Vladimir Putin gave his annual speech to the Russian parliament on Thursday. His stance on international affairs was uncompromising. ‘Talking to Russia from a position of force is an exercise in futility’, he remarked. American plans for missile defence in Europe were ‘a threat not only to Russia, but to the world as a whole’. ‘Sovereignty for Russia is absolutely necessary for survival`, said Putin. Russia is being told to comply with the West on Ukraine, but ‘This will never happen.’
Add all this to the president’s opening remarks about the importance of Christianity and his mention later in the speech of ‘conservative values [such] as patriotism and respect for the history, traditions, and culture of one’s country’, and the picture which emerges is a thoroughly conservative one.
But the economic section of the speech took Putin in another direction entirely. Noting the problems which lie ahead for Russia’s economy, the Russian president warned against autarky and laid out an agenda for economic recovery based on freeing small businesses from burdensome regulation. ‘Conscientious work, private property, the freedom of enterprise’ are ‘fundamental values’ he said, and then added:
It is essential to lift restrictions on business as much as possible. … It is crucial to abandon the basic principle of total, endless control. … Concerning small business, I propose establishing ‘supervisory holidays’. If a company has acquired a good reputation and if there have not been any serious charges against it for three years, then for the next three years it should be exempted from routine inspections by government or municipal supervisory agencies. … Businessmen talk about the need for stable legislation and predictable rules, including taxes. I completely agree with this. I propose ‘freezing’ the existing tax parameters as they are for the next four years. … two-year tax holidays will be provided to small businesses registering for the first time.
Putin, therefore, apparently sees the way out of impending recession as lying not in more state intervention, but rather in liberating small business. As he said:
The most important thing now is to give the people an opportunity for self-fulfilment. Freedom for development in the economic and social spheres, for public initiative, is the best possible response both to any external restrictions and to our domestic problems. The more actively people become involved in organising their own lives, the more independent they are, both economically and politically, and the greater Russia’s potential.
I have claimed elsewhere that Putin is best seen in light of the Russian tradition of liberal conservatism. His speech seems to bear that out. Putin is a conservative. But in some respects he is a liberal too.