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Russia: Putin's Speech Displayed Limited Scope For Action

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russian President Vladimir Putin focused largely on the economy in his annual state of the nation address yesterday. Sounding much like a Western politician, he called for tax reform and easing restrictions on the flow of capital and labor. But Stephan De Spiegelaire, a Russia analyst at the RAND Europe think tank, says Putin's speech was interesting not so much for what was said but for what was left out. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten speaks with De Spiegelaire and files this report:

Prague, 4 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- From an economic point of view, much of what Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his annual address to parliament yesterday echoed liberal tenets espoused by Western leaders.

Putin bemoaned the small size of Russia's stock market and called for greater foreign investment. He urged legislators to ease restrictions on the movement of capital and labor. He advocated additional tax reforms and the unrestricted sale of non-agricultural land. The Russian president also stressed the need to protect private property.

"Our duty is to guarantee everybody's rights. The rights of small owners, of local investors, as well as foreign investors. I believe the government and the Federal Assembly should work on the legal framework this year. They should also push forward a new law on privatization."

But as Stephan De Spiegelaire, a Russian analyst at the RAND Europe think tank, points out, liberalism for Putin does not appear to extend to the non-economic realm. Putin made no mention of civil liberties or the importance of independent media in his speech. On a day when the partially state-owned Gazprom gas monopoly was attempting to take control of the country's only independent nationwide television network, the omission was glaring.

"In Putin's speech, I think you clearly get this feeling -- which is very much in line with what he's been doing so far -- that the political aspect of real liberalism is not something that he cares very deeply about. The total absence of anything on freedom of speech, for instance, and that on a day when the events around NTV clearly show that there's a problem there, is quite indicative of this discrepancy between the two things."

Putin castigated Russia's slow -- and by his own admission -- sometimes corrupt judicial system. He emphasized the cardinal importance of efficient and just courts to establishing a functioning economic system.

"Our court system is cut off from [real] life, and in practice doesn't do much to help economic reform -- not only for businessmen, but for many people trying to legally defend their rights. [Russian] courts have become neither quick, nor just, nor fair."

De Spiegelaire says Putin's emphasis on reforming the courts is to be welcomed. But he questions the central government's ability to follow through:

"The inertia within the system is so overwhelming and the political realities have not changed that much. Also, in the legal system, there are a lot of actors involved here who obviously are opposed to fundamental reform. So I think it will almost certainly be a higher priority on his agenda, but whether this will be implemented is still an open question."

De Spiegelaire also points to Putin's only partially successful attempt to gain greater control over Russia's regions over the past year, through re-districting, as evidence that entrenched vested interests are so far thwarting the Kremlin's plans.

"If you look beyond the rhetoric on federal reform, the reality seems to suggest -- and there's pretty much a consensus on this, both in the Russian analytical world and in the Western analytical world -- that it's been quite disappointing. He (Putin) has created this other layer of bureaucracy, if you want, despite all the rhetoric on de-bureaucratization with the federal districts and the reality on the ground does not seem to have changed all that much."

The struggle over who has power in Russia remains topical, with regional leaders allying themselves with businessmen who control valuable natural resources. De Spiegelaire says this trend will be hard for Putin to reverse, especially because the central budget remains reliant on income provided by these raw-materials exporters.

"If you look beyond Moscow, it's a very different world out there. And that's a world that seems to be barely affected by any of these programmatic speeches -- by any leader, incidentally -- in the center. There, the process of who has the power, who has the levers of both economic and political power, is still very important. The extent of the writ of Moscow is still very weak there."

De Spiegelaire notes, paradoxically, that Putin's successful drive to lower tax rates to encourage greater revenue collection means the federal budget is limited. And limited funds means the federal government disposes of limited means to effect change.

Putin alluded to this in his speech when he noted that health care in Russia -- once free for all citizens -- has become a de facto fee-paying system, with patients forced to bribe doctors and contribute to buying the medicine and equipment needed for their treatment. Putin said medical care should be free for the neediest but he advocated bowing to reality and introducing standardized fees for those who can afford them, to fund the ailing sector.

One point Putin did not hit in his speech was military reform, despite a major cabinet reshuffle last week which included the top posts at the Defense and Interior ministries. Here again, De Spiegelaire says Putin's omission was indicative of the delicate and difficult nature of the task. He adds Putin's confident assessment of the Chechen campaign is belied by events on the ground.

"The only thing in there on the military side of things, if you want, was the part on Chechnya. There too, there's a lot of wishful thinking -- thinking that the problem is solved. He (Putin) said yes, we've paid a very high price but we think that things are improving. We'll see whether that's the case, as soon as spring sets in, in Chechnya. I think you're going to see a lot of changes on the ground and there, the military issue will certainly come back."

One area where Putin's vision might be realized more rapidly is foreign policy. Putin stressed Moscow's intention to build strong ties with the European Union -- though significantly, he made no reference to the United States. De Spiegelaire says the number and intensity of contacts between Russia and the EU has grown dramatically in recent months and he sees this as a positive signal.

"There's enormous effort today being put in the EU-Russia relationship. The High Representative for the Commission's Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, is in Moscow today and tomorrow. Putin visited the informal summit organized by the Swedish presidency a couple of weeks ago. We have a summit coming up -- an official EU/Russia summit -- which will probably have some important agreements, especially on the issue of Kaliningrad and maybe some other ones. So yes, this interface between Russia and the EU is really something that's being built on both sides."

In his speech Putin set bold if somewhat vague goals. The irony of his address, however, is that although it mostly focused on domestic issues, progress may well be most clearly measured in foreign relations when the time comes to reassess the state of Russia next year.

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