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2 December 2016

Reforms that entail no change

What was in the Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly?

The Annual Address of the President of the Russian Federation to the Federal Assembly was delivered on December 1. Public expectations varied: some expected an official statement on the upcoming “thaw”, others of a tightening of the screws. One way or another, the address differed from the previous two: foreign policy was disregarded, whereas domestic policy was picked apart, institutional and reform-related plans included.

On politics:

The President talked about political institutions from the outset: the system of mixed elections to the State Duma applied during the autumn election, and strengthening of the State Duma. Such a statement sets the tone of the future presidential election and assures the “strengthening of the authority of the legislature” and legitimacy of the constitutional majority enjoyed by United Russia. The announced “immunity to populism” of Russian society is not only an important safeguard in case something goes wrong in relations with the United States under Trump. This is also a watershed moment: between the parliamentary election in Russia and the presidential election in the U.S., the Russians, unlike in the latter case, made a wise and conscious choice. Furthermore, the ruling party was reminded of the great responsibility that comes with having a “governmental foothold”. This is an important hint against the backdrop of the upcoming reforms – the ever stronger State Duma should realize that law-makers are to be held responsible if something goes wrong.

A witty remark was addressed to those who regard themselves as the intellectual elite: “If someone believes they are more advanced, more intelligent or smarter, they should respect others, it’s only natural”. However, all too often the “stick” has been used interchangeably with the “carrot”, and the government cannot run the state having lost the trust of its citizens, living in a fragmented society. But the thesis of “unity around our flag” remained unchanged, with the focus moved from the bulk of society to those who might gain access to decision-making powers.

Revolutions that give birth to “anarchy” and open the door to “adventurists” were also mentioned in passing. This thesis differs slightly from one we’ve heard earlier, wherein threats to the country always come from the outside and are related to war. Fear of revolution, destruction “from within” not by external factors but domestic “adventurists”, served as a prelude to memories of the 1917 events. The President appealed to representatives of the humanities – historians – for the first and last time in this part of his speech. “Russian society needs an objective, honest, in-depth analysis of these events… the lessons of history are first of all necessary for reconciliation, for the strengthening of social, political and civil harmony which we have managed to achieve today”. Apparently, the lists updated by the Memorial have not gone unnoticed by the speechwriters, as the President stressed the inadmissibility of “the speculation on tragedies suffered by virtually every family”.

Foreign-policy issues were discussed at the end, and very little time was devoted to them. Everything remains unchanged: partnership with the East, “national interests” and a refusal to dance to anyone else’s tune. However, the rhetoric is getting softer and the message to make friends with the US in the name of “the interests of the entire world” is getting stronger. These “interests” include combating international terrorism.

On social issues:

The part of the address related to social issues focused on medicine and education, as usual. Nothing the President said here differed much from previous addresses. There is bad news for those caught fancying a uniform state exam, though, as it seems the era of essays and internal entrance exams is back on the agenda. Still, the uniform state exam was introduced as an experiment, and not official policy, and it is precisely this “experimental” approach that the President showed strong disapproval for. The President left aside the public health issue that has been under heated discussion over the last few weeks – the HIV epidemic in Russia. A huge part of the social section of the speech was devoted to the role of non-profit organizations and volunteer movements in Russia, about which there were two key points. To begin with, non-profit organizations are the state’s “life jackets” in areas where the state fails. This obviously refers only to the social sphere of charity, sports, and assistance to the elderly or disabled. The President urged regional and municipal authorities and budgets not to be “greedy” when it comes to the support of civic initiatives. He also appealed to the citizens themselves, enraptured by their ability to “respond to calls out of their own volition without seeking gain”.

On economic issues:

By the way, a few words about those regional budgets: they suddenly got the go-ahead to use federal subsidies on agriculture. This is important, as there is a lack of discretionary powers to budget and spend resources at the regional level, and such declarations may be indicative of prospective changes in the model of relations between the center and the regions. However, as in the case of a stronger State Duma, the President underlined that more autonomy is tantamount to more responsibility.

While a shift in rhetoric was observed in the economic bloc, it was reminiscent of what was said in the early 2000s when the Ministry of Finance was tasked with fighting the shadow area in the field of taxation. The President here brought to mind long-forgotten old truths of increased capital transparency, namely that there is a need to normalize the fiscal system, limit shadow banking, and prevent macroeconomic imbalances and economic “bubbles”. All of this was once also uttered by the Kudrin team, who used virtually the same words. Speaking of liberals, the President did not forget to derogatorily outline those trying to stand up to corrupt officials and make “a public show” of it.

Outlined prospective developments in science and innovation remained the same as before. Priority areas include promotion of programmers, engineers and the latest technological solutions. The only difference is in the fact that the discourse now makes reference to the notion of a “digital economy”; the economy of the new technological generation akin to the “cyber-army” that is meant to help provide for national security.

What comes of it all?

One can draw several conclusions based on the rhetoric of this year’s presidential address. To begin with, we will not see any loss of strength in the regime’s grip. But neither will we see the preservation of the status quo. A regrouping of forces and structural changes loom ahead of us in the upcoming year. However, there will be no change in the direction of movement, with these rearrangements being necessary to strengthen shaky positions. Secondly, we are seeing the return of the old rhetoric about reaching a balance between debit and credit lines, which was previously used in the days of crisis. The address touched upon reforms in nearly every area covered by the speech, but the issue was kept down since people are allergic to any possible perturbations. Finally, it seems that there is a hint of an intention to focus on domestic issues, and divert resources from fighting external enemies. Does this mean we will be fighting our internal enemies now? The question remains open. Still, the elite of society received an important signal – it has to stand united. Liberals according to President’s message do not have to disagree with the regime and its actions, so why not stick together! This was the leitmotif of the address, and resembled a demand more than an invitation to stay united. And in this sense, the address contained no new message. 

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