Not listening

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LIVING WITH yes-men is bad for presidents, as Russia's Vladimir V. Putin is finding out.

Mr. Putin has labored mightily to ensure that the Kremlin can dictate to all levels in the country. There are no restraints, and that means there is no feedback - not from his aides, not from a parliament controlled by the president's party, not from the regional governors (who are now appointed by Mr. Putin), and not from a slavishly adoring press.

What is reality to a president, when a president has faith in his own transformative powers?

On Jan. 1, the Kremlin instituted a new system for providing benefits to pensioners, veterans, invalids and others. In place of free passes on public transportation and subsidized medicine and other in-kind assistance, the government now is supposed to dole out cash. The problem is that the cash payment system has been spotty and pensioners are discovering that when the money does arrive, it's not enough to cover the cost of what they've lost.

The result has been protests all across Russia - by late last week, in 80 of the country's 89 regions. A survey shows that 60 percent of bus passengers in Russian cities were getting a free ride, which suggests two things: that the impulse to try to reform the system may have been sensible, but that there's something seriously wrong with a political establishment that could be caught so off guard by the inevitable public anger.

Mr. Putin's administration has started backpedaling. Another reality-challenged idea - to curtail student draft deferments - has been put on hold. It has fallen to the public, finally, to put a check on Mr. Putin's project to remake Russia.

But it may be fleeting. The Kremlin is fighting back, though against facts. The "liberal" faction accuses the much-reduced Communist Party of whipping up all the protests, and police in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg have been picking up suspected "organizers." The "patriotic" faction, on the other hand, has accused the liberals around the president of cooking up the cash-for-benefits scheme in the first place as a Western-inspired provocation against Mr. Putin himself. Others are criticizing regional leaders for failing to carry out the Kremlin's orders effectively. But the public understands who's in charge, and the president is taking the blame.

The good news is that a falling-out among Mr. Putin's aides may let a little air in; the bad news is that the ranks are sure to close again when one side prevails, and an even darker and more paranoid Kremlin could be the result.

There's a lesson in this for presidents beyond Russia's borders, especially for those who were re-elected with something less than the 72 percent of the votes that Mr. Putin enjoyed last year. It's not a good idea to banish those who would pass on the bad news or ask the difficult question. Politics is a two-way enterprise, and if you can't listen, and you can't recognize reality, you're asking for trouble.

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