THE PRESIDENT’S ANNUAL ADDRESS TO PARLIAMENT: WORDS, WORDS, WORDS…

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“A president of lost opportunities.” This expression was used in one media article devoted to President Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly, which finally took place last week.

It is impossible to say that this event did not provoke interest – on the contrary, the media described the whole ceremony with great enthusiasm, not omitting the tiniest details.

Among other things, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that at the entrance to the Kremlin’s Marble Hall, where the President gave his speech, Federal Guard Service employees examined the papers of the Senior Deputy Speaker of the Federation Council, Valery Goreglyad, for no less than 10 minutes… that Pavel Borodin spent a long time telling jokes in the corridors to Dmitry Rogozin and Andrei Mitrofanov… and when, before the President’s appearance, the national anthem was played in the hall, it turned out that Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, was the only one who knew the words.

And then the presidential address itself, as the Vedomosti newspaper informed its readers, “was read out to echoing silence, broken only a few times by restrained applause”. The President had to speak “to an absolutely silent hall, to an audience which expected a great deal from the head of state, while at the same time not clearly knowing what to expect”.

Under these circumstances, according to observers, Vladimir Putin looked like someone performing a task that was necessary, but not very interesting.

Anyway, as Vedomosti observer Olga Romanova claims, “It was noticeable that the President did not actually want to give the speech at all.” And his Administration, the author claims, did everything in its power “to let people forget about the presidential address as quickly as possible”.

It is possible that the efforts of those surrounding the President will not be in vain. Understandably, however, very few politicians would agree of their own will to pass up such a unique pretext for mingling with the media.

Representatives of all active forces of the political spectrum, state officials, public figures, and of course professional political scientists have already expressed their opinions about the presidential address in all media, both electronic and print.

As always, it was the centrists that turned out to be the most optimistic and to have very fitting reactions. As the Gazeta newspaper reported, Boris Gryzlov, Interior Minister and leader of United Russia, considers the call having been uttered in the presidential address for “consolidation of the whole of our society” to be the most important part. And also that for “mobilization of intellectual resources”.

And, of course, “the necessity for development of the party system and for participation of parties in the formation of strategy for the development of the State”.

As one could have expected, the centrists in particular liked the thesis on formation of the government by a parliamentary majority. Gryzlov noted with pride that United Russia ideologues had given this thought its birth (once again, that is, someone in the Administration in the Kremlin).

As far as the painful topic of changing of the government is concerned, the leader of United Russia touched on it with the greatest possible grace: “The President has said that the government is assessing the situation correctly, is making decisions correctly, but does not show sufficient firmness in the execution of them.”

Gryzlov’s party comrade-in-arms and leader of the Unity Duma faction, Vladimir Pekhtin, made a more precise statement about changing of the principle for formation of the Cabinet. He called the idea of “a government bearing political responsibility” exceptionally important. The technical Cabinet existing today in Russia, a cabinet “without a core of ideas”, even staffed with “the most splendid people”, as Pekhtin emphasized in an interview for the newspaper Vremya Novostei, will unavoidably serve “the interests of monopolists and the upper bureaucracy”.

The leader of the Unity faction in his turn, and with obvious satisfaction, remarked that many of the ideas of the presidential address were heard first at congresses of United Russia. Overall, as the Press noted at the end of the President’s appearance, “The centrists are celebrating victory.”

In the meanwhile, the exultation of United Russia clearly struck a raw nerve in its opponents from the Union of Right Forces (URF).

URF leader Boris Nemtsov even remarked that in his view, there was a clear overstatement in the part of the presidential address related to political circumstances. “It was more reminiscent of a kind of election campaign speech in favor of centrist parties,” Nemtsov said. From the point of view of Nemtsov, the President – the guarantor of the Constitution – “should be above parliamentary games on the eve of elections – it was not worthy of him to lower himself to conflicts between parties” (quoted from Gazeta).

In the opinion of Kommersant, it was no coincidence that a special section devoted to pre-election party developments was placed at the very end of the presidential address. In this section, as the newspaper considers, “Thoughtful Russians will be able to find practically all that they need to know about the approaching elections.”

It was precisely here that the President revealed his party sympathies, even if not mentioning actual names and titles of parties.

