A performance to forget

Every series gets tired after a certain number of seasons. Viewers get tired of the running jokes, the catchphrases, the predictable storylines, the hammy actors, especially if no new characters are introduced. Authors gradually stop caring: plot turns become boring, dialogues get less witty and sometimes embarrassing glitches appear on the show. Some series reach this point after only a couple of seasons, others last longer. At fourteen seasons, Russia’s favourite television show, “Direct line with Vladimir Putin” has done respectably well so far. But the disease of all TV series has finally got to it. It has become predictable, self-repeating, somewhat obsolete, faulty and, most of all, intensely boring. This tells a lot about the weaknesses of the Russian political system too.

Last Thursday, as I sat down to watch Vladimir Putin’s annual call-in marathon – a televised show, in which Putin answers carefully selected questions coming, ostensibly, from ordinary Russian citizens – I did not expect to hear anything honest or groundbreaking. The one thing I expected was to be entertained. Year after year, I join the same small circle of Russia-watchers on Twitter on the day of this quintessentially Putinesque tour de force and we rarely get bored, at least not before the third hour. But even then, the man of the hour – or rather, several hours – Vladimir Putin would suddenly come up with an offensive quip, an agricultural metaphor or a bold threat, to give us, and mostly Russians, something to talk about.

But this year, a little more than sixty minutes into the program, I caught myself yawning. I was bored.

Not that the program was not as staged as in previous years. If anything, it was even more carefully scripted. Putin would wander into the studio before the official start of the program to answer a call from a citizen in the Siberian city of Omsk who called to complain about potholes – only for an anchor to announce, barely an hour into the show, that, following Putin’s warning the local authority had started repairing roads. Or take the long conversation Putin had with a caller complaining about a hike in drug prices, allowing him to bash competition from foreign companies, an argument instantly supported by a pharmaceutical CEO who happened to be in the studio, displaying the worst stage fright someone with lines to remember can have.

But the bits that were supposed to be memorable were, in fact, reused. Putin was asked whether he would rescue Petro Poroshenko or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, if both were to drown, allowing Putin to make the quip that one could not save someone intent on drowning. But this joke was recycled: two years ago Putin answered a similar question, only the other way around, about Barack Obama who was then portrayed as Russia’s main public enemy. Video bits from the Crimea, two years after its annexation, were still used to remind Russians of Putin’s retaking, from Ukraine, a piece of land that has since then become the most heavily subsidised and yet one of the poorest regions of Russia. Again, the man paraded as the voice of reason within the Russian government, Putin’s ally, Alexey Kudrin was mentioned at the beginning of the show, and again, it was mentioned that Putin greatly valued his expertise and again, it was announced that he would take on a more important, if not a formal role in the Russian government. The same old record over and over again.

Actors were visibly tired and losing interest. Even in the leading roles. Vladimir Putin who had so far memorised statistics to be able to quote them on TV and pretend that he was down with the nuts and bolts of government policies, shuffled through papers to find exact figures – and quoted a lot of shamelessly fabricated ones. He got into long, meandering talks about policies that he could neither put into a broader context and a larger vision, nor make them easier to digest with witticisms. At one point, he tried to talk back to a pre-recorded video and had to be interrupted by one of the anchors.

And then there were the glitches. The Panama Papers needed to come up, but it was obvious that Putin wanted to use the program to show that Russian citizens were fully behind him and outraged by the slanderous accusations of the Suddeutsche Zeitung, which he pretended was owned by Goldman Sachs. It is difficult to imagine that, against this backdrop, the sudden appearance of a provocative and critical question about the leaks on the screen was planned. If it was a mistake, it was a humblingly embarrassing one.

Two things were shining through the facade of the show: an unwavering, grotesquely strong will to make the program as perfectly choreographed as possible; and a chronic lack of interest or capabilities to actually do so. It was a perfect epitome of today’s Russia, a country governed with gargantuan will but with less and less brains.

Losing focus

Many noted that foreign policy was almost entirely missing from the show this year. And when it was present, Putin was strangely mild on his opponents. While he did criticise Erdogan, he called Turkey Russia’s friend. He barely spoke about Russia’s military adventure in Syria. Instead, he spent most of the show’s 220 minutes playing the benevolent Tsar, solving the bread-and-butter issues of ordinary subjects who pleaded with him. Starting with the roads in Omsk, he then ordered companies to pay their employees, spoke about Russian dairy products and, as one of the anchors noted at the end of the show, started a series of criminal investigations.

