Vladimir Putin to the Opposition over rumors of his medical problems: “Don’t hold your breath!”

By his transparency, feistiness, common sense reasoning and earthy, idiomatic language, Vladimir Putin has shown in his three major public appearances of December 2012 that he has no peers on the international political stage. Read on…


Vladimir Putin to the Opposition over rumors of his medical problems: “Don’t hold your breath!”

                                                           by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



The past 8 days have witnessed the highly mediatized comeback of Russian President Vladimir Putin from a prolonged absence from public view that was dictated by unspecified health problems. On 12 December, he delivered a one hour and twenty minute State of the Nation speech to Russia’s Federal Assembly, the joint houses of parliament. On 20 December, he responded to questions from 1,000 Russian journalists and 200 foreign journalists in his annual press conference which lasted close to 4½ hours. And yesterday he led the Russian delegation to the semi-annual EU-Russia Summit in Brussels, joining Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU Council President Herman van Rompuy on the dais for a press conference where, in the words of sharp-tongued ‘Kommersant Daily’ reporter Andrei Kolesnikov, he had the last word after nearly strangling his old adversary Barroso in a collegial embrace.

All events were broadcast live and in full by Russian state television, with transcripts posted on the presidential website, kremlin.ru. Given the wide-ranging issues covered in these events, media reports both within Russia and abroad have been all over the place, with each publication or broadcaster selecting from the menu what best serves its editorial stance on Russia. However, one fact stands out amidst all this noise: the video and print materials confirm that Putin is back at the top of form in his assertive, transparent style. What you see is what you get and this sets him apart from every other politician on the world stage.

The best of Putin came last.  His appearance in Brussels was all the more impressive because the media had presaged a tough reception. Indeed, on the night before the summit the ever tendentious and Russophobe Euronews television channel carried a statement by a deputy to EU external affairs commissioner Catherine Ashton warning that Putin would be subjected to hard talk over the Pussy Riot affair and all the other elements in the alleged Kremlin crackdown on dissent ever since Putin’s re-election to the presidency this past spring.

 In the event, Putin emerged from whatever behind closed door wrangles there were very much the winner. I would go further to say that in effect he pulled the fangs of his opponents and made up for the humiliations Russia underwent at the hands of European leaders during the weak presidency of his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev. I have in mind, in particular, the shabby treatment meted out to Medvedev by Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel at their tripartite summit in Deauville in October 2010.

On Friday, in Brussels, the tables were turned.  Whereas Medvedev was not a free agent, had to look over his shoulder for direction and could not dare putting at risk smooth relations with Europe which seemed so important to his modernization program, now it was the European side, in the person of its powerless  presidents in name only, the bureaucrats Van Rompuy and Barroso, answerable to the 27 Member States in the wings, who had to grin and bear Putin’s sarcasm and patronizing behavior before the television cameras.

We need only recall how at Deauville then President Nicolas Sarkozy explained Europe’s interest in Russia as prompted by its mineral wealth, as if Russia were a larger version of the Congo; and how Merkel spoke dismissively of the Russian bid for elimination of visas for travelers between Russia and the EU, saying this was something which could be imagined only in the distant future, twenty or more years out, when Russia did what was needed, by which she meant became decriminalized.

By contrast, at the Russia-EU Summit on Friday, both sides stressed the high volume of two way trade (nearly $400 billion in 2012) and two way capital investment which grew despite the European recession and travails over sovereign debt. All of this was held up as good for employment, good for the peoples of both the EU and Russia, and as the overriding reason to find pragmatic solutions in those areas where the positions of the sides are at variance.

The opening statement at the press conference by Herman van Rompuy was a recitation of the agenda items from the day’s talks, with not a word about substance.  In his turn, Jose Manuel Barroso was only slightly less vapid, with his southern temperament showing through in his accent on the positive, such as progress in simplification of visa procedures, and in a lighthearted reference to the end-of-the-world predictions for December 21st that had passed without incident. 

It is a sad commentary on Europe’s descent from its glory days of the last century when it forged the supranational Union that its  highest officers both expressed themselves using what in Soviet times was called ‘wooden language,’ an opaqueness that is mind-numbing. 

By contrast, in his opening remarks Vladimir Putin cut through the fog. First, he attached numbers to the dimensions of EU-Russian mutual interests.  Then he highlighted the areas of most serious disagreement, namely over the question of visa-free travel and the energy sphere.  

Putin insisted that the EU’s technical requirements for visa free travel have been met in full by the Russian side, and that the only hold-up now was the failure to consolidate political will on the EU side:

  “…we understand that the decision of such a question is not easy for our colleagues. They have to get the agreement of 27 countries. They have different approaches. We can wait until our European partners reach maturity for this decision.”

