From Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 23, 2021, p. 2. Complete text:
(Editorial) – It would appear that Russian President Vladimir Putin hardly said anything about domestic policy in his Message to the Federal Assembly. For example, he barely mentioned last year’s constitutional amendments [see Vol. 72, No. 27‑28, pp. 3‑7] – and this after he had devoted a significant portion of last year’s speech to the proposed changes.
Also, the president used the word “elections” only once, even though the upcoming parliamentary campaign is sure to dominate the political agenda in late summer and early fall. Putin only recalled the elections when praising “constructive political actors” for their “responsible and patriotic behavior” during the pandemic. The president [said] he hoped political rivals would maintain the same kind of attitude when campaigning later this year, “being willing to work together toward our common goals.”
Actually, these few words contain everything Vladimir Putin wanted to say about Russian politics. For example, when he refers to “constructive” political actors, this implies that there are also some destructive ones. Most of these have been effectively marginalized through the confident measures taken by the authorities in general and law enforcement in particular. So, “constructive” actors are all that’s left, and they play by the rules. They know how far they are allowed to deviate from the official position, so they do not need any additional instructions from the president. The authorities believe that the biggest threat does not come from within Russia. In their worldview, their biggest foe is the collective West.
Also, the authorities and their critics often have different concepts of what politics is all about. Well-educated people living in big cities – i.e., the middle class – are positioned pretty high in [Maslow’s] hierarchy of needs, where in addition to self-actualization, they start caring about civil liberties. To them, the purpose of domestic politics is to discuss these liberties and the degree of their implementation.
For their part, the ruling elite, including people at the very top, focus on other things. To them, politics means taking care of specific economic and social problems. You could say that Russia has returned to the Soviet concept of rights and freedoms. People have the right to feel secure – hence the government should give more authority to law enforcement. People have the right to work – hence the government reports what it has done to save jobs and curb unemployment. If the government provides people with housing and jobs, protects them against criminals and terrorists, offers medical services and vaccines during a pandemic, why on earth would anyone be unhappy? The only explanation is an outside instigator. But Russia is determined to quash [opposition] voices decisively and skillfully.
As for all the other rights and freedoms, they are dismissed as a bourgeois indulgence. People are told that the West got lost by catering to these demands. It strayed from the straight and narrow, and forgot about spiritual and moral values. If there is a central political figure, a leader who can give people food, a place to live and a job, there is absolutely no need to have a parliamentary system or democracy. The value of such institutions is an illusion.
In his speech, Vladimir Putin repeated several times how difficult it was for Western countries to cope with the pandemic. The implication was crystal clear: The reason Russia handled the situation better is because it has the right system. This, too, signals a return to Soviet ways: In those days, every achievement was attributed to the fact that socialism is inherently more effective than capitalism. Russia has an energetic and determined leader, which makes the whole country effective. In the West, energy is wasted on pursuing contrived goals, or it gets lost in empty parliamentary debates. It may seem at first glance that Vladimir Putin did not talk much about politics in his speech. But in reality, almost the entire speech was about politics – or what the Russian authorities think politics should look like.