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Putin’s Dubious Popularity

Below is a letter to the editor published in the International Herald Tribune in response to a recent Serge Schmemann opinion article.

Putin’s dubious ‘popularity’ Serge Schmemann’s article “A visit with Putin” (Views, Sept. 17) presents a view of Vladimir Putin that reflects the public image Putin strives to project, but it is not an accurate portrayal of the Russian presidency. According to Schmemann, the “enormously popular” Putin has led Russia “from bankruptcy and despair to enormous wealth and power.” Russians, he tells us, “are suddenly living better than they ever have.” To be sure, the Russian president enjoys a popularity rating that any Western leader would envy. But polls reflect the constant barrage of pro-Putin propaganda in the Kremlin-controlled media and the traditional Russian craving for a strong state that assures stability, rather than an improvement in the lives of ordinary Russians. With the average hourly wage in Russia at around $3 an hour, only a tiny minority of Russians (many of whom are corrupt oligarchs favored by Putin) enjoy the fruits of Russia’s oil-based prosperity. Social welfare benefits, including health care, have been steadily eroding since Putin came to power, and the crime rate has been rising, with violent crime more than doubling between 1998 and 2006. Although Schmemann acknowledges that Russians will not be able choose their political leader when (and if) Putin steps down, he seems to dismiss this as insignificant in view of the fact that “stores are overflowing” and that Russians enjoy unprecedented “personal freedoms.” But what does personal freedom really mean, when people are denied the right to have democratic elections? Surprisingly, given that Schmemann is himself a journalist, he ignores the tragedy that has befallen his profession in Russia, where the independent media are under constant siege by the Kremlin. Instead, he lauds Putin for bringing stability to Russia, despite the fact that more than 20 journalists have been murdered there since Putin came to power. Amy Knight Basel, Switzerland