Today, after waiting for as long as possible, President Putin finally addressed the Russian people on the topic of pension reform and presented his own take of this matter. When the lazy clowns who run the Russian presidential website finally are done translating the full text, it will appear here: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/58405. You can also check a good summary made by RT here: https://www.rt.com/politics/437112-putin-on-changes-in-russian/. My purpose today is not to comment on the substance of what Putin said, but on the political dimension of his move.
First, his speech was nothing short of brilliant. Putin readily admitted that this was a very controversial topic and that his own views on the matter have changed because the Russian economy has evolved and also fundamentally changed. By saying this he skillfully deflected the criticism that he has flip-flopped on this issue.
Second, Putin did say that while the proposed reform was controversial, opposition parties did seize this opportunity to score points. Putin had to say that because all the political parties in the Duma rejected this proposal and asked for a referendum or the resignation of the Medvedev government. Only “United Russia” (minus one person) voted for this project and it appears that the majority of the Russian people also opposed it. This is why Putin also added that there were some constructive proposals which should be adopted in the final law. In other words, Putin did not appear to “backtrack” or “make concessions”, but he did show his willingness to listen to the opposition and the Russian people.
Third, Putin did offer some concessions/amendments which ought to address, at least to some degree, some of the concerns of those opposed to this project. Most importantly, Putin did say that other options had been considered, but that this was the only realistic and responsible one. Putin thus placed the responsibility to come up with a better plan on the opposition and indicated that no such plan would work.
All this is very important because for the first time since 1993 the Russian President is facing not a fake “court” opposition or some agents of influence paid for by the Empire, but a real and patriotic opposition which supports Putin but not Medvedev and his government. Up until this summer, the Duma opposition parties were, frankly, mostly “pretend opposition” parties who did not really matter, but with the controversy over pension reform this has now changed this and Putin has skillfully adapted to the situation: he succeeded in striking a very precise balance between appearing to be in full agreement with the Medvedev government and caving in to opposition demands. By addressing the Russian people directly and by appealing to their understanding for what are admittedly tough choices Putin has, yet again, successfully managed to use his immense personal political capital to extricate himself from a potentially dangerous (in political terms) situation.
It will be interesting to observe in the next days and week how the main leaders of the opposition chose to respond to Putin’s message. My feeling is that they will have to tone down the vehemence of their criticism lest they come across as engaging in petty politics for purely political games. On substance, however, the problem remains far from solved and there is a very real possibility that Putin and, even more so, Medvedev will have to offer further concessions.