On April 9, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin spoke in Novosibirsk at the first of eight planned United Russia conferences in the regions. This might have marked the beginning of the party’s campaign for the State Duma elections in 2011, as well as the start of Putin’s own bid for the 2012 presidential race. Putin devoted his talk to the development of a strategy for the social and economic development of every region of Russia.

Putin’s plan for the regions is neither an analysis of their problems nor a proposal for solving them. On the contrary, Putin generally avoids referring to specific problems, and even when he does mention them he prefers to talk about outdated problems from the Soviet era.

Putin’s new “strategic plan” is an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of “Strategy 2020,” a vague and often utopian plan that was reminiscent of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s five-year and 10-year plans. Unfortunately, the differences between all of these plans are hard to discern.

The new plan lacks a common logic, and several parts come off as nothing more than empty rhetoric. According to Putin’s approach, regional development should be based on the following principles:

  1. All results should be evaluated according to whether they improve people’s lives.
  2. Solving one problem should not create new ones.
  3. Each region needs to find its competitive advantage.
  4. An effective and integrated system of management for the Regional Development Ministry needs to be created.

Putin’s plan also demonstrates his shift from operating on the sidelines of United Russia to assuming the role of a full-fledged party leader. “United Russia always puts the everyday needs of the people at the center of its work,” Putin said, “and we have no plans of deviating from these principles.”

United Russia is positioning itself as the force “with the necessary organizational, intellectual and political resources,” Putin said,  to address large-scale, national problems and claims to be ready to answer before the country for carrying out its stated plans. It now faces the task of consolidating academic, business and nongovernmental organizations. But it would be better if United Russia began by putting more thought into preparing the proposals it presents to the public. For now, however, the party is only managing to demonstrate its complete incompetence. The authorities are unable to accomplish anything substantial and cannot even properly formulate their goals.

It is good that some form of conversation on strategic planning has started, but the problem is that it is only a monologue by the ruling elite. The authorities remain unprepared to engage in a meaningful discussion — or at least to provide answers to difficult questions.

Only time will tell if the authorities are ready to listen to questions, identify problems and look for solutions. At this point, the plan put forward by the “national leader” is not commensurate with the scope and complexity of the problems facing the country. More important, it is crucial that Putin’s Novosibirsk speech marks the start and not the end of the discussion.

This article originally appeared in The Moscow Times.