Russia Update: Putin Takes a Swipe at Turkey, US in His Annual Address; Offers Grants to Docile NGOs

December 3, 2015
President Vladimir Putin addressing the Federation Council in the St. George Hall at the Kremlin on December 3, 2015. Photo by

President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to the Federation Council or upper house of parliament, emphasizing the battle against terrorism which he clearly sees Russia as leading, and taking a major swipe at Turkey which downed a Russian warplane, saying “Allah had punished” Ankara by “depriving it of sense and reason.”

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Putin Takes a Swipe at Turkey, US in His Annual Address; Offers Grants to Docile ‘Socially-Useful’ NGOs

President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to the Federation Council or upper house of parliament, reported. He emphasized the battle against terrorism, which has cost Russia both soldiers and civilians, featuring the widows of servicemen in the audience. But he called for a coalition of “civilized countries” against terrorism which he clearly sees Russia as leading, and took a major swipe at Turkey which downed a Russian warplane, saying “Allah had punished” Ankara by “depriving it of sense and reason.”
He also emphasized the role of social service groups and small and medium business in tackling Russia’s mounting economic and social problems — many self-induced — by once again pledging subsidies and reduction of red tape, even as he created more of it with a new small business administration and granting system for NGOs “that have recommended themselves as irreproachable partners of the state” as providers of “socially-useful services.”
More than 100 guests were invited to the St. George Hall in the Kremlin and a list of accredited journalists mainly from state media. 

Putin held a moment of silence and gave a word of thanks to the Russian military “fighting world terrorism” in this hall of “historical warriors’ glory” and pointed out the widows of those “lost in battle with terrorism” present at the speech.

He catalogued the terrorist attacks within Russia in the last decades in Budyonnovsk, Beslan, “the ruthless apartment explosions in Moscow,” the Nevsky Express, Domodedovo and metro explosions that lost thousands of lives.

“The terrorists have been squeezed out of Russia but implacable struggle goes on,” he said; here he mentioned more recent terrorist attacks in Volgograd two years ago and last month’s crash of the Metrojet plane, believed to be caused by a terrorist’s bomb.

With the “growing threat,” terrorism “can’t be fought just by one country,” he said, urging a worldwide coalition “under the UN” — although not specifying what he would do differently than existing UN Security Council agenda items with commissions and committees addressing the funding of terrorism and keeping lists of sanctioned terrorists. 
Here Putin blamed the West and specifically Turkey and implicitly the US for impeding the fight against terrorism (translation by The Interpreter):

“The threat of terrorism is growing. The problem of Afghanistan is not resolved. The situation in that country is alarming and does not instill optimism and the recently stable, in fact fairly prosperous countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa — Iraq, Libya and Syria — have turned into a zone of chaos and anarchy from which a threat to the whole world ensues.

We know too well why that happened, who wanted to remove undesirable regimes, crudely impose their rules. And the result is what? They boiled the porridge, destroyed statehood, set people against each other and then — as we say here in Russia — they washed their hands of it, having opened the road to radicals, extremists and terrorists.”

We must cast aside all disputes and differences and create one powerful fist, a united anti-terrorist front, which will operate on the basis of international law and under the aegis of the United Nations.
Every civilized state now is obliged to make its contribution to the defeat of terrorists and confirm its solidarity — and not by declarations but by concrete actions.

That means no asylum for bandits. No double standards. No contacts with any terrorist organizations. No attempts to use them in ones’ aims. No criminal, bloody business with terrorists.
We know, for example, who in Turkey is filling his pocket and letting terrorists earn money for the sale of stolen oil in Syria. It is with this cash that the bandits recruit mercenaries, buy weapons, and organize inhuman terrorist acts aimed against our citizens and the citizens of France, Libya, Mali and other states. We recall that it was in fact in Turkey that militants who had operated in the North Caucasus in the 1990s and 2000s hid out and received moral and material support. And we note them there still.

Meanwhile, the Turkish people are good, hard-working and talented. We have many long-time and reliable friends in Turkey. And I will emphasize: they must know that we do not equate them with part of the current ruling elite which has direct responsibility for the death of our servicemen in Syria.

We will not forget this assistance to terrorists. We have always believed and will go on considering betrayal as the lowest and most shameful thing. Let those in Turkey who shot our pilots in the back that hypocrisy tries to justify itself, its actions and hide the crimes of terrorists.

