Open Letter to Voters, 25 February 2000
Last week, the Central Election Commission registered me as a candidate for president of Russia. I have long thought about and made known my decision to stand in the election. But an election campaign presents great demands. It imposes legitimate limitations and leads me to draw a distinction between what I have to do on a day-to-day basis as the leader of the country and what I am to do as a participant in the election campaign.
As in all the preceding months, I will continue to perform the immediate duties of my office. There are no special electoral events on my calendar. And the campaign headquarters that has been set up will only do what the law on the election of the president and the instructions of the Central Election Commission prescribe.
But there is another side to the matter, and that is my duty as a candidate to all the Russian voters. Chief among them is to present my plan and to identify the problems I intend to tackle as the head of the Russian state. In short, to present my electoral platform.
This is truly important. On the one hand, my position as head of state is open and generally known. During the past six months people have been able to see what I consider to be of key importance and what I am already doing in national politics and economics. On the other hand, the question is still being asked: “Who is Putin and what are his political plans?”
And if the question is raised, it must be answered.
So I thought it would be best to address you directly. I have decided to tell you without mediators – in a brief and clear way – what I think about our present life and what needs to be done to improve it.
On Our Problems
Many see the roots of our failures in misguided decisions taken in various sectors. But that is only partly true. Specialists are still arguing about where we went wrong. They are not to be blamed for looking at life from their respective points of view and promoting their vision.
I am sure that no coherent and workable programme can emerge if it is written in several different offices, with some writing the economic, others the political and yet others the international parts. And then all this is mechanically “glued together” and presented as a single state platform.
That is not the way to go about it. We will not get anywhere that way.
Any programme begins with the identification of the main goals. A national programme begins with what can unite all of us, the citizens of our country. For a Russian citizen what is important are the moral principles that he first acquires in the family and that form the very core of patriotism. That is the main thing. Without it we cannot agree on anything, without it Russia would have to forget about national dignity and even about national sovereignty.
That is our starting premise. And it is the task of a leader to set common goals, to assign a proper role to everyone and to help people believe in themselves. This is the only way to create team spirit, to achieve victory. So, it is vital to openly admit our core problems and set our priorities right.
I can tell you how I see them.
Our first and most important problem is a weakening of the will, a loss of will and perseverance in following through with our plans – vacillations, going from one extreme to the other and the habit of putting off solving the most difficult tasks.
It is high time we came to grips with our problems, first and foremost the most dangerous ones, the problems that are holding us back, that are strangling our economy and are preventing the state from developing. Frankly speaking, these are problems that threaten our very survival.
To continue to shy away from these problems is more dangerous than to face the challenge. People no longer believe promises, and the authorities are less and less respected. The state machine is coming apart, its engine – the executive branch – sputters and hiccoughs as soon as you try to get it started. Bureaucrats are “pushing papers” but are not doing any real work and have all but forgotten what discipline is. In these conditions people, of course, cannot count on the rule of law or expect justice from the authorities. They can count only on themselves. What is the use of such a government then?
A high level of crime is an example of such persistent evil.
For many years we have been idly talking about the need to fight crime, thus merely driving that evil deeper into the fabric of Russia. Banditry grew stronger, invading cities and villages and taking root everywhere. A whole constituent republic of the Russian Federation, Chechnya, was taken over by the criminal world and turned into its fortress. But as soon as we challenged the bandits head on and defeated them, a real step was taken towards the rule of law, the dictatorship of the law, which treats everyone equally.
Now, wherever a terrorist or a criminal may be hiding – in Novgorod, St Petersburg, Kazan or any other Russian city – he can no longer look to assistance from or find shelter in Chechnya. A terrible blow has been dealt to the world of bandits.
This is the first step, and it will be followed by others.
But this could not have been accomplished by just sitting in Moscow and inventing endless “programmes to fight crime”. One had to challenge the enemy on his own turf and defeat him.
I hope I have made it clear how such difficult problems can and must be solved. Reality leaves no other choice: it is only by meeting the challenge that one can prevail.
Another major problem is a lack of firm and universally recognized rules. Like a person, society cannot live without rules. A country’s rules take the form of the law, constitutional discipline and order. They are about the security of a person’s family and property, his personal security and confidence that the established rules of the game will not change.
The state will have to start with itself. It should not just make rules, it should follow them. This is the only way to make sure that uniform norms of behaviour established by the law are complied with. In a state where there is no rule of law and which is therefore a weak state, the individual is vulnerable and not free. The stronger the state the freer the individual. In a democracy your rights and my rights are limited only by the similar rights of other people. Recognition of that simple truth is the basis of the law, which should apply to everyone, from members of the government to ordinary citizens.
But democracy means a dictatorship of the law and not of the people whose job is to uphold the law. I think it is worth remembering that a court of law passes its rulings on behalf of the Russian Federation and it must be worthy of its high authority. The police and the Prosecutor’s Office must serve the law rather than trying to “privatise” their authorities for their own benefit. Their immediate and only task is to protect people and not misguided notions of honour and departmental interests.
