As if it weren’t enough that politicians broke into applause more than 40 times during President Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the-nation address Thursday, many had nothing but praise as they filed out of the Kremlin’s Marble Hall.
Some lauded Putin’s promise to step down next year, while a minister said the president thinks about the nation’s welfare 24 hours a day.
“The main thing is he’s leaving,” said State Duma Deputy Alexei Mitrofanov, a leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, though he noted a certain melancholy. “It may be sad, but that’s part of our life.”
Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev said he respected Putin for “his courage and straightforward position.”
Trutnev added that he was confident that Putin spends all of his time making sure Russia is unsusceptible to economic downturns. “He thinks about that day and night,” he said.
With the opposition sidelined and independent media largely silenced under Putin, it is perhaps unsurprising that many officials appear to be merely yes-men, having seemingly recognized the need to toe the official line. Several lawmakers — most notably Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov — have called for a change in the Constitution to allow Putin to serve beyond 2008.
Independent Duma Deputy Gennady Seleznyov, however, was not one of them. Seleznyov, asked whether he thought a new leader should replace Putin, answered curtly, “I still think so.”
Although Putin reiterated that he would leave office, he did not hint as to who might succeed him. The two leading contenders, First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, sat next to each other as Putin spoke. Medvedev did not address reporters after the speech, while Ivanov basked in the spotlight of state-controlled television, often repeating Putin’s message word-for-word. Buttressing Putin on the need to urgently resolve the shortage of quality housing, Ivanov said “all of the social vices” in Russia, including widespread alcoholism, stemmed from the fact that people live in egregiously dilapidated buildings.
But not everyone thought Putin’s performance was flawless. One governor, who asked not to be identified, said Putin had been unwise to reveal his hand by saying the speech would be his last.
“A bit too early,” the governor said.
A lame duck president could prompt government officials and lawmakers to look for new masters to pledge their loyalty to, he said.
In an apparent effort to pre-empt exactly that, the Kremlin warned officials against slacking as Putin’s eight-year reign comes to an end. A source in the presidential administration told Interfax that just because Putin said another president would deliver the next address “doesn’t mean officials can relax.”
Putin began the speech with a moment of silence to commemorate his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who died Monday. Only Communist officials refused to stand in honor of Yeltsin, who dismantled the Soviet Union and broke the Communists’ grip on power.
With typical bombast, Liberal Democratic Party head Vladimir Zhirinovsky said he would make sure the Communists were eventually banned from the Duma for their insolence. “His body wasn’t even cold yet and they are saying in the Duma that a wooden stake should be driven through it,” Zhirinovsky said.
In a Freudian slip, Condi said it all:
In a slip of the tongue, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke Thursday of the “Soviet” nuclear arsenal even as she urged Russia to abandon Cold War thinking. “Let’s be real about this and realistic about this, the idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in Eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous and everybody knows it,” Rice told reporters before NATO talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Rice said Washington wanted to keep discussing the issue with Moscow based on a “realistic” assessment rather than “one that is grounded somehow in the ’80s.”
Russian officials and generals have revived Cold War language in criticizing the U.S. plan to install radar scanners in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland. Washington says the deployment is aimed at protecting Europe and North America from a growing threat of missile strike by North Korea or Iran. Moscow says the plan aims to target Russia’s strategic missile arsenal. The Russian rhetoric has unnerved some in Western Europe, who fear the negative impact on relations with the Kremlin may outweigh any benefits of the missile shield. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said he needed to hear more from the United States. “I remain to be convinced about the nature of the threats and the way to respond to them,” he told reporters after meeting Rice. NATO diplomats, however, said there was growing support for the U.S. plans among European governments. The missile debate was expected to dominate two days of talks among NATO foreign ministers, who will also focus on efforts to back up the alliance’s military mission in Afghanistan, and a split between Russia and Western powers over the future of Kosovo. Lavrov joined the talks after an opening session among the 26 NATO allies. A Soviet specialist, Rice served on the White House National Security Council from 1989 to March 1991, a period that included the fall of the Berlin Wall and the waning days of the Soviet Union.