By Hal Freeman
On January 15, 2020 Vladimir Putin delivered his speech to the Federal Assembly that attracted quite a bit of attention. I was reluctant to write a blog on it. First, I was recovering from pneumonia, which invaded our house over the holidays. Both my kids and I came down with it. Second, there were many articles that appeared in English which focused on the speech. Fortunately, we all have recovered fully from the pneumonia, thanks to excellent and inexpensive medical care here.
More importantly, most of the articles I read on the speech focused only on his comments at the end of the speech about proposed changes in the Constitution. Actually they didn’t really focus on what he said. They focused on what they thought he meant by what he said. The overwhelming number of articles in the American press tried to read into the speech that Putin was setting up how he was going to sustain his political control over Russia after his present terms ends in 2024. A good example of what I’m talking about is the short article by Jonathan Wachtel from the Fox News site. https://www.foxnews.com/media/jonathan-wachtel-vladimir-putin-making-moves-russian-president-for-life. I think Gilbert Doctorow analyzed well articles such as Wachtel’s.
“Hence, the flurry of articles following Mr. Putin’s address to the bicameral legislature a week ago which sought to portray the constitutional changes he promised as serving only one purpose: to perpetuate his dominance and control over Russian politics after his presidential term ends in 2024. That was so despite the fact that nothing whatsoever in his proposed reforms would facilitate the stated objective and despite the fact that the changes, which diminish his power when implemented, would come four years before he has to relinquish his office.”
In other words, their conclusions have nothing to do with what Putin actually said. But this is not the point of my blog. I agree with Doctorow that there are things that were seriously distorted by most Western writers. More importantly, however, I think the major focus of the speech was ignored even by well-informed writers. I think this speech was extremely important for understanding Putin and what he sees as the priorities for Russia in the coming years. The articles I read focused on his proposed Constitutional changes and the impact those changes may have on Putin’s future role. If you read or listen to the speech you will discover the changes are not mentioned until the end of the speech, and they are quite general in nature. So I’m not going to address the political and constitutional issues surrounding the speech in this blog. You can go to Doctorow’s website and find several articles by him on those issues which are far more informed than what appears in more popular western outlets. https://gilbertdoctorow.com/
If you are interested in the specific recommendations in his speech, see the article by Natylie Baldwin, who also sticks to what Putin actually said. http://natyliesbaldwin.com/2020/01/putin-submits-draft-law-amending-constitution-to-parliament-pm-mishustin-has-new-cabinet-new-spending-order/
To access the official English text that I used to review the speech see: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62582 This text summarizes at several points and is not an actual translation of the speech. Putin expounded on some points and these comments are not included in this English text. Yet it is the “official” Kremlin English rendering of his speech, and nothing of importance is missing.
Putin began by addressing the demographic problem in Russia. Russia needs people. Russia is almost twice the size of the U.S., but the U.S. population is about 326.6 million while Russia has about 147 million residents. Life expectancy in Russia has increased by 8 years since Putin has become president. The birth rate has also been going up and has been about average for European countries in the last couple of years.
Now, however, there is a crisis. The 1990s were awful years for Russia. This was the decade after the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin was a horrible president, although he was able to stay in office with the huge financial backing of the United States around re-election time. If you want to talk about election interference, America interfered big time and bragged about it. The Yeltsin presidency that the U.S. poured big money into brought Russia to a poverty level worse than the Great Depression in America. In his speech Putin pointed out that the birth rate during that decade was lower than the birth rate during the Great Patriotic War (WW2). I was shocked.
The babies born during that decade are now in their child bearing years—and obviously there are few of them. There simply are not enough people in their prime child bearing years to sustain the population at the current rate. Thus, Putin proposed several ways of increasing the financial support for those who want to have children. He does not just want higher numbers, however. He said that Russia’s future depends on “how many children are born in Russian families in one, five or ten years, on these children’s upbringing, on what kind of people they become and what they will do for their country, as well as the values they choose as their mainstay in life.” Thus, the speech outlines where he believes Russia must focus its resources for these families and the children all the way through college.
Seventy to eighty percent of low-income families in Russia are families with small children. In January of this year monthly benefits to these families were extended until the children reach the age of 3. Previously it was 18 months. They will receive 11,000 rubles per child per month. That is a bit over $170 at the current exchange rate. Putin expressed his desire that payments of 5,500 rubles ($86) per month be extended until the children reach the age of 7 if the family is below the “subsistence level.”
Remember that the buying power of that money is greater in Russia than in the U.S. For example, our income is my Social Security checks. As a family of 5, with one in college, there is no way we could survive on what I am paid through Social Security if we lived in America. Nevertheless, in Russia it provides plenty for us to live on. We actually have a much higher income than the average family in Luga, whereas in America we would be considered poor. Thus, the amounts he wants given to families with children is quite significant. On the differences in buying power in America and Russia see https://www.awaragroup.com/blog/russia-vs-america-real-income-comparison/?fbclid=IwAR3aCIglOObge7IfzaqdlSNqdDQL8AHVux5akED954OPdp1WmX5O7Ah9xA8
Russia also offers “maternal capital” to families with children. This is money given by the government when families make significant real estate purchases or pay for higher education for their kids. For example, when we bought our home we received approximately $8,000 from the government toward the purchase of our home because we have two minor children. The exchange rate is down from then, but it is still over $7,000. Putin wants to increase it to 616,617 rubles (over $9,600). He made it clear that he wants the application process to be simple for the families. All they have to do is provide official documentation of their salaries. They should be able to do it on-line he said.
Putin is particularly concerned about families in the Urals, Siberia and Far East. In addition to financial help, he wants increased help in housing and schools. He proposes making mortgage loans available to families in those regions through the state banks at 2% interest. At this point Putin became more animated because he made similar suggestions last year and little was done. Budget allocations were made for the building of new nurseries and schools in these areas. Only a fraction of them were built and many of those that were built did not receive licenses to operate. “Come on!” he told the audience.
Russia is able to provide this help because, unlike the situation in the U.S., they have a budget surplus. When Putin became president the economy was in terrible shape, although it had recovered a bit from the 1997 disaster. So they started putting aside money each year in a reserve fund. Now, the government is “in the black,” and has money in the reserve fund to stimulate the economy in the ways he is suggesting. He has also accumulated a lot of gold and other stable resources for the national treasury. The problem is not a lack of funds. The problem, as some suggested, appears to be the lower level bureaucrats. Putin wants the governors to be more active and make sure action on the proposals already agreed on is taken. Putin has been meeting for a long time with various leaders, and he was clearly frustrated so little has been done.
Putin went on to address the need to increase money available to schools. He wants free hot and healthy meals for all children in elementary school. He said he had had some heated discussions with ministers over this, because even in Soviet times the schools did not provide free meals to all children. Putin’s response was respectful, but firm. In those days you did not have the income disparity you now see in Russia. Further, poor children who are already receiving free meals usually have to sit at the same table to make it convenient to bring them their meals. He said it is not fair to poor children to be singled out from their peers from wealthier families.
He also called for an increase in teachers wages. Additionally, he outlined ways scholarships should be made available to these children all the way through university studies. Poor families must be sure that if their children study hard, they will receive a good education as they grow up in Russia. At the 20 minute mark into the speech he stated,
“It is very important that (students in primary schools) adopt the true values of a large family—that family is love, happiness, the joy of motherhood and fatherhood, that family is a strong bond of several generations, united by respect for the elderly and care for children, giving everyone a sense of confidence, security, and reliability.”
Putin then turned to medical care. He wants more doctors and more clinics in the poorer sections of Russia. He proposes completely funding residency cost for those going into the medical profession. He also said there needs to be more medical clinics in those areas he mentioned in the east. Putin said he knows people tend to complain about medical care no matter what is done. He believes there is quality care here, but poorer regions simply do not have enough clinics.
As I personal aside, I will say here in the western part of the country where we live, we have plenty of clinics with modern medical equipment. I would add I cannot believe how many Russians here complain about medical care. They need to learn more of medical care in America to appreciate what they have. If they think the waits and the costs are bad here, they should try getting sick in America. I would wait at least an hour past my appointment time to pay the equivalent of almost 10,000 rubles for a 10 minute meeting with the doctor. I am not exaggerating. My prescriptions would typically cost at least 10 times what they cost here.
A long and extensive study recently published by the American Medical Association stated that 42% of people in America diagnosed with cancer lose their entire life savings within two years of the diagnosis. The same study found that 62% of cancer patients in the U.S. are in long term debt because of their medical bills. https://www.insider.com/half-cancer-patients-lose-their-entire-life-savings-2018-10?fbclid=IwAR2e-_i32waHecvho64v0juzPFs9gfI5a7yLHrQh6zobgxL1X1B8hFrXnO0. In Russia free medical treatment is still available, and cancer patients receive chemo therapy for free.
There are other “perks” Putin suggested which I will not go into here. I think I covered the main points. He reiterated in his comments on the budget that the federal government does have the money to make the needed improvements. He further stated that he believes these provisions will stimulate the economy even more.
The speech lasted one hour and eleven minutes—not counting some introductory comments. It was not until the 48 minute mark that he turned to foreign policy. He did not get to the section on the Constitution until the 51:45 point. Further, his comments on the possible changes in the Constitution, which were the focus of so many articles on the speech, were not nearly as specific as what he stated about families and children.
The present Constitution was adopted in 1993 after Boris Yeltsin literally attacked the state Duma. There are those who complain that Putin has too much power. I remind my readers that the Constitution giving the president so much power was adopted when America was in full support of Boris Yeltsin having all the power he wanted. I may address the details in a later blog, but Putin is really calling for the Constitution to be modified in such a way as to reduce the powers of the presidency. As far as the controversial provision that the president cannot hold the post for more than two consecutive terms he said, “I do not regard this as a matter of principle, but I nevertheless support and share this view.” His comments on possible changes to the Constitution were very general compared to his very specific proposals for helping poorer families and didn’t take nearly as much time.
Obviously, that did not stop American journalists from psychoanalyzing Putin. They were so sure that this speech was about him trying to hang on to power that they decided to make the speech “fit” their predetermined analyses. I will say this about Jonathan Wachtel and others like him: I don’t think they watched the speech. I don’t even think they read the speech. I think they pooled together their ignorance from brief and inaccurate summaries.
I also noticed in the comments by Russians on the youtube video of the speech that many of them did not like the speech. As one said, “All he talked about was the family.” So Putin received criticism in the American press for using the speech to outline how he is going to stay in power for life. Some young Russians, who actually watched the speech, complained he only cares about multi-generational families. Putin just dreams of grandparents, parents and children living a happy, traditional family life. On the other hand, I think there are more Russians who agree fully with his proposals. The point is: Russians are free to discuss, argue and comment on what Putin proposes. No one lives in fear here that they cannot speak freely.
Putin ended by saying he has confidence in the leaders of all the political parties and their “maturity.” He wants input from and discussion with all of them. He insisted that the final draft must be put to a vote of the people.
I could not help but note the different tone in this speech from political discussions in America. I watched a chunk of the impeachment hearings. It is hard to imagine any rational and fair discussions on any issue emerging from the current political muddle in America. Trump’s State of the Union Speech was well received by his followers, and Nancy Pelosi tore it up. That does not happen in Russia. Different views are aired respectfully. And here the discussion is focused on what the best way is to help poor families. Maybe if in the past three years, the Democrats had focused on proposals and policies that would help poor families and bringing soldiers home from pointless wars instead of the Russia interference fantasy then some of us could have been won to their side. Apparently we’ll never know, because I see they’ve started the Russian interference chatter about the 2020 election before it has even happened. This speech focused on solving real problems in Russia.
I cannot give expert analysis of the inner workings of Russian politics. As an American I can only look at the big picture. I can speak as one who has raised a family in both America and Russia. Right now, for a family of traditional values and goals like ours, Russia is a lot better fit than America. That does not mean that there aren’t Americans who have wonderful families and are doing wonderfully training and loving their children. But after watching the impeachment hearings and seeing the infighting over what basic virtues and morals are, I see more difficult days for the traditional families in America. At least the discussions and differences here are rational and meaningful.
Hal Freeman writes of himself: “I am an American living in Russia with my wife, Oksana, and three children. We lived in St. Petersburg, Russia 2005-2008, and then moved to America. We lived in my home state of South Carolina for 8 years before returning to Russia in June of 2016. I took early retirement after spending most of my adult life teaching in a University in S.C. While we were living in America I became very interested in reading Russian history, politics and studying the Russian language.”
This blog entry was posted on February 24 here.