THE PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS: A SPEECH EX CATHEDRA OR A MEANINGLESS RITUAL?

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The media have being waiting impatiently since March for the president’s annual address to the Federal Assembly.

In the Yeltsin era, these program statements were usually delivered in early spring. Under Putin, the dates have been creeping forward: according to “Gazeta”, the presidential address was delivered in early April in 2001, and in mid-April in 2002.

This year, the Kremlin press service only announced the date of the presidential address after the May holidays: it will take place on May 16.

Various media mention different reasons for the president’s “delay”. The most prevalent explanation is the war in Iraq; the president must have needed time to consider its geopolitical consequences.

“Gazeta” cites the opinion of Dmitry Orlov, head of the Political Techniques Center: he says Russia may propose its own Moscow-Berlin-Paris security axis, with some specific mechanisms of interaction between its participants, as a counterbalance to the Washington-London-Madrid axis. According to “Gazeta”, such a theory should be taken into account, especially since US Secretary of State Colin Powell is arriving in Moscow two days before the president’s address. It is believed that Powell will bring some proposals concerning Russia’s participation in the post-war settlement process in Iraq.

However, according to “Vremya Novostei”, there are some complications with Powell’s visit. It is planned to discuss mechanisms of implementing the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. According to “Vremya Novostei”, Powell is confident that the Duma will ratify the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, since the US Senate ratified it in March.

Besides, Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev stated on May 10 that the question of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty had been postponed until May 21, because of the presidential address.

It should be noted that the Duma has delayed over ratifying the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. “Vremya Novostei” points out that the war in Iraq was the cause for the postponement.

Of course, another postponement was useful for opponents of the ratification: they have now more time to promote their own views. In any case, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov has already said that all the patriotic forces should united against the treaty – which, in his opinion, will lead to “the destruction of Russia as a global power”, since Russia will have to “demolish its nuclear missile shield”.

Meanwhile, the Duma International Affairs Committee estimates that about 260-280 Duma members will support ratification of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty; the necessary minimum is 226 votes.

However, the most important point, in the opinion of ratification supporters, is that the president’s address is expected to contain a “prompt” for Duma members who are prepared to listen to him, telling them how they should vote. And anti-Americanism is not the done thing these days.

Nevertheless, most observers agree that the war in Iraq is not the main reason why the presidential address has been postponed. According to experts consulted by “Gazeta”, the real reasons should be sought in domestic politics.

According to some reports, until recently the Kremlin team had been unable to decide what the main idea in the address ought to be.

Besides, according to Dmitry Badovsky from the Social Systems Institute at Moscow State University, this year’s address is especially significant: “This is the last address of Putin’s first term in office, and it may be regarded as the preliminary outline of his election campaign platform.”

At the same time, the address needs to sum up results not only for the past year, but for all of President Putin’s first four years.

According to “Moskovskiye Novosti”, the Kremlin’s public relations specialists couldn’t manage to find an idea worthy of such a program.

As noted above, ideas of “aggressive anti-Americanism” (Russia is a great power with its own opinion and interests, a force to be reckoned with), which were supposed to be the basis of the presidential address, lost their appeal after the coalition blitzkrieg in Iraq.

Then it was decided to switch over to criticism of the government. There were plans to distance the president from unpopular reforms (for example, housing reforms) and rising prices.

However, it didn’t work. Obviously, criticism of the government ought to be followed by some real action – such as dismissal of the government.

Yet it doesn’t look as if the Kremlin is deciding to take this step.

“Moskovskiye Novosti” says that as a result, the address prepared by presidential speechwriter Dzhakhan Pollyeva will not cause a sensation.

According to the sources of “Moskovskiye Novosti”, most of the ideas which had already been used in previous annual addresses are repeated in this text: the need for reforms, faster economic growth, resolving the situation in Chechnya. Some discreet criticism of the government is quite possible; but on the whole, there should not be any surprises.

A Kremlin source of “Moskovskiye Novosti” said: “As long as Russia is flooded with petro-dollars, new ideas cannot ripen.”

According to “Gazeta”, some independent experts think likewise.

