LIVE UPDATES: In this year’s “state of the union” speech, Putin focused mainly on curing Russia’s largely self-inflicted wounds, making admissions he normally doesn’t make for the Western press.
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Today Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, Kommersant and other Russia media reported.
In this year’s “state of the union” speech, Putin focused mainly on curing Russia’s largely self-inflicted wounds, making admissions he normally doesn’t make for the Western press. His one bone thrown to the US — in a speech minimizing foreign policy issues in keeping with tradition — was promoted for foreign propaganda and then picked up as if a breakthrough.
But it’s worth noting that, as always, Putin said that he wanted such relations to be “on the basis of equal rights and mutual profit.”
What that means is that the US can’t make demands of Russia and has to accept reality on the Kremlin’s terms, which includes its war on Ukraine, ostensibly to protect Russian separatists; its bombing of anti-Assad rebels and civilian areas, rather than ISIS, to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; its bringing of Kalibr missiles, with the capability of launching nuclear warheads, up to the border of Estonia in Kaliningrad Region; its dropping out of the plutonium agreement; and numerous other unilateral actions that are irritants if not dangers to the West.
Kommersant has produced an info-graphic on Putin’as address (which we summarize below), noting that it was 68 minutes long and 7,322 words, and not even one of his longest speeches. The most-used words were “year,” “Russia,” “must,” “development,” “country,” “people,” “decision,” “important,” “now,” and “number.” The topics that took up the most time were economics and business, social issues, and domestic policy, with international relations and the war on terrorism taking much less time, and science taking the least amount of time of all.
The United Russian People
“Let us understand: we are a united people, we are one people, and we have one Russia,” Putin emphasized, mindful of the ethnic tensions that pull the Russian Federation apart, notably in the North Caucasus and Siberia.
While Putin has worked to create a concept of rossiyanin — “Russian citizen” — rather than “russkiy” — ethnic Russian — he also has a concept of “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir) which highlights the specifically nationalist emphasis on the Russian ethnicity, language and culture. As Paul Goble, our syndicated columnist often reports, other languages and cultures are de-funded, and religions outside of Russian Orthodoxy are curbed, particularly Islam.
High-Speed Internet and Education
Putin then made two major proposals that only underscored Russia’s previous backwardness (if there were hospitals without Internet and lack of teachers in schools):
But Russian programmers have gained prominence for two negative trends — hacking of Western institutions — including the Democratic National Committee before the US elections, said to be state-directed — and moving abroad to work for Western companies like Google or Facebook, because wages and conditions at home are worse.
He said last year, Russian IT export totaled $7 billion; tax revenue from Russian IT companies increased because of favorable tax rates, so he proposed keeping them until 2023; Kommersant reported that the ministries of labor and health have opposed an open-ended tax break for IT because of the need for revenue in state coffers. Currently, those IT companies that pass through a special accreditation with the Ministry of Communications pay 14% in taxes whereas others pay 30%. IT tax rates were planned to increase to 28% in 2019 and then to 30% as others, but the Ministry of Finance, which changed course on this issue, decided there was more good than harm by keeping IT at a reduced tax rate.
Kommersant noted that the plan for “children’s techno-parks” i.e. to teach Internet skills was conceived back in 2012 with Putin’s “May decrees,” an ambitious program to stimulate the economy but also make good on populist pledges that got him elected. The plan also calls for at least 75% of children aged 5-18 to be placed in after-school programs to promote science and technology — a plan that Kommersant said was reminiscent of the “Pioneers’ Palaces” of the Soviet era.
Children would be able to “try out a number of professions” and “become for a time an airplane designer, an oil worker or a biotechnologist.” So far, just five regions of Russia have 14 pilot programs of this type. One educator complained to Kommersant that the presidential directive wasn’t taking into account the fact that children currently used after-school hours to do homework and cram for exams required under new educational standards and suggested that the focus should be on promoting talented children in the regions.
Putin also said that no schools in “emergency conditions” should exist in Russia, by which he meant schools in a poor state of repairs. Kommersant noted that back in 2009, then-education minister Andrei Fursenko said 40% of students or 5 million children “did not have a warm toilet” in their school, i.e. they used an outhouse. Today, there is a total of 10.1 million students even as the number of schools have declined by 29%, forcing schools to run three shifts, as is done in Chechnya. Other provinces with the poorest state of schools are Ingushetia, Dagestan, Amur Region, and Yakutia — which also happen in some cases to be areas of separatist unrest or terrorism.
Oil Prices Rising
“Putin wants the deal. Full stop. Russian companies will have to cut production,” said a Russian energy source briefed on the discussions.
Removing Red Tape
Mindful of Russia’s centuries-long tradition of bureaucratic suppression of economic activity, Putin is urging a removal of numerous inspections of business and other red tape — a pledge made before, but which seldom materializes because of the incentive not only of bribery for officials but the tendency of the state not to allow initiatives that make people less dependent on it — and then threaten it politically.
100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution
As next year will be the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Putin made a plea for calm, referencing the 19th-century reformist Pyotor Stolypin’s famous phrase in debates with revolutionaries, “You need great upheavals; we want a great Russia.”
“We well know what consequences are brought by so-called great upheavals. Unfortunatly, there were a lot of them in our country in the past century. The coming year 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the February and October revolutions. This is a serious reason to turn once again to the reasons and the very nature of revolutions in Russia. Not only for historians and academics — Russian society needs an objective, honest and deep analysis of these events.”
Putin is both a Leninist as a creature of a Soviet upbringing and a former KGB officer, but also doesn’t want anyone to get any revolutionary ideas today — like Maidan in Ukraine. As Kommersant pointed out, Putin urged people “not to drag in the schism of anger and hurt to our life today” and “not take advantage of” the anniversary.
The Russian Security Council already made a statement reported by Kommersant on October 31 expressing concern that the 100th anniversary may be exploited “on the part of foreign state agencies in conducting anti-Russian policy to deliberately distort this period.”
Ultimately, Putin sees Russia’s path to prosperity to be one of isolation rather than cooperation. Western sanctions and the countermeasures of boycotts, which have indeed taken a toll on Russia’s economy, but “trials have made us even stronger,” says Putin.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick