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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Non-Participation Projects

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There is a Russian folk tale about a turnip that no one is able to pull out of the ground. More and more people and animals arrive to pull together until they finally succeed. As is evident from the latest Kremlin project, things are more complicated in the real world. The new national projects are very reminiscent of the last national project, which has yet to be completed and is already half-forgotten: doubling the country's gross domestic product.

A few weeks ago, President Vladimir Putin held a live three-hour videoconference devoted to the national projects. This is a brand new genre for the Kremlin, although it is somewhat similar to the special public meetings held in the regions to castigate bureaucrats. Former Ulyanovsk Governor Yury Goryachev loved to hold these events. The first foray by Putin into this kind of public discussion with bureaucrats of various ranks, however, did not elicit much comment.

But it should have. First, the scale of the undertaking was impressive: On hand were First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and four ministers who traveled especially for the event, two presidential envoys and six regional leaders. Second, the videoconference wasn't a one-time populist event, but an important component in an enormous, carefully prepared campaign. Before it was held, the presidential envoys conducted a comprehensive study of the progress on the national projects in a number of regions. Right after Putin's public criticism of the method of land distribution under the "affordable housing" project, the prosecutor's office started to clean things up with a great show of zeal. In Samara, searches were carried out, including the seizure of caches of documents, and the mayor was hauled in for questioning.

The national projects are mainly the purview of Medvedev, the former chief of the presidential administration who regularly visits different regions to check on the way the projects are being implemented. But they also are supervised by the presidential envoys -- Medvedev's former subordinates -- and the governors, who are now part of the presidential command structure. The governors' administrations include deputies who were specially appointed to watch over these new Kremlin toys, and sometimes even include special coordinating boards for each project. The United Russia party has also announced that it is overseeing what's going on with the projects.

After these projects displaced doubling GDP as the main national focus, the Kremlin methodically brought into play all of the bureaucratic resources at its disposal. It now appears to have decided that it's time to get society on board. But there's a problem: At first the Kremlin did everything in its power to encourage a mood of paternalism and root out independence, but now it is baffled as to why Russians aren't taking an active part in the projects.

Three huge regions were called on to discuss the projects and problems with their implementation at the videoconference. The nonblack earth part of European Russia was represented by the Novgorod region and its governor Mikhail Prusak, as well as municipal authorities (Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev spoke from there). Representing the country's south, Rostov Governor Vladimir Chub and Chechen President Alu Alkhanov were on hand. From the Urals, Perm Governor Oleg Chirkunov, along with Vladimir Yakushev and Eduard Rossel from the Tyumen and Sverdlovsk regions, respectively, took part. Health and Social Development MinistryMikhail Zurabov also took part in Perm. Only one presidential envoy, the Southern Federal District's Dmitry Kozak, got the chance to speak. All in all, just 15 of the country's regions were selected for the evaluation of how the national projects were being carried out.

With the folk-tale turnip, neither the main hero -- the grandfather who first tried to pull it out of the ground -- nor any of the others who came to help -- the grandmother, grandchild, beetle or cat -- could pull the trick off on their own. The turnip only came out of the ground when they all pulled together.

In real life, the essential condition for solving any national task is the real -- not folk tale -- involvement of society in agreeing on what needs to be done and then going about doing it. Right now, the national projects look like little more than gifts granted from the tsar's table to soften people up ahead of the steadily approaching State Duma and presidential elections. Any attempt to turn these bureaucratic maneuvers into national tasks will be useless as long as the bureaucracy dictates to Russians how, where and what to do.

Nikolai Petrov is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.