As Putin stated, Duma members “having the reputations of being liberals and supporters of progressive economic theories” (there are only two such factions in the Duma, Kommersant clarifies – the URF and Yabloko) are causing displeasure in the Kremlin, because they constantly “vote for laws which are detrimental to the federal budget”.

On the other hand, those who “publicly call entrepreneurs thieves and blood-suckers” (the left, that is), are in reality engaged in “shameless lobbying of the interests of major companies”.

But then, the President has no such complaints about the centrists – they are engaged in constructive work – the putting into reality of an “everyday connection between the government and society”. Something not surprising for a party which is run by direct subordinates of the President, Kommersant stressed.

Meanwhile, Irina Khakamada, of like mind with Nemtsov, stated at the joint meeting of the Civic Debate and Open Forum clubs that the thesis on formation of the government by a parliamentary majority inserted in the presidential address was called forth in order to show the public what kind of “political niche” Vladimir Putin intends to occupy after 2008, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports.

It is obvious, you see, that for a politician in the full blossoming of power, as Putin will be when finishing his second Presidential term, the question will inevitably arise – what to do now? Leading the Duma majority in a country having become a parliamentary republic signifies keeping for himself the role of the political leader also after his departure from the Presidential post. Such a scenario was put a long time ago to the President by the head of the Effective Policy Foundation, Gleb Pavlovsky, who was able, as people say, to restore his influence in the Kremlin fully.

Admittedly the leader of Yabloko, Grigory Yavlinsky, long having been considered a politician well informed about the moods existing in the Kremlin, assesses the idea of a government formed by a parliamentary majority skeptically. In Yavlinsky’s view, this idea at best will help to draw more electors out to the Duma elections.

“The turn-out may be more significant, if a part of the electorate believes that the composition of the government depends on them,” as the publication Gazeta presents Yavlinsky’s words, “although later people will realize that that’s not how it is”.

The well-known political scientist Andrei Ryabov, however, weighing up the prospects of the foundation of a “government bearing political responsibility”, stated to Gazeta that, to all appearances, this idea is gradually “starting to win over the Kremlin masses”. Nevertheless, in Ryabov’s opinion, for the time being there are no particular reasons for rejoicing for the pro-Kremlin parties: “The President didn’t say: ‘We have made a decision’. What was expressed was a certain positive attitude to the idea, which sometime or other will be put into practice. Not tomorrow and not the day after, however.

For there are absolutely concrete apprehensions: it is clear that, if the elections, contrary to expectations, are won by the communists, talk about governments formed by a parliamentary majority will promptly stop.

Overall, Ryabov is extremely reserved in his assessments of the presidential address. By his definition, it is “an election campaign document, very cautious, and as vague as possible”, dedicated basically to “a strategy framework”, basically setting global targets – “like the overcoming of poverty” or the doubling of GDP by 2010. And curiously, the author remarks, any kind of directed criticism is totally absent from it – including criticism directed towards the government as well.

Naturally, this kind of cautiousness of the President could not please the left. Gennady Zyuganov spoke out in his traditional style. In his words, “The country has found itself in a management hole,” and, if the course is not changed, there will be no way to think, not just about the doubling of GDP, but also about preserving the level of the economy today.

“Over the last three years,” Zyuganov said, “the rate (of economic growth – M.K.) has slid from 10% to 4%, and we are still crashing into that hole. The general impression you get from the presidential address – we are crawling along the old course. If there really is stabilization – then it’s only the stabilization of stagnation.”

It must be said that the left and the right were united in the same kind of criticism of the presidential address for being unspecific and a general “sloganistic” tone. Boris Nemtsov spoke out in this vein no less harshly than Gennady Zyuganov: “The words are sort of all the right ones, but who will do this and how – is a mystery.”

In fact, in each annual address, Nemtsov, the thought is invariably present that, “Russian bureaucracy is weak, greedy, and uncompetitive. Every year it is confirmed that nothing changes in this sphere. And who, you may ask, will lower taxes, put the housing sector into order, and modernize the Armed Forces? Regrettably, I didn’t hear any prescription from the President for how to carry out a repair of the government machine.”

