Putin′s problems surface at home | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 28.12.2016
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Putin's problems surface at home

2016 may see Russian President Vladimir Putin grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary with his hat trick of successes abroad, but what about Russians in general? Fiona Clark takes a look at how they've fared.

It's been a great year for Putin. About the only thing he has to lament is that he's not TIME's most influential person of the year again when he probably should have been - after all it's likely that President-elect Donald Trump wouldn't be where he is today without the Kremlin's help. But Putin can console himself with his hat-trick of successes: Taking control of Aleppo, Europe's disintegration at the very time it should be most united, and the man he wanted as the leader of the free world. What's not to celebrate?

But here's a set of cocktail ingredients that you can guarantee won't make it into his midnight toast: verbena oil, water, nail polish remover, mouthwash and lemonade. But for a growing number of his poorest citizens, these are exactly what will be on the shopping list.

Russland Irkutsk Alkoholvergiftungen (picture-alliance/dpa/K. Shipitsyn)

The spate of deaths through alcohol-poisoning has taken on alarming proportions

Over the past few weeks hundreds of people have died from drinking a liquid that is supposed to be used in your bath - although looking at the ingredients it's hard to know why you'd even put it there. It usually contains ethanol alcohol and at 18 rubles (3 euro cents) for a liter it's a whole lot cheaper than a bottle of vodka at around 200 rubles a bottle. But somehow the ethanol got swapped to methanol and in one town alone 60 people died in a week. That's 60 more to add to the average annual death rate of more than 15,000 from alcohol poisoning. And let's be clear here - that's straight alcohol poisoning, not alcohol-related deaths which include car crashes, alcohol-related violence and accidental drownings. This is just those who have drunk themselves quite literally into oblivion.

Poorest of the bunch

These are often Russia's poorest - and their numbers are growing rapidly. In 2014 before the sanctions were placed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea, some 16 million people were living below the poverty line. By the first quarter of 2016 that figure had risen to almost 22 million or 15.7 percent of its 140 million or so people.

A survey of 1,500 Russians earlier this year showed that 70 percent considered inflation and rising prices to be their most acute problem, according to the Interfax news agency. Some 66 percent of respondents said they were worried about poverty and low wages and 41 percent named unemployment as a major problem. Another study in July by Moscow's Higher School of Economics showed that 41 percent of Russian families struggled to find the money to buy food or clothing, with 23 percent describing their situation as "bad" or "very bad."

Rentner in Russland (picture-alliance/dpa/I. Pitalev/RIA Novosti)

Social discontent in Russia could become a problem for Putin

Poverty is one thing, but the state has also turned its back on those suffering from what it sees as socially unacceptable diseases like HIV. Recently Yekaterinburg said it was in the throws of an HIV epidemic with one in 50 people in the city testing positive for HIV. Early in 2016 Russia recorded its 1 millionth HIV positive case and according to the head of Russia's Federal AIDS Center, Vadim Pokrovsky, the true figure could be closer to 1.4-1.5 million or about 1 percent of the population. And he warned that without a serious combat strategy that figure could be 3 million by 2020.  

Head in the sand

The government, to its credit, did release an HIV strategy, but it falls far short of  the UNAIDS wish list that by 2020 90 percent of people who are HIV infected will be diagnosed, 90 percent of them will be on anti-retroviral treatment and 90 percent of those who receive anti-retroviral drugs will have viral suppression. Instead Russia opted for 60:60:60 and refused to allow methadone programs or to officially support needle-exchange programs. Instead the Ministry of Health talked about aiding its youth to make morally correct lifestyle decisions.

This head in the sand strategy has seen Russia become one of the few countries where the growth in HIV is now fastest among heterosexuals who are not drug addicts. They'll have sex with a drug addict and then go home and infect their partners. And in what can only be described as extreme perversity, Russian conservatives have labeled condoms as a key reason for the rise in the HIV rates as they say they encourage promiscuity.

So, while Putin struts upon the world stage looking like the cat that swallowed a canary, he might like to turn his thoughts in 2017 to things a little closer to home. There may be no political opposition of merit in Russia at the moment, but there is certainly social discontent - and that may well turn the coming year into his "annus horribilis."

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