Russian President Putin appeared on top of his game as he fielded questions from across Russia in his annual Q&A event which focused on concerns about the economy, as Gilbert Doctorow describes.
By Gilbert Doctorow
Anyone watching Russian state television in the past weeks would have been keenly aware that Thursday was D-day, the day of the annual marathon Q&A session of President Vladimir Putin with the nation. Russians were advised not only how to dial in on the usual land lines, but how to direct their video calls, send SMS or MMS, write in by email.
The only instructions missing were for acquiring seats in the auditorium which were evidently allocated by the presidential administration following its own notion of distribution by profession and industrial sector. Millions of questions and opinions were sent in ahead of the show. The operators during the show indicated that there were tens of thousands of live attempts to get a word to the President as he spoke.
Thursday’s show was clocked at something more than three hours. A year ago it was well over four hours. But the difference then and now went well outside any question of volumes of questions or time spent with Vladimir Putin on air. The whole exercise was far better choreographed and more impressive technically.
Just as Putin has recently taken to using teleprompters from time to time to achieve a more polished effect, so the Q&A today was more corporate in format and finish than in preceding years. Corporate means firstly no surprises.
The audience in the auditorium was better dressed and better behaved than in years past. We had no loudmouths like Ksenia Sobchak a couple of years ago using their invitations to sound off against the Putin regime.
The one easily identifiable critic from a Moscow radio station who was given the microphone was restrained and posed his question in rather oblique language: in plain text he was asking about the branding of the opposition as traitors by Chechnya boss Ramzan Kadyrov. And he nodded assent, when Vladimir Putin diplomatically reminded him of where Kadyrov came from, what his life path had been, and urged that his verbal outbursts not be given undue weight.
The well-behaved and well-turned out audience this time held no banners and wore no funny hats to draw the President’s attention to the outlying regions from which they had come for this event. Instead, television crews were prepositioned in Tomsk, on the Kerch bridge construction site of the Crimea, on Sakhalin, and one or two other remote sites. The provincials were well-vetted and stuck to business-like questions, instead of the traditional appeals to the President to visit them and share some dumplings over lunch.
Putin was visibly relaxed, though as always he was exceedingly well prepared with statistics on the tip of his tongue, able to answer questions about every imaginable aspect of government policy, economic forecasts, the international political situation. At the same time, his sense of humor and amusing use of Russian folk terms livened up what could otherwise be a dull session.
One outstanding example was his answer to a query from a nine-year-old as to whether he had been forced to eat hot cereal (kasha) as a child and whether his view of kasha had changed over time. He explained that “no” he had never been forced to do anything against his wishes as a child, that he always had liked kasha and had eaten it for breakfast today. Then he closed this out with the remark that, yes, his view of kasha had changed with the years, for the better: “As you get older and have fewer teeth, you enjoy kasha all the more.”
With similar aplomb Putin responded to a question about the cellist Sergei Roldugin, a friend whose name came up in Western media coverage of Russians having offshore accounts per the Panama Papers. In the past week, Putin directly defended Roldugin against harsh innuendo from foreign critics of Russia.
Then Russian state television in its weekly wrap-up broadcast on Sunday evening, Vesti nedeli, broadcast a feature interview with Roldugin to show what Roldugin’s “business activities” on- and off-shore have been all about: funding the purchase of rare Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Century violins, cellos and other instruments abroad and making them available to young Russian virtuosos.
In his Q&A remarks, Putin on Thursday took a lighter tone and retold how a journalist’s account of a recent concert appearance of Roldugin mentioned that the maestro was playing some “second-hand” instrument, his slang term generally identified with flea markets.
The questions for the most part were about domestic issues like the cost of living generally and inflation in food products in particular ever since the imposition of the Russian embargo in response to Western sanctions. Other typical subjects were the scarcity of cheap generic Russian drugs in pharmacies and the problem of monthly housing unit management costs that have far outpaced family income.
On the economic front Putin was cautiously optimistic, predicting a small 0.3 percent contraction this year and resumed growth from early 2017. This was the one nugget that The Financial Times has just seized upon to headline its coverage of the Q&A, thin pickings though it may be. (Western economic estimates predict a greater drop in Russia’s GNP in 2016 and are less bullish about 2017.)
One could just as easily have featured Putin’s assurances to a Russian dairy farmer concerned over how he could repay the loans he has taken to expand production if the sanctions end and the Russian counter-sanctions are dropped, as WTO rules require. Said Putin, I don’t think the sanctions are likely to be lifted any time soon, so don’t worry.
International affairs occupied a very small part of the Q&A session, and the very few controversial questions posed were deftly and diplomatically dispatched by the President. Thus, he dodged completely the request to identify which American presidential candidate, Clinton or Trump, was less threatening to Russia.
Instead, Putin chose to highlight the positive and to reiterate that Russia is ready to cooperate with all who treat it with respect and equality. And he stressed that in some areas even today Russia and the United States cooperate constructively, in particular on non-proliferation and the Iran nuclear issue.
Though the Q&A session this year was more corporate in style, the distinctive nature of the event that dominated past editions and which always made it hard for Westerners to comprehend, was not entirely absent. That essence is the traditional petition of the people to the Tsar for redress of abuses by local potentates, whether corrupt regional officials or thieving company bosses.
Thus, we heard from one auto industry worker in the Urals that he and his comrades receive their salaries three months in arrears and only partially. Another petitioner asked whether the governor in his Siberian region now under criminal investigation would be given the prison term he deserves for his thievery. And the lady on the video line from Omsk who opened the Q&A spoke for a vast number of write-and call-ins who complained about the deplorable state of the roads now that the snow has melted and the potholes were simply shocking to see. If any subject has come down through the ages in Russia, it is surely roads.
Vladimir Putin has often been called a modern-day Tsar in Western media in what is meant to be a pejorative label for an authoritarian ruler. To the extent the Q&A raises the image of traditional Russian petitions and denunciations to the sovereign, we have to ask how Vladimir Putin, the elected President of Russia and head of state, measures up.
In a remarkable book entitled The End of Tsarist Russia, the widely respected British historian Dominic Lieven remarks that it was almost impossible for any man to live up to the expectations that the Russian people had of their Tsar. He said this to exculpate Nicholas II, whom history has judged very harshly.
In this context, I would note that if Putin is to be seen as a Tsar, his performance in the Q&A, just as his daily performance of his duties, day-in-and-day out, deserves the highest grades for intelligence, diligence, reserve, management skills and the rest. If he is a Tsar, a Tsar of this quality comes along once in 300 years.
Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? (August 2015) is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. © Gilbert Doctorow, 2016