Some suggested that this change of focus was due to the closeness of parliamentary elections in September this year, which required Putin to focus on domestic issues rather than on international politics. But I am not buying this explanation. As one sharp comment on Twitter noted, in order to sound interesting, Putin needs a global vision, a big narrative with noble goals, glorious deeds and hateful enemies; a story, in which he is cast as the positive hero. This need has been more accentuated than ever in his third presidential term, which, for the want of a strong economy, needed the return of Crimea, the Ukrainian war and anti-Westernism as its ideological cornerstones. If Putin suddenly changed focus to concentrate on domestic policies, it was not his choice: he wanted this election – and probably also 2018 – to be about foreign policy, to be about Crimea and Russia’s rebirth of a superpower.

In a country where millions sank into poverty in the past two years and where economic policy consists of an untouchable arms industry, a struggling oil industry holding on to an elusive deal with exporters, the mirage of Chinese investment and all the rest that is dispensable, there is not much encouraging to say about domestic policies. There are no domestic policies. And seemingly, there is now not much to say about Russia’s foreign policies, either. There is a Syrian campaign with very mixed and controversial results. There is the forgotten vision of Novorossiya. There are the sanctions. Oh, and there is the odd Crimean citizen who will find the silver lining even in power outages.

And this leaves Vladimir Putin looking little more than a call-center assistant. A very powerful one, perhaps, but one with limited resources, limited time and limited scope. And one whose promises sometimes turn out to be empty.

Becoming the bogeyman

What remained of Putin’s show by the time it reached its fourteenth season is a lacklustre version of ruchnoye upravlenie – that is, manual control – which is also excessively used. And not only on television.

Two weeks ago Putin announced the creation of the National Guard: a powerful paramilitary force bringing together and considerably strengthening the special police forces previously controlled by the Interior Ministry. The National Guard will be headed by Viktor Zolotov, Putin’s former body guard, a man who was previously rumoured to take over the Interior Ministry from Vladimir Kolokoltsev. But in the spirit of ruchnoye upravlenie, he will take over the ministry’s most valuable and most powerful law enforcement structured instead, while remaining subordinated directly to Putin. Mark Galeotti opined that the hasty and secretive way, in which the new structure was created suggested that Putin was increasingly worried about public unrest. It is hard to disagree with this interpretation, especially in an election year. Pyotr Zaikin, a security expert told Novaya Gazeta that the creation of the National Guard, by upsetting the previous arrangement of security forces, was also a means to pull the rug from under Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya who successfully bullied the Kremlin into granting him another term as president of the North Caucasus republic and into turning a blind eye to his aggressive statements and threats. This may also be true.

However, by creating the National Guard – a private army capable of taking on not only protesters and opposition politicians, but also potential enemies within the political elite – Putin also became a lot more similar to the Chechen leader. Kadyrov’s Chechnya is characterised by the extreme form of the same ruchnoye upravlenie that Putin displayed on his show: it has a leader who, due to generous subsidies from its supporters in Moscow, is able to personally deliver stability and welfare; who is able to crack down on anyone whom he chooses or needs to punish; and who is, at the same time, made himself practically irreplaceable by creating a personal army that follows his orders and that will stick to him. When and where a call to the factory manager is not enough, force is used. This is the path that Putin has taken. And this spells trouble for Russia.

It spells trouble, because just like the practice of manual control, weary performances and poor direction do not stop at the exit of TV studios. They characterise local politics in many Russian regions: in struggling single-industry towns, in ridiculously corrupt far-eastern districts where officials will steal roads if there is nothing left to be stolen, or in the dense waters of Moscow politics. The Russian website Znak recently published a report on the travesty of the United Russia “primaries” in the Moscow region, which summarises very well the incompetence, the uninterest and the arrogance bordering on violence that has become the very essence of Russian politics. And this incompetence, uninterest and arrogance is epitomised by most of the candidates who will lead United Russia’s regional lists in September.

This begs the question of whether the embarrassing glitches of Putin’s call-in show will also be repeated in September; and if yes, what the consequence will be.

The answer is that quite probably, there will be awkward mistakes. And it is also quite possible that there will be no earth-shattering consequences. But long series that have lost their entertainment value sometimes end awkwardly and abruptly. A useful thing to keep in mind if you choose to replace your policies with show business.

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