Most of the recent commentary about Russia involves Putin's Annual Address to the Federal Assembly
Those who spent their time decrying 'bloody Putin's regime', do it again, featuring his characterization of the collapse of Soviet Union as 'the greatest catastrophe', and conveniently hiding most of the speech itself. However, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama.
is followed with That was precisely the period when the significant developments took place in Russia. Our society was generating not only the energy of self-preservation, but also the will for a new and free life.... ...They had to accomplish the most difficult task: how to safeguard their own values, not to squander undeniable achievements, and confirm the viability of Russian democracy. We had to find our own path in order to build a democratic, free and just society and state.
Other, pro-Russian opeds highlight such details as Putin quoting from Count Witte "The state does not so much create as add substance. The genuine creators are all the citizens themselves… The aim should be not to hinder independence, but to develop it and encourage it in every way"
and call it major pro-democracy, pro-free market speech. A CNN observer even told that, listening to his calls to repeal inheritance tax, he thought for a time that he was listening to Bush.
If one reads the whole speech, the latter point of view would be much closer to the reality. Indeed, it would be an excellent speech for a pro-market, democratic politician, probably aspiring for top jobs. Had any of the leading opposition candidates been able to produce something nearly as good, he would immediately have become a natural leader.
It was not, however, nearly as good as the address of the President of the Russian Federation now in his second term.
The obvious gap between Putin's fine speeches and not-so-fine deeds is now being spinned by pro-Kremlin pundits as a result of the meddling of bureaucracy, which takes to the heart only those signals from the top that suit its needs. Opposition, naturally, says it's just the centuries-old 'good tzar, evil boyars' spin designed to cover up for evil tzars. I think both views have some truth.
Indeed, some of the reforms promoted by Putin are being hindered by the same Putin. His judicial reforms, including the introduction of the trial by jury, are countered with his meddling in court process. Some examples of such breaches of the spirit of law are well-known in the West: scientists and military analysts convicted for espionage, and tycoons convicted for tax evasion by retrials, manipulations of jurors, dismissals of defendant-leaning juries, etc. Less known is that the same crude manipulations are being used in war crime cases. Colonel Budanov was acquitted, but government set a new trial, which convicted him. Captain Ullman was also acquitted, and now he is on retrial. Such blatant pressure on courts discredits judicial reforms. In Yeltsin's era courts (then mostly without juries) slowly gained trust, although this process was seriously hindered by corrupt judges. Now this fragile trust is broken.
On the other side, many cases are indeed of 'evil boyars' type. Putin has fought for small business rights for all his presidential tenure -- with very little success. "Boyars" in the bureaucracy are not even really evil. It is simply a case of ungovernability -- nobody can efficiently control such a vast territory as Russia.
Governors and regional elites ignore what Moscow tells them, but if something goes wrong and people become restless, they always blame the federal government. Putin, being tired of such irresponsible tricks, first tried to control governors using democratic means: he, being the most popular politician in Russia, could use his popularity to help friendly candidates. This scheme didn't work: those newly elected pro-Putin governors turned out to be as ungovernable as were their oppositional predecessors. More ungovernable, in fact: while Kremlin could argue and negotiate with the oppositional figures, nowadays all the governors are suck-ups, and say no bad word about Kremlin, preferring to silently ignore federal laws, regulations and governmental orders.
As a remedy, Putin wants the governors to be directly answerable to him, "a governor is selected by president from the panel of candidates belonging to the party which has the majority in the regional legislature". Western political establishment called this reform antidemocratical, but this is wrong: it is not more or less democratic than direct elections, but it is obviously less federalistic. What's worse is that it's like dousing the fire with oil. As a result, he will get even more subversive governors than he has got now.
Both Putin's own and his lackeys' subversion of the fine principles described in his numerous speeches makes him sometimes resembling Gorbachev of 1989-1991: he is almost as out of touch and almost as irrelevant as Gorby was. What's different is that Gorbachev was a communist. His constant talks about Lenin, about communist ideals, about socialistic choice of our grandfathers were met with such a big yawn because very few agreed with him, while most of the Russians basically agree with Putin. That's why he's still got some credit of trust. He talks well. Another diffence is that when Gorbachev's government ceased to be relevant to the real life, everything crashed. The system was Soviet, and it could not function without government. Now most of the society functions more or less well on its own. We lived through times when there was almost no government to speak of, so now we can live well with a very inefficient one.