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RUSSIA: Falling living standards

We receive conflicting reports about the state of Russia. Here is a mixed one: "Putin's PM takes flak for falling living standards: President Vladimir Putin's prime minister, facing a parliamentary move to drive him from office, defended his government's record on Wednesday and said the economy could grow faster this year than first planned. Mikhail Kasyanov, shunning a no-confidence vote due to take place in the State Duma lower house in Moscow, said the country was in a "good starting position" for broad and sustainable economic growth. In Moscow, the communist and liberal opposition prepared a push for his resignation in a vote which, while almost certain to fail, would provide them - and Putin - with a chance to test the water six months ahead of parliamentary elections. The motion's sponsors accuse Kasyanov's government of pursuing policies that have depressed living standards, eroded social security and favored Russia's huge natural monopolies.

Far ahead in opinion surveys and likely to seek re-election next March in a separate poll, Putin runs few risks from a debate led by some of Russia's most fiery speakers. But while Kasyanov's fortunes have little bearing on the president, Putin will want to limit damage to his centrist allies in the Duma, who dismiss the debate as an election ploy. The motion was signed by 103 members, 10 more than required to get the issue on agenda, but far short of the 226 votes needed to pass. Centrists, the largest group in the 450-seat house, have been critical of Kasyanov, but have said they will not support the motion. "This is a pure show staged by two theatrical troupes, but it will not attract many viewers," Lyubov Sliska, a leading light in the pro-Putin United Russia group, said dismissively. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, two-time loser in past presidential races, was to put the case against the government together with Grigory Yavlinsky of the liberal Yabloko party.

In St Petersburg, Kasyanov said solid investment figures and rising personal incomes could help economic growth hit five per cent faster than initially planned. Officials this week announced a five-month growth figure of .1 per cent. But a poll last month showed nearly two-thirds of voters unhappy with government policy. Kasyanov is blamed for increased gas and electricity tariffs and rising costs in maintaining the tumbledown apartment blocks which house most town-dwellers. The prime minister is largely responsible for the economy in Russia's political system and often serves as a lightning rod, deflecting discontent from Putin. Putin periodically accuses Kasyanov of being too timid in pursuing targets. In the unlikely event that the motion passes, Putin can form a new government or dissolve the Duma and call a snap parliamentary election. He could also keep the existing administration in place, provided no second vote intervenes within three months. (Reuters, 6/18/03)

Ronald Hilton - 6/26/03