In these words, which were not later contradicted by Van Rompuy or Barroso, we can read Putin’s openly patronizing attitude towards his interlocutors.

On the question of energy, Putin began by calling attention to Russia’s efforts to help solve the problem of Europe’s energy security through its own diversification of the gas transport system, namely the entry into service of the Nord Stream and the launch a week ago of construction on the South Stream, under the Black Sea. Given the historic background of Barroso’s personal efforts in support of the now failed competing project of Nabucco and support for Ukraine in its disputes with Russia over gas transit, Putin’s statement on how the Russians are here to help was the equivalent of slashing a ‘Z’ for Zorro on his adversary’s tunic. He went on to name precisely where Russia is at odds with the EU over energy: the (in)applicability of the EU’s Third Energy Package to previously concluded supply contracts between the two trading partners.

Finally, Putin used the time in his opening remarks to shoot the ball back in the EU’s court with regard to human rights. He forcefully denounced the violation of the human rights of Russian speakers in EU Member States, pointing his finger directly at the Baltics.

In the question period which followed, Vladimir Putin was still more specific in revealing the respective positions of Russia and the EU on the two aforementioned issues of energy and visas, telling the audience that now they were “witnesses to our discussion.”  In effect, his intention was perfectly in character: speaking over the heads of his close-mouthed official interlocutors to his countrymen and to world opinion via the broadcasting link. 

In the Q&A, Barroso answered for the EU, this time giving more details on the points at dispute with the Russians, though trying to hold out the promise of their future amicable resolution. He cited figures on the easing of visa procedures now underway on the EU side, insisting that this was giving effective relief to the needs of would-be Russian visitors, while the objective of visa free relations would come next.  On the energy issue, he countered Putin’s claims of discriminatory practices towards Russia and went into such a lengthy song and dance, that Putin observed:   

“My friend of many years, Mr. Barroso, has so emotionally and at such length explained the position because he feels that it is wrong, guilty.”

Audience laughter was dry.

I doubt that the nature of the encounter was missed by most journalists present, or by their editors. Suffice it to say that in Euronews coverage of the Summit press conference later in the day the remarks from the dais were given less than a minute on air before the reportage cut to a scene said to take place outside the EU headquarters where a bare-breasted woman was protesting against the Russian visit. So much for a free and responsible European press….

                                                                     * * * *

Turning to the annual press conference in Moscow on December 20, I must explain to general readers that this tradition which Vladimir Putin established during his earlier terms in the presidential office is notable for the predominant presence of journalists outside the capital press pool, from provincial Russia, who use their moments before the microphone not so much to pose questions as to present petitions. These very often set out local points of pride, such as preparations for major international sporting events in which the region will participate, or the injustices of some national law as it applies to the given region, or the abuse of power by their local administration.

The topics can therefore be highly diverse, though mostly local. Only about 10% of the stenographic record rises to issues of nationwide importance. Still fewer are international, although this time it was precisely an international issue which set the mood of the event in the first two questions, when President Putin was asked for his likely response to a bill which was being rushed through the Russian Duma in reprisal for the signing of the Magnitsky Act by President Obama.

The so-called Dima Yakovlev bill, named after one of the Russian children adopted by Americans who died in the States due to negligence or mistreatment by his new parents, was still awaiting its third and final reading when the press conference took place. Its main stated purpose was to ban further adoptions of Russian orphans by Americans. Subsequently, on Friday, the bill was passed overwhelmingly by the Russian State Duma. It had the backing of all Duma parties; only 7 Duma members voted against, and 1 abstained.  Such a show of unanimity is fairly rare and attests to the outrage of Russians of nearly all classes and political persuasions over what was deemed to be an intentional humiliation of the country dealt by the US Congress through the Magnitsky Act.

The Magnitsky Act has by now been so long in the US and international news that there is no need to explain here the logic of its promoters on Capitol Hill. Nor is there need to explain why it has been seen even by those Americans who dislike Mr. Putin and his allegedly authoritarian ‘regime’ as being peculiarly unbalanced in the way it picks on Russia alone and says nothing about the many countries around the world where egregious human rights abuses are known to take place. The Magnitsky Act was passed at the moment when the US Congress lifted the Jackson-Vanik restrictions on Russian trade, which are in violation of the WTO rules ever since Russia’s recent accession. The Act replaced one exceptional law vilifying and discrediting Russia with another. Full stop.

The questions at the press conference, both at the very start and repeatedly at it progressed, were intended to get the President to show his hand. And Putin was sufficiently skillful in avoiding being pinned down that media reporting on the press conference were themselves divided over what he had implied and what he was likely to do.

