President Vladimir Putin presented his annual State of the Nation address yesterday( transcript here). The content of the address has been somewhat obscured by the rather inflammatory ‘money’ quote:
"Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century."
Understandably, this has upset many in the West and many more who suffered under Communist oppression. But they weren’t really the audience Putin was aiming the statement at. He was talking directly to the people of Russia – and there were, as he notes, many millions of them – for whom life in the last 10 years has become significantly worse. He followed that statement by listing the many ways in which they have suffered over the last decade, and didn’t make any attempt – despite the perhaps poor choice of the word ‘geopolitical’ – to infer that Russia should attempt to rebuild any kind of global, or even regional, empire. Don’t read too much into it.
OK, so that’s the headline grabbing stuff out of the way. How should we view the speech as a whole?
Well, it was a lot of fluff really.
Putin eschewed many of the concrete promises of last year’s speech in favour of a more theoretical address, reflecting on what sort of country Russia should be. There is nothing wrong with this type of address. Now is a reasonable time for Russia to sit back and take stock of the events of the past decade or more, and assess where it should go from here; to analyse its successes and failures, and to make decisions about how to build on the successes and how to correct the failures. But this kind of theoretical rambling is useful only if it has the potential to go somewhere.
Putin did come out with a clear vision of where he wants Russia to go. Priority number one, he once again confirmed for the whole world to hear, is to develop Russia as a "free and democratic state." Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer much in the way of the concrete proposals required to pave the road to democracy.
He did manage to pick a scapegoat, though – bureaucrats. On the face of it, targeting bureaucrats isn’t that bad an idea – everybody hates bureaucrats, and even more so in Russia, where dealing with the average bureaucrats is akin to bargaining with the gatekeepers to hell themselves – they’ll promise you entry to heaven, take all your money, and then send you to see Lucifer anyway. Putin has used a similar tactic to his advantage in the past – he’s always so far managed to shift the blame for failures onto his government, or onto instantly forgettable officials. But I wonder whether attacking bureaucrats en masse is such a good idea. Russia, despite it’s capitalist reforms, still has one of the world’s largest bureaucracies, all of whom are voters.
The only substantial policy proposal was to abolish inheritance tax. How this fits into a sweeping overview of the future of Russia, I really don’t know. Incidentally, the proposal was introduced with the words: "Incidentally, I think it would be a good decision to…"
Thankfully only one really nutty section made it into the address. The part where he blamed the media’s overly pro-Putin coverage on "the unhealthy zeal of certain officials." Although he infers that he knows which officials (why use the word "certain" otherwise?) he gives no indication of who they are, nor what he intends to do about them.
Oh well. If I were you, I’d forget all about this speech. I’m sure Putin already has. Pay attention to what he actually does over the next 12 months, and draw your conclusions based on his actions, not his words.