Putin’s address leaves philosophy aside

[30 April 2007]

By Dmitry Shusharin

RIA Novosti (MCT)

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

MOSCOW—There are different ways of commenting on President Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the-nation address to Russia’s Federal Assembly. The easiest method is to follow the text and discuss the ideas one by one. But one can also evaluate the address as a whole, in the context of the current developments in Russia.

We were told beforehand that it would be the president’s last state-of-the-nation address, but it would not be a farewell. This turned out to be correct. The address was oriented to the future. It shows what political system has been built under Putin and how it will function after him. I don’t use the word “develop” because development, evolution and transformation are glaringly at odds with the gist and goal of this system.

The goal is simple enough: a closed community of people wants to keep power in their hands. In effect, they are the power. Their formal status may be very different from their role. Public influence on decision-making will be reduced to a minimum.

But these ideas were not part of the address, were they? Yes, they were—look what the president said about foreign (and therefore hostile by definition) meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs and foreign support for sinister public forces. The same idea was expressed in conjunction with the need to speed up the passage of laws toughening the punishment for extremism. “Extremism” is already being broadly interpreted and now it will cover any unauthorized public activity.

The word “public” is important because it is already being suppressed as extremist. While the March of Dissent may be viewed as a political demonstration, the protest of the transfer of WWII soldiers’ graves and dismantling of tombstones in Khimki had nothing to do with politics. Yet in spite of this, OMON (special operations) officers still beat up protesters even after they had been scattered and were riding away in commuter trains.

And don’t tell me this is irrelevant to the president’s words. This was the public and political context of the address.

Foreigners were also mentioned in the address in connection with a new initiative, a moratorium on Russia’s implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. This decision may be described as moderately confrontational, but it does not have many foreign policy implications. The moratorium is clearly meant for domestic consumption. The political system that has been created in Russia in the past seven years needs a hostile attitude to foreign countries. As I said, this hostility is moderate because a country with an economy that is solely oriented to exporting hydrocarbons is seriously dependent on the outside world. For this reason, the gas- and oil-based authoritarian rule that is emerging in Russia has to be moderate.

All economic decision-making by this political regime boils down to the redistribution of petrodollars, as the address made clear. The money should be divided into three parts: a reserve fund, federal budgetary spending and a fund for future generations. No structural reforms or modernization are planned; the task is to maintain social stability. It is not clear why the future generations fund should be renamed the national welfare fund. Is it for the future, or should it be spent now?

Now I’ve come to what I consider the main point. The president spoke about “the nation’s spiritual unity,” “a system of moral lodestars,” “basic moral values elaborated by the Russian people,” and “preservation of the Russian language.” But he showed disdain for what he called an “old-time Russian diversion: the search for a national idea.”

He went on to say that it “is akin to a search for a raison d’etre. In general, this is not a useless or uninteresting occupation, but we could engage in it forever. Let’s not start debates on it today.” In this way, the president has shown his attitude to debates on national and social issues and the quest for a new national identity. We are being offered to limit ourselves to “basic moral values.”

This is a direct parallel of the “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality” triad that was evolved to offset the search for a new Russian identity under Nicholas I. I will just recall that at that time the government did not take kindly to either pro-Western liberals or Slavophiles. Any intellectual activity was taken as a lack of loyalty.

The address was streamlined and rational. It was free of stylistic or philosophical excesses but clearly outlined the political regime that will be maintained in this country regardless of who comes to power in 2008. This is a very simple system of ruling the nation, both in its goals and ways of achieving them.

But even now it can hardly be described as a system of government, because as the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, so much revered by the current Russian ruling elite, said: “State power is merely an instrument for reaching some supreme goal, no more than that. The cause is determined by that great and meaningful task that state power is called upon to fulfill and is fulfilling in reality.”

But this idea was conspicuously absent from the address.

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ABOUT THE WRITER
Dmitry Shusharin is a political commentator for the Russian News and Information Agency Novosti.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/putins-address-leaves-philosophy-aside/