Vladimir Putin lays out the challenges facing Russia and the reforms he proposes for them

I will dwell on a number of fundamental ideological and political issues. I believe this discussion is essential at the present stage of Russia’s development.

I consider the development of Russia as a free and democratic state to be our main political and ideological goal. We use these words fairly frequently, but rarely care to reveal how the deeper meaning of such values as freedom and democracy, justice and legality is translated into life.

Sometimes it is suggested that since the Russian people have been silent for centuries, they are not used to or do not need freedom.

I would like to bring those who think this way back to reality. Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. For the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.

A destructive process

Individual savings were depreciated and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Terrorist intervention in Chechnya damaged the country’s integrity.

Oligarchic groups – possessing absolute control over information channels – served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. All this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances and the paralysis of the social sphere.

Many thought or seemed to think at the time that our young democracy was not a continuation of Russian statehood, but its ultimate collapse. They were, however, mistaken.

That was precisely the period when the significant developments took place in Russia. Our society was generating not only the energy of self-preservation, but also the will for a new and free life. In those difficult years, the people of Russia had to uphold their state sovereignty and also make an unerring choice in selecting a new vector of development in the thousand years of their history. They had to accomplish the most difficult task: how to safeguard their own values, not to squander undeniable achievements and confirm the viability of Russian democracy.

Above all else, Russia was, is and will be a major European power. Achieved through much suffering by European culture, the ideals of freedom, human rights, justice and democracy have for many centuries been our society’s determining values.
For three centuries, we – together with the other European nations – passed hand in hand through the reforms of the Enlightenment, the difficulties of emerging parliamentarism, municipal and judiciary branches, and the establishment of similar legal systems. Step by step, we moved together towards recognizing and extending human rights, towards universal and equal suffrage, towards understanding the need to look after the weak and the impoverished, towards women’s emancipation and other social gains.

We did this together, with Russia sometimes behind and sometimes ahead of the standards elsewhere in Europe.

Public bureaucracy

We must have an efficient state. However, our bureaucratic apparatus is still largely an exclusive and often arrogant caste regarding state service as an alternative form of business. Therefore, our priority remains making state management more effective, ensuring that officials strictly obey the law and provide quality public services to the people.
A specific feature of recent times has been that the dishonest part of our bureaucracy – at the federal and local levels alike – has been particularly keen on using the achieved stability in its own mercenary interests. It started using the favourable conditions and emerging opportunities to achieve its own selfish goals rather than to increase the prosperity of society.

If the state falls into the trap of finding simplified solutions, the level of corruption, irresponsibility and lack of professionalism will rocket, throwing us back on the way of economic and intellectual degradation and creating a growing rift between the authorities and public interests, with the state apparatus refusing to heed public requests.

I repeat: we cannot be satisfied with the current situation in the country. While freeing major mass media from the oligarchs’ censorship, we failed to protect them from the unhealthy zeal of certain officials. Focusing the efforts of law enforcement bodies on the fight against crime, including tax evasion, we encountered frequent violations of the rights of our business community, and sometimes a blatant racket on the part of state officials.

Many bureaucrats believe this situation will never change, and such violations are the inevitable result of past and current polices. I must disappoint them. Our plans do not include handing over the country to the inefficient rule of a corrupted bureaucracy.

A modern Russian official must learn to speak with the public using the modern language of cooperation, the language of common public interest, dialogue and real democracy, rather than the jargon of military orders.

Private enterprise

A further important task is to promote liberalization in private enterprise. I would like to focus on measures to stabilize civil law relations and to achieve a dramatic increase in opportunities for free enterprise and capital investment.

Stability of private property rights is the alpha and omega of any business. The rules to which the state adheres in this sphere should be clear to everyone and, importantly, these rules should be stable. This enables people developing their business to plan normally both this business and their own lives. This allows citizens to feel comfortable and conclude, without any apprehensions, contracts on such vital issues as the acquisition of housing or its privatization, which has already been almost completed in our country. In general, this encourages people to buy property and expand production.

It is necessary to help our citizens legalize in a simplified way the real estate that belongs to them de facto. I mean garages, housing, suburban cottages and the relevant land plots in different cooperative societies and horticultural associations.
The legalization procedures should be as simple as possible, while the relevant paperwork should not create additional difficulties for our citizens.

Incidentally, this will open up such additional opportunities as the legal inheritance of property, and will allow citizens to take out mortgages with banks using this property as security.

Finally, citizens need to be encouraged to channel the flow of capital they have accumulated into our national economy. Citizens should be allowed to declare the money they have saved in previous years, in the previous period, in a simplified procedure. This procedure should be accompanied by only two provisions: that 13% income tax is paid and that the funds are deposited in Russian bank accounts.

This money should work in our economy, in our country, not lie in offshore zones.

Crime and punishment

Another, systemic task of state development, in my view, is concerned with the work of the tax and customs agencies. I believe their priority should be to check compliance with tax and customs legislation, rather than the fulfilment of “plans” to collect taxes and duties.