Rules are necessary and important for everyone and everywhere, for the authorities, entrepreneurs and even more so those who are weak and need social protection. You cannot help the weak if taxes are not paid into the treasury. It is impossible to build a civilised market in a world that is riddled with corruption. No economic progress is possible if government officials depend on moneybags.
They ask how they should treat the oligarchs? The answer is, the same as everyone else. The same as an owner of a small bakery or a shoe repair shop.
Only an effective and strong state can afford to live by the rules (that is, by the law). It alone should guarantee the freedom of the entrepreneur, the individual and society.
If we teach ourselves to respect the rules we make and learn to behave decently, we will force others to follow suit. If we punish offences strictly according to the law, those who up until now stood more to gain by violating the law will prefer to stay on the right side of the law. And those who have forgotten should be reminded that governing the country is a job paid for by the taxpayers and our earnings.
I am aware that many today are afraid of order. But order is all about rules. And those who today are fiddling with notions and presenting a lack of order as true democracy should not suspect any foul play or try to scare us with the prospect of a return to the past. “Our land is rich, only there is no order in it,” Russians used to say. No one will ever again have reason to say that about us.
Finally, there is one more big problem which renders all “grandiose plans” useless.
We have a very vague notion of the resources at our disposal today. Everybody seems to agree that property is inviolable, but how much property is out there? Where is it and who does it belong to? Today we don’t even have accurate numbers that show what belongs to the state, starting with the treasures of Gokhran and ending with intellectual property to which the Russian people have a rightful claim. One is ashamed to admit that no one in the country today can name the exact number of working enterprises or revenues or even provide accurate data on the number of people in the country.
It is time to clearly determine who owns what in Russia. Only then will we be able to properly assess our own potential and determine which tasks are feasible. This is the luggage that we should have as we set out on our journey. What we need today as much as we need air to breathe is a complete inventory of the country; we need an accurate record and proper recognition of everything that there is.
Upon assuming his duties, a new manager begins by looking at the balance sheet. Russia is a huge, complicated and very diverse enterprise. It makes no sense to argue whether we are poor or rich as long as we haven’t made a review of all our successes and setbacks, our past losses and our new achievements.
Each of you surely has his or her own idea of the root causes of our setbacks and miscalculations. But it is high time we, the people of Russia, made up our minds as to what we expect the state to deliver and on what points we are ready to support it. I am speaking about our national priorities. Without it we will continue to waste time while our fate is decided by irresponsible chatterboxes.
On Our Priorities
In recent years we have approved hundreds of “immediate” and “priority” measures. The very fact that there are so many of them suggests that we haven’t got around to addressing our real priorities. We have constantly been reacting to events, clearing up the mess created by our own misguided decisions. We have constantly lumped together big and small matters. But we have been only too happy to be sidetracked by dealing with easy tasks, thus justifying our own reluctance and our fear of meeting truly serious challenges.
If we don’t want to be thrown back to the past, if we don’t want our country to lag behind, we should determine the truly urgent tasks. There are not so many of them if one has the right approach. But they are truly challenging.
Our priority is to fight poverty.
We are used to being proud of our wealth: our vast territory, natural resources, multiethnic culture and educated populace. That is all true. But it is pitifully little for the great power that Russia is.
We should at long last tell ourselves: we are a rich country of poor people. In general we are a country of paradoxes, not so much political as social, economic and cultural.
Our children win gold medals at international Olympiads. Our best brains are welcomed in the West. Russian musicians and conductors perform to full houses on the best concert stages of the world. And the theatres in the capital are always full. All that is part of our wealth.
But there is a flip side, and it is not just depressing, it cries for something to be done about it. Millions of people in the country can barely make ends meet; they are skimping on everything, even on food. Parents and children have to save money for years in order to travel to visit each other. The elderly, who won the Great Patriotic War and made Russia a glorious world power, are eking out a meagre existence or, worse, begging in the streets. And yet it is the fruits of their labour that the present generation is living off while contributing very little to the national wealth. To repay our debt to them is not just a social, but a political and moral task in the full sense of the word.
Yes, we have at long last started paying pensions in due time. We have started to do whatever we can to help the needy. But this truly nationwide problem cannot be solved by endlessly patching up holes, without ground-breaking ideas and new approaches.
Of course, it is impossible to get rid of the humiliation of poverty without money. But to further inflate our already massive social security programme would not solve the problem either. We have been there before. Our main resource is the new able-bodied generation. Those who are willing and able to become well-to-do people within a civilised state.
Young and energetic people, all those who know the real price of labour and can earn a living, and who already know how to rid the country of the humiliation of poverty – they are capable of bringing back to Russia not only economic but also moral dignity. It is a nationwide task and we will solve it together. There are enough examples in Russian history. Russia has emerged from even worse scrapes.
Our priority is to protect the market from unlawful invasion both by bureaucrats and by criminals. It is our duty to secure property rights and protect entrepreneurs against arbitrary and illegal interference in their activities. If the state does not provide these guarantees, criminal groups quickly fill the vacuum. They provide “protection” for those who have tried and failed to get it from the state.
