This news may have slipped by you during the run-up to the holidays: In early December, during one of his near-daily speeches about Russia’s ailing economy, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the country’s best hope to turn around the economy is to let small business flourish in Russia.

Fred Weir, longtime Moscow correspondent for the Christian Scientist Monitor, called Putin’s plan “a startlingly new appeal.” It calls for a series of incentives for business startups, including tax holidays and curbs on red tape. It will also include financial aid for small business and assistance for technological innovators.

Why is this so strange?

As noted by the New York Times, for the past 15 years, Putin has used his virtually unchallenged power and control of the Russian state bureaucracy to reward with power and wealth a new class of post-Soviet oligarchs, friends and allies. Likewise, he’s used those same tools to punish anyone whose political or economic interests fall afoul of the Kremlin’s.

However, with the value of the Russian currency free-falling with the price of oil and the economic impact of Western sanctions against Russia for invasion of Crimea taking hold, Putin is even turning on his allies with a new wave of “re-nationalization” of companies they control.

With domestic oligarchs and foreign investors fleeing Russia, Putin is embracing small businesses to help him reassure the Russian citizenry that the economy will recover. And the citizenry seems to be sticking with him. According to opinion polls, Putin remains popular. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, his ratings have soared. In early December opinion polls indicated 85% approval for his work as president, with more than 62% of Russians expressing trust in him.

After his early December speech about small businesses, even some of his consistent detractors were “I’ve never (previously) thought of Putin as my president, and it never seemed he was speaking to my concerns when he gave speeches like this,” Mikhail Sagiryan, who owns a string of Moscow-area health clubs, told Weir. “So I couldn’t believe my ears today. Suddenly he was talking about ‘unblocking the road’ for small businessmen, giving us tax breaks, limiting all these endless inspections of our premises, and finally letting us work.”

Other small business owners echoed Sagiryan’s enthusiasm, but perhaps with a bit more caution. “What Putin said was good. I like the idea of tax holidays, no raising of existing taxes for four years, and an amnesty for capital flight…but it hasn’t happened yet. What Putin said sounds good, but let’s see,” said Vladlen Maximov, vice president of Opora Rossi, a small business association in Moscow, told Weir.

We agree: It sounds good, but let’s see.

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