Dmitry Orlov says that the Kremlin has not decided on a date for a Cabinet dismissal, and neither has it decided on a strategy for a new government to pursue. In his opinion, it is quite likely that Putin wants to see a radical change in the ratio between primary and secondary industry in Russia, in favor of the latter. But the present government has done nothing in this respect, and obviously has no intention of doing anything.

According to Dmitry Badovsky, Putin won’t say anything important in his address, due to a fear of disrupting stability. It is easy to understand that any “new course” announced the president might provoke political conflicts, given the current rise in differences within the elites.

“It is high time for the Putin administration to produce an account of what it has achieved. However, there are no particular achievements to report,” says “Kommersant”.

“Kommersant” points out that all the reforms which have been announced have remained on paper. Besides, only six months remain before the Duma elections and about a year before the presidential election. “This is the perfect time to seek someone to blame.” However, criticism of the government is unlikely to be overly direct; it is clear that the president’s displeasure will be addressed to the prime minister.

Yet “Kommersant” considers it unlikely that the government will be dismissed. Moreover, the prime minister has recently strengthened his positions; he has finally secured the dismissal of Yevgeny Nazdratenko, and appointed his protege Boris Aleshin as deputy prime minister for industry.

“Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal” describes these personnel changes as a double success for Kasianov; stressing, however, that the importance of this success should not be exaggerated.

“The atmosphere in the government is unhealthy, and its internal conflicts have gone too far,” says “Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal”. These are precisely the circumstances which have prompted Yabloko leader Grigori Yavlinsky to move a vote of no confidence in the Cabinet.

“Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal” notes that according to the Constitution, the government should step down immediately after a presidential election – in other words, about a year from now. “Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal” considers that the president is unlikely to change the composition or structure of the government until then.

However, the question of forming a government based on the parliamentary majority may arise; this idea has been discussed in the media lately. “Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal” says: “If Putin realizes by the time of his next inauguration that the majority is pro-presidential, he may adopt such a method of forming the Cabinet.”

However, in that case, according to “Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal”, the politically influential Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov – who started out as a “technical” prime minister – would no longer be necessary for the president.

“Komsomolskaya Pravda” considers that only the presidential address can provide a final answer as to whether he will dismiss the prime minister or not. “Technically, it isn’t a problem for Putin to dismiss Kasianov. The problem is that Kasianov is turning into a political figure. And the best way to get ahead in big-time politics is to become known as persecuted and aggrieved,” says “Komsomolskaya Pravda”.

Besides, according to the sources of “Moskovsky Komsomolets”, Interior Minister and United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov is among those who are in favor of replacing the prime minister. Alexander Voloshin, head of the presidential administration, and top political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky hold this opinion as well. All of them think that Kasianov’s team has exhausted its capacities – and any government, even a temporary one, would be more effective than the present Cabinet.

“Moskovsky Komsomolets” regards “the least prominent deputy prime minister”, Victor Khristenko, as a possible prime minister in a temporary government. He is known as “a good official and loyal subordinate”. Moreover, he is the only deputy prime minister who has managed to remain afloat since 1998. Although Khristenko and his team don’t have their own “ideological profile”, that can be regarded as an honor under current circumstances.

Writing in “Izvestia”, Semyon Novoprudsky clearly formulates the main political (and economic) problem: “Russia lacks a competent government.” According to Novoprudsky, the point is that the status and the functions of the Cabinet are not determined clearly.

Novoprudsky says that in late May an extraordinary shareholders’ meeting at YUKOS, Russia’s largest oil company, will discuss its merger with another major oil company, Sibneft. According to Novoprudsky, the main reason for this merger is the desire of YUKOS chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky – “the richest man in Russia and one of the most talented senior executives of the post-Soviet era” – to become prime minister.

According to Novoprudsky, this new attempt by business leaders to enter government (the first attempt took place in the early 1990s) is unlikely to be productive.

If the principle of having a technical government remains unchanged after the election, the presence of a person from big business there will arouse suspicion. Such a government can’t exist without the president’s support. So there are bound to be suspicions that any finance or industry magnate among the minister is acting in the interests of his own financial and industrial empire. He would immediately become “the target of the most powerful lobbying efforts of conflicting financial and political groups”; which carries the risk of destabilizing the nation, in the economy as well as in politics.