My respected colleagues, I really do not understand why they did this. Any issues, any problems, any contradictions which we even did not see could have been resolved in a completely different way. Moreover, we were ready to cooperate with Turkey on its most sensitive issues and were prepared to go further than their allies wanted to do. Only Allah likely knows why they did this. And apparently Allah decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey, depriving it of intelligence and sense.

Putin also highlighted the role of civil society in his speech, which might seem counterintuitive given the crackdown on NGOs, the designation of some as “foreign agents” and others as “undesirable,” forcing foreign foundations and local groups to close.

But what he means are the civic groups that only engage in non-confrontational social work — work that the government will decide is “socially useful” or not. They will pick up the slack that the state cannot or will not take responsibility for in the economic crisis. These groups — as long as they remain politically neutral or even loyal — will get encouragement and subsidies if they take on Russia’s many social problems.
Putin also saw the need to subsidize Russia’s rust belt — automobile manufacturing, railroad machine-building and so on and gave no nod to the new tech innovation and Internet sector other than to call for the creation of “major private Russian companies” to get involved in online sales “so that Russian goods can be delivered through the Internet to all the countries of the world.” 
To be sure, Putin noted the important role of “teams” that work on neurotechnology, drone technology and energy storage and transport — all areas that benefit the state particularly in the war in Syria and coping with the current power blockade of Crimea. He admitted that there were a lot of “bad debts” on the government’s funding of technological modernization, not mentioning the failed Skolkovo innovation project per se.
He further specified helping small and medium business, especially as they were the frontline of “import substitution” — Russian dairy farmers can now in theory replace now-banned imported French and Dutch cheeses with their domestic brands.
Putin also endorsed free enterprise and called for better trust between business and government, but this will not happen until the Kremlin stops arbitrarily re-nationalizing companies, as it did with Bashneft, and removes heavier taxes on small business. Instead of defending more rights for businesses through independent courts, Putin is creating a Federal Corporation of Small and Medium Business Development that is likely to mean greater government intrusion in business, not less. Putin admitted that “an entire army of inspectors” was hobbling business but said that “excessive and duplicative functions” of such inspectors could be reduced, ordering the government to do so by July 1, 2016.
Putin seemed to pride himself on announcing statistics about criminal cases against business — out of 200,000 cases opened, only 46,000 reached trial, and another 15,000 “disintegrated” in court. That meant only 15% of the government’s cases against business succeeded, he said — a figure that was supposed to hearten entrepreneurs. But Putin also admitted that 80% of those who were targeted by such government lawsuits either entirely or partially lost their business, regardless if they were found guilty. “That is they were repressed, robbed and released,” he said.
“That is not what we need for a business climate,” Putin deadpanned, urging the same prosecutors who started the frivolous cases to “pay attention to this.”
The problem is that these figures actually illustrate Russian lawlessness and corruption, if businesses can be so easily harassed by frivolous cases that can’t even stand up in a biased and controlled Russian court system. His solution is not to allow the bar and the courts to grow stronger to defend free enterprise, as that would mean separation of powers, but to chastise the executive branch not to be so ferocious — a message they know they can ignore.
The fact that the leading anti-corruption campaigner in Russia — Alexei Navalny — has been tried on specious business fraud cases multiple times, and his brother, not involved in politics, jailed on equally dubious grounds, speaks volumes about how arbitrary prosecution continues to be used to suppress politics as well as business independent of the state.
Last year, Putin announced an amnesty for Russians who would bring their capital back to Russia, a pledge Putin admitted business people “were not hastening to make use of.” Here his solution was to extend the amnesty another six months ask law-enforcers to “make the necessary correctives” to simplify necessary procedures. 
The Duma has some capacity to draft and approve budgets but is heavily influenced by the Kremlin; Putin called for even more of a “defining role” of the Kremlin in the budget process and for a “balanced budget” which seems out of reach growing Russia’s growing deficit. He also called for federal funds subsidizing regions and enterprises  to be transferred only to government accounts to be better monitored.
Finally, Putin denied what he said demographers even from the UN have told Russia — that it will face a “demographic trough” after a slight rise in birth rates. Putin described the slump as “echo of the 1990s,” a decade of social upheaval after the collapse of the Soviet Union — not acknowledging the 70 years before that and their lingering influence are a key factor for demography and the economy. Putin had sponsored a “maternal capital” fund to promote childbirth — but even in his speech acknowledged that the 6.5 million Russian families that made use of this fund included occupied Crimea and Sevastopol. 

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick