Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference didn’t bring any surprises. In fact, it disappointed some journalists and experts because Putin has not been able to articulate how his policies will resolve urgent problems.
President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow on Dec. 23. Photo: AP
On Dec. 23 Russian President Vladimir Putin held his 12th annual press conference to discuss with journalists the nation’s domestic and foreign policy challenges. Because of the tragic events in Ankara — the assassination of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov — the conference was postponed: The president himself attended the funeral ceremony.
Today the most important question for Russians is when (and if) Putin will announce his intention to run for the presidency in 2018. When asked about it by a journalist, the president preferred to be as evasive as possible and didn’t give a definitive answer. What he said is just that it is necessary to take into account his previous expertise and look into new opportunities.
In the realm of international politics, Putin was more careful and diplomatic than previously. When asked about the future of Russia-EU relations, the possibility of dialogue and common challenges, the Russian president said that he needs a very reliable partner in negotiations and the Kremlin is not going to interfere in the domestic policy of European countries. Russia has genuine interest in a strong, reliable and independent Europe, he added.
Putin was cautious when speaking about U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. “My real hope is for us to build business-like and constructive relations with the new President … , because this is in the interests of both countries and peoples,” he said.
Likewise, Putin express readiness to maintain a robust dialogue and cooperation with China. And this, according to him, “will be more than just a strategic partnership.”
The Russian President also had to respond to the question about the country’s domestic challenges, including the ongoing economic stagnation. Oddly enough he remained optimistic. Regardless of the contraction of Russia’s GDP in 2016, it was not as large as expected, he said.
“Last year, Russia’s GDP, which is the key indicator, dropped 3.7 percent,” Putin clarified. “This year GDP also declined, but we are not talking about a contraction of this magnitude any more. Initially we believed that the GDP would fall by about 1 percent, but this figure was later adjusted to 0.7 percent and then again to 0.6 percent.”
Putin also pointed out to “a record low inflation rate” in comparison with the previous year. “The previous lowest inflation rate — 6.1 percent — was reported in 2011,” he said. “It will be below 6 percent this year. We had thought it would be around 5.7 or 5.8 percent, but it will be most likely around 5.5 percent.”
However, the President admitted that the situation with Russia’s budget is a bit worse. It was 2.6 percent of GDP last year, yet in 2016 “it will be slightly larger.”
“The figure for the first 10 months is 2.4 percent, but the year-end figure will be 3.7 percent,” he said. “I believe that it is an acceptable figure, in part because we have a foreign trade surplus of over $70 billion. We have maintained our reserves.”
Regardless of Putin’s cautious style during the annual press conference, experts and journalists were not satisfied with the President’s answers and pledges. One of the journalists asked why Putin has consistently been unable to solve the country’s domestic challenges throughout his presidential tenure despite his constant pledges to cope with them. In a nutshell, Putin’s response added up to a well-prepared phrase: “We have a very big and sophisticated country.”
The president also failed to make specific and definitive statements, which could clearly account for the current challenges, according to Pavel Salin, the director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation.
“In fact, Putin repeated his early December address to the Federal Assembly,” the expert told Russia Direct. “The questions are general, with him giving neutral answers. He just talked with a different audience.”
However, despite this, Putin’s press conference did have a sort of intrigue, Salin believes. For the first time in three years, the country’s domestic agenda dominated the foreign one. It might be seen as a signal to Russia’s political elites to stop their cutthroat rivalry for a better place under the sun and give up attacks on the country’s liberals, the pundit speculates.
Last year the agenda was primarily dedicated to Russia’s foreign policy and it was much tougher, more general and straightforward. And when Putin had to face specific and concrete challenges and answers, he failed to provide coherent and relevant answers, Salin believes.
He argues that Russia’s previous agenda is already outdated and badly needs to be modified. And there is no clear understanding what kind of agenda should replace the previous one.
“The current international agenda became obsolete, with domestic challenges remaining unresolved,” Salin added. “This is the feeling of being [politically] empty and this is dangerous, because if the authorities don’t offer a [coherent] agenda, the opposition will do it. It could lead to the loss of control over the informational space.”
Opposition politician and democratic activist Leonid Gozman agrees that Putin failed to provide convincing answers to the questions of journalists. “Everything was predictable and boring,” he told Russia Direct. “Obviously, it was orchestrated in its very nature. There were not even new signals or hints. Probably, the President is tired of this format. He has nothing special to say and he looks disinterested. He reached stability and is not going to persuade anyone anymore.”