If a parliamentary majority government is formed – “the coalition of United Russia with the right wing and the social-democratic Yabloko” – then a magnate would have to join one of these parties in order to be appointed as a Cabinet minister. Besides, he would have to become a public politician; which is also undesirable.

On the other hand, the “Izvestia” observer says, the worst-case scenario for the nation would be if officials turned the government into a sort of closed corporation and used it to increase their own fortunes.

According to Novoprudsky, it is still premature for big business to attempt to get into government in Russia. Of course, the Russian government is currently relying on large corporations, and will continue doing so for a long time. And the working style of the new Cabinet will mostly depend on large corporations. “However, to determine this style, a magnate does not have to become the prime minister,” Novoprudsky concludes, “It is enough to develop legislation together with the government and to complete reforms of natural monopoles.”

Observer of the “Vremya MN” newspaper Leonid Radzikhovsky says the idea of creating a parliamentary republic in Russia – when the parliament forms the government by lists of parties that have the majority in the Duma – is nonsense.

Radzikhovsky asks, “Is the political stagnation in Russia due to the fact that the president and his team, rather than the parliament, form the government? Is the government ineffective because there are not enough television demagogues there?”

Radzikhovsky thinks it is only undoubted that the moral and intellectual level of the Russian parliament and the government is very close. “It is well known that the bribes are taken in the parliament as willingly as in the government.” As for the remaining parameters – such as transparency or work, privileges, and competence – Duma tribunes are no better than ministerial bureaucrats.

According to him, it is not an exaggeration to say that Russian parliamentarism is a pure imitation. Its only objective is to “let the public to vent its dissatisfaction, to create the illusion of “elections” and “political life”, and to feed a horde of PR and political consultants.”

Besides, Radzikhovsky mentions, Russia already had the experience of parliamentary power in 1989-93. According to the author, “that power was not absolute, but absolutely destructive”. Is there any sense in remaking it?

Moreover, over the past years barely any political culture has been accumulated in Russia: “the process of reinforcement of the Byzantine bureaucracy and restoration of powerful slavery traditions is actively going on in the country”. That is why the author believes it is not much sense in changing the power structure (it does not matter, parliamentary or presidential republic).

The “Moskovskie Novosti” weekly says that despite numerous and pessimistic forecasts, after treatment and vacation “major designer” of Russian reforms Herman Gref is returning to the government.

Before starting his leave of absence, Gref tried to resign. According to “Moskovskie Novosti”, there were more than enough reasons for this. The government tried to shift the blame for the insufficiently high industrial growth onto Gref. Gref found himself involved in the conflict between Kasianov and Kudrin concerning taxation reforms. The president reprimanded Gref’s senior deputy Mikhail Dmitriev for criticizing the government. However, “Moskovskie Novosti” says the most stressful factor for Gref was the appointment of Mikhail Kasianov’s protege Boris Aleshin as deputy prime minister.

“Moskovskie Novosti” explains that Aleshin belongs to a different team, which does not share Gref’s ideas on reforms. Aleshin was immediately charged with a number of functions earlier fulfilled by Gref.

“Moskovskie Novosti”says the Economic Development Ministry “was in fact separated from the real economy sector where the reforming ideas developed by the ministry should be realized.”

An analyst anonymously shared with “Moskovskie Novosti” his speculations on this issue. He thinks the time for attacking Gref was not chosen accidentally: the Economic Development Ministry is currently mostly busy with the administrative reform which stipulates reorganization of the government and reduction of different departments and ministries.

“This means that Gref is interfering with the interests of top-ranking officials. Top bureaucracy cannot put up with such infringement on its rights.” Therefore, head of the ministry has felt the riposte.

“Moskovskie Novosti” speculates that if Gref did not return to work (rumor has it that the names of his possible successors have been circulating around Cabinet offices), “some of his colleagues, including the prime minister, would have been very satisfied”.

However, Gref has not resigned. “They say the position of the president who has not let his team-mate down played the most decisive role for Gref’s return,” “Moskovskie Novosti” says.

Moreover, the weekly states it is not only due to Gref’s belonging to the St. Petersburg team.

