In an article today for RT, I discuss the latest Russian population statistics, which show a fall in the population of over 500,000 in 2020. You can read it here.
Putin has spoken. The Russian constitution needs some tweaking, he told legislators in his annual address to the Federal Assembly yesterday. Restrictions on how often someone can be president will remain, thus clearing up the question of whether Putin will stay on as president after 2024 – he won’t. But, under the changes Putin proposes, the Prime Minister will henceforth be appointed by parliament not the president, an amendment which should shift power towards the legislature. All this would have to be approved in a national referendum, but still it got the pundits buzzing.
In reality, though, this wasn’t the main focus of Putin’s speech, and while it’s what got the headlines it wasn’t what struck me most about what the Russian president had to say. What hit me was how he was to a large degree repeating stuff he’d said before and how this indicated the extreme limits of his power. Most notably, Putin started off with a long exposition of Russia’s demographic problems and the need to find ways to support families with young children so as to encourage parents to have more kids. This had been the main thing he’d talked about last year, at which point he had unveiled a series of financial measures to try and resolve the demographic problem. What were the results? Well, if this year’s speech is anything to go by, last year’s measures had no effect at all. In fact, the birth rate actually fell! Perhaps the most revealing section of Putin’s speech to me was the following segment, in which he said:
The most sensitive and crucial issue is the opportunity to enrol one’s child in a day nursery. Earlier, we allocated funds from the federal budget to help the regions create 255,000 new places in day nurseries by the end of 2021. However, in 2018 to 2019, instead of 90,000, 78,000 new places were created, out of which only 37,500 places can actually be provided to kids. Other places are unavailable simply because an educational licence is still not obtained. This means that these nurseries are not ready to enrol children.
Why do I find this so interesting? Because it shows very clearly that there’s a world of difference between making policy statements and even transposing those statements into specific policies with assigned budgets, and actually putting those policies into effect, let alone achieving the objectives for which the policies were created. Supposedly, Putin is all-powerful; the state is highly centralized; the leader just has to wave his wand, and the system obeys. What the statement above shows is that this isn’t the case. Putin can issue whatever instructions he likes, but that doesn’t mean that it’s done.
This isn’t an isolated case. In the past, I’ve noted how other issues keep cropping up year after year in Putin’s speeches, indicating that all his decrees on the issue in question have resulted in naught. For instance, in a 2016 blogpost, ‘The Limits of Power’, I talked about Putin’s complaints that his orders on economic deregulation had not been carried out. Just a couple of weeks ago, I came across another reference somewhere (unfortunately I can’t remember where) to a speech Putin recently gave calling for a ‘bonfire of regulations’. The fact that he felt a need to demand this yet again is quite striking.
A similar story can be seen in the case of the key economic policy of the past couple of years, namely billions of dollars which have been assigned to infrastructure spending. It promises a lot, but as numerous reports have demonstrated, only a fraction of the assigned money has been spent, in part because bureaucrats are afraid of the scrutiny they’ll come under once they start dispensing a lot of cash.
And then there’s this story from Intellinewsa few days ago:
Russia is suffering from a crisis of confidence that is visible in the extremely high dividend payments (owners take cash rather than invest) and extremely low corporate borrowing, which is the other side of the same coin. The government understands it needs to do something about boosting investors’ confidence in the economy, but while the draft version of a new investor protection law was very radical, the version that was submitted to the Duma was so twisted by state-owned enterprise lobbying that everyone hates it and it is very unlikely to be passed.
In this case, what we see is one part of the Russia state lobbying another part of the state in order to undermine what a third part of the state (the government) wants to do. In circumstances like this, it’s remarkable that anything gets done at all.
In short, governing Russia is a tough business. The ship of state doesn’t always go where the pilot wants it to. This is, of course, hardly a uniquely Russian problem, but the Russian response to it has not always been successful. Historically speaking, when faced with the sort of difficulties mentioned here, Russian rulers have tended to try to bureaucratize and centralize, thereby reinforcing autocracy, Another response has been to find reliable people to whom large powers are then delegated as sort of autocratic plenipotentiaries. At the start of yesterday’s speech, Putin suggested that perhaps Russia needed to move in the other direction. As he put it:
Our society is clearly calling for change. People want development, and they strive to move forward in their careers and knowledge, in achieving prosperity, and they are ready to assume responsibility for specific work. Quite often, they have better knowledge of what, how and when should be changed where they live and work, that is, in cities, districts, villages and all across the nation.
If the proposed constitutional changes help prod Russia in that direction, they may well prove to be worthwhile. But don’t hold your breath.
UPDATE: Within seconds of posting this, news arrived that the Russian government had resigned, with Prime Minister Medvedev citing the proposed constitutional changes as the reason. I will ponder my response over the next 24 hours.
Three headlines have caught my eyes this week, all of them deserving a short commentary:
- Russia claims the North Pole. The Russian government has just submitted a revised claim to parts of the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole, in accordance with the process laid out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). You can read the executive summary of the claim here. To my surprise, so far the media here in Canada have been remarkably fair in their coverage of the issue. The Ottawa Citizen, for instance, cited Arctic affairs expert Professor Michael Byers saying that, ‘Russia showed surprising restraint in its new Arctic claim compared with Denmark’s provocative bid last year, and diplomats should be relieved that Russia has chosen to follow to international rules in its submission and not create tension in the area.’ Indeed, in putting forward its claim, Russia is following the procedure laid out by UNCLOS, and the matter is now in the hands of the United Nations. There is no cause for alarm.
- Russians are dying more and giving birth less. The last decade saw a significant improvement in Russia’s demographic situation, with Russians living longer and having more children. But, according to the Russian statistical service Rosstat, this trend has now been reversed. The death rate in the first quarter of 2015 was 5.2% more than a year previously, while the birth rate was 5.7% less. According to the Deputy Minister of Health, Veronica Skvortsov, ‘This is not because the population is getting older. The death rate is increasing among young people, aged 30 to 45 … For the first time in years the number of suicides and alcohol poisonings … have increased. This is a big problem.’ It is not clear yet whether this is a one-off or the start of a new negative trend, but either way it is undoubtedly bad news.
- Robert Conquest has died. During the Cold War, when the true nature of the Soviet Union’s communist regime remained disputed, the works of British historian Robert Conquest were revelatory. Books such as The Great Terror, The Nation Killers, and The Harvest of Sorrow exposed the enormous extent of Stalinist repression, and ensured that public opinion in the West would remain resolutely anti-Soviet. Like many other Cold Warriors, however, Conquest didn’t manage the transition to the post-Soviet era very well. Documents from newly opened archives revealed that some of his claims were exaggerated, but rather than accept this, he clung to his original position. As a result, his reputation suffered somewhat. Still, despite its faults, his work provided the foundation on which a generation of historians built. As a young man, I found his books enthralling, and they helped to inspire me to become a historian myself. Conquest was one of the giants of Soviet studies, and his death is a great loss to the field.