New social lenses for president Putin

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

The 20 February state-of-the-nation address by President Putin focused on domestic policy, notably social issues. This reflects the change of mood among the population. Vladimir Putin of course gave a place to questions of security and defence, but without the emphasis of previous years. He even called for more dialogue with the EU. But he has evidently understood that Russians want more than military glory and successful interventions abroad, even if they value the international importance of their country. They simply want a better life in a more equal society.

The paradox is that they do not trust the State and its structures, while at the same time they turn to them for ameliorating their life conditions. It means that Putin is confronted with this lack of trust, but also with the traditional inclination of Russians for gloom. Those two factors provide a poor basis on which to galvanise the population for the new social contract his address proposed to the population. Inspired by recent polls and analyses, he wants to show that he heard about the needs of the “real country” which demands less poverty, more equality and better conditions of living. They are not revolutionaries, but ordinary citizens tired of speeches about returning to growth that translated in such inequal return for them.

Without surprise, and not for the first time, the president instructed the government to attack poverty, not only in kinds but by confronting the social conditions which induce poverty, such as demography and health. He of course remembered the progress Russia made since 2000 when more than 40m people were below the poverty line. They are now about 19m. But this is too many, too many”. What is new is the admission that “financial difficulties affect more people that the number officially below the poverty”. In a further sign of concern for building a “Russian for all”, he announced that the financial reserves of the country will be conceived for a “collective” use and not, as more traditionally done, for increasing social aids. The idea is that spending on infrastructures will benefit all social classes, but also will offer new opportunities for economic and personal development, including in isolated regions. It will also provide a net linking the different parts of this immense territory, once again in the hope it will reinforce a feeling of national unity. The amount, already discussed in the summer, is colossal – $391 billion during the next 6 years – thanks to a budget surplus resulting largely from the Western sanctions.

Unsurprisingly, Putin dreams of Russians all united to develop their country, building not only infrastructures but protecting Russia as “a civilisation founded on particular identity, on centuries-long traditions, on our people’s culture, our values and our traditions”. A typical Putin’s appeal which is the leitmotiv of this latest address – and a constant part of his “Russian project”. Hence the emphasis he put on ecology, and his peculiar angle from which to approach the problem. He charged parliament to come with a law on July to reduce pollution emissions by more than 20% in 6 years. And also adopted a concept close to “social ecology” now so much debated in European Union countries, while adopting a line close to another debate of the XXI century in affluent societies – that of “common” concept, in reaction to the excesses of liberalism and individualism. It sounds almost “post-modern”, and certainly in line with a deep sense of collective ownership that cannot simply be discarded as a Soviet inheritance. While attached to private property, most Russians continue to see nature as a common heritage whose exploitation cannot benefit only a few like today but profit all. Unusually, he pointed a finger to the industry and companies that have not only to make their share of efforts to meet the growth’s quotas, but also understand that the country “cannot be governed by corporate interests, by the interests of distinguished individuals and companies, but by the interests of the Russian people”.

The address can be seen as a cynical exercise of smoke-screening, but it contains new elements showing that Putin feels that the country is changing, as well as popular demands. He can sustain a decrease in popularity of up to 60%, but he cannot repeat too often the chock caused by pension reforms, followed by an increase of VAT and the announcement of a tax reforms. Russians have been used to increasing their level of life, and when confronted with stagnation or regression, they look at the plates of others.

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