The President of Hope

If you were to try and categorize the Putin phenomenon, you might be tempted to say it is a blend of political will and luck. Of course, one might argue it has more than a fair bit to do with the temporarily expensive world energy market. That would be justified. But alone it would not be enough to account for the more developed state we see today, for clear national priorities which are supported by the majority of the population, for the emergence of a unifying ideology or for the economic and social progress achieved in the last years.

The 1990s saw Russia disintegrating; it was a period of oligarchic free-for-all. I remember my father receiving a privatization voucher. For those unaware of this scheme, voucher privatization was a policy implemented in the early 1990s whereby every citizen received an investment check supposedly exchangeable for shares of government-owned companies. But rather than stimulating low-level capitalism, this scheme ended up tricking ordinary citizens into selling their vouchers for practically nothing, while a select few enriched themselves at everyone else's expense. Companies were grabbed, while financial pyramids and turf wars between criminals became rife. I remember having the distinct feeling that the government had given up responsibility for public security - that was left to the mob.

The ongoing Chechen conflict also brought grief to many Russian homes and undermined the morale of the Russian army. It was a senseless war that allowed some to line their pockets. There was a scramble among Russia's regions to declare their sovereignty. Even in my native Kaliningrad region - a loyal Russian exclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania - there was a public debate as to whether to remain part of Russia.

And then, in 2000, a new president appeared who undertook to rectify past mistakes. The conflict in the Caucasus was ended within a short period of time. Russia also suddenly became an ally of the West in the war on terror, and regained its position in the international political arena.

A massive administrative reform was launched in which the powers of different levels of government were clearly delineated and new procedures were introduced for electing the governors of Russian regions. The right of citizens to local self-government was sealed and the responsibilities of local governments were clearly defined. The economy was reoriented to innovation and integration into the world market. The electoral system was reformed. On December 2, 2007, the State Duma was elected according to a new principle under which seats are distributed exclusively among political parties. This reform has made parties more accountable before citizens for their decisions and has strengthened the democratic process in Russia.

No less importantly, ambitious "national projects" were launched in 2005. They were aimed at developing key areas of the economy, improving human capital.

Putin also developed a new, young political elite. There are now several large nationwide youth political movements, including Molodaya Gvardia (Young Guard), Nashi (Ours) and Rossiya Molodaya (Young Russia). Their main goal is the socialization of young leaders into the country's social and political system. There is already some success on this front - recent years have seen a marked increase of the number of young people taking part in city and regional parliaments. Though broadly agreeing with the national policy, these new politicians are more ready than most to make corrections, spot the government's errors, propose ways of dealing with problems and assume responsibility for decisions.

On March 2, 2008, the nation will elect a new president. So, to a certain extent, Russia is poised for political change. But the Duma elections have confirmed that the general public supports Putin's reforms. By signaling his intention to step down from the presidency this year, while maintaining a presence in politics, Putin has both guaranteed the country's continued stability, and left the door open for young politicians to help shape its future course.

Alexei Sagaidak, 25, is a deputy (the United Russia party) of the Kaliningrad City Council

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