President’s Annual Press Conference: Putin for Political Competition and Steady Development

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The 13th annual press conference of Vladimir Putin in Moscow was attended by an unprecedented number of accredited Russian and foreign journalists. The discussion focused on Russia’s foreign and domestic policy, upcoming presidential elections, economy, social development, pensions, regional issues as well as the range of other topics.

The site chose some of the most burning issues covered by Vladimir Putin and asked some experts to comment on the President’s statements.

From the very outset, Putin was very clear about his attitude to the March 2018 electoral campaign. Explaining the reasons for his decision to run for reelection, he answered that Russia must be spearheaded into the future and become a modern country with a flexible political system, which necessitates competition. “The simplest answer would be that nurturing rivals is not what I need to do. However, you might be surprised but I do believe that we should have not only economic but also political competition. Of course, I would be happy if we had a balanced political system. I want this, and I will work towards this. And a balanced political system is unthinkable without competition.” That was the President’s answer to the question if he felt bored to compete in the election without any major opponents and why there was no No.2 politician in Russia.

Alexei MAKARKIN, First Vice President of the Center for Political Technologies, is not convinced that the President meant a political reform:

– I think it will be, rather, a mechanism to ensure stability of the political regime which will not hang on the Putin’s rating. Now the rating of one man is the pillar of the whole political system, making it both a tool and a problem, since under the Constitution he cannot be reelected for a new term. We cannot rule out possible amendments to the Constitution, but such a scenario would be reminiscent of Central Asia, which the President would probably like to avoid it.

Moreover, the proposal to extend the presidential term in office to 6 years was made under Dmitry Medvedev, which implies benefiting a different person; at least, it was a spin put on it for the broad public. Therefore, the extended term is not the preferred option now. Given the context, we must make up our mind what the next step should be. I am not sure that we shall be witnessing a more intense competition. Rather, the matter will revolve around building the Xiaoping-style model.

There has been much speculation about establishing a new body. There will be plenty of time to accomplish it, the whole of the next term. However, if we consider the Chinese experience, which has been widely chewed over, we shall see much Byzantine politics and behind-the-scenes struggle amid the display of complete unity from all the members of the CPC Central Committee. Experts divide them into groups of influence, which, by the way, is characteristic of Russia as well.

Therefore, the Chinese option is essentially a straightjacket deterring competition by confining it to intra-party work. Putin is an independent, self-nominated candidate. It would hardly affect United Russia’s standing or improve it anyhow. Therefore, the latter would hardly become as powerful as the Communist Party of China.

Iran offers a model of managed political competition. The spiritual and political leader (rahbar-e mo’azzam-e irān, or the Supreme Leader of Iran), is an elected office currently held by Ali Hosseini Khamenei. However, elections are non-competitive, as the candidate requires only public approval and cannot be removed. Khamenei has held this post since 1989. There is some political competition involved, but it is managed by the Supreme Leader.

Speaking about presidential elections, the presidency is informally given for two four-year terms, which in total comprises eight years. And once in 8 years Iran witnesses a very competitive, fierce election campaign.

Nevertheless, when the president tries to secure a second term, the electoral campaign is also vigorous and bitter. When the president leaves and we are wondering who will be elected to office instead, then we see an uphill struggle, with the winner’s name hard to predict in advance.
There were cases where an outsider secured victory. That is an example of an alternative political system. However, it must be mentioned that this system relies on ideology as well as the spiritual authority of the Rahbar. Ideology is the bedrock of the system since all candidates recognize Iran as an Islamic republic and embrace the main tenets and teachings of Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini, who founded this republic in 1979. Those who oppose the ideas are deprived of the right to run for presidency. As you can see, it is not just a political and pragmatic consensus. It is a religion-based consensus, with major elements of theocracy entrenched in it. That is the framework in which real political competition is possible.

However, it does not resemble Russia either. Russia may one day develop its own version, but it is unlikely to intentionally use stronger competition as a tool.

The President had to dwell on the subject of competition further as he replied to Ksenia SOBCHAK, a journalist of Russian channel TV Rain who shortly before the press conference complained that she can debate topical issues with Putin only as the journalist. Referring to the Central Electoral Commission’s refusal to register Aleksei Navalny as a presidential candidate, Sobchak said that the opposition either faces problems or is not allowed to be elected. “Does it mean that you, Vladimir Putin, are afraid of honest competition and issue such orders?” Sobchak asked.