I believe he gave sufficient grounds for thinking he will sign the bill. I say this because he knocked away the principal argument which had been raised by Russian opponents of the Dima Yakovlev bill, that it would effectively worsen the fate of existing Russian adoptees in the States, since it would cancel an agreement which had been reached with the U.S. State Department allowing Russian consular officials to officially look after their interests on the ground in cases of reported abuses.  Putin explained at length how the agreement had proven ineffective because only local state laws applied in adoption cases and the federal agreement was not recognized by American state authorities, leaving the consular officials out of play.

But the greater impact of his remarks was how he used the issue to detail a severe and far-reaching criticism of the United States government and its policies towards Russia up and down the line. And he did so with a smile, remaining utterly calm and reasonable.

Putin pointed to the hypocrisy in US pro-democracy, pro-human rights campaigning given the country’s misconduct in Abu Ghraib, given the unending horrors of Guantanamo and the presumed ongoing violations of international law in its secret offshore CIA prisons. He denounced America’s attempts to impose its law and jurisdiction extraterritorially by acting as judge and jury on the Magnitsky case. Summing up, Putin declared that the Magnitsky Act was an unfriendly move against the Russian Federation and that if there were no Magnitsky case, the United States would have found some other pretext to discredit and punish the powers that be in Moscow. He left for himself the option not to sign the bill in case fine reading turned up some unacceptable contradiction with Russia’s obligations under international conventions, but stated clearly he supported the idea of banning adoption for Americans.

The question arose again in another form when the  journalist from the RIA Novosti news agency cited  former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin’s statement that the prevailing anti-American rhetoric in Russia was not good for the investment climate. Putin rose immediately to the challenge and used it to summarize in his blunt, idiomatic language his whole approach to relations with the States. Nowhere picked up by the international media, I believe this is worth quoting in full:

“We generally have no need for anti-American or any other anti-Western rhetoric….That is always harmful. But surely you and I, or maybe just I am a bad Christian: when someone strikes me on one cheek, I should present the other. However, I am not yet morally prepared for that. If they hit us, we have to respond, otherwise they will always keep on hitting us. Whether the response is appropriate or not is another matter. And the action against us was not provoked. They sit in their own problems up to their ears. I’ve already recounted them.  And they push them on us. That’s not right. We didn’t choose this. We didn’t provoke them, but they are provoking us.”

One other feature of the exchanges during the press conference which I wish to underline was Putin’s grasping the nettle of criticism from those members of the Opposition who were present in the hall among the journalists.  He responded by going to the heart of disaffection of the urban intelligentsia: its maximalism and willful ignorance of the ways of the world.  Time and again he called their attention to the much tougher, less cuddly way order is maintained in the United States.  In answer to one question from the hall about some Russian demonstrators who were arrested and charged with doing physical harm to police officers with the observation that in the States someone at a demonstration who assaulted an officer or merely took hands out his pockets inopportunely might expect to receive a bullet in forehead.  Why should it be different in Russia?

And when asked why he might sign the Dima Yakovlev bill just because it passed through the Duma, knowing that there was a significant part of the population opposed, he replied that no one had a problem with the President of the United States signing bills just because they were put on his desk by Congress.  Indeed, Putin’s logic is spot on: his fiercest critics from among the intelligentsia do not want to hear about the real world outside Russia’s borders.

With similar feistiness, Putin handled questions implying that he has been around for too long, that his much beloved guiding principle of ‘stability’ was turning into Brezhnev-style ‘stagnation.’  He insisted that stability was nothing more than an essential precondition for growth and development, that it was rightfully demanded by all investors in the country.

Finally, the flavor of the event comes out very well from an exchange between Putin and a supporter in the audience who complimented him on his seeming good health, asking why there had been rumors he was seriously ill.  The President shot back that his opponents saw advantage in spreading such rumors because they were trying to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the government, on its ability to act. His challenge to them:  ‘don’t hold your breath.’

 * * * *

The least exciting of Vladimir Putin’s three major public appearances in December 2012 was precisely the first, his annual address to a joint session of the houses of parliament. Here, apart from one pause in response to untimely applause from the audience, there was no opportunity for his spontaneity and talent for repartee to show through.

Most of the speech was uninspired. As he said at the outset, he had already expounded his policy priorities for the six years to come in great detail in the 150 or so pages of pre-electoral manifestos.

 In part, he used the address to rise above politics and deal with spiritual values and national identity. He cited two philosophers, perhaps to demonstrate that his intellectual interests go well beyond the here and now.  Neither quotation was significant in and of itself. Instead they are pointers to the inspiration for his vision of Russian identity.  One was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who from his return to exile until his death had become a prophet of Russia’s phoenix-like return from Communism and chaos to its national roots.  The second was Lev Gumilev, the historian and poet, who many Russians know only as the son of national poetess Anna Akhmatova, while a small circle of followers know him for his bizarre Eurasianist thinking which promotes a kind of Russian exceptionalism borne of its geographic situation and the elan of its people.

