Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly (15 January 2020): a vision of a future democratic Russia

Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly (15 January 2020)

Under Article 84 of the Russian Constitution, the Russian President is required to give an annual speech to the Federal Assembly on the current state of the Russian Federation and on what he believes should guide the nation’s domestic and foreign policies. The annual speech does not have the force of law. Since 2018, the current President Vladimir Putin has been giving his annual speech early in the year but 2020 marked the first time the speech was given in January. The reason for the early delivery is apparent in the opening paragraphs of the transcript of the speech: the theme of the entire speech is change, evolution and development of the necessary institutions and structures in order to face and deal with oncoming issues of social, political, economic and technological importance that cannot be swept under a carpet and assumed to be gone. These changes involve direct active personal participation by all Russians.

Most of the speech (roughly two-thirds of it) is taken up by serious issues and potential crises of an internal domestic nature. The demographic issue of a small generation of young people born during the chaotic and impoverished Yeltsin years from 1991 to 1999 is having an effect on population growth; there simply are not enough young people coming into the critical phase of their lives in which they form families and have children of their own. Unfortunately at the same time people’s incomes are not high enough for them to be able to afford having more than one child. To this end, Putin proposes that programs be adopted to provide more subsidies to families under more social welfare programs so that people can afford to buy homes and create environments into which babies can be born and children can thrive. Such programs include increasing monthly benefit payments for low-income families, increasing “maternity capital” payments to mothers of two children, subsidising mortgage payments when a family welcomes a third child, building more schools and providing free hot school lunches to pupils.

As a consequence of urging more government assistance to families to encourage them to have more children, Putin also foresees more schools will have to be built, more teachers must be trained and the institutions and structures that support teacher education and employment must also be improved. This in turn leads to the general issue of the quality of university education and boosting university education and enrolments across the nation, particularly in regions that lack or are short of medical staff, teachers and engineers. From there, Putin’ speech focuses on issues of healthcare, the training and remuneration of medical staff, and the resourcing of regional medical centres with medication supplies.

Other issues of a domestic or internal nature in Putin’s speech include government investment in vital industries and in research, and in particular the infrastructures that support and provide the environment in which industry can thrive and research can be carried out. Digital technologies and digital network infrastructures, of which the Internet is the most obvious manifestation, receive attention as forums in which the public is able to participate in the life and culture of the nation.

So far, Putin’s speech lays out a vision of an ideal Russia, provided that the relevant government departments and regional governments get off their backsides and work diligently to pursue the President’s vision. What has got Western mainstream news media fired up (in the belief that Putin is appropriating more power to himself) though is the final third part of Putin’s speech in which he proposes various changes to the Russian Constitution, of which some include the devolution of some of the powers and duties of the President to the Prime Minister, and the transfer of the power of the President to appoint the Prime Minister, the deputy Prime Ministers and all Federal Ministers to the Duma (the lower House in the Federal Assembly). One very significant reform proposal is to require prospective Presidential candidates to have had at least 25 years’ permanent residency in Russia, to have no foreign citizenship or foreign residency permits; another significant proposal is that Presidents cannot serve more than two successive terms. These proposed reforms are aimed at decentralising and diffusing political power through the executive and legislative institutions, undoing the changes that previous President Boris Yeltsin made to the Constitution (with the help of the CIA) and concentrating power in the Presidency in the 1990s; and at reducing as much as possible the potential for foreign interference in Presidential elections and in the executive function.

At the same time, Putin states that Russia must continue to have a strong Presidency, and that the President must retain the right to dismiss the Prime Minister and the government, and remain head of the nation’s armed forces. He then goes on to propose other reforms that have the effect of spreading power through the executive, legislative and judiciary functions of government and at the same time place checks and balances that each function can exercise on the others. Significantly Putin proposes that his proposed reforms be put to public referendum.

The entire document reads like a manifesto mapping out a future democratic society in which everyone has as much opportunity as possible to contribute to the well-being of all; moreover, a society that genuinely cares for people and supports them, and expresses love through concern for their development as well-rounded, educated and capable human beings. This is the legacy that Putin wishes to leave Russia when he retires as President in 2024.

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