As Vladimir Putin is embarking on his third term as Russia's president, it becomes useful to know what in Russia really needs changing. The tax system is OK; the property system is OK; the educational system is OK; but there are many things that are not OK.
The worst problems with Russia, that can be solved at the government level, are
- The court system that convicts 99% of the accused;
- The brutal military hazing ("dedovschina") that costs Russia 5,000 of its best minds a year to murder or suicide - and many thousands more to emigration;
- The culture of domestic brutality that costs the lives of 14,000 Russian women a year.
In all cases we see glaring wrongs that desperately require being resolved.
Everybody knows that an honest court system will not convict 99% of the accused. A vast chunk of the convicted are innocent. Given the ugly conditions of Russian prisons, we are seeing hunderds of thousands of innocent people living in squalor, frost and brutality that is ongoing and frequently deadly. This is a huge wrong, and the only people who can address it is the Russian government. Putin has enough pull and enough power to change this state of affairs, and doing so will not only benefit the country's image but end a vast wrong that is an unreformed holdover from Soviet days.
The dedovschina, meanwhile, is a major source not only of the death of Russia's best and brightest but also a major source of Russia's best and brightest moving elsewhere. 5,000 of Russia's young men die every year from dedovschina, and any number of thousands flee to other countries in order to escape it. Since the dedovschina targets especially the brainy types as opposed to the brutal types, the thousands that Russia loses each year are thousands of Russia's best minds. This brain drain - to murder, suicide and emigration - prevents Russia from capitalising on these people's potential. These people would become otherwise Russia's scientists, businesspeople, doctors, engineers, journalists, teachers; instead they wind up dead or abroad. And this severely weakens Russia.
While domestic violence is a much longer-running Russian habit, it is this habit that is the most injurious and most unjust. Russian women are beautiful, smart, tender, and loving; yet all this goodness gets taken for granted and viciously abused. The goodness of Russian women is taken advantage of by brutal and swinish idiots who would put a woman in a hospital for making the soup too salty or in the graveyard for talking to a male friend. What we see here is a vast injustice in which the better party is being brutally dominated by the worse party, with one of the world's highest fatality rates from domestic violence. And what we are also seeing - surprise, surprise - is many of these women fleeing to other countries in order to avoid the brutal ordeal that is a marriage to a "traditional" Russian man.
In all three cases, we are seeing vast wrongs. And in all three cases, these wrongs are not only correctible but something that it would greatly benefit Russia to correct. If innocent people don't go away to prison for nothing except suspicion, there will be more productive and tax-paying citizens and less expenditure for jails. If Russia's best minds don't wind up dead or in other countries as a result of dedovschina, then these best minds will stay in Russia and work to make Russia great. And if real progress is made against domestic brutality, then life will vastly improve for the 50% of the population that are women, and children won't be growing up in traumatizing situations in which they are watching their mothers getting battered, injured or killed.
Finally, there is a little matter of Russia's global reputation. Practices that are hideous, injust, destructive and brutal give one's country very little respect on the world stage, and the country's people get seen through them as barbarians. The less such practices are in place in the country, the more the country and its people get respect.
Now there is a long-term Russian attitude that respect is gained through force or intimidation. As a Russian saying goes, "he fears me, that means he respects me." This does not work on the world stage at this time. There are any number of powerful countries in the world now, and Russia won't gain their respect by being a bully. Russia will gain respect by making Russia a better place.
With a competent leadership, Russia has every possibility of becoming again a great country. What is at stake here is the character of the country that comes about - how it is in fact and also how it is seen. The brutal, corrupt practices such as ones of which I have written must go. They damage both Russia and Russia's reputation. And if Russia is to become a great country it knows it can and should be, then it needs to do away with these shameful wrongs and through doing that improve the lot of its people and improve its standing in the world.