Natylie Baldwin analyzes last week’s major shakeup in domestic Russian politics.
By Natylie Baldwin
There’s been a major shakeup this week in domestic Russian politics. It kicked off with President Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly earlier this week, which usually happens in the spring, not in January. Among other topics, Putin announced changes he wanted made to the Russian constitution, which he had telegraphed during his December Q&A. This was followed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s resignation (along with his cabinet) and the appointment of Mikhail Mishustin as his replacement.
However, before we delve into the details of this turn of events, it’s important to review what Putin’s priorities have been for Russia since he came to power, which will help to place these latest events into a larger context.
As I’ve discussed many times before, Russia was on the verge of being a failed state in 2000 when Putin took the helm. There were crises in every major area of state governance: the military was in shambles, the economy had collapsed, crime was rampant, massive poverty pervaded the country, and Russians were experiencing the worst mortality crisis since World War II.
Putin’s Three Priorities
Having studied Putin’s governance and how Russia has fared over the two decades in which he has ruled, it’s clear that he’s had three main priorities for Russia in the following order:
- Ensuring Russia’s national security and sovereignty as an independent nation. In previous writings, I’ve explained the importance of national security to Russians as a result of their history and geography;
- Improving the economy and living standards for Russians; and,
- The gradual democratization of the country.
These three priorities are reflected in this week’s address to the Federal Assembly, the equivalent of the U.S. president’s annual state of the union. Putin reiterated to his audience that the first priority of national security and state sovereignty had been secured:
“For the first time ever – I want to emphasise this – for the first time in the history of nuclear missile weapons, including the Soviet period and modern times, we are not catching up with anyone, but, on the contrary, other leading states have yet to create the weapons that Russia already possesses.
The country’s defence capability is ensured for decades to come, but we cannot rest on our laurels and do nothing. We must keep moving forward, carefully observing and analysing the developments in this area across the world, and create next-generation combat systems and complexes. This is what we are doing today.”
Putin goes on to emphasize that success on this first priority enables Russia to focus even more seriously on the second priority:
“Reliable security creates the basis for Russia’s progressive and peaceful development and allows us to do much more to overcome the most pressing internal challenges, to focus on the economic and social growth of all our regions in the interest of the people, because Russia’s greatness is inseparable from dignified life of its every citizen. I see this harmony of a strong power and well-being of the people as a foundation of our future.”
In light of the abysmal living conditions that Putin inherited in 2000, he did a remarkable job over the next decade of cutting poverty, improving infrastructure, restoring regular pension payments as well as increasing the amount, raising wages, etc. Russians, whether they agree with everything Putin does or not, no matter how frustrated they may get with him regarding particular issues, are generally grateful to him for this turnaround in their country. This progress on his second priority has underpinned his approval ratings, which have never dipped below the 60’s.
But his comments during his address reflected mixed success currently as economic conditions for Russians have stagnated over the past few years. One contributing factor has been the sanctions imposed by the West in response to Russia’s reunification with Crimea as a result of the 2014 coup in Ukraine.
Putin has done a respectable job of cushioning the Russian economy from the worst effects of the sanctions and even using them to advantage with respect to import substitution in the agricultural and industrial sectors. However, polls of the population have consistently shown over the past two-to-three years that Russians are losing patience with the lack of improvement in living standards.
Another problem that is limiting economic progress is the pattern of local bureaucrats not implementing Putin’s edicts. For example, in his 2018 and 2019 addresses, Putin laid out an expensive plan for economic improvement based on infrastructure projects throughout the country as well as improving health and education. Budget allocations were made for these projects and the funds released, but many have only been partially realized. Confirming what has been reported in some quarters, Putin complained about the deficiencies in the roll-out of these policies during his address.
I believe this is connected to the subsequent resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who will now step into the newly created role of deputy chairman of the Security Council, while his cabinet remains in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed.
Medvedev has not been particularly effective as prime minister and has been very unpopular over the past several years as suspicions of corruption have swirled around him. He is also problematic ideologically as he has always embraced neoliberal economic policy which has no traction with most of the Russian people due to the experience of the 1990’s when neoliberal capitalists ran amok. He also lacks the charisma and creative problem-solving skills of Putin.
But in all fairness, no prime minister will have an easy job in Russia if significant changes are needed or a transition is still in progress. Throughout Russia’s history, whenever leaders wanted to reform the system, they’ve always encountered the problem of implementation in terms of the bureaucracy. Whether out of malevolence, fear of losing perceived benefits, inertia, or incompetence, bureaucrats lower down the chain don’t always put the reforms effectively or consistently in place. Putin has complained at various times of local bureaucrats’ intransigence and its negative effects on average citizens whom they are supposed to be serving.
Not much is known about Medvedev’s immediate replacement, Mikhail Mishustin, except that he is a former businessman and has served as head of Russia’s Tax Service since 2010. In his capacity leading the tax agency, he is held in positive regard, credited with modernizing and streamlining the historically onerous tax collection system.
The third priority of Putin has been gradual democratization of the country. Putin is often characterized in the west as an autocrat and a dictator. However, as I’ve written before, there are many democratic reforms that have been implemented under Putin’s rule that are often ignored by Western media and analysts. It is not that democracy has not been a priority for Putin, it’s that it was to be subordinated to the other two priorities. Putin, as well as many other Russians, have been nervous about possible instability. With their history of constant upheaval over the past 120 years – two revolutions, two world wars, numerous famines, the Great Terror, and a national collapse – this is understandable.
Putin inherited a system of governance that featured a strong president and a weak parliamentary system as reflected in the 1993 constitution ushered in by Yeltsin – the origins of which are explained here. Putin has used this system effectively throughout his 20 years in power – 16 of them as president – to try to solve the various crises mentioned earlier. Such strong, centralized power is necessary when a state is dealing with multiple existential emergencies.
At this point, I think Putin realizes that Russia, though it still has significant problems to be addressed, is no longer in a state of emergency. Therefore, it is no longer necessary to keep quite the same level of power concentrated in the office of the presidency, which is open to abuse by future occupants. Here is what Putin said about this:
“Russian society is becoming more mature, responsible and demanding. Despite the differences in the ways to address their tasks, the main political forces speak from the position of patriotism and reflect the interests of their followers and voters.”
The constitutional reforms Putin goes on to discuss include giving the parliament the right to appoint the prime minister and his/her cabinet, no foreign citizenship or residency of major office holders at the federal level (president, prime minister, cabinet members, parliamentarians, national security agents, judges, etc.), expanding the authority of local governmental bodies, and strengthening the Constitutional Court and the independence of judges. He also mentioned codifying certain aspects of socioeconomic justice into the constitution:
“And lastly, the state must honour its social responsibility under any conditions throughout the country. Therefore, I believe that the Constitution should include a provision that the minimum wage in Russia must not be below the subsistence minimum of the economically active people. We have a law on this, but we should formalise this requirement in the Constitution along with the principles of decent pensions, which implies a regular adjustment of pensions according to inflation.”
In other words, Putin realizes that the system as it is currently constructed has outlived its usefulness and some modest changes are needed to keep the country moving forward. Despite the constant nonsense that passes for news and analysis of Russia in the west, civil society is alive and well in Russia. Putin is aware of the citizen-led initiatives that have been occurring throughout the country to improve local communities and it appears that he is ready to allow more space for this new participation of average Russians to solve problems for which the official bureaucracy seems to be stuck:
“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.
The pace of change must be expedited every year and produce tangible results in attaining worthy living standards that would be clearly perceived by the people. And, I repeat, they must be actively involved in this process.”
How these changes will actually be instituted and what the results will be is, of course, unknown at this time. Putin suggested that the eventual package of constitutional amendments will be voted on by the Russian people. It also appears that Putin will indeed step down at the end of his presidential term in 2024, but it is still very likely that he will remain in an active advisory role.
