Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 133

Addressing a joint session of the Russian parliament on July 8, President Vladimir Putin gave his first state of the nation address, hitting on some of his favorite themes–the need to “strengthen the state” and establish “a single vertical line of executive power” while carrying out liberal economic reforms. In a clear reference to his liberal and democratic critics, Putin dismissed what he characterized as “speculation about dictatorship and authoritarianism,” saying that he was simply seeking to create an “effective and a democratic state… capable of protecting civic, political and economic freedoms.”

Indeed, the speech, like many of Putin’s previous policy statements, contained elements which would hearten economic reformers but worry civil libertarians. Thus, echoing the gist of a speech made in 1997 by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Putin declared that the “gist” of Russia’s economic problems is that “the state interferes excessively in spheres where it should be absent and is absent where its presence is needed.” Following from this, Putin said the state should protect property rights while ending its own excessive bureaucratic interference in economic affairs. He said that the main obstacles to economic growth are “high taxes, the arbitrary actions of functionaries and the rampage of criminals.” The section on the economy bore the fingerprints of his economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, particularly its condemnation of economic “populism” and its defense of “economic freedom.”

At the same time, while the Russian president declared that democracy could not survive without a “truly free media,” he also said that the country had not yet worked out “clear democratic rules guaranteeing genuine independence for the fourth estate.” Putin criticized the control over the media exercised by “politicians and weighty financial groups,” who have used the media as “a convenient instrument in the inter-clan struggle” and even as a source of “mass disinformation” and “a means of struggle against the state” (Russian agencies, July 8). Putin’s criticism of oligarchical media control was somewhat ironic, given the key role that some of this same media, particularly Russian Public Television (ORT), the 51-percent state-owned television channel said to be controlled by Boris Berezovsky, played in building support for Putin himself, for Chechen War that helped launch him into power and for Unity, the pro-Putin political party.