Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 8

Putin is not the first–and will most likely not be the last–Russian leader to realize that the state bureaucracy is the main barrier to the country’s modernization and development. Indeed, a majority of Boris Yeltsin’s annual addresses identified bureaucratic corruption, along with organized crime, as the main problems facing the country. Yet the yawning gulf between rhetoric and action remains seemingly unbridgeable. And even if Putin is genuinely committed to combating bureaucratic obstructionism and corruption, he faces a paradox: Can the state bureaucracy be relied on to take measures that are likely to lessen its own power and privileges?

The answer to this question is by no means obvious, and the analysis Putin put forward in his address, which was vague and Gorbachev-like, shed little light on the problem. Starting with the dubious assertion that Russia’s “bureaucratic structure” is no bigger, and possibly even smaller, than those in other countries, Putin said Russia’s real problem is that its state bureaucracy is “badly organized” and that state officials “are not familiar with system management.” The answer, thus, is an “administrative reform” that will turn the state apparatus into a “compact working instrument of state policy.” He called on the cabinet to present, in short order, plans for restructuring the state apparatus. But while Putin did say that the first priority would be to reduce the number of state bureaucrats, he gave no indication of which ministries or agencies might be cut or whether the layer of state bureaucracy he himself had created two years ago–the seven federal districts, each represented by a presidential envoy–would be subject to pruning.

Putin’s State of the Nation address briefly touched on Russia’s other seemingly intractable problem–the war in Chechnya. Here, too, he admitted, perhaps somewhat more obliquely, that all was not well. While restating the Kremlin’s oft-repeated and widely dismissed claim that the “military phase” of the conflict was over–thanks, he said, to “the bravery and heroism” of the Russian military–he noted that the situation in Chechnya remained bad, with “bandit raids” continuing “to violate the peaceful lives of citizens.” The president’s gloom was understandable. On the eve of his speech, Chechen rebel forces attacked two Russian troop columns near the village of Novye Atagi, killing six servicemen and wounding at least eleven. Hours before his speech, a rebel bomb killed thirteen members of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration’s police force. Meanwhile, Russian forces mortared a village in southern Chechnya following a mine explosion that wounded four servicemen. The retaliatory strike reportedly killed two villagers.