The newspaper Kommersant remarks that out of the three large-scale tasks set in the economic part of the presidential address – doubling the GDP by 2010, a struggle against poverty, and administrative reforms – the first two (“practically in the same formulation”) are set and being resolved in China.

Observer of the newspaper compares the course of Russian and Chinese reforms. According to his calculations, in order to double the Russian GDP within the scheduled time, the industrial growth in the country should make up at least 8.5-9% a year. Presidential economic aid Andrei Illarionov says this level is quite achievable for Russia. However, Yevgeny Yasin strongly objects to him – while the Kommersant newspaper recognizes him as the most competent Russian economist. Yasin says the president’s plans for a sped up economic growth are unrealistic. What is the truth?

Illarionov refers to the Chinese experience of accelerating the industrial growth and explains it with a much lower state spending in the GDP. By the way, the matter in question is the living standards in China, which is still lower than Russian. According to Illarionov this is the clue to the “Chinese phenomenon”.

Kommersant says, from this standpoint the 32% real income growth in Russia which causes the president’s pride should be admitted a “mistake and populism”.

In fact, if GDP growth has gradually slowed down over past years while real incomes have increased, the sad conclusion is that real incomes in Russia are growing faster than the labor productivity. That is a very shaky basis for a rapid economic breakthrough.

Moreover, Vladimir Putin poses the objective to fight poverty – Kommersant notes that at least a quarter of the Russian population live below the poverty line – now, without waiting for the GDP to double.

This is just one discrepancy of the presidential address. Nikolai Vardul also points out another discrepancy. He notes that the success of the Chinese economy has one more explanation: the structure of the Chinese export is much more modern that Russia’s oil, gas, and metal exports. The Russian economy urgently needs a structural change, re-orientation on processing industries. Undoubtedly, the expected fall of oil prices after the Iraqi crisis will also contribute to it. Is such a structural change possible with a simultaneous 8.5% industrial growth? Nikolai Vardul think it is difficult to believe, especially if remember that until recently Russia’s economic stability has been based on high oil prices.

According to the author, the requirement to double the GDP is much more political rather than economic. “First, it is a timely election slogan – along with the call to fight poverty, it will mobilize voters.”

Besides, this objective is a perfect way to strengthen the political discipline: it is not an accident that the president has called on “all authorities to consolidate” in order to fulfill the objectives.

Third, but also very important, it is a reliable lever to expert pressure on the government. According to Nikolai Vardul, the president has reminded Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov of his notorious rejection of “breakthroughs”, “With such a fear for responsible choices, we cannot move forward quickly and qualitatively.”

However, as Duma deputy Nikolai Ryzhkov writes in the Vedomosti newspaper, the part of the presidential address devoted to the government has not met the general expectations, “Commentators unanimously believes that the president will sharply criticize Mikhail Kasianov’s government for failing the administrative reform.”

Although the president demanded once again to reduce the bureaucratic apparatus and its excessive authorities, he did it rather gently. From now on, Ryzhkov says, the “government together with the multimillion and utterly corrupted Russian bureaucracy can breathe with relief – there are no traces left from the president’s last year’s anti-bureaucratic and anti-corruption pathos. Moreover, he did not say the word “corruption” at all.

According to Ryzhkov, the president’s attempt to report “achievements” has failed due to generally known factors of slowed economic growth, its dependence on the foreign economic situation, and the reduction of the general competitiveness of the Russian economy.

As a result, the government has nothing to boast about: what can be considered the achievements of Putin’s three-year presidency has in fact been a sudden result of an accidental coincidence of favorable circumstances.

That is why, Ryzhkov says, the program part of the presidential address is actually suspended in the air. “Who is unwilling to return Russia to the number of the richest, strongest, and the most developed countries of the world?” Who will reject the opportunity to double the GDP by 2010, dispute the necessity to fight poverty and to modernize the army? The author notes sadly, the “Complication is that the presidential address has not even outlines how to do it.”

Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of the Panorama Information-Research Center, was much harsher in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. “Almost three and a half years of Putin’s presidency, starting from January 2000, have been lost time for Russia, the time of lost and wasted opportunities.”

According to the author, there are barely any “useful” things made over this period “except for the flat income tax scale.” Naturally, the president cannot admit it. That is why in the presidential address every issue was followed by a statement of some success, mostly imaginary.