Unlike the knee-jerk malign motives that are automatically attributed to anything Putin does by the western political class, I see this as a calculated risk that Putin is ready to take to make further progress on his second and third priorities for Russia.
Natylie Baldwin is author of “The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations.” She is co-author of “Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated.” She has traveled throughout western Russia since 2015 and has written several articles based on her conversations and interviews with a cross-section of Russians. She blogs at natyliesbaldwin.com.
This article is from natyliesbaldwin.com.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
Please Donate to the Winter Fund Drive
Before commenting please read Robert Parry’s Comment Policy. Allegations unsupported by facts, gross or misleading factual errors and ad hominem attacks, and abusive or rude language toward other commenters or our writers will be removed. If your comment does not immediately appear, please be patient as it is manually reviewed. For security reasons, please refrain from inserting links in your comments
The accessability to a paycheck is all one needs to quiet the people, andas for Democracy, there are many variations.
Contrary to many opinions Putin’s Russia is not trying to become just a wealthier nation but that he wants to do so by.becoming a member of the now forming worlds financial system.
Note his recent appeal to US Brits, China, France and other UN Security Councils top nations, no one else, to have talks, not just of military issues but mainly monetary policies they can all agree upon.
Russia of today may be of a vastly improved living style than before Putin, but the nations only improvement has been concentrated in around 40 of its largest cities, and once outside there are vast areas that have not caught up to Europes, BRITS and France of 1950’s
To try and build up a population that has almost as many abortions as births and a gradually gaining numbers of aged non productive populace may be too late to bring prosperity.
How many years are children non producers 18 at least, and minimum of 60 days idleness of working aged females.
His last proposed budget for roads, and mass transit will take years to complete an incomplete system, leaving vast portions of rural Russia still struggling as if in 1950′ before US built its highway system.
Their factories still build crappy crude products using 1960’s manufacturing processes and China does not want to import inferior products than their own.
They do have some of best minds mostly tied up in military hardware production, and while Putin has vastly improved its educational standards there are millions in Eastern portions finding tech education hard to aquire.
Places where once they gain a degree they have to head west in order find employment.
His work to reinvigorate the Russian Orthodox Church is but a tool to mold a society that despite Russian propaganda talk of western moral decline sure as heck is just as immoral.
Russian Vodka is great Vodka but is at the root of loss productivity due to massive alcoholism.
The population size of Russia is relatively small compared to its land mass and many of its oil and mineral products are remote and offer not much for building an entrepreneurs society.
Hope it works out but all this BS talk of Holy Russia seems to be a lot of smoke and mirrors as the real money changers in Russia are trying to integrate their economies with that of Europe Britain, France and Germany and that mostly through extraction and export of natural resources.
Good article and some useful comments. The ‘Saker’ is also a good place for analysis of Russia …
It’s early for an historical judgment, but given what Putin faced in 1999 and where Russia is today, I think he will be considered one of the great political leaders in World History.
Not many people do this, but you can read Putin’s annual address in full and it’s pretty direct and informative (as usual). In fact, that is a good general rule. Don’t rely on interpretations of what Putin has said … read it yourself, or better watch videos with translation. I think most people would be stunned. Russia needed a great leader at the end of the 90’s … and they got one. His main problem now is to put a system in place that will go on effectively without him. You can’t expect another Putin in this lifetime.
Thanx for a great piece on Russia. I do not understand the reflexive vilification of Russia in general and Putin in particular except to think that the “elites” in Washington are afraid of both Putin and Russia because they can’t control them.
Anyone else see the similarities of the activities of the Comintern, now moribund, and our regime change since the dissolution of the USSR? Are there similarities?
one thing not mentioned in your report was the so called ??????????? ??????? which is a renewed attempt to help young families with children get a better handle of their living situation. It was very well received by the audience.
all those question marks resulted from my using russian for materinsky capital
Neoliberalism has no traction with the majority of Russians because 90% are pro-socialist now, even after the collapse of the USSR.
