Staunton, July 17 – Moscow’s actions in Ukraine not only have pushed Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings among Russians into the stratosphere but also have provided Moscow with the opportunity to take unpopular and previously unthinkable measures at home, according to Aleksey Polukhin, economics editor of Novaya Gazeta.
If the first has attracted enormous attention, the second has not, even though it may prove to be the more long-lasting of the two and could eventually even have the effect of generating a backlash against Putin if the fighting in Ukraine continues as it seems likely to for some time without any clear outcome.
Polukhin makes the general point that “military mobilization of public opinion is a suitable time for taking unpopular measures,” citing the words of Finance Minister Anatoly Siluanov that “the time for unpopular decisions has come.” That is because many things can be blamed on the war or on sanctions.
“’Crimea,’ like the Ukrainian campaign in general,” he says, is “a mobilizing history which is driving out of public discussion all other issues.” That pattern is typical of a nation at war even if that war is undeclared. But it has serious consequences for the population and for the authorities who come to believe they can do anything if they can invoke the conflict.
Polukhin gives three examples of policy changes the discussion of which had been “taboo” before Crimea but which are now being considered by the government as if no one could seriously object. The first of these is the issue of raising the pension age, something that had been almost a “third rail” in Russian politics.
Putin had “repeatedly and personally guaranteed that as long as he was president, this would not happen.” But, Polukhin says, Siluanov said at the St. Petersburg Economics Forum that “raising the pension age is necessary if [Moscow] wants to free up resources in the budget for the development of infrastructure” in Crimea.
The second issue which used to be taboo but is now being opening discussed is the introduction of a requirement that Russians pay for medical treatment, despite the provision of the 1993 Constitution that guarantees them the right to free medical assistance. The Finance Ministry, however, now wants Russians to be required to take out and pay for medical insurance.
Ironically, Polukhin says, Russia is now moving in exactly the opposite direction from the one the Obama Administration is pursuing in the United States, albeit in a form that may appear to some as the same. But however that may be, the economics writer says, this is an issue that should be discussed. Because of Ukraine, it isn’t.
And a third issue which had been under a taboo but which now is raising taxes, always an unpopular measure. Various means are being considered by officials, with many of them certain to have a negative impact on individual Russians and whole categories of citizens and regional governments. But again, thanks to Ukraine, there isn’t the debate one would have expected.
All three steps that Moscow is now moving forward on will exacerbate income inequality in the Russian Federation and are likely to undermine prospects for economic growth. But Polukhin says, they are certain to go forward “as long as society is prepared for unpopular decisions.” How long that will last, of course, is a very large and still under taboo question.