Putin asked the question in return if she wanted a new Maidan. “The opposition must come up with a clear, understandable, constructive program. Suppose your slogan is “Against everyone.” Is this a positive action program?” Putin asked. He noted that if the opposition ascended to power without any plan of action or a clear-cut platform, Russia would be living from one Maidan to the next, with Saakashvilis running around.

The President made it clear that he was an advocate of political competition and he would ensure that even those unable to participate in the elections can have a chance, says political scientist Pavel DANILIN, Director of the Center for Political Analysis

This may imply either a lower municipal threshold or its entire abolishment, as many predict. I oppose gubernatorial elections, but if the issue of elections stands, the municipal threshold is a serious obstacle to surmount.

Second, it is necessary to encourage parties to participate in municipal elections, which they are still reluctant to do. Should we reach the end, it will increase party competition. We should even consider removing parties from the register if they do not contest an election for some time. Therefore, one should not conclude that it will be a cakewalk for the opposition. Much effort needs to be invested for the system to become competitive.

As for Navalny, apparently he will not be running in the upcoming election. Whatever proposals the President has submitted to the State Duma, those with a criminal record will be denied access to politics. As the President wisely said, we had enough of it in the nineties.

One of the most pressing political issues that stirred public curiosity since Putin announced his bid for presidency concerns the way he would seek reelection. Will he run as a self-nominated candidate or a party candidate?

Vladimir Putin gave a straight answer. “It will be a self-nomination. Of course, I very much count on the support of the political forces regardless of their organization form – parties or public organizations – that share my views on the country’s development and have faith in me. Of course, I am counting on it. In general, I am looking forward to receiving broad support of our citizens.”

Political scientist Dmitry FETISOV states that the suspense which has dominated political life recently has been cleared:

Of course, the President’s decision to run as an independent candidate is unwelcome news for United Russia. Obviously, the campaign will revolve around the image of a popular candidate supported by broad masses, a leader with a broad public appeal. Hence, we need to collect signatures.

Importantly, since he is not nominated by the party, the funds raised for the campaign will be limited. We are unlikely to see much, if any, advertising or visual support. The campaign rely heavily on newsworthy events. In essence, the decision looks quite logical. Given Putin’s high and stable rating, the president can afford it.

Political scientist Alexei MARTYNOV, Director of the International Institute of the Newest States, calls Putin’s decision to run as the people’s candidate a most important part of the press conference and the landmark of modern politics:

– Putin wants to be seen as a candidate fielded by the people of different political views and different faiths. I think that he could collect several million signatures across Russia. Putin is sure to win the next year’s presidential elections, which will serve as an additional legitimization tool and extend his mandate for pursuing his successful policies.

Vladimir Putin aims to continue laying a sound foundation for his political edifice characterized by the respect for sovereignty, substantially improved quality of life and revival of a great power status. Thus, he wants to obtain a national mandate through his self-nomination. Most Russians are waiting for him to deliver on his promises.

Undoubtedly, such important issues require the significant reshuffle of officials, injecting fresh blood in regional and national elites, and a different degree of involvement in government. All those problems were discussed by Vladimir Putin at the press conference.

Another significant aspect was that Vladimir Putin, while speaking with journalists, sent a clear message to the West that any attempts to discredit the leader, as well as media, sanction and political pressure aimed at compelling domestic political change had all been in vain. On the contrary, people rallied behind the President.

Incidentally, as the President sees it, Western sanctions have affected the country’s economy but not in the way that falling oil prices have. Actually, West-Russia relations are now the focus of his attention. Specifically, Putin is worried about Washington dragging Russia into another arms race. He reminded everybody of Russia’s consistent position concerning those fundamental treaties which are the cornerstone of international security.  

As Putin said, “We did not withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, it was the US that did this unilaterally. Now we are hearing noises about the undermining of the INF treaty. This is actually a preparation strategy for its withdrawal from the treaty. Moreover, I would say that the US has already pulled out of the treaty de facto. The United States is trying to reproach and accuse us of something, but what exactly has it accomplished?” He also added that “The same is true of New START. They say that the US finds the treaty unfavorable and unnecessary. If the US jettisons its New START commitments, this will have a very negative impact on global stability and security. You know we are very aware of the effect particular actions can have on the situation. We will ensure our security without engaging in an arms race”.