The fiscal agencies must not close their eyes to legal violations. We should find ways, however, for back taxes from previous years to be repaid in the interests of the state without destroying the economy and pushing business into a corner. The tax agencies must not “terrorize” business by returning to the same problem again and again.

They should work rhythmically, promptly reacting to violations but spotlighting, above all, inspections of the current period.

We want all our law-abiding citizens to be proud of the work of our law enforcement agencies and not to cross the street when they see someone in uniform. There can be no place in our law enforcement agencies for people whose primary aim is to fill their own pockets rather than uphold the law. The motivation for our law enforcement officers should be, above all, about providing quality protection of our citizens’ rights and freedoms.

Finally, if part of Russian society continues to see the court system as corrupt, there can be no speaking of an effective justice system in our country.

Russians abroad

We consider international respect for the rights of Russians abroad an issue of major importance, one that cannot be the subject of political and diplomatic bargaining. We hope that the new members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union in the post-Soviet area will show their respect for human rights, including ethnic minorities’ rights, through their actions.
Countries that do not respect and cannot guarantee human rights themselves do not have the right to demand that others respect these same rights.

Civil society

I would like now to say a few words about our priorities for developing civil society. Sergei Witte, an influential Russian policy-maker, wrote: “The state does not so much create as add substance. The genuine creators are all the citizens themselves… The aim should be not to hinder independence, but to develop it and encourage it in every way.”

This piece of advice is still just as relevant today.
Our primary task should be to ensure that our citizens have objective information. This is a political issue of vital importance and it is directly linked to putting the principles of freedom and justice into practice in our state policy.

We need to ensure that national television fully takes into account Russian civil society’s most relevant needs and protects its interests. We need to establish guarantees that will ensure that the output of state television and radio is as objective as possible, free from the influence of any particular group, and that it reflects the whole spectrum of public and political forces in the country.

Demographic challenge

It is my firm conviction that success in many areas of our life depends on resolving the acute demographic problems we face. We cannot accept the fact that, on average, Russian women live 10 years less than women in western European countries, and Russian men live 16 years less, on average.

Many of the causes of this mortality rate in Russia could be readily addressed, and in many cases the costs involved would not even be very high. For example, almost 100 people a day are killed here in traffic accidents. The reasons for these accidents are well known and we should take a whole series of measures to improve this dramatic situation.

I particularly want to stress another, more complex issue for our society – the consequences of alcoholism and drug addiction. About 40,000 people a year die from alcohol poisoning in Russia – above all, as a result of drinking alcohol surrogates. Most of these people are young men, the breadwinners for their families. Prohibitive methods, however, will not resolve this problem. Our work should be focused on encouraging the young generation to make a conscious choice in favour of a healthy way of life, and to get involved in sports and physical culture. Every young man should be aware that a healthy way of life is a key to success, a key to his personal success.

The low birth rate is another national problem. There are more and more families in Russia with just one child. We need to make the status of parenthood more prestigious and create conditions that will encourage people to give birth and raise children.

I also think that an increase in our population should be accompanied by a carefully-planned immigration policy. It is in our interest to receive a flow of legal and qualified workers. There are still a lot of companies in Russia making use of the advantages of illegal immigration. After all illegal immigrants, who lack any rights, are convenient in that they can be exploited endlessly. They are also a potential danger from the point of view of breaking the law.

The issue here is not just one of scaling back the shadow sector of the economy but of bringing real benefit for the entire Russian state and society. Ultimately, every legal immigrant should have the chance to become a Russian citizen.

Public morals

Speaking of our values, I would like to raise another issue I think is very important, that of the level of public morals and culture.

It is well known that a good business reputation has always been a prerequisite for concluding deals, and human decency has been a necessary condition for taking part in state and public life. Russian society has always condemned immorality, and indecent behaviour has always been publicly reprimanded.

Law and morals, politics and morality have traditionally been considered close and related concepts in Russia; at least, such was always the declared ideal and aim. Despite the problems we all know, the level of morality in tsarist Russia and during the Soviet years was always a very meaningful scale and criterion for people’s reputation, at work, in society and in private life.

No one can deny that values such as close friendship, mutual assistance, trust, comradeship and reliability have flourished in Russia over the course of centuries, becoming enduring and immutable values here.

Professor Lev Petrazhitsky, a prominent Russian legal theorist, noted that the duties to help the needy and pay workers agreed wages are, above all, ethical norms of conduct. And this was written almost 100 years ago, in 1910.

I think that unless it follows the basic moral standards accepted in civilized society, Russian business is unlikely to earn a respectable reputation. It will be unlikely to earn respect, not just in the wider world, but even more important, within its own country. After all, many of the difficulties faced by the economy and by politics in Russia today have their roots in precisely the fact that the greater part of Russian society has no trust in the wealthy class.

We should remember that corruption among state officials and rising crime are also consequences of the lack of trust and moral strength in our society. Russia will begin to prosper only when the success of each individual depends not just on his level of wealth, but also on his decency and level of culture.

CV Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin is president of Russia. For more information on the president’s work, see www.kremlin.ru