NY Dispatches: Putin’s call-in show

Vladimir Putin held his annual call-in show yesterday. Don’t worry if you did not have four hours to watch it: it was not worth it. Below are some of the takeaways from a show that has gradually become less interesting in recent years.

The “Direct Line”, as the show is known in Russia, has been a defining fixture of Putin’s presidencies. The seemingly indefatigable president is sitting on a podium encircled by a carefully selected audience, answers carefully curated questions from journalists and ordinary citizens across Russia who join the show through a video link. Putin cracks jokes, recites a vast number of figures without a visual aid, showcasing his memory, solves problems live on air and berates “lazy” officials.

However, reflecting the changes that the role of the Russian president in domestic politics has undergone in recent years as Putin has increasingly revoked himself from domestic politics to focus on his grand vision, the show has become less and less spectacular and started to look more and more like an idealized but obviously fake version of a standard working day. This year’s show, a little over four hours long, was not different.

First, Putin was more risk-averse than ever. I readily believe that the president is preoccupied with regional elections in September, including key votes in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but these barely came up in the show. It is possible that Putin is hedging against an embarrassment. Last year, the presidential endorsement of an incumbent governor famously failed to ensure his electoral victory in the Primorsky Krai where the governing United Russia party ran into an embarrassing defeat. Some risky questions made their way onto the screen in the form of texts – including one that inquired when the president will “finally leave”, this was not a novelty; it has happened in past years too. This time, Putin picked a less risky question of these to answer – one about United Russia – to demonstrate that he was not dodging unpleasant questions, but otherwise he was steering clear of risky topics.

Putin’s main message was that the president knows that things aren’t going well for a lot of Russians – who have faced a steady decrease of real wages and worsening public services in recent years – but they should bear with Putin, because he is still the only leader who can stop the situation from becoming much worse. This is not a lot to say and if the president’s falling trust rating is anything to go by, less and less people believe it, even if a critical mass of people has so far not expressed this disbelief.

On the other hand, Putin does not want actively to reengage with domestic policy. The situation would improve, he suggested, only if Russians became more productive and if ministers duly implemented his “national projects” – a six-year spending plan amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars –, for which they are personally responsible.

Putin also signaled that he will – or cannot help but – tolerate growing criticism of the authorities, as long as it is not directed at him. However, he added that people should count on the state giving up legal means to crack down on dissent, e.g. on a relaxation of drug laws following the botched incrimination of Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist (whose name, in his trademark pettiness, Putin did not say). This suggests that a series of easings and crackdowns can be expected, as in Golunov’s case who was set free following an unprecedented show of solidarity, but with police cracking down harshly on a protest organized in support of jailed journalists on 12 June. You are welcome to take to the streets to achieve something concrete and limited in scope, but not if your goal is a possibly unmanageable systemic shift.

Putin also warned law enforcement, security services and the elites overseeing them that Golunov-style overreaches are not OK. I am sure that interior minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev and Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin squirmed a little, but it will be interesting to see if the siloviki, Russia’s security elite, heed the warning in the longer term, especially since, as Mark Galeotti pointed out in a recent op-ed, the security services seemingly hold a dangerously growing sway over the president.

Finally, I was personally happy to see that Putin’s thoughts on the process of waste collection – an issue that had to make it onto the show, given the various protests in the past year – were eerily similar to the ones expressed by my fake Vladislav Surkov op-ed a couple of months ago. I wonder what this portends.

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