Due West: A Few Surprises in Putin’s Final Duma Report

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
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Vladimir Putin intends to stay president of Russia until 2024 or even - with a little bit of luck – until 2030.

Vladimir Putin intends to stay president of Russia until 2024 or even - with a little bit of luck – until 2030.

This is the conclusion most observers drew from his speech on Wednesday, his last report to the State Duma as prime minister. Formally the speech was an annual report summing up the events of last year. In fact this was Putin summing up all four years of his premiership and sketching the contours of his future presidency.

He thinks it will be a long one. During the Q&A session, when asked by one of the MPs whether he thinks that limiting a person to two presidential terms is a good idea, the president-elect was non-committal (“This idea could be discussed”), but very quick to point out that if adopted this constitutional amendment will not impact his own ability to run in 2018 again (“You cannot backdate application of the law”).

Moreover some people point out that if this amendment is adopted, he may well claim that his potential fourth term (2018-2024) would be the first one under the new law and have another go at election in 2024.

This is nothing but fantasy. Putin’s rule has entered an irreversible decline and the best he can look forward to is an exit in 2018.

His address to the Duma confirmed what I suspected all along: he has run out of new ideas. Everything he said repeated what he already enunciated during his first term, second term or his prime ministerial years: innovation, developing social services and welfare, raising the standard of living for teachers and doctors, making education modern, good and accessible. All in all this is very good. There is only one question: “Why wasn’t all this done before, especially during the oil boom of 2000-2008?”

Another question that comes to mind is “How much will the vast program of social improvements cost and where will the money come from, especially if a second recession sets in?” Putin’s hour-long speech contained not a hint of an answer.

But there were a few subtly surprising moments. For example, the president-elect mentioned - but had no advice as to what Gazprom should do about - the “shale gas revolution” and the challenge it poses for the Russian energy industry.

He also claimed that Russia’s population showed signs of growth rather than decline in 2011, for the first time in twenty years. But Putin neglected to point out that this growth is mainly provided by the predominantly Muslim republics of North Caucasus, which have a very weak economic base and high joblessness, and by immigrant families, mostly from Central Asia.

In addition, Putin sounded close to apologetic when speaking about Russia’s membership of WTO: “We’ll squeeze the most benefit from it, like other countries do.”

Finally, Putin said nothing about institution building, the rule of law or strengthening democracy.

The signal he is sending the Russian public is quite clear. He is asking them to forget the events of December-March, when hundreds of thousands of people across Russia protested his policies, as if those events were a fluke, a passing phenomenon. In exchange, he promises a continuous flow of money from the central government to the masses – as long as oil and gas prices hold up.

In terms of policy-not-promises, this is pretty much it. Putin’s instruments of governance have invariably been coercion or handouts. This reflects the deeply held view of human nature he shares with the Russian ruling class.

Money is all that remains now that the Russian public has lost its fear. It’s a passable way of governing societies (so long as the revenues keep coming in). But it is no way to answer the real challenge of development and modernization, the empowerment of society, letting people run their own lives and make their own choices.

This challenge will not disappear and Vladimir Putin will keep facing it again and again as long as he stays in the Kremlin.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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