Tue, 18 May 2021

The Week In Russia: A Tale Of Two Countries

23 Apr 2021, 19:45 GMT+10

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President Vladimir Putin stuck to a familiar narrative of unity in his annual address, while crowds of protesters demanding imprisoned Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny's release told a different story. Doctors urged Navalny to end his hunger strike, saying it could soon lead to 'the saddest outcome.'

Russia said it will start pulling back troops from Crimea and the border with Ukraine, while revelations about explosions in 2014 have caused a huge rift in Moscow's ties with the Czech Republic.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

A Speech And Street Protests

Two Russias were on display outside the Kremlin on April 21: One eager for change; the other, according to critics of President Vladimir Putin, unwilling or unable to deliver it -- or both.

In his annual state-of-the-nation address, delivered to a jaded-looking, largely unmasked group of senior officials, lawmakers, and other figures from the ruling elite at an exhibition hall steps from the Kremlin wall, Putin did not even promise change this time, observers who parsed the 80-minute address said.

He promised a recovery from the coronavirus and its economic effects, cash payments for struggling citizens, more housing, roads, schools, and school buses -- but he did not promise any fundamental change or reform.

'What Putin did not do today -- and what he has not done for some time -- is offer Russians a vision of the future that looks like anything other than a continuation of the present,' Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, wrote in a Twitter thread focusing on Putin's spending promises.

'Perhaps most telling...is that Putin said nothing about the impact all of this would have on the economy overall: nothing about rising growth or incomes, nothing about the number of jobs created,' Greene wrote. 'Just the amount of homes built and money handed out.'

SEE ALSO: 'Red Lines' And Rosy Promises: Five Takeaways From Putin's State-Of-The-Nation Speech

Barring the unexpected, the prospects for fundamental political change are perhaps even dimmer than they are for economic reform, barring the unexpected.

The handouts may bolster the unpopular ruling party's results in September parliamentary elections seen as a test for Putin midway through his current term.

Buying Votes?

'Putin understood that the only way for him to mobilize his electorate is not with slogans, not with war, not with geopolitics, but with money: it's necessary to simply buy the voters, to hand them money, and that's the only way to provide...United Russia with votes,' political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov told Current Time.

The target date for fulfilling several of the pledges he made was 2024 - when Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, may be running for another six-year term.

Under constitutional changes he pushed through last year, Putin could still be president at this time in 2036, when millions of the children he cast in the speech as the focus of his efforts will be grownups.

The other Russia was in evidence when thousands of protesters gathered -- first in Far Eastern cities like Vladivostok as Putin was starting his speech, then later in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and about 100 other locations across the country -- to call for the release of Aleksei Navalny, an imprisoned Kremlin opponent whose health condition has worsened since he started a hunger strike on March 31.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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