Vladimir Putin delivered his first Federal assembly address – an equivalent of the Queen’s Speech in the UK. In it he tried to set an agenda for his presidency. At least this is the spin that the presidential administration was giving to it. Briefing editors before the event Kremlin officials stressed that Putin would deliver a strategic vision of his fourth presidential term, and his next five addresses will be more “tactical”, i.e. dealing with immediate tasks of each year to come. So what did we learn?
Some said there was nothing in the address that wasn’t there five, seven or even ten years ago – improving living standards, fighting corruption, preserving Russia’s sovereignty… Indeed there are few surprises. However, this time two things stood out.
First, Putin tried to explain his vision for Russia – which is clearly inspired by the “Eurasianism” of 20th century Russian philosopher Lev Gumilev and the “national preservation” ideas of the late literary giant and Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It is a fairly conservative blend of gradual development, mild Russian nationalism and a hint of pan-Slavism, but without too much imperial overstretch.
This is the ideology of a country facing multiple economic, social and identity problems that is more concerned with survival than ambition.
Second, Putin seems to have finally acknowledged that corruption, ethnic and national tensions and demographics are real problems that concern the majority of the population. The fact that they remain unresolved and only increase in complexity has contributed among other things to the wave of protests that swept through Russia in the last year.
However the solutions that Putin offers seem confusing. He talks about adopting full border controls with the former Soviet republics in order to streamline immigration, especially from the poor states of Central Asia. But at the same time, he approves a bill granting de facto “citizenship on demand” to descendants of those who were subjects of the Russian empire and citizens of the Soviet Union – on the rather feeble condition that they demonstrate their “commitment to Russian cultural traditions.”
Moreover, the “Eurasian Union” project that the Russian leader espouses could bring millions of new migrants into the country as part of creating common economic space with former Soviet republics.
In a clear reference to Chechnya, the president condemned those Russian regions that try to isolate themselves from the rest of the country and create separate identities: a nod towards the gradual spread of Shariah law in the republic. But as Chechnya went unnamed, this felt rather superficial.
Finally, Putin talked a lot about corruption, and demanded that Russian civil servants declare not only their income, and that of their family members, but also any major expenses, on an annual basis. Necessary as it is, this measure cannot be implemented, as the main principle underpinning the system that Putin developed is “reward loyalty first.” This acts as a highly effective brake on any anti-corruption measures.
Judging by the address, Putin’s vision for the country does not include any serious change in the political system. It will remain tightly controlled by the Kremlin administration. Putin allows for a gradual, and very modest, increase in competition under the watchful eye of the executive. But this is reminiscent of the 1990s practice of electing half the State Duma on party lists and the other half via “single mandate” constituencies in which independent candidates were free to try their luck.
Putin’s words could also be interpreted as meaning that there would be a harsh clamp down on any political activity that is not sanctioned by the Kremlin. It was not long after the presidential address that the Russian Investigative Committee claimed it had evidence that leading figures in the Russian opposition were financed and controlled by wealthy, influential individuals in Georgia.
Two days later, opposition leader Alexei Navalny saw charges of fraud brought against him by the same Committee, headed by one of Putin’s most trusted allies. All this is a clear indication that the president believes he can still steer the country in on “manual,” rather than putting it on autopilot by handing control over to democratic institutions.
Strangely enough, speaking there, in the ornate surroundings of the Kremlin, the Russian president resembled perhaps the one figure with whom he would not like to be compared: Mikhail Gorbachev.
The first and only President of the USSR also tried to reform the system without altering its foundations. Putin seems to be following in his footsteps.
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.