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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Address Details Nation's Woes




In a grim address to his countrymen, President Vladimir Putin warned that they are dying off, sinking into poverty and spinning into political chaos f and that the only way to reverse the trend is to increase the power of the central government.


Putin's first state of the nation address delivered a reasoned, if bleak, diagnosis of the country's ills and made the case for his political prescription: curbing the independence of regional governors, reducing taxes and government subsidies and "strengthening the state."


In effect, Putin argued, the only way to protect democracy and build a market economy in Russia is to strengthen the hand of the president.


"The debate about the trade-off between force and freedom is very old, as old as the world itself," Putin said. "These days, it generates speculation about dictatorship and authoritarianism.


"But our position is extremely clear," he continued. "Only a strong f use the word 'effective' if you don't like 'strong' f only an effective and a democratic state is capable of protecting civic, political and economic freedoms."


The 50-minute speech Saturday was Putin's most lengthy explication to date of his plan to redistribute the balance of powers between the branches of the government, a plan that has encountered surprisingly stiff resistance, especially from the governors. They enjoy broad autonomy within their regions and some run their territories like potentates.


"Power should rely on the law and a single vertical line of executive power ? ," Putin said. "What we have now are islands, separate islands of power, but we have not put up bridges between them. ? The center and the regions, regional authorities and local government are all still in competition for power. Those who would take advantage of disorder and arbitrary rule are keeping an eye on this mutually destructive fight."


Liliya Shevtsova, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, described Putin's plans as "the old Russian model of undivided authority and autocracy."


"In other words," she said, "in order for the state to operate effectively, everyone needs to line up and carry out the orders coming from the top."


Putin's plan has provoked a nasty dispute between the two houses of parliament. While the lower house, the State Duma, has easily passed three bills to implement the plan, the governors f who sit in the upper house, the Federation Council f have become increasingly defiant. They have already voted down two of the three bills, including one that would throw them out of parliament to be replaced by full-time senators elected by regional parliaments.


Putin was elected president in a near-landslide in March, and his extraordinary popularity seemed to assure him an easy relationship with parliament. The fact that his political allies had earlier won a commanding percentage of seats in the Duma seemed to promise an end to the kind of tiresome showdowns that characterized relations between the chamber and former President Boris Yeltsin.


In Yeltsin's time, the governors were largely loyal to the president, who soon after taking power promised them as "much sovereignty as you can swallow." Putin's plans to rein in the governors have reversed the pattern, drawing the Duma's loyalty along with the governors' animosity.


Putin has also grouped the country's 89 regions into seven "super-regions" and named a viceroy to oversee each. The measure echoes a system of "governors general" employed by the tsars.


"Throughout Russian history, every energetic new monarch or ruler started by seriously restructuring control systems," said Dmitry Furman, a political analyst at the Institute of Europe. "Old, lazy and corrupt governors general and top regional bureaucrats were replaced by a new system of command. But the new system eventually eroded and grew roots in the swamps of localcorruption. And the next ruler had to start all over again."


Putin spent much of his address describing the deep, debilitating problems that have slowed Russia's development and threaten its future. He even brought up a painful topic most politicians avoid: the population implosion. Putin openly noted that conditions are so bad that the population is contracting at an alarming rate and, if current demographic trends continue, the country will lose 22 million of its 146 million people in the next 15 years.


"This is not just a matter of our national pride," Putin said. "The question is more acute and more dramatic: Will we be able to survive as a nation, as a civilization, if our well-being again and again depends on foreign credits and the goodwill of leaders of the world economy?"


He outlined six economic priorities, which closely match those of Western investors: protect property rights, end government subsidies and privileges, reduce red tape, ease the tax burden, curb tariffs, rebuild the banking system and end the bloated and inefficient social welfare system in which the vast majority of the population is eligible for some kind of government handout.


Lawmakers generally applauded Putin's economic proposals but noted that, so far, they are only intentions.


"In effect, the president has laid out a liberal economic manifesto for Russia," said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and leader of the pro-market Union of Right Forces movement. "If everything he says comes to pass, we will begin to move forward by leaps and bounds."


But Nemtsov expressed reservations about the political ramifications of Putin's plans: "The economic part is great. But as far as freedom is concerned, frankly speaking I don't understand what he means."


Putin insisted that he supports freedom of speech and freedom of the press, saying that "without really free media, Russian democracy cannot survive and civil society cannot flourish."


But he complained that too many television stations and newspapers promote the political interests of their owners.


One topic that did not figure prominently in his speech was the war in Chechnya.


Putin mentioned it only in passing and as an example of the failure of Russian federalism. Public support for the war remains strong but has declined noticeably in recent months.