass media — but until now he has not been able to silence his critics. It is still unclear whether his antidemocratic program will continue or whether he will be satisfied with the fact that he has already shown TV anchors and reporters who is the boss.
But no matter what he does next, his obvious unwillingness to suffer criticism signifies a step back in the process of political reform in Russia. It is fair to say that Putin’s campaign against freedom of speech has left the majority of Russians unperturbed — this is an exceptionally bad sign.
Something must be said about his lack of charisma and his public-relations blunders. The president continued vacationing at the Black Sea while Russian sailors aboard the Kursk submarine were dying off Murmansk. This has not been forgotten or forgiven. The president enjoys pomp and all the spectacular attributes of high authority as much as all Russian leaders before him did: When he travels from his dacha to the Kremlin, the police shut down all traffic in downtown Moscow. Putin is not a down-to-earth person and his James Bond-like stares and the air of absolute superiority to virtually everybody do not help his image either.
The year 2000 did not bring satisfaction to anybody in Russia. The rich are scared that the state might finally look into their tax scams. The poor are afraid of extra expenses. Oil companies anticipate decreased revenues. Babushkas selling pickles expect fewer customers. Nationalists are angry that the resistance of Chechen jihad fighters has not been crushed as promised. Liberals feel outraged by the ongoing war in Chechnya and attacks on the free press. Of course, the good news is that gangsters feel insecure now — but so do the police.
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