Addressing himself

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From President Vladimir Putin’s eighth (and last) annual address to both houses of the federal parliament, we learned that Russia is now one of the world’s ten largest economies and the world’s leading oil producer. Putin gave us hope that “our country’s stable, steady progress” will continue; but this can only happen if certain people who use “pseudo-democratic phraseology” don’t drag us back into the recent past.

Media reports note that this year’s presidential address was not a report on results, or a political will and testament, or a set of instructions for Putin’s successor. It was more like a detailed development plan for Russia in the immediate future. Putin did not say who would implement this plan. Well, no one had really expected him to name his successor in the address – but journalists and pundits couldn’t resist the pleasure of turning the address into yet another occassion for political fortune-telling. True, they couldn’t come up with anything other than the usual forecasts: there are probably two potential successors and Putin might not have made his final choice yet.

The Kommersant newspaper notes that Putin’s last presidential address turned out to be more generous than any of the previous seven addresses he has delivered to the State Duma and the Federation Council since 2000. According to Kommersant, he made mention of spending a total of 945 billion rubles. Even taking into account that a substantial part of the spending on his proposals will come from the new three-year budget for 2008-10, rather than a one-year budget for 2008, this is still the first time that budget spending has increased by at least 300 billion rubles a year as a result of the president’s annual address. In effect, Putin is proposing to raise state spending by an amount equivalent to 1% of GDP. Even the widely-promoted national priority projects have been less costly; they are adding no more than 0.8% of GDP to state spending in 2007.

Ekspert Online reports that political analysts have already declared this to be “a change in economic policy” and a transition from “saving money in Kudrin’s bank accounts” to real spending on Russia’s modernization and development.

Gazeta.ru notes that for the first time in the history of presidential addresses, Putin attacked the opposition quite harshly. What’s more, he didn’t specify exactly which kind of opposition he was attacking; however, judging by the slogans he mentioned, he was primarily referring to the Dissenter March organizers: Putin spoke of “pseudo-democrats” and “democratization-style slogans.” Putin accused the opposition of destabilizing “the foundations of the state order.”

“Not everyone likes the changes now under way. There are those who would like to return our country to the recent past,” said Putin, reproaching his unnamed opponents. “Some want to do this so that they can resume looting our national wealth with impunity, robbing the people and the state. Others want to deprive our country of its economic and political independence.”

This passage about the opposition was followed by a specific proposal: Putin told the Duma that anti-extremist amendments to the Criminal Code should be passed as soon as possible. These amendments will mean actual prison sentences for expressions of extremism at public rallies.

Opposition leaders are already expressing concern about this. Union of Right Forces (SPS) leader Nikita Belykh told Ekspert Online: “We still don’t have a precise definition of extremism, but we’re preparing to impose harsher penalties for it.”

The presidential address was also tough on foreign affairs. “More and more money is being sent into Russia from abroad and used for direct interference in our internal affairs,” said Putin. “They have only one goal: securing unilateral advantages and their own gain, promoting their own interests.”

An article in The Times (translated at InoSMI.ru) reads these words as a general attack on non-governmental organizations that receive funding from abroad, and an attack on Freedom House in particular: it is supported from the United States, and the Kremlin accuses it of funding the presidential ambitions of former chess champion Garry Kasparov.

What’s more, Freedom House produces annual reports on media freedom around the world – and never tires of pointing out the deteriorating situation in Russia. As Radio Liberty reports, the “Freedom of the Press 2007” report released on May 3 ranks Russia 164th, alongside Azerbaijan. For the fourth consecutive year, Freedom House has categorized Russia as a “Not Free” country.

Radio Liberty notes that these are hard times for the media in Russia – and getting harder. Thirty-seven out of 42 Russian radio stations that used to retransmit Voice of America and 26 out of 30 Radio Liberty retransmitters were forced to stop those broadcasts after the authorities charged them with multiple violations of broadcasting regulations. Even Russia’s newspapers, which used to be largely independent, are steadily being taken over by Kremlin-controlled business tycoons.

Putin’s most sensational proposals were in the foreign policy section of the presidential address. Essentially, this was a sequel to Putin’s famous Munich speech. He proposed a moratorium on Russia’s compliance with the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty – at least until “NATO countries have ratified it.” Putin proposed that consultations should be held via the Russia-NATO Council, and if “no progress is made,” Russia intends to “terminate our CFE Treaty obligations.” Putin was particularly offended by US plans to deploy missile defense elements in the Czech Republic and Poland.

According to an article in The Times (translated at InoSMI.ru), those plans have nothing to do with Russia. It stresses that the planned sites are located along a direct path from Tehran to Washington and intended for long-term defense of the United States and Europe against potential nuclear attacks from Iran; what’s more, Putin is aware of this, but in public he prefers to demonstrate an obsolete and self-defeating approach to foreign policy.

