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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As he begins a new term, Putin pushes lofty goals for Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall to chair a meeting of the State Council in the Kremlin on April 5, 2018, in Moscow, Russia. (Alexander Zemlianichenko / Associated Press)
By Jim Heintz Associated Press

MOSCOW – If Vladimir Putin fulfills the goals he’s set for his new six-year term as president, Russia in 2024 will be far advanced in new technologies and artificial intelligence, many of its notoriously poor roads will be improved, and its people will be living significantly longer.

There’s wide doubt about how much of that he’ll achieve, if any of it. Analysts assessing the prospects of his term that begins with Monday’s inauguration often use the expression “neo-stagnation.” And less than half of the population really trusts him, according to a state polling agency.

Putin won the new term, which will extend his rule in Russia to a quarter-century if he completes it, with an official tally of 77 percent of the vote in March. Although there were complaints of ballot-stuffing and other violations, his support was clearly high. Yet, when state pollster VTsIOM asked Russians a month later which politician they trusted to solve the country’s problems, only 47 percent chose Putin.

The apparent discrepancy between the vote total and his trust rating suggests that Putin is important to Russians not so much for what he accomplishes but for what he is – the embodiment of their national identity.

“In this dichotomous world, the symbolic Putin is omnipotent, like St. George slaying the Western dragon, but the flesh-and-bones Putin is barely capable of solving Russians’ everyday problems or preventing tragedies,” Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Andrei Kolesnikov wrote last month.

Putin’s strong suit is in projecting Russian power. The technology and lifespan improvements that he foresaw in his state-of-the-nation address shortly before the election didn’t attract as much attention as his claim that Russia had developed an array of new and allegedly invincible nuclear weapons.

He is sure to continue to assert Russia’s role on the world stage, apparently committed to military involvement in Syria until the bitter end and showing no signs of backing down from Moscow’s support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Although painful sanctions have been imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea, its involvement in eastern Ukraine and its alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election, Putin appears to be willing to pay the price, especially because rising world oil prices have restored some revenue. The economy has partially recovered from the depths of 2015-16 when the ruble lost half its value, but concerns persist about long-term prospects, especially if Russia is unable to boost its manufacturing sector and wean the economy off its overwhelming dependence on oil and gas exports.

The government reportedly is raising the age for state pensions as a way to cut expenditures. Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich is floating the prospect of raising income taxes by a couple of percentage points.

Dvorkovich, in fact, recently acknowledged that much of Russia’s economic improvement is connected to a one-off: this summer’s football World Cup.

“I can say that without the World Cup, there would be no economic growth at the moment,” he said.

If the money for domestic improvements is in doubt, so is the political will to implement them in Putin’s new term.

In the view of Andrew Wood, a Russia analyst at Britain’s Chatham House, “the main objective of the incumbent regime is to protect its hold on power.”

Thus, he wrote, “it will therefore continue between now and 2024 to follow the three main policy guidelines set by Putin in 2012: to do without significant structural economic reforms because of the political risks attached to them; to control the population; and to pursue ‘great power’ ambitions.”

Putin’s most prominent foe, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, is calling for nationwide protests on Saturday, two days ahead of the inauguration. But Russia’s opposition forces are likely to remain marginalized – routinely banned from holding demonstrations and all but ignored by the dominant state news media.

Since Putin’s re-election, some notable protests have arisen: One was held over the fire at a Siberian shopping mall that killed 60 people, and a number of communities in the Moscow region also demonstrated over hazardous landfills.

Those actions, however, were focused on local and regional officials’ ineptness or corruption, while Putin rises above it all.

The main drama in Putin’s new term may come not from what he does, but from what comes after him.

The constitution bars him from seeking a third consecutive term in 2024, and it’s not clear if he’d want another one badly enough – he will be 72 – to risk trying to change the constitution to stay in office.

In a system where genuine political competition is truncated, overt jockeying to replace Putin is unlikely. Instead, he could bestow favor on a malleable successor and continue to run things from behind the scenes.