Essay: As Russian history repeats itself, Putin becomes Yeltsin

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin celebrate Independence Day in 2003
As President Vladimir Putin opens his fourth term, Russia’s increasingly creaky political regime is starting to resemble the latter years of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin (source: dpa)
  • For the first time, President Putin has taken responsibility for unpopular fiscal policies
  • Kremlin candidates then fared poorly in some direct elections for region governors
  • Elites are starting to debate whether to use elections to manage political succession
  • These seemingly minor developments may portend more sweeping, sudden changes

That Russia’s retirement pension reform – which centers around a radical increase of retirement age – would have major political repercussions was obvious the moment it was announced in the spring of 2018. However, the consequences have occurred sooner and turned out to be more serious than one could have expected. While the situation is still developing, some conjectures about its future course can already be made.

The decisive event was President Vladimir Putin’s address to the nation on August 29, when he explicitly endorsed the reform. In the address, he considered and rejected other means to plug the hole in public finances, such as switching to a more progressive scale of income tax, bigger state levies on petroleum income, and asset sales of state property. He did not discuss curbing corruption and improving state management as possible savings measures, nor make any attempt to redress the moral trauma of the reform. Mr. Putin’s closing phrase – “I am expecting your understanding” – caused a powerful surge of rage among ordinary Russians.

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