Gazeta.ru reports: “As Vladimir Putin delivered his last address to parliament, the most attentive listeners in the audience were the two semi-successors: Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov.”

Medvedev heard some direct praise of progress on implementing the national projects. Putin noted that the Healthcare project has recorded its “first, if small, achievements” in the form of “a decline in mortality and an increase in births during 2006 and the first months of 2007.” The housing situation, which Putin discussed at length, is more difficult; but he assured the parliament that there is a plan for solving this problem.

Kommersant decided to combine an interest in politics with a love of arithmetic by calculating that this part of the address lasted nine minutes and 58 seconds and contained 1,187 words. Putin promised to allocate 500 billion rubles for developing these areas.

Matters pertaining to the areas controlled by the second semi-successor, Sergei Ivanov, were covered in a part of the address that was 42 seconds shorter (nine minutes and 12 seconds, with 1,064 words).

Putin called for efforts to develop the aircraft-building and ship-building industries and promised to increase funding for science. He paid particular attention to the need to “create an effective research and development system in the field of nanotechnology.” Putin also mentioned military reforms, rearmament, and social provisions for military personnel – the areas for which Ivanov was responsible as defense minister. Putin promised 269 billion rubles of funding for these areas.

According to Kommersant, it’s worth noting that the address section related to Medvedev’s areas of responsibility was interrupted by applause 11 times. The section related to Ivanov’s areas of responsibility was interrupted only once.

Ordinary citizens, not present in the audience for the presidential address, seem convinced that Putin has chosen his successor already and is simply keeping the name quiet. This view is held by two-thirds of respondents in a survey done by Renaissance Capital and reported in the Vedomosti newspaper. Almost 40% of respondents think the successor is Dmitri Medvedev; over 20% think the successor is Sergei Ivanov. Citizens are prepared to entrust Medvedev with the economy, while entrusting Ivanov with foreign affairs and the battles against terrorism and corruption. Renaissance Capital concludes that the two potential successors have even chances, and Putin’s word will be decisive. But Medvedev is slightly more fortunate: many respondents say that the economic factor is the top priority.

In an interveiw with RBC Daily, Public Chamber member Alexei Chadayev said: “The successor situation is more or less clear. Medvedev is responsible for the national projects; if they don’t work out, there’s always Ivanov. Ivanov is responsible for producing an innovation breakthrough; if that doesn’t work out, there’s always Medvedev. And if neither of these approaches work out, then some other successor will be introduced.”

Gazeta.ru notes that one of the semi-successors surged ahead straight after the presidential address.

After each year’s presidential address, the most prominent politicians usually make their comments to the media before leaving the Kremlin. Sergei Ivanov was among them: he expressed support for what Putin said about the CFE Treaty, assured the media that he will make every effort to develop nanotechnology, and condemned the Estonian government’s decision to dismantle the Bronze Soldier war memorial. But Medvedev didn’t emerge to speak with journalists at all.

The most-quoted part of the conclusion of Putin’s address was the following: “I believe it would be inappropriate for us to evaluate our own performance here – and it’s premature for me to deliver any political testaments.”

Where will Putin go after he finally delivers his testament and steps down? Political analyst Sergei Markov told Ekspert Online: “Putin will continue to play a major role in Russian politics. This year’s address, together with previous addresses, forms a conceptual development plan for Russia in the years ahead – which obviously can’t be implemented without Putin’s participation.”

Effective Policy Foundation director Gleb Pavlovsky agrees: this year’s address is a plan, and it can’t be implemented unless Putin himself remains involved in federal politics.

Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, told the Vremya Novostei newspaper that he also gets the impression that Putin doesn’t intend to move very far away from power: “He’s probably picked out some sort of post for himself within the national leadership. After all, it hardly makes sense for him to proclaim a number of values and objectives and then leave the arena.”

Valery Khomyakov, director of the National Strategy Council, told RBC Daily that from mid-2008, Putin will devote himself to “shaping a stable system of party politics – he has hinted at this repeatedly, and he might become the leader of a new right-wing party.”

Konstantin Simonov, director of the National Energy Security Foundation, maintains that Putin has outgrown the presidential level: he’s now thinking in terms of the categories used in the international energy game. So he might become the leader of a global energy corporation, a “gas OPEC.”

Public Chamber member Alexei Chadayev says he only heard one message in the presidential address: “Guys, I haven’t come up with anything yet – I’ll keep thinking.” Chadayev says: “Putin is keeping the elite in suspense with regard to his future. So far, he’s only said what he definitely won’t do: seek a third term.” According to Chadayev, Putin is seeking an elegant solution to a situation where he can’t serve a third term as president, but doesn’t plan to leave politics entirely.

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