Mon, 25 Mar 2019

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President Vladimir Putin altered his recipe a bit in his state-of-the-nation speech this year, omitting some of the prep work and hitting Washington and the West with a direct flame for a shorter period of time than last year, but the main ingredients were little changed -- as was the resulting dish he served the Russian people on state TV.

Here's what changed in the latest edition of Putin's annual address parliament and what didn't.

Cut To The Chase

Putin's state-of the-nation address last year was essentially a campaign address, coming less than three weeks before the election in which he won a fourth presidential term, and he started it out with lofty language about making choices, building democracy, and conquering the cosmos.

In this year's edition, delivered on February 20, Putin cut to the chase, stating at the start that the address would be 'primarily devoted to matters of domestic social and economic development.'

The most likely motives for this approach -- persistent economic problems and falling popularity, trust, and approval ratings in opinion polls -- were plain to see.

Putin delivered on his promise that domestic issues would dominate the address, at least in terms of the time devoted to them. What he did not do was toss out the script; instead he stuck largely to signals he has sent and strategies he has employed in past speeches.

Among them is the tendency to set out goals in some detail, and maybe more detail than usual this time, but to give little indication of how they can be reached and where the money will come from. Speaking of about 60 billion rubles ($915 million) needed over the next three years to increase state subsidies for mortgages, Putin said, 'We know where to get it.' But he did not say where.

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to the national anthem at the end of his annual state-of-the-nation address.

Trash Talk

Putin also stuck to the script of past state-of-the-nation speeches -- and other set-piece events such as an annual call-in show in which he takes often choreographed questions from Russians nationwide -- by suggesting that he was on the side of the people, and in tune with them, and that any failure to fulfill his stated goals lay with those in between.

Addressing the prominent issue of garbage dumps, which have become a major problem for Putin -- as well, of course, as for the people who live near landfills that he said 'have turned into real mountains of garbage' -- he asked how officials had allowed neighborhoods to be built 'next to these dumps' and warned them that 'brushing aside people's needs is entirely unacceptable.'

Man Of The People?

Using the word 'surprisingly' twice, Putin said with an air of annoyance that he 'personally had to interfere' last year to stop what he indicated was a specific case of illegal dumping, adding that 'almost nothing moved forward until I gave an order to station a guard there and not to let anyone in.'

His surprise seems surprising, though, considering how the Kremlin has cast him as the ultimate arbiter and the only person Russians can count on being able to turn to as a last resort -- a leader who has at times micromanaged to the point of inviting an 8-year-old girl to Moscow and giving her a dress after she asked for one 'like Cinderella' on the call-in show in 2008.

In any case, the focus on regular folks had been telegraphed ahead of time by the Kremlin, with independent Dozhd TV quoting sources as saying Putin would address 'topics of concern for Russians' in a speech that was likely to be 'about people.'

Oops!... I Did It Again

One apparent implication was that Putin would have less to say about the outside world -- a shift that would signal, perhaps more strongly than in the past, that Russia and its people must rely on themselves and not wait for the world to change, and that their leader's energy was focused almost solely on improving life in his own country.

In the event, Putin did do that -- until he didn't.

The Good Tsar?

After a long chunk of time spent on domestic issues, Putin used a segue about how 'without sovereignty, Russia cannot be a state' -- uh, yeah -- to shift to international affairs.

Here he broke no new ground, talking of the need for 'closer cooperation' with Belarus and playing up what he called 'equal and mutually beneficial relations with China' -- a description that many analysts who see China as the stronger partner would not entirely agree with.

And he said Russia would welcome warmer ties with Europe -- but gave no indication that Moscow would take any steps in this direction, expressing 'hope that the European Union and the major European countries will finally take actual steps to put political and economic relations with Russia back on track.'

That 'ball's in your court' is the default signaling from Russia on ties with the West these days, along with 'We are not the ones who' undermined relations, took aggressive steps, imposed sanctions first -- take your pick.

'Unreliable Partner'

Lenoid Bershidsky, Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist, suggested it's not very smart for the Kremlin to take the same old, same old approach, writing that with Europe bristling at U.S. pressure, policy, and demands, Putin had 'squandered a historic chance at continental leadership.'

'If President Vladimir Putin hadn't made Russia an unreliable partner for its neighbors, he'd be poised to realize his fondest dream: of displacing the U.S. as Europe's security guarantor,' Bershidsky wrote in an article published the day before the state-of-the-nation speech.

