Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly focused on the need for national unity, but did not delve deeply into important foreign policy and domestic policy issues.

A customer at a Moscow electronics store watches the live broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. Photo: RIA Novosti

This week Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual address to Russia's Federal Assembly. From the official and legal point of view, this address is analogous to the State of the Union address that the U.S. president delivers to Congress each year. As a result, it’s useful to analyze what exactly Putin said in his address – and what he left unsaid.

With each address, Russia's political canon is becoming clearer. Putin does not rely on American political rhetoric models, but rather finds his inspiration in Soviet leaders' speeches at communist party congresses, in terms of content, style and rhetorical flourishes. Some characteristics of this "authoritative style" were obvious back in 2015.

In spite of the “advisory” nature of the address, the Russian political elite has long since stopped perceiving the President's statements as something open for debate (for example, in the State Duma). Instead, everything Putin says immediately de facto becomes law. Deputies who hear the address (not to mention the members of the Government) are not expected to show support or provide their opinions. Rather, they are required to implement the plan of action that was laid out before them.

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Among other things, this pertains to state budget allocation: The money mentioned by the President almost automatically reaches its destination. It is hardly surprising that the political and business elite pay a lot of attention to the addresses, even though the general public often finds Putin's speeches monotonous and boring.

Moreover, in supplying solutions to the country's problems, the President keeps following the same logic, which is based on traditional Russian principles of state supremacy and omnipresent bureaucracy. According to Putin, virtually every reform, even if it is hoping to promote liberalization, should start with the formation of a special administrative body.

For example, a separate Federal Corporation is meant to help small- and medium-sized businesses; import substitution is effected through a special Foundation; and Development Institutes are supposed to monitor technological growth. Even the promotion of Russian goods to be sold online, in Putin's opinion, requires a government "project office." Even if there is some positive mention of individual initiative, Putin never treats it as a self-sufficient force that can ensure the evolution of the Russian economy.

The President's addresses have started to have a strong ideological character to them, especially since the beginning of his latest term in 2012. Previously, the Russian political elite used to complain about the lack of strict ideological boundaries for domestic and international development, but in 2014-2015 the situation changed dramatically.

After Crimea, Putin's speeches clearly distinguished friends from foes, explained the main direction for future development, and supported the argument with profound historical reminiscences and quotes from famous Russian thinkers (a rhetorical device based on the Soviet tradition of referencing the works of "classics of Marxism-Lenininsm").

In December 2014, for example, Putin reminded the nation of the "sacred place of Crimea in Russian history" and quoted conservative philosopher Ivan Ilyin. The Russian bureaucracy interpreted this ideological message as a call for action, and the promotion (and even imposition) of conservative values became a trendsetter in Russian public life.

In his 2015 address, Putin quoted historian Nikolay Karamzin and chemist Dmitry Mendeleev to explain the importance of self-respect ("Russians must know their value") and unity in the face of adversity ("We will be immediately destroyed if we are divided").

These quotes, as well as the general tone of the address, show that instead of looking for historical ties, Putin is suggesting that Russians unite in 2016 to find a way out of a grueling economic recession (which, but the way, the President himself prefers to call "economic difficulties"), otherwise we will not be able to pursue our ambitious international goals and ensure security within the country. 

The analysis of this year’s address through the lens of evaluating Putin’s new political program (as opposed to looking at its correspondence to the emerging canon) highlights a number of important points.

First, the address is surprisingly scarce in its coverage of international events, in spite of the crisis in Syria and Russia's active involvement in the region. Ukraine, which was last year's hottest issue, was not even mentioned. Clearly, the Russian president understands the need for a serious reform of the Russian economy, which is also necessary for the successful implementation of new international projects, so Putin is urging the Russian political elite to work hard in this area.

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Second, apart from predictable emotional jabs at Turkey, which shot down a Russian bomber ("a ban on tomato sales is not going to cut it"), Putin uttered plain, but extremely important words about the need to differentiate between the Turkish leadership and the people who are "kind, hardworking and talented."

Given the public’s respect for the President's words, we can only hope that this statement will put a stop to widespread anti-Turkey hysteria that has already manifested itself in the change of Turkish restaurant signs, closure of cultural centers and the end of cooperation between Russian and Turkish universities.

Third, in the longest section of his address, Putin spoke of mechanisms for overcoming the economic crisis and was optimistic about the perspectives of the Russian agricultural sector. It looks like the President believes that this area is going to be the largest success story. According to Putin, Russia is capable of supplying the entire world with organically grown produce, which, among other things, can be facilitated by the transfer of vacant land to manufacturers of agricultural goods.

Fourth, some domestic policy issues of interest Putin managed to ignore completely or touch upon minimally. For example, he did not even mention mass trucker protests caused by the introduction of a fee for mileage covered. A European or American leader is not likely to have chosen not to comment on the situation.

Another issue that stirs up the public is the corruption scandal involving the family of Prosecutor General Yury Chaika. In the address, it was referenced in a rather oblique way: Putin proclaimed the need to eliminate corruption and assigned the Office of the Prosecutor General to the task.

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Overall, Putin's address to the Federal Assembly showed that the Russian President maintains firm control of the situation within the country, does not plan on changing the stand on international affairs (or, at least, does not intend to consult the Federal Assembly), recognizes certain problems in the economy, but hopes to deal with them by increasing the efficiency of government control and conducting the redistribution of existing funds.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.