Over his work in the Economic Development Ministry, Gref has turned into a significant figure, “He plays the same role as Gaidar did in the early 1990s, and Chubais in the mid-1990s – the standard-bearer of liberal reforms.”

It is no coincidence that the current national economic development program is named after Gref. His resignation would cause a serious imbalance between “conservatives” and “reformers” at the top. However, the main thing is that he “would entirely cross out all the reforms which are more and more necessary for the country.”

The “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” has a different viewpoint on this situation. According to the paper, Herman Gref is unlikely to be dismissed as “his eventual leaving the stage would mean the president’s admission of the mistakes of the economic course he had chosen – which is inadmissible on the threshold of elections.”

Moreover, according to the paper, Gref will attend the parliamentary meeting where the president will announce his annual address. Later, “having found out the new aims and objectives, he will officially resume his work on May 19.”

As an anonymous colleague of Herman Gref told “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, “once he comes back to work, everyone will be reminded of his ability to break through barriers.”

In short, media tension is rising on the eve of the presidential address to the Federal Assembly. At the same time, some media are trying to preserve their status quo and explain the delayed pause with objective reasons.

The “Gazeta” periodical explained to its readers that due to bad health Yeltsin had to determine development objectives for a whole year, while the healthy Putin “constantly poses objectives”.

That is why the presidential address has turned into a purely protocol procedure and “the political postponement does not influence anything.”

“Nezavisimaya Gazeta” also said that the presidential address has become a traditional ritual – over past years, its significance has substantially decreased.

The fact that the president will address the Federal Assembly on a Friday indicates that the authorities do not expect the public to pay close attention. It is well known that the print media do not have enough time to discuss important news on Fridays – the next issue of most national newspapers will only come out on Monday. Hence, radio and television are charged with the task of informing the public about what the head of state said. And the electronic media have a wider audience, but less in-depth analysis. That is why the presidential address will be taken into account, but no more.

According to “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, it is a well-considered tactic: “The authorities are trying not to articulate their aims and intentions to either the general public or the political elite.”

According to “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, despite the declared transparency of its informational policy, the Kremlin “is insisting on the privilege to make the most significant decisions in utter secrecy.” It has succeeded in it, “The majority of the population is still unaware of the vector of reforms, including economic ones.”

According to “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, the absence of distinct answers to the majority of vital questions makes the presidential address an insignificant event.

“Novaya Gazeta” reports that according to the latest sociological polls, Putin’s rating has suddenly fallen to 48% which is almost impossible to believe. As is known, so far nothing has interfered with the presidential popularity, “Novaya Gazeta” observer Boris Kagarlitsky says, “neither the drowned submarine, the burnt television center, delayed war in Chechnya, nor the arrival of US forces to the Central Asia.” His rating has been called “Teflon” with good grounds as it was a stable 70% and sometimes higher. What could have cause such a sharp fall…

At the same time, the author says, according to independent experts, 48% is what Putin’s popularity rating was in 2000, with the “administrative resource” allowance.

A year before the presidential elections it is a very good intermediary result which makes the second round of elections quite possible. “From this level, his popularity rating can easily rise by 3-4% providing his victory in the first round, or it can fall even more jeopardizing the political future of our hero.”

Kagarlitsky notes that there is an impression that the president is being warned: the time has changed and it is no longer 2000. If he acts thoughtlessly, he can lose everything including the victory in the second round of the elections, “If Yeltsin’s popularity rating was raised from 6% to the level of a national hero – it can be lowered the same way…”

Kagarlitsky’s article is titled “A black mark for the president”. Kagarlitsky has no doubts about who is issuing the black mark: the president has received a warning from tycoons who strongly dislike property redistribution in favor of “friends from St. Petersburg”, and military leaders who are dissatisfied with the impending army reforms. Professional political consultants should also be considered – they don’t like political stability; it makes them feel like fish out of water.

We can sympathize with the “popularly elected president” – however, Kagarlitsky’s advice is that we should spare some sympathy for ourselves.

Apparently, Russia is starting a new round of election games; and these are not always fatal for the players, but as a rule they mean serious trouble for the citizenry.

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