May 12, 2003
President Putin will deliver his annual address to parliament this week
Author: Viktoria Trofimova, Maxim Glikin
[from WPS Monitoring Agency, www.wps.ru/e_index.html]
THE PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS HAS BEEN REPEATEDLY POSTPONED THIS YEAR. SCHEDULING THE ADDRESS FOR THE END OF THE WEEK WILL NOT FACILITATE MEDIA COVERAGE. APPARENTLY, THE KREMLIN NO LONGER CONSIDERS THE PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS TO BE AS IMPORTANT AS IT WAS IN THE PAST.
Not only is spring late this year - so is the president's annual address to the Federal Assembly. It seems there has constantly been something to prevent Vladimir Putin from gathering senators and Duma members and explaining the nation's real development strategy to them. The presidential address was postponed due to the war in Iraq, then due to Easter, and then due to the May holidays. Colin Powell's visit to Moscow has moved the date forward yet again - to May 16. Scheduling the address for the end of the week will not facilitate media coverage. To all appearances, the Kremlin no longer considers the presidential address to be as important as it was in the past.
Our Kremlin sources cite an unwritten rule according to which a presidential address ought to be delivered around a year after the previous address. But even this standard has not been observed: the gap between addresses is 13 months. And no substantial reasons have been given for postponing the presidential address from mid-April to mid-May.
What's more, this year Putin will speak on a Friday rather than a Wednesday, even though the next fortnightly session of the Federation Council is on Wednesday, and the presidential address usually coincides with these sessions. However, the middle of this week is taken up by a more significant event in terms of current politics: a visit to Russia by US Secretary of State Colin Powell. He will be here on May 14-15. The papers are likely to focus their attention on these talks rather than on Putin's address to Duma members and senators. And any event that takes place on a Friday gets less coverage in the print media anyway.
Thus, the task of conveying the head of state's words to the citizenry will be up to television and radio; but information from the electronic media is generally noted for reaching a large audience, not for in-depth analysis. Yet there are reasons to suspect that this is precisely the kind of media coverage the Kremlin is seeking in choosing such an unusual date for the presidential address.
Everything points to the conclusion that the president's annual address to the Federal Assembly is gradually changing from one of the most significant events of the year (as it was in the Yeltsin era) to a purely ritual measure. And this is happening for several obvious reasons. First of all, the regime is trying to avoid revealing its goals and plans - not only to the general public, but to the political elite as well. For all its declarations of openness, including an open information policy, the Kremlin insists on its privilege to make the most important decisions in strict secrecy. A clear example of decisions made and implemented according to every law of conspiracy theory was the recent reorganization of the security and law enforcement bodies. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Russian citizens remain in ignorance of the agenda for the changes now taking place, including changes in the economy.
The absence of clear, comprehensible answers to many important questions about the pace and extent of reforms is another reason why the presidential address is becoming a ritual event and its wording is becoming more vague. There is no consensus on administrative reforms, taxation reforms, or reforms to housing and utilities and the natural monopolies; no consensus within the Putin administration, and no consensus within the political elite overall. Therefore, the laws being passed tend to be cosmetic; no substantial repairs to the structure of the state itself are taking place as yet.
However, there is more to it than that. Looking back over the past few years, we can see that the main goals set out by the president in his annual addresses are not being achieved. And it does look rather awkward for the head of state to repeat for the third year in a row that something needs to be done about the economy. Last year, for example, Putin emphasized the need to reduce bureaucratic red tape and cut back the functions of the state apparatus. But the president's directives were not transformed into reality.
The approaching federal elections are another objective factor making any calls for change pointless and any attempt to clearly outline the changes actually harmful. In the lead-up to elections, any intention to implement any kind of extensive reforms on which there is no consensus at the top could lead to a split in the political and economic elites; this would be highly undesirable for the Kremlin. And now is not the time for Putin to discuss his plans for his second term in office.
(Translated by Kirill Frolov)