Some time ago the term “economic crime” became popular. This is not just legally inaccurate, it is a mistake. One cannot lump together all the crimes connected with economics and finance and launch campaigns against “economic criminals”.
But ever since the crime world discovered an extremely lucrative “economic specialisation”, it has been thriving in our financial and economic environment. And the state itself was helping it by its actions, or lack thereof. It was helping it by making poor laws, by failing to provide clear rules and by chaotic and incompetent tampering with the market.
Of course, tough state control is needed. But it alone is not enough. Look what is happening: you are not sure of the stability of your business because you cannot count on the law and the honesty of government officials. So, you are not satisfied with the services of the state and therefore do not pay all your taxes. And what is more, you can live quite happily that way. Meanwhile, the state doesn’t have the wherewithal to support an unbiased legal system or pay proper salaries to its officials, who therefore take bribes. It is a vicious circle.
We have been talking about state regulation of the economy for years. But we mean different things by regulation. The essence of regulation is not to strangle the market and expand bureaucratic oversight to new sectors, but on the contrary, to help the market stand on its feet. People are entitled to be protected against the possibility of their business being grabbed by a group of bandits. They are entitled to expect the rules of fair competition to be followed. All businesses should be in the same conditions. And state institutions cannot be used in the interests of rivalries between clans or groups.
I think the picture is clear. We have high taxes, but we collect them poorly. We should have low taxes, but collect them well – so well as to make the state strong and effective. So that it could support a just legal system and a bureaucracy that is not venal. So that it could help those who cannot take care of themselves.
I am absolutely convinced that a strong state needs wealthy people. So a key goal of our economic policy should be to make honest work more rewarding than stealing.
It’s enough living with “packed suitcases” and keeping money under the mattresses. Enough feeding other countries by forcing our people to keep their earnings in foreign bank accounts. It is high time we created conditions conducive to the development of young and able-bodied citizens. They don’t need artificial hothouse conditions, nor do they need excessive restrictions. Those who want to and can be wealthy, let them help themselves and their country.
Our priority is to restore the personal dignity of the people in the name of the dignity of the nation.
Russia has long ceased to be just a reduced map of the Soviet Union; it is a confident power with a great future and a great people.
The past decade has brought dramatic changes to the consciousness of the people. Our citizens are not yet rich, but they are independent and self-confident. Our press today is free and it will forever be free. Our army is emerging from a prolonged crisis with honour and is becoming ever more efficient and professional.
True, Russia has ceased to be an empire, but it has not wasted its potential as a great power. We no longer dictate to anyone and we do not keep anyone from leaving us; instead we have the time and resources to devote to ourselves. The new generation has got a great historic chance to build a Russia that it will not be ashamed to pass on to its children.
Those who claim that we will use this chance to establish a dictatorship are engaged in scaremongering. A great country cherishes its freedom and respects that of others. It is unreasonable to be afraid of a strong Russia, but it should be reckoned with. Insulting us is counterproductive.
This leads us to another priority: to pursue our foreign policy in keeping with our national interests. In fact, we have to recognize the primacy of internal goals over external ones. We should at long last learn to do that. If certain international projects – no matter how much they are touted and how fine they sound – bring no benefits to our people, we shouldn’t join those projects. If Russia is being urged to engage in global ventures which cost a lot of money while we have to borrow and are unable to pay wages to our people – we have to think twice before joining.
Where weakness and poverty hold sway, there can be no great power. It is time to understand that our place in the world, our wealth and our new rights depend on our success in dealing with our internal problems.
Let us be mindful of our national interests not only when they have to be loudly declared. Let us first formulate them competently and clearly and then implement them steadfastly. Only the real interests of our country, including economic interests, should be the law for Russian diplomats.
But let me sound a note of caution: the fact that we are saving energy at present does not mean that we are not thinking in terms of external expansion, in the good sense of that word. We too have what other countries call zones of vital interests. But we see these zones as sources of further peaceful development – economic, international and political.
The list could be continued. But what I have mentioned is enough to start work immediately. Don’t we have enough pressing tasks? By pooling our efforts we will solve them one by one.
On Our Common Goal
Oceans of political platforms are usually published by candidates during elections. Few people read these voluminous documents to the end.
I have presented here my views on what I consider to be truly important. Those who say that this is not the whole programme are right. I do not purport to know the absolute truth, but I thought it was my duty to tell my fellow citizens briefly about my principles and my views of the state.
I am convinced that the main feature of the new age will not be a battle of ideologies but a fierce competition for quality of life, national wealth and progress.
And progress is something that you either have or you have not. No references to the purity of party principles – be they “right” or “left” – can be an excuse for the poverty of the people.
If I were to look for a slogan for my election campaign, it would be very simple. It would be “A decent life”. A decent life that the majority of my fellow citizens want to have and in which they believe. A life as I see it myself, being a Russian.