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If you want to achieve the miracles required for sainthood, one of the great advantages of the Russian Orthodox Church is that it allows you to perform them after you are dead.

This not only relieves qualifiers for canonization of a lot of pressure while they are alive. It also gives them the benefit of more time and hindsight than ordinary mortals usually expect. You see, miracles in Russia are as much in the eye of the beholder as they are in the hands of the miracle-maker.

Take St. Sergius of Radonezh (Sergei Radonezhsky), for example. Born in 1314, Sergei managed to achieve his sainthood in 1448 -50 years after he had died. In his lifetime, Sergei started off as a hermit in the forests north of Moscow. His reputation for asceticism and hard work attracted a band of monks. With them, Sergei began establishing a chain of monasteries. Holy Trinity, which still stands at Sergeyev Posad, was one; Simonov Monastery, near the Zil car works in Moscow, was another.

As the 14th century turned into the 15th, in Russia, churchmen like Sergei were leaders in the expansion of the landholdings around their monasteries, which in turn were also vital fortifications in the defense of Moscow and of the lands and powers of the local princes. The politics of Muscovy’s expansion also required the defeat of rival oligarchs in Lithuania and Kiev. They battled each other by all means fair and foul. But to be stable, the winners needed legitimacy for their victories. That’s what the miracles of the saints were for: They were meant to demonstrate which side God was on – and, incidentally, why it would be extra-risky to challenge Him.

The hagiography sponsored by Moscow’s grand princes after Sergei’s death attributed miracles to him that had profound political effect. When the Blessed Virgin reportedly appeared to Sergei to assure him and his monastery of Her blessing, that was understood at the time as the sign She was backing Moscow’s princes and prelates over Kiev. Indeed, every step in the shift of territorial and military power down the rivers and across the countryside was sign¬posted by a miracle attributed to Sergei.

Consider how little time President Vladimir Putin has to perform the miracles Russia needs. The coming year, 2002, is the last before his re-election campaign starts in earnest; almost certainly his last opportunity to strip and reassemble the Kremlin and regional teams he should count on for the race. Not that there are any obvious rivals. Putin’s polling, founded on the macro-economic recovery and his personal adroitness, has totally demolished Yevgeny Primakov, Yury Luzhkov, Alexander Lebed, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Boris Nemtsov and Grigory Yavlinsky.

Still, Putin’s men understand how precariously popularity rests on indicators like real income, inflation and wage arrears. The arrears total was higher in November than at any time in the past year and even the much-promised budget payments have begun arriving late. If inflation is taken into account, this may not be so painful as before. But a combination of rising prices and shrinking revenues next year could trigger a sharp popular reaction. That’s not at all how the re-election campaign should kick off.

So the president faces a number of short-term pressures that will test his popularity. By itself, a high rating in the polls shouldn’t be thought a miracle, nor does a string of high ratings, let alone re¬election, assure the incumbent the political equivalent of sainthood.

There are, however, two miracles which Putin must try to perform, if not achieve, in the new year. To do that, he must answer these questions.

Recovery for whom?

The rosiest of recovery assessments for the Russian economy can’t hide the fact that Russians are dying at an accelerating rate. This year the population total is down to 144 million, down more than 700,000. Last year, the loss was just over 600,000. The average loss each year since 1993 has been 500,000. Real income is recovering, but the gap between today’s living standards and those of a decade ago is still so large it is killing people. When Kremlin Economic Advisor Andrei Illarionov recently claimed that falling oil prices stimulate domestic employment, he didn’t mention those who go missing from the growth statistics because they are dead. While it is clear from Putin’s speeches that he is conscious of the problems and the underlying causes, it is less obvious that, when confronted by the policies required for the remedies, Putin has the confidence and conviction to make the right choices. He may think that a healthy Russian society may depend on a healthy economy, but he has yet to respond to the fundamental distrust all Russians show – should show – towards those who are running the economy and benefiting from the recovery.

Private corporations are now free to impose the same harsh tax -wage-payment delays and layoffs – whenever they want to transfer the burden of shrinking margins to the state. As a start-up miracle, the president should break into this cycle by wielding the tools of the Finance Ministry on behalf of the commonwealth and the greater good. To do that he should employ the Accounting Chamber to expose a decade of lying, corruption, bureaucratic arrogance and repeated violations of law in the Finance Ministry. To make the Finance Ministry accountable, it is time the Kremlin endorse legislation on official accountability the Duma would be only too happy to enact and enforce. Implementation shouldn’t be an executive prerogative.

Who should subsidize whom?

It is the thinking in the cabinets of Minister of Economic Development and Trade German Gref and UES head Anatoly Chubais that, with incomes growing, inflation under control and taxes falling, next year will be the time for Gazprom and United Energy Systems (UES) to hike tariffs for gas and electricity. Investment houses opine that, because Russia’s gas and power prices are way below international levels, Gazprom and UES are subsidizing the rest of the Russian economy. Reform is the word used by those telling Putin that, if he will order an end to the cross-subsidies and allow restructuring of both Gazprom and UES, he will trigger the investment impulse required to produce not only more bountiful supplies of fuel and energy, but also lower producer prices. Any accountant can do the calculations to demonstrate what a huge value-destroying subsidy is generated by low prices. That is, if the accountant ignores the value of the resources discovered, and capital generated, by the state in building Gazprom and UES in the first place.

Those who tell Putin it is time to turn Gazprom and UES into profit-making centers that generate value for their shareholders think their takeover of the assets at giveaway prices should incur no charges. They are wrong, arithmetically and morally. The reason it was right for Putin to dismiss former Gazprom CEO Rem Vyakhirev is the same reason he should do the same thing to Chubais at UES. The reason Chubais is vilified in the country is that he was one of the masterminds of the theft of state property called “privatization.” Why should anyone trust him to manage UES any differently? To allow Chubais to dictate electricity prices would be no wiser than to allow aluminum companies to do the same thing. The choice isn’t whether to eliminate price subsidies – it is, who deserves to benefit?

Ordinary people have venerated St. Sergius for more than 500 years now, without knowing the politics of his time. It’s difficult to believe in miracles if you study politics – even more difficult if you are dead, and the miracles retrospective. That’s why a president needs a few articles of faith, and why he must show others what they are. A miracle at the Finance Ministry, a miracle at UES – what leap of faith do these require?

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