There were few surprises in this year’s “Direct Line” with President Vladimir Putin. Foreign policy issues took up little of the agenda, as Russia’s citizens appeared much more concerned with economic and social issues and a return to stability and consistency.
Journalists watch TV a Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual call-in show in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 14, 2016. Photo: AP
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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Apr. 14 “Direct Line” call-in show with the Russian people was shorter than usual this year. And, unlike previous years, there was little of the anti-Western rhetoric or willingness to challenge the West on foreign policy issues. Instead of questions about Ukraine or Syria, there were questions about roads, economic inflation and salary payments. In fact, perhaps the most noteworthy feature of this year’s “Direct Line” was the abundance of questions from children.
In general, Putin’s answers this year were rather reluctant – he demonstrated no enthusiasm, even when it concerned his favorite topics on the international agenda. Moreover, in most cases it seemed that he tried to avoid specifics, using stock answers such as, “We will think about it,” or “The government will try to figure out something.” This style represents a departure from the “hotline format” of previous years, when the Russian President was very specific and decisive, suggesting pragmatic solutions and clear formulas.
Foreign policy was not much on the agenda and covered no more than 10 percent of all questions. The Russian public is much more concerned about the economy and social issues, about everyday life with its poor roads, delays in salary payments, lack of jobs and growing prices for food. When asked about Russia’s policy toward the U.S. and Russian-American relations, Putin said that Russia should focus more on dealing with domestic problems, not with the United States. This is probably a good sign for U.S-Russia relations.
On the global arena, tensions are low as well, so there was no need for belligerent rhetoric or responses to information warfare attacks. “Everything is calm in Baghdad,” as it was said in one of the Aladdin movies, and this serenity makes life much duller for the Russian President, whose focus in the last two years during the “Direct Line” show was on facing external challenges.
Regarding the international foreign policy agenda, Putin told us nothing new. In fact, he repeated the mantras about Russia’s desire to develop equal relationship with all nations, including the United States. He demonstrated no aggression or assertiveness toward the West. Once again, he called U.S. President Barack Obama an honest man in response to a question about Washington admitting its mistakes in Libya. At the same time, he reiterated that the experience in Libya failed to prevent the U.S. from committing the same mistakes in Syria.
Regarding sanctions, Putin expressed no optimism about lifting them and admitted that they would probably stay for a long time, if not forever. He emphasized that Russia has no enemies despite the warnings of some Western politicians that the Kremlin poses a threat to Europe. According to Putin, this rhetoric will only negatively affect bilateral cooperation with the U.S. and Europe.
Some of the questions dealt with Russia’s “Near Abroad” – the geographic zone of Russia’s immediate interests along its borders. Putin’s response on Nagorno-Karabakh was predictable – Moscow will continue to impose peace and encourage Armenia and Azerbaijan to participate in the negotiating process.
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At the same time, Putin sounds less optimistic about one of his favorite economic projects: the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). On the one hand, the EEU is likely to become a fact of life, just another routine institution. In fact, the President mentioned different regulations of the EEU several times.
On the other hand, he was extremely cautious about the future of this integration project. Moscow is trying to understand the mistakes of the European Union and does not want to impose a single currency for the countries that are part of the EEU.
With most of the call-in agenda having been a sort of political routine, the real intrigue concerned Ukraine. Putin’s tone has changed: now he sees Ukraine as a burden for the Russian leadership. In fact, the President reiterated the need for building a prosperous Ukraine and expressed his regrets about the economy of the country ruined by the war in Donbas and the rivalry between local oligarchs. At the same time, Putin expressed his doubts about the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. He called it nonsense, which has nothing to do with accelerating economic growth and establishing democracy, at least in Ukraine.
This indicates that he remains intransigent on key political problems. It is becoming evident for both Russia and for the Western powers that the Minsk agreements are not being fulfilled due to the faults of the Ukrainian side. In Kiev, there is simply an inability to amend the Ukrainian constitution for domestic political reasons.
Therefore, Moscow is trying to freeze the zone of conflict. Putin views favorably the alleged proposal by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to strengthen the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at the front line and turn members of this organization into real peacekeepers. The issue of peacekeeping has been tackled for nearly two years now and this is the first time that Moscow has openly reacted to it in an affirmative manner.
Putin’s “Direct Line” has become more and more of a ritual rather than a practical political instrument of collecting feedback, demonstrating power and clarifying Russia’s positions. This could mark a return to stability. This new political equilibrium is all about showing that everything is almost back to normal. As a result, President Putin appears to be confident in a more stable future for domestic policy and foreign affairs.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.