From the viewpoint of Ryzhkov, if push aside the intricate and unneeded rhetoric, the position of the president is as follows, by the end of this first presidency Vladimir Putin has realized that “the reforms are being dramatically slowed down by the passivity of the population and vehement resistance of the bureaucracy and certain interested groups”. That is why he has decided to increase the political pressure on the state apparatus using parties for forming the government.

However, if remember that the only chance to participate in the forming of the parliamentary majority government has fallen to the lot of the United Russia – the clone of the presidential administration – it is clear that the cabinet of ministers will still be formed by the Kremlin.

Nikolai Ryzhkov writes, “The circle has closed and we will return to where we started. While the president demonstrated very convincingly that this road is impassable.”

However, the vagueness and allegories of the presidential address noted by the majority of the media gives much space for different interpretations – which can always be denied if necessary.

In particular, the passage on the parliamentary majority government seems to be accepted by commentators not quite adequately.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta says the majority has decided that this government will be formed right after the parliamentary elections, at the beginning of the next year. However, later deputy head of the presidential administration Vladislav Surkov explained that the new cabinet of ministers can be formed only after the presidential elections, no earlier than in the middle of the next year.

In fact, it would be rather strange for the Kremlin to give favorable starting opportunities for such a well-known and easy to promote politician as Mikhail Kasianov on the threshold of elections.

At the same time, Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted, some certain terms of the military reform have been mentioned: it was promised to reduce the army service to 12 months from 2008. The paper adds, “The issue is that since then, if there are no changes to the Constitution, a different president will rule the country and he will not have to take the responsibility for the election theses of his predecessor.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta draws the attention of its readers to a certain “patchiness of the text”. For instance, it does not say a word about the union with Belarus and the “alliance of the four – Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan”. At the same time, it mentions the European-Asian economic alliance, which is a much less important organization according to the majority of experts.

There are other oddities as well. At the recent meeting with leaders of the Duma factions, the president made it clear to Boris Nemtsov that he supported the plan of the military reform proposed by the Union of Right Forces. However, the presidential address presented the reform version proposed by the defense Ministry and recently criticized in the government.

At the same time, Nezavisimaya Gazeta says these discrepancies are easy to explain, “The text made by the president’s speechwriters reflects the hopes and ideas of those who have more access to the Kremlin.”

Overall, Nezavisimaya Gazeta sums up, few experts expected the presidential speech be “by genre and the essence so close to an election speech rather than a routine plan of work for the year.”

The Vedomosti newspaper has its own opinion. According to the newspaper – and regardless of the expectations of the majority of people – on the threshold of elections, Putin talked to the country “not as the most likely winner of these elections seeking sympathies of the electorate”. According to Vedomosti, the president addressed the people of Russia as “a claimant for one of the first places in the history of the country if not the top one.” To be more precise, he talked as a leader of the country under whom the country will “make a historical breakthrough like the one under Peter the Great and Josef Stalin.” The only difference is the absence of blood oceans that were spilt by the aforementioned historic figures.

From the viewpoint of the newspaper, the parallel is evident: under Stalin as well as under Peter the Great, Russia broke free from its external enemies. A similar process is taking place at present – only the methods of fight have changed from military to economic ones. Current Russia’s competitors are not trying to annihilate the country, “it is enough for them to push Russia’s companies from everywhere where Russian goods and services may be demanded by consumers.”

Vedomosti says Putin hopes that Russia will make a modernization breakthrough in the conditions of civil peace, as the Russian people are interested in the modernization, “regardless of class or party membership”. This explains the mobilization rhetoric of the presidential address.

However, this also contains a discrepancy noted by many observers – a discrepancy between the essence of the planned reforms and the mobilizational, entirely Soviet-style, methods for their realization.

The president proposed to consolidate political, economic, and even bureaucratic forces around the idea to restore the power of Russia. In fact, he has proposed a consolidation around himself, Sergei Chugaev says in the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. How does this idea get along with the plans to democratize the society? Apparently, as well as the democratic idea to form the parliamentary majority government get along with the practice of forming this government with the help of political consultants from the presidential administration.

However, there has long been a term for this phenomenon: “managed democracy” – another Russian oxymoron. Or, in simpler terms, a fantastic story…

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