This writer is right.
Putin is in no way desperately trying to hold on to power as western media is trying to convey.
He is setting the ground for his eventual retirement. He is stiffening up the constitution, and so that the next generation can move up the ladder, he is getting the parliament the powers to appoint them. This is a very carefully constructed set of measures to ensure that government progresses and is protected from outside influences of foreign powers.
Certainly Putin had to take many drastic measures during the early years but from what I read he has in the main succeeded. However, the wrecking of the economy by Yeltsin is not entirely removed and too much influence remains in the hands of those who profited during that period.
I believe in Mackinder and that the heartland of Russia, China and perhaps Iran will create a unity and power that cannot be erased.
A refreshing analysis contrary to US MSM and government’s nasty fairy tales.
It is notable that Russia has had a more effective, consistent and progress oriented government than the world’s self appointed “greatest democracy”, albeit starting from the Yeltsin/Clinton neo-liberal bottom.
During the Putin years the US has had some pretty abysmal leaders culminating in the latest catastrophe on steroids.
You’re quite right, John. The U.S.A. has been fed VERY MUCH B.S. about Russia & Putin, thanks to Democrats & media. They are good, hard-working people with the same desire as we have: freedom to prosper in a clean, conservative way, while being safe from gov’t. leaders of other nations who are consumed by greed & jealousy. Great Britain is the country responsible for the HUGE amount of corruption throughout the world today, not Russia. Please get a better explanation on larouchePAC.com where you will find MANY secrets that should NEVER have been secrets in the first place. I’ve gotten a much greater understanding regarding who I can & cannot trust in office, & what countries are truly trying the right way. God bless you.
A good and to the point summary of Russia’s status quo.I fully agree. Even Israel turns to Putin for help to unravel the chaos in the Middle East. Why?Because he is the only one in the whole wide world who c a n!
This is the best article I have ever read about Putin … impartial and unprejudiced writing that i do not see often in western mainstream media mmkudos to the authour.
I find this terribly lacking in the examination of the many ways in which freedom of expression and freedom of the press are suppressed. Putin is still a butcher. No doubt about it. And he may be offering some tidbits of hope for his people in promising certain “freedoms.” But make no mistake. He’s in no way making his way toward democracy in any meaningful way. Commerce and quality of life issues only make his “brand” more palatable. He doesn’t do anything that doesn’t line his pockets in some way. And to think otherwise, is naive and misleading.
Evidence please. Accusations made without evidence should be summarily dismissed if one is not to be “naive and mislead”. If you actually watch Russian broadcasts, it is quite obvious that there is more freedom of the press and freedom of expression (not to mention DEPTH) in Russian news and analysis. Imagine Chris Hedges getting to speak his mind and do the thoughtful interviews he does for RT on CNN.
With over 60% support during his entire tenure, it is clear to most that the “pussy riot” portion of the Russian citizenry is a small minority.
As for “democracy”, if you are from the USA or Europe, I would say “physician heal thyself”.
He is a butcher, isn’t he!How very different from your democratic presidents!
Your Putin bias is fed by your anti-Russian “news sources”. You should be focusing on the constantly eroding quality of life for working people in this country (Skyrocketing student debt, crime, stagnant minimum wages, corporate controlled governance, military Industrial complex that is constantly fed by our tax dollars which in turn guarantees profits for the war profiteers and a president and government that hold office to make their class counterparts richer. It is easier to point the other way while this house is burning….)
Anne, what is your source of information?
Hi Anne. I have links within the above article that go into the status of democracy and the rule of law in Russia more. You would probably benefit from reading my interview with Prof. Nicolai Petro that was recently published here at: consortiumnews(dot).com/2019/10/23/interview-nicolai-petro-on-reading-russia-right/
Some of the worst things said about Putin are actually unsubstantiated. They are simply repeated on major platforms in the U.S. until they are accepted as flat fact. That’s how propaganda works.