Far from courting the EU as a potential partner in the address, Putin likened at least some European countries to pigs, calling U.S. allies on the continent 'satellites' that were 'oinking along' with the U.S. position on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Had Putin wanted to set this speech apart from many others he has made, he might have done so by avoiding any focus on the United States -- Moscow's Cold War rival and a country he very often targets with criticism, sometimes by name and sometimes not.

This time, it was almost as if he could not resist it, and he came close to apologizing as he plunged abruptly into the issue of the INF by explaining that the U.S. decision to withdraw from the pact is 'the most urgent and most discussed issue in Russian-American relations.'

'This is why I am compelled to talk about it in more detail,' Putin said -- and talk about it he did.

Missile Message

But here, too, he said little that was new. He reiterated Russia's repeatedly reiterated denial -- repeatedly rejected by the United States and NATO -- that Moscow has violated the 1987 treaty for years by developing and then deploying a cruise missile known as the 9M729 or SSC-8.

Putin spent less time on relations with the United States and related matters than he did in his address in March 2018, when he listed a number of weapons that he said Russia was developing or deploying -- including a 20-meter nuclear torpedo that Popular Mechanics magazine said was 'designed to cross entire oceans before detonating a thermonuclear warhead against an enemy coastal target such as a city or naval base' -- and demanded that the West 'listen to us now.'

But the saber-rattling was hardly less noisy, with Putin naming at least five kinds of missiles -- Avangard, Kalibr, Kinzhal, Sarmat, and Tsirkon -- and asking of U.S. policymakers, 'Can they count?'

'I'm sure they can,' he continued. 'Let them count the speed and the range of the weapons systems we are developing.'

Putin seems to have taken quite a liking to his suggestion that Russian missiles can quickly reach the United States: He repeatedly mentioned his 'let them count' quip at a dinner with Russian editors hours after the speech.

Russia's Poseidon nuclear-powered underwater drone is seen being test-launched somewhere in Russia.

Still, as with Europe, Putin also averred that 'Russia wants to have sound, equal, and friendly relations with the United States.'

Funny way of saying so.

Then again, Putin often makes comments that cover diametrically opposed views of the same issue, with your perception of his intent depending on which part you listen to more closely: We want warm ties, but the West is bad; 'Russia is not threatening anyone,' but check out these fearsome weapons and count how long they'd take to reach your shores; democracy is needed, but -- as he said at the end of the speech -- Russians must have 'a common confidence' in the authorities.

'A Major Problem'

This two-sided approach often leaves Putin's meaning open to broad interpretation and creates a kind of deniability. So does being vague.

Putin may have been employing such tactics in lengthy comments he introduced by saying that 'to achieve the ambitious goals facing the country, we must rid the system of everything that restricts freedom of enterprise and business initiative.'

Hear, hear, some might say -- but it's not that simple. Putin expressed concern about the number of cases against entrepreneurs that never go to trial -- 45 percent -- warning that the jobs lost when a business is closed for investigation -- 130 on average -- was 'becoming a major economic problem.'

But Putin's wording -- 'honest businesses should not face the risk of criminal or administrative prosecution' -- might give police and prosecutors a loophole, an excuse to go about the business of 'terrorizing business' as usual: Of course, we only go after the dishonest ones.

Putin's remarks on this issue were closely watched because his determination to root out one of Russia's biggest economic problems is facing a crucial test following the arrest of Michael Calvey, a prominent American private-equity investor in Russia who has been jailed on a large-scale-fraud charge he denies.

The two-sided approach often leaves Putin's meaning open to broad interpretation and creates a kind of deniability.

Hand Me The Remote, Honey

Aleksei Kudrin, a longtime former finance minister who is close to Putin and earlier in the week called Calvey's jailing an 'emergency' for the Russian economy, suggested that words alone -- especially words that have been repeated several times -- won't fix the problem.

'The president's call for reducing law enforcement pressure on business must be supported by clear measures, results, and personal responsibility for failure to perform,' Kudrin tweeted after Putin's address. 'Otherwise the president will again have to acknowledge the lack of progress in this area.'

Actions speak louder than words, of course, but there's also a question of how loudly words speak -- and how many people are listening. Putin may have adjusted his approach to the address this year because of falling ratings, but it appears that rating for the speech itself have fallen -- at least in Moscow.

The address, shown live on five channels, was watched by 5.9 percent of Russians in the capital, the lowest proportion since 2013, the daily Kommersant reported. Of those Muscovites who had their TVs on at the time of the speech, most of them -- 61 percent -- were watching other programming.

Steve Gutterman

Steve Gutterman is news editor of RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He has lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union off and on -- mostly on -- since 1989, including postings in Moscow with the Associated Press and Reuters.

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Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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