Putin’s Presidential Address: Before And After

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 31

The content of a presidential address is not as important as its value as drama, with all the theatrical elements, including plot line, culmination and denouement. However, it is highly unlikely that a presidential address has ever been in the epicenter of very important events as it is now. The death of Qadyrov put to question the feasibility of the plan for stabilizing the situation in Chechnya. The Kremlin brought this issue to the forefront about 18 months ago. The plan called for relying on a single strong personality, who would subsequently untie Moscow’s hands by absorbing responsibility for maintaining law and order. The discussion regarding the proposal advocated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who suggested rejecting the concept of single mandate districts, shifting exclusively to party lists as essential instruments for forming the Russian Duma. Putin himself is rumored to have ordered publication of the widely debated scheme for radical integration of the country’s regions.

An incomplete list of crucial events immediately preceding the presidential address in front of the political elite of the country includes: the beginning of court proceedings involving former Yukos oil boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement; indefinite postponement of a long-planned meeting between Putin and representatives of the business community; the European Union-Russia summit accompanied by the public declaration that all differences regarding Russia’s ascension to the World Trade Organization have been resolved; further developments involving corrupt law enforcement officials; the act of demonstrative intimidation against Saratov Governor Dmitry Ayatskov; and, conclusion of the formation of a new government and presidential approval of a plan to substantially decrease the benefits of 32 million citizens by replacing them with monetary rewards.

Following the presidential address: the State Council announced the beginning of the second phase of federal reform; Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov declared that it is impossible to transform Russian armed forces to contract-based military service, and that by 2007 the length of mandatory military service would be reduced to one year; adoption in the first reading of the anti-democratic law on referendum and the unspeakable dispersion of the protest demonstration organized by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the Yabloko party in front of the State Duma building; the new initiative spearheaded by Aleksandr Veshnyakov, chairman of the Central Election Committee, who suggested changes in the mechanism for forming the Council of Federation; and, firing of prominent journalist Leonid Parfenov from the NTV channel, and cancellation of his current affairs program Namedny, which was considered one of the few serious analytical programs still airing on Russian television.

The gap between general and ritualistic democratic rhetoric and meaningful statements expressed in the presidential address — the difference between words and deeds – is evident. This dichotomy was vividly demonstrated by the “fateful” meeting of the State Council, which took place four days after the presidential address. The State Council is a largely ceremonial body that includes all of Russia’s governors. The State Council convenes four times each year for meetings with the president. The real labor is conducted by working groups and in the Presidium, where positions of the Kremlin, government and governors often clash. The State Council is the stronghold of regional leaders against who will be directed the main thrust of the Kremlin, according to some experts. The Kremlin often has its own agenda; it is noteworthy that the presidential address focused little on regional issues.

The concept of present reform was addressed simultaneously by three structures: the government, presidential commissions under the leadership of Dmitry Kozak, and the working group of the State Council headed Vladimir regional governor Nikolai Vinogradov. It is also noteworthy that the working group consists of members of the fifth Presidium of the State Council, which was formed two years ago although the authorized length of its responsibilities expired a year ago. The correlation between the past and present phases of federal reform is also symbolic as the current seventh composition of the Presidium of the State Council, whose mandate has almost expired, is actually one of the weakest, compared to its mighty ancestor the Presidium-I. When Mintimer Shaimiev headed the working group that dealt with delimiting subjects of jurisdiction, Yuri Luzhkov was responsible for transforming the entire system of state authority. Both ideas of both Shaimiev and Luzhkov apparently turned out to be incompatible with preferences of the new court. As a result of the Kremlin’s extreme displeasure with the proposals worked out by Shaimiev’s group a commission headed by Kozak was formed.

There is another interesting correlation of a different kind. After Boris Yeltsin was elected president in 1996, the Kremlin and the government rescinded all of the promises made by Yeltsin during the campaign, rejecting most based on the simple fact that there were no available funds for their implementation. What has happened now is very similar, except both the president and the government announced well ahead of time that the budget would not support social programs. In fact, Putin addressed these issues before the elections. Announcement of a scheme to create 28 enlarged regions, which was ordered by the Kremlin and developed by the Council of Federation and the Ministry of Economy just several days before the State Council meeting should be regarded as a kind of preparatory psychological shelling of the opposition.

The launching of criminal proceedings against Saratov Governor Ayatskov should be viewed in much the same light. The case against Ayatskov is based on the accusations that can be generally applied to any of the regional leaders. Accusations against Ayatskov stem from a business deal that took place many years ago and to charges of nepotism. The lesson here is clearly intended for the corps of governors: if you do not want to share power, you risk losing it all.

There is no decentralization in the plans being carried out by the Kremlin. But there is much inherent recentralization, which mainly implies the gradual establishment of a new and powerful layer of government structure in the form of federal districts. It is not a coincidence that in comments concerning the State Council, mention was made of the “final delimitation of responsibilities between the Center and the regions,” and about the necessity of “dealing with the responsibilities of joint jurisdiction,” as well as a note regarding the “cementing of the federation.” According to ideologues of Putin’s federal reform, the principle of joint jurisdiction defined by the 72nd article of the Constitution is an element that Yeltsin-era constitutionalists simply left out. Therefore, it is necessary to correct that omission. Within a certain context, there is validity to that assertion. They are not totally culpable that the faction representing regional authority is too weak and lacks the cohesiveness necessary to mount an effective resistance. At the same time, society at large is too atomized and disorganized to understand, let alone express, its interest in the division of power along horizontal as well as vertical lines – and especially in preserving a certain degree of competition between the two.

The very intention to establish correlation between responsibilities and resources necessary for their application is laudable. However it should be noted that the law on “introducing changes and amendments to the federal law,” specifically on “general principles of organization of legislative and executive bodies of state power of the subjects of Russian Federation,” which is due to come out next year, still lacks the necessary funds for implementation. Moreover, positions of the federal center and the governors continue to differ. Legislators will have to draft a voluminous work to bring in compliance both federal (tax and budget codes as well as 200 pieces of legislation) and regional legislation. The overall result of such reforms is the weakening of the federative principles and the strengthening of unitary foundations. It is not that Putin and his team are enemies of the federalism per se. They are simply strengthening the state from their vantage point. The weakening of federalism as well as democracy is just a side effect. In the semi-military logic of unitarianism and the “verticals of power,” federalism turns out to be too complex a form of state organization. Unitarianism is simpler and, in addition, much more familiar.