Putin's Empty State-of-the-Nation Speech

Vladimir Putin’s first state-of-the-nation address since his formal “return” to the Kremlin disappointed both his critics and his loyalists; the former had little to scorn, the latter, little to trumpet. It was a 90-minute speech about nothing, likely forgotten by most of those in the audience as soon as Putin finished reading the script. No central theme, no new ideas, no specific proposals—instead, general words about “patriotism”; vague promises to improve the social, economic, and housing conditions of state employees; meaningless statements about the need to reduce corruption among government officials; customary insinuations that the opposition is “receiving money from abroad”; and pledges not to accept “[political] standards forced on us from the outside.”

The regime leader is clearly running out of ideas—not surprisingly, given that this month marks the 13th anniversary of his arrival at the Kremlin. Opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov called Putin’s speech “a manifesto of non-development.” “However much time he has left in the Kremlin, it will be a lost time for the country,” Ryzhkov noted.

Experts dismissed Putin’s address as “ceremonial.” “The main addressee of this speech is the government itself, which is talking to itself about how to preserve the status quo without changing anything of substance,” suggested political analyst Alexander Kynev, “There is no strategy for the future, only an attempt to hold back time.” If last year’s state-of-the-nation address by then-nominal president Dmitri Medvedev sought at least to create an appearance of concessions in the face of Russia’s largest pro-democracy protests in two decades, Putin’s speech on Wednesday seemed to pretend that the protests never happened, that it was still “business as usual,” as if it were 2002 or 2003 on the calendar. The state of self-denial, it appears, has firmly gripped the Kremlin’s inhabitants.

Meanwhile, in the real world, public support for the anti-Putin protest movement among Russian citizens has reached 40 percent (up from 30 percent in October). Twenty-two percent of Russians, according to the same Levada Center poll, are prepared to personally take part in protest rallies. Despite an official ban imposed by City Hall, opposition supporters are planning to take to the streets of Moscow this Saturday, with the KGB headquarters on Lubyanka Square as the main focus of the protests. In the absence of an agenda from the Kremlin (if one does not count knee-jerk reactions to the protests in the form of new repressive laws), it is the Russian opposition that is once again taking the initiative.

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