I would wager that a comparative examination of “the press” vis-à-vis Russia and the U.S. would find much more similarity than otherwise. Certainly our monopolistic MSM operates only within an “acceptable” range of subject matter and opinion, and is generally of low journalistic quality. Our government is currently crucifying Julian Assange—if that tells you anything about how “freedom of the press” is valued and upheld here in the States.
I don’t know what makes you think Putin is a butcher, but I’ve gathered many years worth of impressions of the man and come away with quite the opposite opinion. He is a principled internationalist with a decidedly humane outlook.
It should be noted that the proposed changes to Russia’s Constitution are not “promises”. They are proposals to be put forth (democratically) for referendum.
Do you have real, factual information to back up your “analysis” ? To me this sounds like more regurgitation of MSM.
So he’s a “butcher” is he? What innocent kids or much beloved generals has he droned lately? Or ever? Curious how the actual evidence usually suggests the opposite of Washington propaganda.
A very useful analysis! I agree completely. And I will read your analysis and comments regularly. Thanks a lot.
Thanks for a very easy to understand explanation.
Coincidentally, I just watched an excellent hour long interesting interview with Anya Parampil & Mark Sleboda on The GrayZone-Red Lines .
I just saw that, too. It was very good.
As I remember, Washington was quite complementary of Yeltsin when he had the army attack the Parliament. I cannot recall a single prominent pundit who condemned the move, which was the beginning of our support for Yeltsin as he came close to destroying Russia and handing its riches to a small group of gangsters posing as neo-liberal reformers. Apparently, this corrupt and pathetic fellow had a hand in choosing Putin so Russia can thank him for that.
Putin is an extraordinary man and he undoubtedly has his warts. But it is impressive how he and Lavrov operate seeking to settle disputes in the Middle East and North Africa, reaching out to the US, and seeking and strengthening alliances to combat our adventurism.
I echo others who have thanked Ms. Baldwin for her perspective on the events which MSM have made all about the evil Putin. Russians aren’t the only ones suffering from bureaucratic intransigence. I feel their pain…
Good to hear about Russia without feeling bad because of the relentless Putin bashing which has become normal in most western media. Outright lies, destorted facts and no mentioning of the true reasons for Russia’s deep rooted problems dating as far back as the Jelzin aera. In fact this started about eight years ago.
I am German and it is most distressing having to watch Russia being transformed into an aggressive enemy that can’t wait to attack this country although we invaded Russia twice during the last century and killing 27 Million People in WWll alone. I feel ashamed and sad because of all this. Ignoring all mainstream media as far as Putin is concerned and trying to open various eyes is all one can do.
Thank you, Natylie Baldwin for this wunderful artikel. It would be great ro see you here on a regular basis.
Thank you CN for your great work.
This is what I call “analysts”, not that pathetic stuff on MSM which tells you everything and its opposite on Putin and Russia.
…….”no… foreign residency of major office holders at the federal level…..”. The USA could use some of this in our government. President Vladimir Putin is not resting on his laurels and is looking and planning ahead for the future, all the while dealing with foreign influence and chaos coming from the west. He handles these things with stunning class. I hope that the people of mother Russia can appreciate that they have a rare individual there. I toast a true statesman!
An economically successful Russia is going to be a stable Russia. A stable Russia is likely to be a peaceable Russia. Russia’s neighbors and the wider world will clearly benefit from such a thing. No wonder the warmongers in Washington and its MSM mouthpieces cannot stand the thought. It’s a real shame the way the American government sabotages and opposes behind the scenes every platitude it publicly espouses, especially in foreign policy but in domestic issues as well. To understand its motives and objectives one generally has to assume the opposite of its public pronouncements because the actual God’s truth would be an outrage to most rational and humane people. All evidence suggests that Russia and its people will be all right left to their own devices. It’s the future of America and our citizens that has me a lot more concerned.
That is neo-liberalism and U.S. “freedom and democracy” in a nutshell. Well-spotted.
