Aides and speechwriters for Russian President Vladimir Putin are now putting the final touches on his annual address to the Federal Assembly due to be delivered by the end of this month. In the leak-proof Kremlin, the speech’s content is guarded more vigilantly than were military-strategic secrets in the Soviet Union. There is, however, hardly any need for these precautions or such extraordinary PR measures as the recent alarm-raising interview by Dmitry Medvedev, the head of the presidential administration (Ekspert, April 4). In the firmly controlled parliament, it would not be problematic for Putin to put a positive spin on the year, even though his presidency has shown too much weakness and has suffered humiliating defeats. Putin excels at providing reassurance and personifying “normalcy,” but the main problem for his political “technologists” still looms large: The president has nothing to say.
The need for a sober and honest re-evaluation of the state of the federation is obvious, but the political will to perform such a self-assessment is clearly missing.
The economy most defiantly refuses to follow the Kremlin’s order to double GDP. The government has finally approved the “innovative” scenario for social-economic development in 2006-2008, which aims at the growth rate of about 6% (Gazeta.ru, April 7; Vedomosti, April 8). At a recent conference at the Higher School of Economics, Minister of Economic Development German Gref and other ministers were, nevertheless, quite blunt in their analysis, blaming the low quality of state administration as the main factor in the declining growth that cannot be compensated even by sky-high oil prices (Polit.ru, April 2; Rosbalt, April 6). The main headache at the moment is inflation, since the government cannot hope to keep it within the approved range of 8-10% after it hit 5.3% in the first quarter and has not shown any signs of slowing down so far (Kommersant, April 8).
A major factor in the inflationary pressure is the reduced intake of oil rents in the Stabilization Fund and the redistribution of this money through the state budget towards social “hot spots” (Kommersant-Vlast, April 4). Far-reaching and inevitably painful reforms in health care, education, and communal services are necessary and probably cannot be postponed, but the government is reluctant to spell out its position and plans. Mikhail Zurabov, who holds the unenviable post of Minister of Health and Social Development, understands perfectly well the interdependency of all these steps, but he refuses to be the scapegoat for the lack of a comprehensive approach (Polit.ru, April 7). He maintains that it is the job for the “top boss” to present the ideology of reforms in the social sphere and convince the population of their beneficial nature. The angry protests of pensioners last winter were, however, such a shock for the authorities who took social passivity for granted that the very word “reforms” has become a taboo in the official discourse (Ezhednevny zhurnal, April 6). Putin is certainly not going to elaborate on this issue in his address.
His courtiers are now discovering an uncomfortable deficiency in the perfect design of the presidential “vertical power structure”: there is no way to share or dilute responsibility. They began to suspect that something is not quite right in the political arena, where everyone agrees with everything the president says. While democratic checks and balances are certainly out of the question, a bit of competitive politics would probably be nice. Hence the vague ideas — pioneered by Gleb Pavlovsky — about a “responsible opposition” that would engage in a “constructive dialogue” with the government and supply it with the fresh ideas that are so embarrassingly missing in the presidential state philosophy (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 8). Ex-prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov has made a tentative claim on the leadership of such a “loyal opposition” a few month back but then dived deep into the vast Moscow political swamp (Moskovsky komsomolets, April 8).
There is an irreducible problem with building such an opposition and it was spelled out by Eduard Limonov, who is not only a leader of a marginal extremist political grouping but also a truly original political thinker (Grani.ru, April 5). A serious — and more than decorative — alternative political force can be built only if there is a prospect of gaining real access to power, either by winning the elections or by enforcing an elite compromise. Putin’s team, however, has no intention of sharing power since that would weaken the fear factor. The attack on Yukos, while now portrayed by presidential advisor Igor Shuvalov as a “show trial,” deeply undermined the legal foundations of private property (Izvestiya, March 30). Therefore, the Kremlin “beast” (in Limonov’s words) has access to money and resources only as long as it keeps its hold on power; it cannot retire and will fight the potential competitors tooth and nail. Indeed, the message delivered by Medvedev was plain and threatening: The elites must consolidate around the Kremlin in order to avert the looming catastrophe (Vip.lenta.ru, April 4).
This demand for closing ranks shapes the main theme of Putin’s counter-revolutionary agenda, and he needs to remind the suddenly discontented country that he remains firmly in charge. In the absence of any positive program or at least a comprehensible message, this claim for control without leadership can appear convincing only for those who stand to lose in an unpredictable but not improbable regime change. The only thing that could make Putin’s address interesting this year is the intriguing possibility that it might be his last one.