Russia’s President Putin delivered today his usual end of year Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, in other words to the joint session of the two houses – the Duma and the Federation Council – which together make up Russia’s parliament.
This Presidential Address is the direct equivalent to the US President’s State of the Union speech to Congress. There however the similarity ends. Whereas a typical State of the Union speech is heavy on rhetoric and rarely goes beyond generalities, the sort of Presidential Address Putin likes to give is the opposite: heavy on facts and statistics and short on rhetoric.
The greater part of this year’s Presidential Address – as of previous ones – was devoted to domestic issues.
Putin gave a very large part of the Presidential Address to discussing education and healthcare, issues of great interest to Russians but of less interest to those abroad. In both areas he reported significant progress – with Russians healthier, living longer and being better educated than they have ever been before – but both remain works in progress, as they doubtless always will.
What does stand out is the extent of Putin’s personal commitment to education and healthcare.
Anyone whose memory extends back to the Soviet era will note that Putin accords healthcare more personal interest than any other Soviet or Russian leader in living memory. If Russians today are healthier and living longer than they have ever done before, it is in part because he accords healthcare especially so much attention.
Putin also touched on historical topics, with 2017 being the centenary year of the Russian Revolution. Here he went out of his way to emphasise that the commemoration of the Revolution should be a unifying experience for the whole country and not a source of division
“Next year, 2017, will mark the 100th anniversary of the February and October revolutions. This is a good moment for looking back on the causes and nature of these revolutions in Russia. Not just historians and scholars should do this; Russian society in general needs an objective, honest and deep-reaching analysis of these events.
This is our common history and we need to treat it with respect. This is something that the outstanding Russian and Soviet philosopher Alexei Losev wrote about. “We know the thorny road our country has travelled,” he wrote. “We know the long and tiring years of struggle, want and suffering, but for our homeland’s sons, this is all their native, inalienable heritage.”
I am sure that the vast majority of our people have precisely this attitude towards their homeland, and we need history’s lessons primarily for reconciliation and for strengthening the social, political and civil concord that we have managed to achieve.
It is unacceptable to drag the grudges, anger and bitterness of the past into our life today, and in pursuit of one’s own political and other interests to speculate on tragedies that concerned practically every family in Russia, no matter what side of the barricades our forebears were on. Let’s remember that we are a single people, a united people, and we have only one Russia.”
This has been Putin’s objective ever since he became Russia’s leader. Whereas Soviet and Russian leaders who preceded him took sides in the Revolution’s struggles – identifying themselves either with the Reds or in Boris Yeltsin’s case with the Whites – thereby perpetuating the Revolution’s conflicts – Putin wants Russian society to internalise and historicise the Revolution, treating it as a historical as opposed to a political event, and one in which no-one today – himself included – is obliged to take sides.
In other words he wants Russians to treat their Revolution in much the same way that the French Revolution is nowadays treated in France.
Most people who look at contemporary Russian society with any degree of objectivity would I think agree that Putin has been far more successful in this task than anyone would have thought possible when he came to power.
Next year’s commemoration of the centenary of the Revolution will however challenge this approach as it has never been challenged before. It will be interesting to see how Putin and the Russian government go about it.
Inevitably Putin also had much to say about the economy, though here he touched on no new ground.
He confirmed Russia’s exit from recession, and reaffirmed his support for the counter-inflation policy of the Central Bank. The objective remains to transition Russia from an economy based on consumption to one based on advanced manufacturing and export
“The examples I cited earlier show that we are already changing the economic structure in a focused way, modernising corresponding sectors and creating new ones, and establishing modern companies that can work on international markets. It is essential to continue moving in this direction systematically and assertively. What is needed are not abstract scenarios, which are mostly irrelevant, but a professional, thoroughly calculated development forecast. It is important to define clearly how a better business climate, major investment projects, an expansion of non-commodity exports, and support for small and medium-sized businesses will contribute to economic growth and what the role of regions and particular production sectors will be.”
The part of the Presidential Address which will attract the most international attention will however inevitably be the part which concerns foreign policy.
Here also Putin also charted a steady course, reiterating Russia’s longstanding position that it is prepared to work with all countries on the basis of equality, but that it will be dictated to by none
“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.”
Putin was careful to make clear that Russia will stick by its long term priorities: the alliance with China and the Eurasian Union.
On China and the Chinese alliance he had this to say
“In today’s challenging environment, the comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation between Russia and China have become one of the key factors in ensuring global and regional stability. This partnership can be regarded as a model for shaping a world order free from the domination of a single country, no matter how strong it is, and taking into account the interests of all countries in harmony.
Today, China is about to become the world’s largest economy, so it is very important that every year adds new large-scale projects in various areas, including trade, investment, energy and high technology, to our mutually beneficial cooperation”.
On the Eurasian Union and the Greater Eurasia Project he had this
“Further strengthening cooperation within the Eurasian Economic Union and with other CIS countries has always been a foreign policy priority for Russia.
Russia attaches great importance to the idea of building a multi-level integration model for Eurasia in the form of a Greater Eurasian Partnership. We are already discussing this idea on various international and regional levels. I am confident that we can have conversation with the European Union countries, where the demand for political and economic independence is currently on the rise. This is what we see judging by election results.”
However it is his comments on relations with the US which will attract the most attention. On these following the change in administration Putin appears cautiously optimistic
“Russia is also ready to work with the new US Administration. It is important to put bilateral relations back on track and to develop them on an equal and mutually beneficial basis.
Cooperation between Russia and the United States in addressing global and regional issues will benefit the whole world. We have a shared responsibility to ensure international security and stability, to strengthen non-proliferation regimes.
I would like to emphasise that attempts to break the strategic parity are extremely dangerous and can lead to a global catastrophe. We must not forget about it even for a second.
I certainly count on joining efforts with the United States in the fight against real rather than fictional threats, international terrorism being one of them. That is the task our servicemen are fulfilling in Syria. Terrorists have suffered significant losses. The Russian Army and Navy have shown convincingly that they are capable of operating effectively away from their permanent deployment sites.”
These are carefully chosen words, free of the tense rhetoric of recent years. It is striking that NATO’s eastward expansion, missile defence, and the conflict in Ukraine are nowhere mentioned. Whilst Putin is making it quite clear that Russia insists on being treated by the US as an equal partner, and that it will not be pushed around, he is signalling clearly that he is ready to work constructively with Donald Trump if the will to do so is there.
By contrast with these comparatively conciliatory words addressed to the US, and reflecting the extent of Putin’s disillusion with the EU, Putin had nothing to say about relations with the EU, save to repeat his offer to the EU to participate in the Greater Eurasia Project. About Germany and its Chancellor Angela Merkel he had nothing to say at all.
Compared with recent years the tone of this year’s Presidential Address was more low key. Overall the overriding impression was of a sense that Russia has turned the corner, with the most fraught period in international relations and in the process of economic transition now behind it.
On the strength of this Putin – and one suspects the rest of the Russian leadership also – clearly hope that they will be left alone at least for the next few years to focus on sorting out the problems of Russian society.