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Russia: Observers Say Putin's Address Long On Criticism, Short On Solutions

  • Gregory Feifer

Politicians and analysts gathered in Moscow today to discuss President Vladimir Putin's state-of-the-nation address last week. Most agreed that for all his grandiose goals, Putin provided few clues about how to achieve them.

Moscow, 19 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Politicians and analysts came together in a discussion in Moscow today to assess the 16 May state-of-the-nation address by President Vladimir Putin.

Participants agreed Putin is aiming to fundamentally change the government starting next year -- but fell out over exactly what that will entail.

The disagreements reflected an important aspect of the speech last week, one that provided no cause for discord: For all his grand plans for Russia to become a powerful country based on a competitive economy, the president offered few hints on how to achieve them.

Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies, said Putin laid out the next stage of his administration, a task fitting for the "great Russian people."

"I think that the strategic goal for the third stage [of Putin's presidency] has been established -- Russia's return to the ranks of the great powers. This return means the formation of a large public project under which other public projects will be worked out," Markov said.

But Markov added that Putin failed to indicate how the country should go about transforming itself. "The main question remains how all this will be achieved. I don't think [Putin's] address answers that yet. In that sense, I see it as one stage. The next main question is how these goals will be reached," he said.

In his address, Putin said Russia's future strength should be based on an internationally competitive economy. He said the country's gross domestic product should be doubled in the next decade.

A number of analysts largely dismissed that and other grandiose exhortations as campaign talk, pointing to the fact that Putin's address comes ahead of parliamentary elections in December and a presidential poll next March.

Fedor Burlatskii, a former adviser to Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev, agreed that Putin's address mostly comprised campaign rhetoric. But he went further, disagreeing with general opinion in saying the talk contained no strategy -- save for his call for Russia to double its GDP.

"[Doubling GDP] isn't motivated by anything. It reminds me in a bad way of what I saw myself when Nikita Sergeievich Khrushchev sent to the program group [of international relations consultants in the Soviet Central Committee] the well-known proposal to overtake the United States in 20 years. That also had absolutely no reason. So I sense a kind of Sovietism in [Putin's] talk," Burlatskii said.

Burlatskii went on to say that Russia's top priority should be to tackle corruption in the bureaucracy, which stifles any attempt at change.

Participants, meanwhile, dwelled on a point that came at the very end of Putin's speech, in which he promised for the first time to take parliamentary election results into consideration when appointing government ministers. "I believe it possible," Putin said, "taking account of the results of the forthcoming election to the State Duma, to form a professional and efficient government based on the parliamentary majority."

Igor Bunin is director of the Center for Political Technologies. He said that Putin will only honor his words if the elections go the Kremlin's way -- that is, a victory for the pro-Putin centrist United Russia party. "If the elections don't go exactly how they are supposed to, there won't be any 'parliamentary majority,'" he said. Instead, Bunin added, Putin is simply preparing public opinion for a change in his cabinet's makeup following the next presidential elections.

Other analysts focused on the fact that while Putin took credit for the government's successes under his tenure as president, he went on to berate the same body for the country's problems.

Veteran commentator Sergei Kurginyan said both Putin's praise and his criticism is largely irrelevant because government policy, made behind closed doors, is little affected by the president's words. "As soon as the sources and the forms of [Russia's] problems are announced, it becomes immediately clear that one cannot talk about a change of course," he said. "It will lead too far away from those policies of inertia that now exist, and it's not necessarily true that the president can do much to change them."

Picking up on commentary about Putin's criticism of the government, liberal legislator Irina Khakamada, co-head of the Union of Rightist Forces party, said the president is essentially an "opposition figure" fighting a bureaucracy he cannot control.

She said the main point of Putin's talk was to call on the "political class" to consolidate to fight the machine of state. "It's an absurd situation when the president of Byzantium [eds: a reference to Russia as a country whose government is characterized by complexity, deviousness, intrigue] in a presidential country in fact does not command the necessary resources to carry out his decisions. He conveys that to the people, civil society and political parties in his address," Khakamada said.

Fellow lawmaker Grigorii Yavlinskii is head of the liberal Yabloko party. He said Putin's address was honest in that he indicated he would carry out "great power" policies. But Yavlinskii added that the president also communicated he would not destroy liberal elements of Russia's political system, and would even incorporate some of them.

While some analysts jumped on Putin's criticism of the new law on nationality -- which the Kremlin itself largely crafted -- Yavlinskii said it is part of a process in which laws are slowly "fixed."

"[Putin] immediately admitted having made a mistake with that [nationality] law. That's actually a very big feat -- it's an incredibly rare event. It was a 'great power' law -- 'You have to crawl around before we give you one of our passports; we're great and who are you, after all?' Putin right away said it had to be corrected, and to fix it means making it more liberal. I think that will happen with many problems and many tasks the president set out," Yavlinskii said.

Yavlinskii said the country's most pressing problems are the lack of an independent judicial system and an informative press, manipulations of elections, control over law enforcers, and the mix of business and politics.

"Why didn't Putin talk about that?" Yavlinskii asked. "Because everyone knows it already, and it would mean a change of the entire system to alter it. Why didn't he mention corruption? Because [Putin] has no answer for such questions."

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