Putin's annual address to parliament and the people differed from last year's. In spite of an obligatory threat to target the US with missiles, the speech was meant to appease his angry people. So Putin morphed from Tsar Vladimir to Uncle Vova. According to our columnist Mark Galeotti that will not be enough. There are no more quick fixes and easy answers, but Putin budges to act decisively.
President Putin’s annual addresses to the Russian parliament and people are always showcase events, a mix of legislative programme, aspirational rhetoric and bombastic theatre. Last year, the show was stolen by his loving recitation of new strategic weapons systems, including a memorable video representation of a nuclear strike on Florida. This year, though, a kindler, gentler, and more generous Putin appeared to make an appearance.
Towards the end there was a ritual rattling of sabres, warning the United States that any strike by intermediate-range missiles which could be based in Europe would be met with a retaliatory attack on the American mainland. But this was just the sugar-coating, a treat for the nationalists and perhaps Putin himself. After all, in the main this was a very different speech from the last time.
It was payday. There would be more money for child benefit and pensions. More help for the unemployed and mortgage relief for home owners. More pay for public sector workers. More rubbish tips. More, more, more. Happy days are here again or, as Stalin once had it, 'life is getting better, comrades, life is getting more cheerful'.
The cheer gap
Yet of course, it is not, and that is the point, and this is the first of four gaps in his espoused policy. There are good reasons to spend money on Russia’s human capital. Public sector workers have seen their wages shrink in real terms, and spending more on health and childcare will also address the country’s potential demographic crisis. From poor waste management to arbitrary arrests of businesspeople, Putin has identified genuine issues affecting people’s lives. Just as with the major infrastructure projects announced last year, these meet real needs of the country.
It is questionable, though, how far these are driven by the needs of the nation rather than short-term political calculations. How far, in short, Putin is trying to buy cheer. His personal approval and, above all, trust ratings are sliding. They are still at levels which would be the envy of any Western politician, but that is not the point. When there is no opposition, the numbers mean something different. France’s Emmanuel Macron can still govern with approval ratings in the high 20s, but were Putin’s to fall below 50%, it would represent a crashing blow to his prestige, credibility and authority. At a time when even the elite are sidling round to the discussion of succession – witness political technologist and self-appointed poet of Putinism Vladislav Surkov’s latest article – then he needs to be thinking of his political future.
The money gap
'There’s no money, but take care', prime minister Dmitri Medvedev notably (and notoriously) blurted to an angry pensioner in 2016. Of course there was – there was the money to build the Crimea Bridge (€3.3 billion), host the 2018 World Cup (€13.2 billion) and allow well-placed cronies to embezzle to their hearts’ content. Can the state afford to make good on these new promises?
The answer is yes, but not without having to make some tough decisions. The defence budget has already been cut in recent years, but is meant to be increased again, both for Putin’s new strategic weapons but also to try and get past a plateau in recruiting professional soldiers. Last year was meant to be the year the number was increased from 384,000 to almost 500,000, but in fact the start of 2019 saw the number of volunteer kontraktniki still stubbornly at 384,000.
The audience (picture Kremlin.ru)
So where else can the money be found? The Kremlin made a strategic decision to prioritise resilience against Western sanctions over economic growth, and as a result, despite the deeply-questionable official GDP increase of 2.3% last year (most outside estimates suggest 1.7%), even the forecast for 2019 is around 1.5%, and that is fragile. This is actually quite an achievement given the global economic climate and sanctions, but nonetheless does mean that if the government is going to pay for both guns and butter, it will have to dip into its (admittedly impressive) financial reserves. But one of the key reasons for building up this reserve was to provide economic security – can Putin convince himself that the current tense international environment allows him to relax his tight austerity?
The delivery gap
Ultimately, one of the crucial problems for late Putinism is the very complexity of policy; there are no more quick fixes and easy answers. It is not just that to find the money for substantive social programmes of this scale he will have to attack other interests – though he will – it is that these are not simply problems which can be solved with money. Above all, they require will, and this seems to be lacking.
Tellingly, in his speech Putin noted that 'you cannot fool the people. They are acutely aware of hypocrisy, lack of respect or any injustice. They have little interest in red tape and bureaucratic routine. It is important for people to see what is really being done and the impact it has on their lives and the lives of their families. And not sometime in the future, but now.'
He is certainly big on declaratory targets – for others to meet. The population should be growing again by late 2023. Everyone should have full access to medical treatment by the end of 2020. All existing regulatory laws should be updated in the next two years. By the end of 2024, the proportion of waste that is treated should have risen from today’s 8-9% to 60%. In the same timeframe, agricultural exports should be grown from $25.8 billion to $45 billion. (A cynic might say this could easiest be done by letting the value of the ruble slide…)
However, we have seen this style of management before. Tellingly, he said little about the twelve national projects launched following his equally-aspirational May Decrees of last year, which envisage 25.7 trillion rubles (€346 billion) being spent on infrastructural developments meant to be showing a result by 2020. Ever since his long-forgotten ‘National Priority Projects’ of 2005, Putin has shown a penchant for reliably announcing great progress just over the horizon, but delivery is much more uncertain.
The determination gap
Corruption provides a good metaphor for the wider challenge. Corruption in Russia is still a problem, but it is often of the evolved, enlightened variety. Major projects all come with their padded budgets and unexplained overheads, they may well be completed over budget and over time, but in the main they will get completed. The days of overt plunder, when money would be pocketed and nothing happened, are largely over. That is, of course, a good thing for Russia, but it also perversely reduces the pressure for reform and the ease of identifying and proving malfeasance.
This will involve serious measures to attack the practices whereby officials at every level of the state enrich themselves, and given that Putin has inveighed against corruption before without making any moves towards such a radical step, no one believes he really means it. Given Putin’s evident dislike of ‘manual control,’ such assumptions have real force.
Likewise, the challenge of preventing ‘raiding’ and the arbitrary arrests of businesspeople will not be solved with a few stern comments from the podium. Putin has, after all, said the same things before. Indeed, it was then-president Medvedev who said 'Our law-enforcement bodies should stop terrorizing business' back in 2008. This does not mean that Putin is somehow too weak to tell the FSB and other predatory agencies what to do. It is, rather, that people presume he is not serious and he appears unwilling to make the kind of real moves that would demonstrate otherwise precisely because, for this to be meaningful, it would mean targeting his own cronies or those associated with them, if not declaring war on his own kleptocratic elite.
So this was a Putin, aware of the growing discontent in the country, seeking to reinvent himself in kindler, gentler mode: Uncle Vova instead of Tsar Vladimir. But this is just talk. As usual, Putin places the onus on others – the government, regional authorities, the Russian people themselves – actually to do the work.
Here is the irony. He warned that 'if someone prefers to work in the business as usual mode, without challenges, avoiding initiative or responsibility, they had better leave immediately… With such an attitude, you had better stay away'. And yet this was Putin in one of his familiar roles, as the cheerleader, not the executive. If he genuinely proves committed to following through, and is willing to spend the economic and political resources this will require, then he may yet gain the historical renown he appears to crave, as a nation-builder. But that will probably require surrender his single-minded pursuit of Russia’s geopolitical status as a great power. It is time for a choice.