By Arthur Evans – As a persistent popular myth has it, the Russian government is an exclusive structure and is very reluctant to demonstrate its intentions, making decisions in the gloomy privacy of its Kremlin offices. Yet year after year, Vladimir Putin dispels this myth. He regularly holds press conferences, direct lines, makes statements and addresses speaking, reflecting, philosophizing much, and even joking occasionally, which makes him one of the most open and transparent world leaders.
His annual state-of-the-nation address was delivered in Moscow on Wednesday, January 15, and the media have already called it the best one ever. Each of Putin’s addresses is not merely about showcasing what has been achieved and recognizing the existing challenges, he always discusses what is important to common people here and now, at the same time making clear links with the future and setting key criteria for assessing the efficiency of the country’s domestic and foreign policy. However, this address has sent shock waves throughout the country and beyond.
This time, Putin spoke little of foreign policy, devoting his statement mostly to development and transformation in the most socially important spheres, such as demography, healthcare, education, economy, and finally, to changing the governance paradigm.
As his key theme, he stressed the necessity to encourage births and boost population growth. A challenge faced by any European country, indeed. This was what Putin started from, saying that the 1990s, besides opening a new democratic Russia to the world and leaving a legacy of freedom and capitalism to the country, had also proven to cause an unprecedented demographic disaster, more terrible than that produced by World War II. This is what truly pains Putin, as it poses an existential threat to the future of Russia and everything to which he devoted considerable part of his life and career.
The word ‘family’ seems central in Putin’s message and clearly indicative of his convictions. He said bluntly that family is the main social and moral value that is indispensable for the new Russia. Dwelling on his idea of childcare, he did not forget that future generations must be well-educated and healthy, mentioning support for teachers and construction of new schools. It was particularly unusual to hear Putin, who is used to thinking in terms of global geopolitics, talk about free quality meals at primary schools. He also called for adjusting the implementation of so-called national projects ‘Education’ and ‘Healthcare.’ Despite the fact that Putin himself had approved them in the first place, a year later he had will enough to admit that they were not exactly perfect and their realization kept faltering. Extensive social support measures for families, more state-sponsored university scholarships, social housing for doctors—these look like the best features of a modern social welfare state. It is the very type of socialism democrats like Bernie Sanders are calling for in the U.S.; but it is the much-less-trendy and quite well-known for his authoritative style Putin who is translating this future-oriented program into practice.
Still the greatest commotion among the political elite was caused by Putin’s statements concerning the country’s political system, which seemed, until quite recently, solid-cast and unbreakable, and its constitution. Putin suggested discussing, preparing and submitting to a nation-wide referendum a number of amendments to Russia’s fundamental law, which has been effective since 1993 and which, according to Putin, has not on the whole exhausted its potential in terms of protecting democracy and citizens’ rights and freedoms. In fact, it is to ensure this protection and uphold the principle of the people’s sovereignty that the state system required certain ‘patches’—for instance, the primacy of international law over Russia’s constitution seems to become a thing of the past. The super-presidential republic is becoming a little less presidential. The Russian leader proposed changes that would give parliament the power to appoint prime minister and all other members of the government, so that not even Putin himself would be in position to say no—though, he’ll still have the right to dismiss them afterwards. Another suggested amendment is to extend the role of regional governors and local authorities, introducing relevant provisions into the constitution. And most importantly, Putin once again emphasized that no president may remain in office for more than two consecutive terms—and eventually, more than two terms on the whole. This completely disproves one of the most expected scenarios, and most popular in the media world, that he intends to remain in the Kremlin after his current term in office ends, until the Second Coming.
And sure enough, Putin was bound to bring up the victory in World War II, especially as 2020 marks its 75th anniversary. That is quite understandable. For Russians, the 9th of May (the day the Third Reich capitulated) has become a kind of national ‘assemblage point’ won at the cost of millions of lives—both soldiers and civilians—a price no other country paid. Without taking this fact into account, it is hard to see why the Russian leader so often talks about the need to preserve historical memory and warns against falsifying the tragic events of the war against Nazism and Fascism—from the Holocaust to the ‘war of annihilation’ on the Eastern Front. One can see that, to Putin, all attempts to manipulate attitudes to the history of that war are a personal affront—his own father fought against the Nazis and was seriously wounded. The Russian president announced that a publicly available database containing WWII archive materials would soon be created in Russia.
In sum, this address by Vladimir Putin will long be echoing in the hearts and minds of Russians, and not only Russians—it will resonate far beyond. Changes and transformations in Russia—and the world—and the way they are understood by the leader of one of the world’s most powerful nuclear states are an important knowledge that can provide valuable insights into what the near future is holding for us.
Dmitry Medvedev’s resignation as prime minister along with the rest of the government has become the first direct result of the 2020 address. Experts say, this signals the onset of a new era in the Russian politics. Mikhail Mishustin, the new prime minister, is a man of democratic mentality, doctor of economics, who headed the Federal Tax Service for ten years. Sources close to Russia’s political elite already quote him as saying that drastic changes await the Russian cabinet of ministers, both in terms of its composition and structure.