Last Thursday at noon sharp the annual spectacle of “direct” communication between the Russian President Vladimir Putin and his subjects took place once again. The most impressive thing about the 4.5 h Q&A was the massive deja-vu effect it caused as it hardly differed from the similar events of the last 17 years.
An Opinion by Anastasia Vishnevskaya
Every year Mr. Putin sits down for an audience with the Russian people to talk about their troubles. Every year he promises economic growth, technological breakthroughs and a happy life in a brave new world soon. Ish. Every year he answers the questions for at least three and a half hours straight making the country wonder how a human being can spend so much time without using the bathroom.
This year’s dialogue featured all the usual suspects like young mothers hoping the school in their village would not be closed down, scientists asking for more support in their cutting-edge research, hard-core conservatives demanding to close down the oppositional “treasonous” media and women talking about how poorly equipped their local hospital is. Putin marvels, argues, mediates and most of the time makes promises to guarantee the problems will be solved. Though the scenario of the event was copy-pasted from the last years, there were a couple of things that were slightly different or new this time.
A tale of the good tsar and the bad boyars
The traditional picture of good tsar and bad boyars which is deeply rooted in Russian political culture has reached its peak this year. Putin commanded all the members of the cabinet and all the regional governors to stay in their offices during the entire “line” in order to be available and be able to reply to complaints communicated to him by the citizens. For 4.5 hours the entire leadership of the country had to fear to be held accountable for whatever is going wrong in their region or policy area.
Running contrary to the usual image of a responsible ruler who has got everything under control, Putin was delegating responsibility for the local grievances to the bureaucrats trying to protect his image from being connected to the worsening economic situation in Russia.
Not missing out on the YouTube hype
Another novelty was that the direct line was more interactive than in previous years. The event has traditionally been managed by the state television with crowds standing in the picture behind TV-moderators with mics all over the country. Though this traditional channel of communication remained, people were also able to call from their mobile phones or computers directly. Popular YouTube influencers were also collecting and retranslating questions from their audiences. None of them were sharp or attacking Putin’s policy in any way – all the question were carefully filtered and contained exactly as much criticism as agreed upon.
The inclusion of the bloggers however is telling, as state television has seen a dramatic decline in viewers with younger or more critically-minded people “migrating” to the internet, making YouTube blogging on political issues flourish. The fact that YouTubers were able to transmit their questions only through the means of good old television shows is the limits of the willingness of the ruling elites to engage with the people without filters and control mechanisms.
Trading sanctions for Syria
Content wise only a few things were interesting in this endless conversation. The unpopular reforms such as raising the retirement age will come – Putin did not even try to convince the audience of the opposite. He called claims that Russia helped Donald Trump win the election a “joke” and stressed on multiple occasions that Western economic sanctions are counterproductive and many actors in Europe are starting to realise this. Russia is always open for dialogue and aspires a fair deal with “our Western partners”. However, Putin very clearly stated what he is willing to trade for lifting the sanctions and what is out of question.
Crimea is a closed chapter. Freeing Oleg Sentsov is currently not an option – the president talked with visible disgust about the political prisoner. Though he reiterated that Ukrainians and Russians are “the same nation” and promised support for rebellious “republics” in Eastern Ukraine, the only tangible offer he made to the Eastern Ukrainians was easy access to Russian citizenship; obviously this project is bothering him more and more.
And although Russia remains present in Syria, it does not intent to build solid military bases there, so that it “could withdraw anytime without significant material losses”. He would therefore probably be willing to withdraw from Ukraine and Syria if sanctions were to be lifted, but Europeans would have to tolerate the annexation of Crimea and the deteriorating situation with human rights in Russia. It is hard to tell if Putin seriously thinks that this is an acceptable deal for the West or consciously makes an unacceptable offer.
Putin is trying to increase his public presence and get out of the isolation of the last years. Normally very reluctant to public appearances, he made three big interviews within the last two weeks – an interview with the Austrian channel ORF, the direct line and a big interview with a Chinese media outlet. He visibly enjoyed the last one most.
Putin desperately wants to go back to the mid-2000s when he was received as a strong and reasonable leader in the West. Additionally, Russia badly needs Western investment. Now it’s up to the Europeans to accept the deal he offers, or not.
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