Putin’s presidential address: much ado about nothing?

Putin’s presidential address was long on anti-Turkish rhetoric and promises, but short on solutions to Russia’s economic woes

ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow

The night before delivering his twelfth presidential address to the nation on 3 December, Putin made an unexpected quick round trip to Crimea to attend the switching on of the first electric line connecting the peninsula to Russia to combat weeks of blackouts. But when he got back to Moscow, his address came as no great surprise.

The attack on Turkey at the beginning stood in sharp contrast to the rest of speech which was notably less aggressive than in recent years. Indeed, it looks like Turkey has now replaced Ukraine as Russia's enemy number one. Neither Kyiv nor the West even merited a mention in the address; indeed, Putin argued for the formation an anti-jihadist coalition similar to the anti-Hitler one.

Although Putin went out of his way to stress that Russia’s problems are only with the Turkish leadership and not the Turkish people, the crackdown on ordinary Turks living in Russia belies this statement. We now know that Turkish citizens will require Russian visas from January 2016. Co-operation agreements between Russian and Turkish universities have been torn up, Turkish company representatives have been kicked out of Russia, and even children from Turkish families have come under pressure at Russian schools.

It looks like Turkey has now replaced Ukraine as Russia's enemy number one. Neither Kyiv nor the West even merited a mention in the address.

Russian-Turkish relations – previously quite amicable given the distinct similarities between the Putin and Erdogan regimes – have definitely gone sour. This has been particularly the case since the Kremlin started hounding the Crimean Tatar leadership and activists out of the peninsula in a painful echo of the 1944 deportations under Stalin. Moreover, the one TV station broadcasting in Tatar was forced to shut down in April. Turkey traditionally considers Crimean Tatars close relations with millions of Turks claiming Crimean Tatar descent. Generally speaking, Ankara has retained a low profile on this issue, but the government has continued to support the Crimean Tatar leadership in exile not least by hosting their Second World Congress in August. Although Turkey has not officially recognised the annexation of Crimea by Russia, it had continued to maintain close business ties, including sending goods by ferry as an alternative to the land route via Ukraine.

However, the shooting down of the Russian jet SU-24 in November changed all that. The de facto Crimean leadership announced the breaking off of all business connections with Turkey including numerous construction projects developing local tourist resorts. Crimean towns have severed relations with Turkish twin cities and several Crimean Tatar students in Turkey may also be forced to go home.

Beyond the anti-Turkish rhetoric, the presidential address fit the usual style of such speeches: a mixture of promises, high-flown rhetoric, and subtle signals sent to different audiences. Obviously no Russian is actually going to check on the delivery of any promises made by the leadershipearlier. However to understand what this or that piece is about the knowledge of context sometimes is needed. This can be illustrated by three concrete ideas expressed by the president along with numerous less concrete ones.

The first relies to juries. The president offered to increase the number of criminal code articles where juries can be used, which goes in line with European Court of Human Rights recommendations and came as positive surprise because number of trials with juries was decreasing all the time ending at about half a thousand a year. The back side of this good news is Putin's offer to decrease number of juries up to 5-7, which makes easier to control them either by authorities or by one side, if especially they will meet in presence of a judge like it is offered by the Supreme Court.

Another idea expressed by Putin is to restore the possibility for regional authorities to make tax exemptions for companies. This practice has been abandoned a while ago by the government which looked at Kalmykia, Ingushetia and some other 'special economic zones' granted by this right as at black holes where revenues of the federal budget were disappearing. What could happen now leting to restore this practice? Perhaps it was lobbied by Rosneft and like ones who are close to the president. The last interesting lesson of how to read presidential addresses is about long discussed idea of giving the Federal Taxation Service functions taken from the Customs Service. It looks like decision is almost made, at least Putin offers to establish a single mechanism to administer tax, custom and other fiscal payments. In Russia, the absence of reliable state institutions means that popular support is the only possible basis for the regime's stability and longevity. There are simply no internal checks and balances which might stop a leader making dangerous populist moves.

Any reference to domestic politics was notable by its near-absence in the address despite the fact that parliamentary elections are due next September, with just a couple of lines saying that elections should be free and fair. Putin did not even mention United Russia, the party of power, whose popularity has dropped since 2011. Nor did he mention the fact that, for the first time since 2003, next year’s elections will be held under a mixed system with half the deputies to be elected in single-mandate districts. The existing party system is archaic as the political system was designed at a time when complexity was considered unnecessary due to the country’s huge oil wealth. Aging party leaders, such as the Communist Gennady Zyuganov and the ‘nationalist’ Vladimir Zhirinovsky are over 70 years old and have been in their positions for a quarter of a century. However, the Kremlin decided not to meddle with the party system before the 2016 elections.

The major part of the address dealt with economy and here Putin’s rhetoric sounded pretty liberal, yet vague. He said the economic situation was “complex, but not critical”. Presidential addresses are better at describing problems and making diagnoses than offering effective solutions. For example, he said that of the 200,000 criminal cases initiated in 2014 in the sphere of the economy, only 31,000 ended in a conviction. However, 83 percent of businessmen lost their businesses. Describing this as spoiling the business climate, all Putin could do was appeal to the Public Prosecutor’s Office to be more effective in its work. This was particularly ironic given that on the eve of the address, the Prosecutor General, his deputy and his sons were all publicly accused of abuse of office by the anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny.

Putin has no need to address the country’s real problems because, by virtue of being an authoritarian populist leader, he simply does not have to.

Both the address itself and Putin’s meeting with the government on major tasks a week later showed a lack of clarity about how to deal with these problems. The deputy prime-ministers appeared not to know what the president wanted them to do about the economy. The president himself did not offer solutions to the most pressing problems: prices and inflation, low salaries and decreasing standard of living. Speaking about social and health policies (which are also in the list of top ten problems), Putin spent more time blaming the regional authorities for them than in finding solutions. And he did not even mention the fact that for the first time two governors – of Sakhalin and of Komi Republic – were under arrest, nor did he did elaborate on what they are supposed to have done or what are Kremlin’s requirements of governors now are.

Putin did not mention the problem of truck-drivers who are on strike, protesting against what they call “the Rotenberg tax” (after one of Putin’s cronies). This is an additional road tax which is to be collected by a private company controlled by Rotenberg Junior. The truck-drivers’ protests have been going on for more than a month now, although the state media has largely been ignoring them. Even so, polls show that 70 percent of Muscovites support the truck-drivers.

Putin has no need to address the country’s real problems because, by virtue of being an authoritarian populist leader, he simply does not have to. That’s why his annual addresses at a time of crisis are becoming shorter and shorter – this year almost 15 minutes in comparison with 2014.

During the boom years of the 2000s with the oil price at over $100 a barrel and a correspondingly sharp uptick in Russians’ standard of living, life was easy for Putin. But now, with the economy in deep trouble, the leadership has to come up with something new keep the masses in its thrall. This is why Russia’s involvement first in Crimea, then the Donbas, and now Syria and Turkey over the past two years is a sign of the regime's fundamental weakness, rather than strength. This ever-widening military adventurism is a kind of viagra for an ageing, semi-authoritarian regime.

Although the regime tries to avoid mobilising society, at some point the investment of huge resources by the state (and to a certain extent by society) in such an extremely active and risky foreign policy will inevitably lead to exhaustion. Russian society will at some point turn inward and focus more and more on domestic issues even if foreign policy delivers victories. So it seems likely Russian interventionism will give way to isolationism in 2016.

 

 

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ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow