Nikolai Petrov’s weekly bulletin
March 20-24, 2023
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Independent scholar
A short summary of the most important political developments by Nikolai Petrov.
Government Report to Parliament: Not a Word about the War

On March 23, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who usually avoids making political statements, opened the government's report to the State Duma by taking an unusually tough tone on the West. The government's grand report might remind the older generation of Russians of reports to the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: a lot of empty jibber-jabber; a detailed description of achievements, with respectful mention of the president who initiated them; expressions of concern for citizens; and rhetorical claims to be enmeshed in a struggle for all things good over all things evil.

Speaking about the economy, Mishustin radiated optimism: “We got the economy back on the growth track.” He outlined a detailed plan of priority actions to ensure the development of the economy under the conditions of pressure from external sanctions— the plan includes more than 300 measures selected from among 33,000 proposals received from all over the country — and talked about the benefit of reducing the administrative burden on business. The government recommenced the entire machinery of state programs. The introduction of digitalization has helped to increase the level of interaction between agencies, reducing the time it takes to solve problems from 90 to 10-15 days.

Financial support for citizens is provided in a centralized and unified way via the Social Treasury, meaning that a citizen does not have to specifically apply for a payment —everything is done by the authorities on a proactive basis. Thirty one federal social protection measures have now been transferred to the remit of the Social Treasury, meaning that about 35 million citizens now receive targeted payments automatically or following a single application submitted remotely, which is understandably well-received by citizens and makes them feel that the government cares about them.

Mishustin listed 12 medium-term government priorities: (1) macroeconomic stability; (2) development of the social sphere; (3) labor-market stability; (4) maintaining citizens’ quality of life and meeting domestic demand; (5) fostering favorable conditions for private business and attracting capital; (6) establishment of domestic production and (7) technological sovereignty; (8) digitalization; (9) development of transport and logistics infrastructure; (10) integration within the EAEC and with partner countries; (11) regional development; and (12) meeting the needs of the economy in terms of financial resources and instruments.

Mishustin did not mention the main national priority of today — “everything for the front, everything for victory” — but he did talk in detail about the Coordinating Council for ensuring that the needs of the Armed Forces and other troops, military formations, and bodies are met.

Establishing domestic production and ensuring technological sovereignty seem to be lagging behind the other priority areas. Among near-term plans intended to help achieve these priorities, Mishustin mentioned the construction of a new icebreaker (see Nikolay Petrov’s Bulletin from the week of February 27-March 3) and an ice-resistant, self-propelled platform in the Arctic. He also spoke in general terms about aircraft-building and the automotive industry, as well as about the growth of domestic machine tools and tools production, admitting that the situation is not very good: “When no attention has been paid to it for many years, it is almost impossible to achieve such a turn-around in a year or two.” With regard to radioelectronics, Mishustin likewise talked about projects and investments, but not about results.

The Prime Minister spoke more specifically about the development of our own software, which is gradually replacing foreign programs at the industrial level: “Almost 80% of foreign programs already have domestic analogues. Now we are addressing their quality.”

Mishustin devoted significant time to discussing support for the regions, where the “strength of Russia” lies. Over the past year, the government provided regional budgets with almost 4 trillion rubles — almost 10% more than the year before. The main drop in GRP was recorded in the oil-producing regions, which used to be very strong.

Russia is replacing expensive market borrowing with loans from the federal budget. A number of financial instruments, including infrastructure budget loans and bonds, have been offered to support the modernization of public utilities infrastructure; the renovation of housing stock, heating and water supply systems; and the development of public transportation. The government's increased attention to the regions — primarily in the form of major financial support — is, on the one hand, an effective way to ensure social stability and, on the other hand, a form of centralized paternalism.

The government is coping successfully with its role as crisis manager, as noted by the speaker of the United Russia-majority parliament, Andrei Makarov, who praised the government for its effective management.

In the report, Mishustin never tired of repeating that all these initiatives were proposed by the president (later, the deputies would also add that Chairman of the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, too, proposed the initiatives that are now being implemented).

For 2023, the government has formulated six main objectives. In part, these replicate the previously announced priorities (in particular, technological sovereignty), indicating both that the goals are far from being achieved and that the government is digging in for a long confrontation with the West. The last of the declared objectives for this year — saving the people — looks especially cynical against the backdrop of the bloody war in Ukraine, about which Mishustin said virtually nothing.

Reaction to the Prime Minister's Report

The only interesting details came in response to the questions. Neither the questions, submitted in advance in written form, nor the answers to them can reasonably be called spontaneous, but it was nevertheless the most vibrant part of the event. The Prime Minister's answers to the questions were polite, in-depth and detailed, but, despite being prepared in advance, sometimes not to the point.

Volodin demonstrated that the government report was his day, and he was in charge. He actively commented, made assessments, and gave orders to the government.

Of special concern to him were the Unified State Exams (USE) — “of the approximately 20,000 questions that deputies at various levels received for the report of the Government, questions about the USE were among the top five most frequently asked by our voters” — and vaping — "One of the questions [on which] I would like a response is a ban on vaping” — stressing that this is a concern shared by all the deputies. Volodin especially praised those members of the government whom Putin singles out in his speeches: Deputy Prime Ministers Yuri Trutnev, Marat Khusnullin, and Dmitry Grigorenko and ministers Dmitry Patrushev, Alexander Novak, and Denis Manturov.

Faction Leaders to the Government

After those deputies who asked questions, the faction leaders spoke, invariably demonstrating their support for the actions of the government and the president. Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), said that the main thing was to ensure victory, and that we should start with children affected by the war, hot meals for high-school students, and support for families with many children.

The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader spoke about the need to introduce more nursery groups for children aged six weeks to two years; to introduce modern biotechnologies and biotechnological products; and to impose “mandatory distribution” of graduates of medical universities and colleges, assigning them to workplaces across the country.

A Just Russia — For Truth (SRZP) proposed that Russia withdraw from the WTO and IMF and that the government cancel pension reform and index the pensions of working pensioners. The party also, following Volodin, supported the abolition of the USE.

New People (NL) called for smart protectionism with higher duties on goods from unfriendly countries, as well as further relaxation of the requirements imposed by the numerous regulatory agencies.

United Russia stressed the importance of parliamentary control and targeted support for the regions, as well as expressing support for the simplification of accounting standards.

In a discussion that largely amounted to an exchange of compliments, two interesting lines emerged: the head of the SRZP chided the government for its lack of strategy, while Volodin denounced the government's attempt not to burn all bridges with the West.

At the end of the meeting, Mishustin concluded as follows: “Let's be realistic: the external pressure on Russia will not abate. Nevertheless, we expect that as early as 2024 the adaptation period will be over and Russia will embark down the path of long-term incremental development.”

What Was That?

Summing up, the government's report to the Duma on March 23 can be called a session of collective psychotherapy and the routinization of evil. In general, the participants in the session purposefully ignored the war in Ukraine, which has been going on for more than a year, focusing on some objective difficulties in the implementation of the government's economic plans, but without talking about the reasons that gave rise to these difficulties.

We should hardly think that the report on the government's performance in the first year of the war does not interest the members of the Russian political establishment assembled in the Duma — nor that Volodin's thoughts are really most consumed by vape machines and the Unified State Exam.

Mishustin and Volodin, as two public participants in the discussion, embody two different types of PR. Mishustin demonstrates highly effective activity, emphasizing not his own merits, but rather that he follows the president's initiatives. For his part, Volodin emphasizes how carefully he considers the interests of citizens. The other participants are statists. The prime minister and the speaker are, by and large, statists too, only noble ones, directing other statists. What the Mishustin government has really succeeded in doing in its year of war is establishing an effective management machine that monitors the situation and coordinates the fulfillment of any instructions coming from the Kremlin.
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