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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Last Salute to Federalism

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With its detailed financial calculations and planning, the style of President Vladimir Putin's final state-of-the-nation address last week was reminiscent of reports given at Communist Party congresses, with a couple of pages on domestic policy thrown in. But Putin's speech did provide some food for thought.

First of all, the picture Putin painted of political conditions seemed to be aimed at critics of Russia's commitment to democracy, as if he were arguing with some invisible opponent. He offered the standard lip service to the formation of an active civil society, the democratization of the electoral system, an increase in access to information, and an unprecedented decentralization of state authority.

In general, Putin's comments on what is positive and negative about democracy were not particularly controversial. He set out a number of priorities, including the need to develop civil society, the state's responsibility to provide a sufficient standard of living for its people, the need for a free and socially responsible business community, the importance of fighting corruption and terrorism, and so on. This was a far cry from earlier statements about the importance of Russia's traditions and its unique model of democracy, or retorts that Russia's critics themselves have violated democratic principles.

But if we delve further, we enter the political world behind the looking glass, where black is white and bad is good.

Putin called the transition to a completely proportional representation system for the upcoming State Duma elections a revolutionary democratic electoral system that will reduce the chances that local elites will manipulate results in their regions. As evidence, he pointed to the larger number of political factions in regional legislatures following the introduction of a new system in 2004. But the "new system" is the same mix of proportional and direct electoral districts that was dismantled at the federal level.

This is not to overlook the cancellation of the minimum voter turnout rule, after which voter activity increased rather than decreased, thereby bringing into question the rationale for the decision in the first place. Putin made no direct reference to protest votes or street rallies in March. Instead, he spoke only of dirty campaigning and the need to strengthen measures against extremist activities. The Kremlin is clearly satisfied with the current electoral system, has no plans to reconsider anything it has canceled, and considers criticism on this front groundless.

Putin's speech contained no reference to federalism. He seemed, however, to consider the increase in authority given local and regional governments to be an important part of political and cultural development, saying "the decentralization of authority in state government has reached its highest level in all of Russian history." Putin argued that regional governments were granted "important powers" in various fields over the previous year. These, of course, were just some of the same powers already taken from the regions on his watch, only to be partially returned as an extension of federal authority. These weren't even powers the regions wanted; they were powers that had become burdensome for Moscow. And the money still comes in the form of direct payment from Moscow, and not through individual regional budgets.

Despite all of the recent scandals involving senators, Putin still described the Federation Council as "consistently standing up for the interests of the regions." With the transition to a system where the Kremlin appoints governors, who then appoint the senators, the chamber has effectively been reduced to an extension of the executive. Ignoring calls from United Russia that the Federation Council be elected, Putin suggested that senators simply be required to have lived 10 years in the region they represent.

There was no mention of the results of the re-registration requirement for parties and nongovernmental organizations instituted since last year's address, a move that has significantly decreased their numbers. Rather, Putin spoke of the greater number of organizations and their members as testimony to the formation of an active civil society.

This is only a short laundry list of Putin's eighth state-of-the-nation address -- the last granted him by the Constitution. It had little of the sense of a last political will and testament of a departing president, and more the feel of a final set of economic instructions detailing who should get what, and from whom. There was no overall summary offered, no analysis of past mistakes or lessons learned. In this sense, it serves as a fitting epigraph for Putin's second term.

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