“An economically successful Russia is going to be a stable Russia. A stable Russia is likely to be a peaceable Russia. Russia’s neighbors and the wider world will clearly benefit from such a thing.”
Stable Russia! The West has been trying to dismember Russia for a very long time. After the plunder of 1990’s, and complete economic and social collapse of Russia they thought that the beast – that is how the West views Russia – is almost dead now and will not come alive for a hundred years now. I remember reading articles all over in the Western press gloating over it. And the collapse of Russian institutions was such that I also thought that Russia will not recover from this catastrophe for a very long time now, if it ever does.
I am beginning to think that some kind of helping hand of the Providence was there to rescue Russia; gave the country such a remarkable leader.
With their immense resources, Russia has so much potential. As you said that a stable and prosperous Russia will be great benefit to the wider World. But the West does not have any empathy or wisdom to understand it. It is sad state of affairs; the West is not going to let Russia live in peace.
Days ago I had a conversation on Disqus with some Russian guy who somehow believes that Putin is the head of a gang of parasites. I find this hard to believe considering everything Putin did, as mentioned in the article, to improve the living standards for the average Russian – not something you’d expect from a “gang of parasites”. What’s the best rebuttal to this allegation? Anyone?
Ask for verifiable evidence.
No dual citizenship in government. No brainer ! For the people by the people.
Indeed. All they had to do was look at the NATO vassal states on their borders, especially Ukraine, where half the cabinet was foreign carpetbaggers.
What a contrast this analysis is to the hysterical mutterings of Simon Tisdall, published a day ago in the
Guardian. He looked into every corner of Putin’s proposals, creating “hidden” agendas, and wherever he could not find a negative, he ignored it altogether. He exemplified the West’s anti-all-things-Russian fixation, whereas he should at the very least have pointed out the obvious signs of greater democratisation, and power balancing in Putin’s plan, and allocate a wish that they would be implemented successfully. He did not even mention Putin’s commitment to put his proposals to Parliament, and then to a people’s referendum.
Putin may be allowing for a continuing role for himself post-2024, but given Russia’s achievements under his watch, I am sure Russians would welcome any further contribution he could make.
I feel quite sure that history will allocate to Putin a pre-eminent position, both in Russian internal management, and as being THE grown-up in world affairs.
Good analysis/deep-background article! It’s SO refreshing to read something about Russia here in the US press that isn’t the simplistic ‘Russia bad! US good! Anything else is Putin-stooge talk or what-about-ism’. I’m sure that the US & British MSM will attribute only evil motives by Putin for all of this and will somehow try to ascribe Russian world-domination designs to it, no-matter how much contortion and out-of-left-field fantasizing that requires, after all that’s their job, they’ve had a lot of practice, and they get amply rewarded…
Thank you Ms. Baldwin for a “real” analysis. Russia has Putin, the US is luckier, we have a President Trump.
Very informative and balanced article.
The Central Bank of the Russian Federation is constutionally separated from the government. This has been criticized by some as making Russia less free to create money for investment in Russia. The Central Bank is tied to the BIS in Switzerland and is not free to independantly change the money supply according to internal needs.
It would be interesting to know more about this problem, if it is a problem, and what, if so, could be done about it.
I refer to a video
where it is stated that the Central Bank is a division of the Federal Reserve.
Thank you Natalie ( and CN for publishing this); your explanations are extremely helpful . Also what a relief to finally read something that isn’t filled with hate and false assumptions about Russia. When Rachel at MSNBC starts in on Putin I start to feel sick and I have to turn off the TV Her hatred is frightening.
I hope we’ll see more of your writing, Natalie.
“Her hatred is frightening.”
The opponents’ social relations, both internally and externally, are predicated on the belief that hatred is frightening.
Hatred has a large assay of emotionalism limiting perception which in matters of “strategy” afford opportunities to others.
The contempt and hatred of the opponents were, are and continue to be lands of opportunity for some and limiters of others, thereby aiding how to drown a drowning man with the minimum of blowback.