May 19, 2003
A Cabinet Based on the Duma
By Andrei Zolotov Jr.
President Vladimir Putin's proposal to form the next Cabinet "based on the parliamentary majority" was the political highlight of his state of the nation address Friday. But even in setting this goal, the president's speech was strategic rather than tactical and short on concrete details, politicians and analysts said.
In the context of the main intrigue preceding the speech -- whether or not Putin would criticize Mikhail Kasyanov's government and how harshly -- many saw the statement as a stick for the Cabinet and a carrot for the political parties, mainly pro-Kremlin United Russia, going into the State Duma elections later this year.
"We were joking today -- offering Mikhail Kasyanov references to apply for United Russia membership," Lyubov Sliska, a deputy Duma speaker, was quoted by Interfax as saying after Putin's address. "So far, he is joking back."
Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky said that, just like the speech's economic highlight of calling for GDP to be doubled by 2010, the proposed political reform was a thinly veiled threat to the Cabinet.
"Although it is not clear on which principles this proposal [on forming the government] will be carried out, the most important thing is that it was nonetheless voiced," Yavlinsky said.
Sergei Kolmakov, vice president of the Foundation for the Development of Parliamentarianism in Russia, said he considered it very important that the idea of a party-based government has "shifted from idle talk into the presidential address."
But it was not clear whether Putin planned to create something akin to the 1998 Yevgeny Primakov Cabinet, which included Communist ministers, or whether he would go as far as amending the Constitution, which stipulates that Russia is a presidential republic, in which the government is appointed by and answerable to the president.
"We'll have to see after the elections whether it is a tactical step in order to get rid of Kasyanov's government, or whether it will lead to amending the Constitution," Kolmakov said in an interview.
Oleg Morozov, a United Russia member and head of the Russia's Regions faction in the Duma, said he would not want to see the Constitution changed. "In saying that the government should rely on the parliamentary majority, I think the president meant that he would like to consult with those who make up the majority of the future State Duma," Morozov said.
For members of the Cabinet to be party members, the only change that would be required to existing legislation would be to amend the law to give ministers the right to join political parties, he said, implying this should not be difficult.
While Pro-Kremlin politicians were understandably the most supportive of Putin's speech, Communists were the most critical.
Ivan Melnikov, deputy head of the Communist Party, said he was "disappointed" with the address and was even more critical than his boss, Gennady Zyuganov. "The message attempted to take the president out of the line of fire and shift responsibility to the executive branch," Melnikov was quoted by Interfax as saying. "In essence, not a single promise that the president made last year has been fulfilled. At the same time, the president has set the tasks to be solved through 2010.
The conclusion that one cannot help but draw from this is that he will run not only for a second, but also for a third term."
With the elections dominating the agenda and the past year widely seen as a time when the stability that Putin takes much of the credit for is threatening to transform into stagnation, his speech writers found a creative solution: They broadened the text's time frame.
In speaking about his achievements, Putin referred not to the year since he made his last address in April 2002, but to his entire three years in office. And in setting out the targets, he spoke not so much of the year to come but of goals to be reached in 2008 and 2010, which are beyond his presumed second term.
Izvestia political editor Svetlana Babayeva described this in her article on Putin's address as a way to battle the "deficit of ideas" that has been evident in the Kremlin in the past year. "In an election year, such tricks look like a sober political scheme," she wrote.
As did many commentators, Irina Khakamada, the deputy Duma speaker from the Union of Right Forces, described the speech as Putin's "pre-electoral strategy."
Singling out the paragraphs dealing with administrative reform, military reform and the formation of the next Cabinet, Khakamada, who in past years had praised Putin's addresses as a "business plan for corporate Russia," stressed this time around that the address was short on detail. "No concrete measures were spelled out," she said.
At the same time, she was indignant that Putin criticized the new law on citizenship, which her party had opposed, but has not punished any of its authors in the presidential administration, who pushed the bill through the Duma.
Nikolai Petrov, a domestic policy analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, described Putin's measured address as "appropriate" given the timing -- on the eve of the electoral campaign but not yet fully in it.
"The next presidential address is likely to be right before the presidential elections, and that will be the time to come up with concrete promises and appeals to the electorate," Petrov said. "Now it is too early to come out with this."
Staff Writer Natalia Yefimova contributed to this report.