However, Putin passed on quickly to another source of national pride, the country’s thousand year history. As on previous occasions, Putin sought to mine this history for unifying themes. This time he rolled out a proposal to build bridges to the past which Russia’s revolutions and social tumult have rent apart. Specifically he called for building a memorial to the country’s heroes from WWI on whose memory the Bolsheviks and their followers had spat for most of the 20th century.

In his address, Putin cited many numbers highlighting the great improvements in national prosperity over the past decade when he has been the leading political figure in the country. And he pointed with particular pride to successes on the demographic front, to the reversal of the unfavorable balance between natural births and deaths which set in during the 1990s when the country was shrinking by one million citizens a year. The rise in fertility and fall in mortality have been due not merely to greater wealth in the population at large but also to a number of targeted measures easing the financial burdens of households with two or more children.

Putin then used the demographic argument to call for reform of the country’s immigration laws so as to bring home Russian-speaking citizens of the former Soviet Union living outside the Federation, and to grant citizenship to the direct descendants of those who once lived in the Russian Empire.

However, it seems that Putin was badly advised on how to couch the last initiative, because he went on to say that anyone wishing to take the proffered passports and settle in Russia permanently would have to first renounce his or her present citizenship.  In effect, that very condition will kill off any hoped for influx of cultivated, worldly and successful members of the Russian-speaking community in the West.  Who in his right mind would give up a French or German passport, to name just two, for the sake of a forebear’s motherland? Instead, Mr. Putin’s initiative will only bring those very Kirghiz or Uzbek paupers to Russia’s door whom the country’s ultranationalists abhor. Putin would do well to take a closer look at how countries like Italy or Ireland or Israel have dealt with similar issues of tapping into their own respective diaspora.

Without looking further at the lengthy shopping list of objectives for the country which Putin mentioned in his hour and twenty minute speech, I will now go straight to core issue which constituted the day’s contribution to the nation’s political processes, his discussion of corruption and proposed new measures to combat it.

As I called out in the days leading up to the State Duma elections in the fall of 2011 corruption has been the Achilles heel of the governing United Russia Party. Corruption was the rallying call of the Opposition  December mass demonstrations in which they colorfully characterized the Putin ‘regime’ as run by a party of ‘crooks and thieves.’

In the several weeks leading up to Putin’s address of 12 December, there were a number of high level corruption-related removals of officials from office. Perhaps the most notable was the departure of Minister of Defense Serdyukov under a cloud of suspicion and far-reaching investigations into embezzlement and abuse of public trust by his entourage. Every evening state-run television carried reporting on millions of dollars lost to the Treasury from theft and procurement irregularities by high officials. This was given such prominent attention that even the government’s severest critics from the Opposition, like Yulia Latynina and Vladimir Ryzhkov have acknowledged in their latest publications that something was afoot, even as they disparaged great expectations of a clean-up.

Vladimir Putin used his address to the nation to move beyond finger-pointing and witch hunts to systemic measures to combat endemic corruption which, with some wry amusement, he traced straight back in Russian history to the times of Peter the Great and his rapacious, self-aggrandizing reformers.

What Putin rolled out is a set of guiding principles for the fight on corruption which appear to be driven by common sense and feasibility, rather than the pure emotion that has prevailed till now in public discussion of the issue. Among the most interesting points is a ban on ownership of bank accounts and paper assets abroad by high government officials in the administration, as well as parliamentarians; and the requirement that all real estate owned abroad be made public together with the origin of funds used for its acquisition. The legislation necessary to implement these policies is already passing through the Duma, where it carries the additional stamp of patriotism. 

The art of taking two birds with one stone was also demonstrated in a closely related proposal to raise new taxes to cover the government’s ambitious social programs and development measures by introducing taxes on conspicuous consumption, namely directed against luxury real estate and high-end cars.

All of these measures are doable in the very near future. What we shall see, very soon, is how effectively they are enforced and change the behavior of Russia’s elites for the better.

In closing, I draw attention to one other initiative which Putin introduced under the banner of patriotism. The President permitted himself to describe this by a neologism, ‘de-offshorization.’  By this he meant repatriating Russian capital from offshore tax havens, for the sake of increased domestic development and augmented tax revenues.

Here again, despite the populist dimension of the issue, Putin’s approach was eminently pragmatic and long-term in its view, rising above day to day politics. He insisted that the objective is achievable only in the context of improvements to Russian commercial law and the judicial system ensuring that Russian jurisdiction is perceived by business interests as capable of safeguarding property rights and the sanctity of contracts. That is no mean task, and it will be interesting to see in the next couple of years how far Vladimir Vladimirovich and his team can go to realize their ambitions.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2012


G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book,Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. An e-book edition will be issued shortly.