Putin offers Russians financial sweeteners

Reuters, MOSCOW

Fri, Feb 22, 2019 - Page 6

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday offered a raft of financial sweeteners to Russians after opinion polls showed that trust in him has fallen to a 13-year low and almost half the population believes the country is on the wrong track.

In his annual speech to the Russian political elite, Putin set out how he plans to raise living standards, and boost healthcare and education, promising he would find extra money to back the pledges.

Among his promises: More money for pensioners, mortgage and tax relief for families, and financial incentives for women to have more children.

He also laid out deadlines to close huge and sometimes apparently spontaneous landfill sites that have become a political sore for the Kremlin and anger many Russians who have seen them spring up near their homes, polluting the air.

“You can’t deceive people. They keenly feel hypocrisy, disrespect and any injustice. Bureaucratic red tape is of little interest to them,” Putin told lawmakers and regional leaders. “For people what’s important is what has actually been done and how it improves their lives and their families’ lives.”

Putin also spoke of a new arms race with the US, something that could potentially reduce funds available for social spending if it continues to escalate.

However, for now, Putin said that Russia is well able to afford to spend heavily on lifting people’s quality of life.

He said that the nation’s foreign-currency reserves covered the entirety of its external debt obligations for the first time and forecast that the economy would be growing by more than 3 percent by 2021.

Oil revenues mean that Russia is not short of money. Its budget surplus this year is projected to be 1.932 trillion roubles (US$29.4 billion), or 1.8 percent of GDP. Russia’s foreign-exchange reserves stand at US$478 billion, the fifth-largest in the world.

However, if Putin had to scale back social spending plans to fund a wider arms race, that could further dent his ratings.

Putin is not under immediate pressure and enjoys an approval rating of about 60 percent, but his rating used to be nearly 90 percent and an opinion poll last month showed that public trust in him had fallen to its lowest level in 13 years.

Another survey this month showed that the number of Russians viewing the country as moving in the wrong direction was at its highest since 2006.

Pollsters attribute the souring mood to people fed up with six consecutive years of falling real incomes and unpopular government moves to raise the retirement age and hike value-added tax.