President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual State-of-the-Nation address on April 18, and, despite the official secrecy that had surrounded the speech’s contents prior to its delivery, rumors that his main theme would be the need to streamline the state apparatus (see the Monitor, April 17) turned out to be true.

Indeed, while listing the achievements of his governance over the past year–a modest reduction in unemployment, a modest growth in real wages and the passage of measures to reform the tax and judicial systems, to cut red tape for businesses and to permit the free sale of some land–the mood of the Russian president was well short of euphoric. He also faced reality and made note of it: Forty million Russians remain in poverty; the economy’s slowing growth rate is likely to prevent Russia from catching up with the developed world. Having earlier castigated his cabinet for overly timid growth projections, Putin then declared that the main obstacle to rapid economic growth is Russia’s “awkward, ineffective state apparatus.” This, he said, remains “a black box” for most citizens and is mired in corruption. The problem, he continued, is not the state bureaucracy’s size. He insisted, rather unconvincingly, that Russia’s state apparatus is no bigger, and perhaps even smaller than those in other countries. The problem, he claimed, is that it is “badly organized” and staffed by people unacquainted with “system management.” Calling for an “administrative reform” that would turn the state apparatus into a “compact working instrument of state policy,” Putin ordered the cabinet to present restructuring plans forthwith.

If all of this had a familiar ring, it’s because it had all been said before, in so many words. In his March 1997 address, then President Boris Yeltsin assailed top state officials for their “lack of will and indifference, irresponsibility and incompetence in dealing with state problems” and then reshuffled his cabinet. The Russian media speculated at the time that Yeltsin’s next step would be to radically restructure the state apparatus. Izvestia even reported that Anatoly Chubais had been transferred from the post of presidential chief of staff to that of first deputy prime minister in order to change the government’s “size and functions.” A year later, in June 1998, Yeltsin that his administration had “begun to reduce drastically expenditure on the state apparatus.” Two months later, the country’s financial system collapsed.