Why the president’s annual address to parliament is ineffective

A tradition has taken shape around presidential addresses. The president says all the right words, and proposes some entirely appropriate measures – but no one has any intention of carrying them out. Presidential addresses in Russia have become nothing more than part of state protocol.

Each of President Putin’s annual addresses to parliament offers a pretext for taking another look at the previous year’s address – or rather, the results it has produced. The efforts of the executive branch to comply with the directives in last year’s address clearly haven’t produced any impressive results.

In last year’s address, President Putin said that Russia’s major problem these days is the severe pressure exerted on society by the bureaucracy. That pressure hasn’t been reduced over the past year; on the contrary, it has increased. The impact has been felt not only by business leaders, but by millions of ordinary citizens who happened to request any kind of documents from lower-level bureaucrats. And look at the increase in all kinds of regulations – covering business activities, labor relations, and everyday life!

We were promised simplified procedures for legalizing ownership of plots of land and the buildings on them. This has taken the form of a bill that has even drawn protests from some Duma members from the United Russia faction, who usually approve everything. In their opinion, if the procedures proposed in this bill become law, they will cause citizens a considerable amount of stress and cost them a substantial part of their savings.

Tax audits as a way of “terrorizing” the business community have persisted – contrary to instructions in last year’s address, to the effect that this form of fiscal activity should be discontinued.

Even the Presidential Administration’s Supervisory Directorate couldn’t ignore the fact that many of the directives in last year’s presidential address still haven’t been followed. In a recent report, the Supervisory Directorate said that the bureaucratic barriers that generate corruption and act as obstacles to business development have not been reduced. There still hasn’t been a capital amnesty; legislation aimed at facilitating an affordable housing market still hasn’t been passed; and citizens’ rights to free, good-quality education “aren’t fully provided for.” In layman’s terms, this means that education is becoming increasingly segregated: high-quality, expensive education for those who have power and money, and no education for everyone else.

Rumor has it that these obvious failures to comply with last year’s directives are the reason why this year’s address has been postponed repeatedly.

Then again, failure to achieve objectives isn’t a problem confined to last year’s presidential address. Everyone remembers an earlier address that set the target of doubling GDP. And the situation didn’t look much better in the Yeltsin era. Yeltsin’s very first presidential address included a widely-quoted phrase: “What we need isn’t a hundred millionaires, but millions of property-owners.” Since then, the number of millionaires in Moscow alone has grown to almost 100,000, while millions of our fellow citizens continue to feel alienated from any kind of property ownership.

In short, a kind of tradition has taken shape around presidential addresses. The president says all the right words, and proposes some entirely appropriate measures – but in practice, no one has any intention of carrying them out.

A natural question arises: why does this happen? Of course, it’s easy to reduce it to the old Russian tradition: good Tsar, bad nobles. However, if such an approach is adopted, it doesn’t actually explain why the situation keeps repeating itself with different people in the roles of Tsar and nobles.

A different explanation appears to be far more substantial. Presidential addresses in Russia have become nothing more than part of state protocol – because when the Constitution was written hastily back in 1993, the idea of an annual address was copied from American political practice, with no critical thinking. But Russia, unlike the United States, lacks established mechanisms for holding the executive branch accountable to the legislature. The president and the Cabinet aren’t really accountable to anyone – neither the citizenry nor representative government bodies. And since there are no political or legal foundations for transforming presidential addresses into reality, the addresses inevitably turn into pompous state rituals.

Another reason is that in post-communist Russia, it’s become a tradition for the president, who holds the main political powers, to balance above the fray of various elite factions and their frequently-contradictory interests. All this forces the rival groups to appeal to the president as a higher authority. Meanwhile, the president has an interest in maintaining this situation, since it serves to reinforce his authority and expand his room for political maneuvering.

Presidential addresses, in their present form, fit in well with this model of a political process. Various elite factions can find something in the text of an address to support their positions and aspirations, and quote the state’s highest authority in favor of them. So everyone’s happy: all the different influence groups, since they now have something to quote, and the president, since everyone will be quoting him.

Is there any real chance of turning the presidential address into a realistic instrument for transforming the actual situation? Within the framework of traditional bureaucratic reasoning, of course, the state might set up yet another commission or federal service to supervise implementation of the president’s directives. But that is most unlikely to produce any changes for the better.

I believe it was Brazil that established a ministry for countering bureaucracy, sometime in the second half of the last century; and the ministry very soon turned into a citadel of bureaucracy. This is understandable: the executive branch cannot provide effective oversight for itself, since there’s always the opportunity to reach a “friendly agreement” with superiors.

But the effective remedy is well-known. The bureaucracy can be compelled to do something only when it’s countered by something – a system of checks and balances in government, with the legislature providing oversight for presidential and government bodies, and the legislature in its turn being accountable to the citizenry. In that situation, failure to comply with state directives could actually lead to the loss of jobs and privileges.