February 25, 2019

A President Losing His Voice? Putin’s Address to the Federal Assembly

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks during the annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 20, 2019.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks during the annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 20, 2019.

Like the State of the Union in the United States and the Queen’s Speech in the UK, the annual address of Russia’s President to the bicameral Federal Assembly is normally the most important official event of the year. It invariably tells us as much about the state of the President as the state of the country.

This year’s address was no exception.  It revealed a President ill at ease with his subject. That subject, as he stated at the outset, was ‘the internal social and economic development of the country’.  The language of his discourse was weighty and often harsh, but the voice of the speaker was wooden, rushed and without heart.  In substance and tone, it could not have presented a greater contrast to last year’s address before the same audience.  Then the main subject was security, and it brought out the qualities that have come to define Putin’s make-up:  steel and single-mindedness, obida (resentment), the  unforgiving promotion of Russia’s international interests and a withering contempt for those who would deny the country its historical entitlements and rightful place.

Why the change?  By the time Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin after the ‘chaos’ of the 1990s, the mood of Russia largely coincided with his own. For more than two presidential terms, Putin delivered on the social contract he had promised:  prosperity and the recovery of collective self-respect in exchange for personal subservience. Yet this contract has worn thin. The ‘reincorporation’ of Crimea rekindled its embers for the better part of two years. Gradually, the invocations of threat and the militarisation of values have ceased to impress. In the year since Putin’s 2018 Federal Assembly address, his ratings have fallen by twenty percent.  For  Tatyana Stanovaya, the 2019 address represents the Presidential Administration’s belated realisation that the ‘perspectives of the authorities and society about the priorities for developing the country have diverged very far from one another’. [https://carnegie.ru/commentary/78412].

The social priorities that Putin addressed were material ones, and he offered the most universal material remedy:  money. But these priorities were carefully selected. For those who do not share Putin’s concern about Russia’s falling birth rate, his inventory of supplementary payments and tax allowances for large families is unlikely to arouse enthusiasm.  More promising were his commitments to focus resources on vocational retraining and the reform of regulations ‘that have accumulated since Soviet times, [in fact] since [the sieges of] Ochakov and the subjugation [pokorenie] of Crimea’ – and whilst underscoring that he meant the 18th century rather than 2014, it was curious language for a president who once stated that Sevastopol was as sacred to Russians as Jerusalem is to Jews. As to the country’s more elemental grievances – the steady decline of real wages and the progressive deterioration of infrastructure, municipal services, education and public health – he offered silence rather than encouragement.

What the President ignored far more conspicuously were the non-material grievances of those who once were promised the ‘dictatorship of law’. The interlocking, neo-feudal networks of stakeholders that have prospered under Putin’s tenure have learnt to write their own rules and suborn those who should enforce them. Russia is not governed by law, but by patronage and tribute.  It is plagued less by anodyne matters like corruption than by proizvol:  abuse of power at every level and jurisdiction.  These ills are endemic to the system of governance that Putin has brought to fruition. They are not issues that he cares to discuss or remedy, and here is where his greatest vulnerability lies.

Therefore, it is not surprising that he recovered his voice only when he came to the subject of Russia’s position on the world stage.  Putin made the most detailed public case yet that the land-based version of  the US Mk-41 missile launcher, deployed in Romania, is a banned system under the INF Treaty whether used to launch defensive anti-missile interceptors (as the US insists) or offensive Tomahawk cruise missiles (as Russia claims). Washington has yet to issue a detailed rebuttal. Otherwise, the ’novelties’ that Putin disclosed — the exotic weaponry under various stages of development — were by now stale news and his threats boiler-plated.  The warning that Russia would target not only US ‘satellites’ (Poland and Romania) where its missiles were based, but ‘those territories where the centres of decision making are located’ (i.e. the United States) was a word for word restatement of pre-INF Soviet policy.  As in Brezhnev’s time, the dramatic imbalance of conventional military deployments and force potentials was entirely ignored.

That there were high points of cynicism in Putin’s address and broad morasses of blabber is hardly remarkable given the rituals and formalities of official Russian discourse.  More noteworthy is that on its central theme, the welfare of the country, the President’s expansive inventory of promises could not conceal his growing sense of helplessness.  Were Putin Russia’s ‘dictator’, as some in the West suppose, his problems would be far simpler than they are.  Instead he is captive of the system that he built.  Perhaps he is approaching the point of understanding that it is not reformable by systemic means. This system, which has blocked the paths to its own rejuvenation, has co-opted too many to make revolution a foreseeable  prospect.   In these circumstances, Russia’s evolution is most likely to resemble the progress of a degenerative illness.  Its president, who personifies threat abroad, may increasingly come to symbolise its debilitation at home.