Answering a question from an American journalist on whether Russia’s tougher policies on North Korea could warm up US-Russia relations, the President said the following: “You’re interesting people, really. Actually, your congressmen, your senators…seem to be smart people. But they put us on the same shelf as North Korea or Iran. And at the same time, they ask the US president to address the issues of North Korea and the Iranian nuclear program together with us. Are you OK? It just looks weird. It just doesn’t make much sense. Anyway, our policy, unlike that of certain other countries is not nearsighted. We do not look at our immediate goals only”.

At his annual press conference, Vladimir Putin also spoke his mind on the country’s relations with Poland and Ukraine, calling in fact for constructive dialogue and adopting an unbiased approach.

Alexander Konkov, Director of Rethinking Russiaa Moscowbased international think tank, believes that foreign policy questions Vladimir Putin needed to respond to belonged to the current agenda rather than his electoral manifesto: 

-I mean the situation around Syria, North Korea and Ukraine. However, the President’s answers point to particular trends and ideas which will definitely find their way into his electoral program.

I would emphasize the question about international treaties, as we have recently witnessed a crisis over the international arms control regime. At the same time, President Putin made it clear that Russia had never unilaterally abrogated any agreements, with all legal changes emanating from the United States. And the bottom line is that despite the complicated international environment and its interests Russia will not renege on its commitments, which is of special importance amid the current uncertainty and instability.

In general, responding to particular questions and even verbal attacks, including from a Ukrainian or Polish reporter, Vladimir Putin stayed above the fray. He is aware of all problems and ready to embrace a constructive, inclusive and consistent search for solutions.

The President also addressed the corruption issue. While dwelling on relations between entrepreneurs and law enforcement bodies under the banner of Stop Bullying Business, he admitted the lack of improvements.

As Putin pointed out, this is accounted for by rampant corruption, poor management and the lack of proper control. While elaborating on the situation, he added “To be honest, this is a complicated issue. I cannot say that I am satisfied with our performance”.

In addition, Putin shared with reporters a year-old story. Once he gave Alexander Bortnikov, FSB Director, materials relating to a particular organization. Bortnikov looked through them only to say, “Mr. President, as early as six months ago, we carried out an extensive investigation into the case and brought a criminal prosecution against all the suspects. In fact, the whole department was sentenced to prison. However, the organization recruited new employees, with the story repeating itself”.

Putin complained, “Frankly speaking, I don’t know sometimes what we can do about this”. However, he added, “I would recommend applying the military-style rotation principle”.

Alexey Mukhin, Director General of the Centre for Political Information, singled out the story for a special mention:

– Putin has just told us a real story about how the FSB, to put it bluntly, sent bent officials to jail. But those who replaced them could also be thrown into prison just within six months! It is like a vicious circle. What can we do about it? However, it is clear that the incumbent government will keep anti-corruption campaigns as its main priority. It also does its best to prevent bulling of Russian business. The President is right to deem a military-style rotation of officials a way to break the corruption deadlock.

Meanwhile, Dmitry Fetisov, Russia’s political scientist, summed up Putin’s press conference by stressing the following important points:

Firstly, Vladimir Putin’s self-nomination does not merely constitute an electoral step; it is a signal that the presidential elections will be followed by an overhaul of the party system. As for Putin, he remains the national leader, deriving his support both from United Russia and other parties and organizations.

Secondly, the head of state understands the need to reform the country’s sport. However, the decision on how to proceed has yet to be made.

Thirdly, the President made it clear that short-term changes in relations between regions and the federal center – in terms of budget policies – are beyond our reach.

Fourthly, Russia is determined to act as a peacekeeper between the warrying parties in Ukraine. At the same time, Putin views the Ukrainians – not Poroshenko, Saakashvili or the establishment – as a real representative of the Ukrainian side.

Fifthly, Putin gave another hint that the world community would carefully watch the presidential campaign, with anti-Russian forces seeking any opportunity to condemn the election as illegitimate.

Sixthly, Russia will continue to advance its national interests abroad through exclusively peaceful means. Despite being pressurized internationally, it will inevitably remain open to dialogue with all players.

Seventhly, Putin once again demonstrated his knowledge of internal problems and the fact that he did not ignore them.

Last but not least, the President is satisfied with his government’s performance. The Cabinet may not be subject to profound change.

The large press conference is organized to sum up the year. This time, the almost four hour long press conference saw the President reply to questions of 55 people.  


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