A Few Words on Real Russia

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Yan Vaslavsky

«Rethinking Russia» Director

Vladimir Putin delivered his Annual Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly at St. George’s Hall of the Great Kremlin Palace on December 1. The state-of-the-nation address is regarded as a major speech over a 12-month period. It usually recounts the progress and outlines national priorities and the development agenda for the near future. This format is not unique[1], but it tends to command attention of the general public at home and abroad as well as of parliamentarians to whom, judging by its very name, it is addressed.

Experts who analyze the President’s address take careful note of the peculiarities of each speech. Over the recent years, the speeches were focused on foreign policy and international affairs. However, the 2016 Address is notable, first of all, for its stronger emphasis on the economy, social issues, and domestic policy.

To some extent, the Address was meant to galvanize the population into action as the President argued that Russians have to get to grips with the problems the country is confronted with in highly unusual and tricky conditions. Therefore, consolidation and unity are instrumental to successfully achieve the developmental goals.

The parliamentary elections held under the revived mixed voting system were the 2016 main political event. The restored features of the majoritarian-style system and proportional representation which contributed to the transparency of the electoral process in Russia, confirm the President’s words that “our course of developing the political system, the institutions of direct democracy, and of making elections more competitive is completely justified, and will certainly continue”.

A most important statement about the domestic policy calls attention to the modified role of the State Duma. Putin stressed that the stature of the legislative branch and the lower house, in particular, had been enhanced. Meanwhile, as it might be expected, United Russia, the party with a constitutional majority in the State Duma of the seventh convocation, should bear weighty responsibility for maintaining the authority.

 The President placed a particular emphasis on freedom and its role for the Russian civil society by saying that “…in culture, politics, the mass media, public life, or in debates on economic issues, no one can ban freedom of thought and the freedom to openly express one’s views.”

2016 was an eventful year for Russian politics. And the upcoming year will be important for historical memory as the centenary of the February and October revolutions would constitute a serious challenge for Russia’s civil society and the academic community. Russia will need to give an in-depth and well-balanced analysis of the events, to reconcile different epochs and figures, and to foster social harmony. As Dutch philosopher Frank Ankersmit put it, the country should heal its “historical trauma”, let bygones be bygones and, finally, start to act in the living present. It will no longer be tormented by the ghosts of the Soviet past and the memories of some Soviet leaders, which, as it sometimes seems, still affect Russian politics and public discourse.

Premium put on the domestic policy did not imply that international affairs were neglected. The President highlighted the major current trends which caused concerns stating that “… even in the seemingly prosperous countries and stable regions, we witness the emergence of an ever greater number of new divisions and political, ethnic, religious and social conflicts”.

A major aspect covered in the Address is social. The Russian authorities prioritize higher living standards, new services in various sectors, including healthcare and education, opportunities for self-realization, improved productivity, and a special emphasis on personal and professional development of the youth.

As for the economic dynamics, President Putin pointed out that “the main causes of Russia’s economic slowdown, above all, lie in our internal problems”. This statement is especially interesting to juxtapose with pervasive Western stereotypes about the significant impact of Western economic sanctions on Russia’s economy. Undoubtedly, the sanctions regime has adversely affected the country. However, since 2014 the country has convincingly demonstrated that these penalties cannot sink its economy or bring the people to their knees. The government’s estimates show that since 2017 Russia’s economy will be recovering, albeit slowly. Actually, the trend reversal is plainly evident.

Meanwhile, the President dwelt on another considerable challenge, adding that stabilization does not translate into development. As the Head of State argued, “if we fail to address the underlying problems of Russia’s economy or to provide new growth stimuli on a full scale, our economy will stagnate in years to come and we will have to constantly scrimp and save only to delay our development. We cannot afford that”.

The Russian President proceeded to the foreign policy agenda only at the end of his 2016 Address focusing on all the urgent socio-economic issues prior to that. As he put it, “You all know that we have encountered attempts to pressure us from abroad over these last years. I mentioned this twice. They have used every means: from spreading myths about Russian aggression, propaganda and meddling in others’ elections to persecuting our athletes, including our Paralympic athletes”. This assertion encapsulates the very essence of anti-Russian hysteria which has nothing to do with reality and is artificially stoked by a wide range of countries, above all, European ones. There is no denying that Russia has drawn lessons from all these political intrigues and even capitalized on them. As Vladimir Putin believed, “the doping scandal will help us to put in place the most advanced system here in Russia for fighting this scourge. I say this relying on the fact that our national doping prevention program will be ready early next year”.

Giving no hint about Russia’s exceptionalism and special rights to governing the world, Putin maintained that “everyone has more than had their fill now of media campaigns carried out to order, the fabrication and publication of compromising material, and moralising lectures. If need be, we can lecture whoever, but we understand our responsibility and we have a sincere desire to take part in resolving global and regional problems, in situations, of course, where our involvement is fitting, wanted and needed”. This confirms that Russia is willing to remain a responsible international actor which will always be above mudslinging of any kind.

Vladimir Putin threw into sharp relief the vision of Russia’s global role and the attitude towards national development issues. As he held, “We do not want confrontation with anyone. We have no need for it and neither do our partners or the global community. Unlike some of our colleagues abroad, who consider Russia an adversary, we do not seek and never have sought enemies. We need friends. But we will not allow our interests to be infringed upon or ignored. We want to and will decide our destiny ourselves and build our present and future without others’ unasked for advice and prompting”.

An important message was sent, above all, to Russia’s Western partners. As Vladimir Putin stated, “We desire well-intentioned and equal dialogue and we affirm the principles of justice and mutual respect in international affairs. We are ready for a serious discussion on building a stable system of international relations for the 21st century. Sadly, the decades that have passed since the end of the Cold War have been wasted”.

Consequently, Russia signals its willingness to cooperate with the West provided it abides by simple communication rules which Vladimir Putin has been talking about for so many years. One can only hope that Western capitals and Washington will give ear to these words.

[1] The US President also delivers a state-of-the-union speech on the annual basis.

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