While the recent call-in show with Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t offer any big surprises, his answers suggest there are three important problems – the country’s economic situation, bureaucratic corruption and the plight of the Russian opposition – worth monitoring over the coming months.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during his annual call-in show in Moscow on Apr. 14. Photo: AP
For a very different take read: "Putin's 'Direct Line' was surprising for how unsurprising it was"
This year’s “Direct Line” call-in show with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which took place on Apr. 14, didn’t offer any real surprises. It was the 14th time that he has responded to questions from the Russian people over a period lasting several hours.
This year, President Putin received several million questions, and responded to 80 of them. However, no matter how predictable Putin was with his yes-or-no answers and his well-prepared phrases, he is clearly the man at the helm with a great deal of power.
As in the past, TV viewers, journalists and pundits attempted to pick up signals or clues not only from Putin’s answers, but also from his intonations, gestures and body language. Many viewers still see him as sort of a “benevolent tsar,” believing that he can resolve any problems with just one gesture of his hand. Nevertheless, the “Direct Line” with the Russian President revealed three important problems to monitor over the coming months where Putin’s power may have its limits.
Russia’s domestic problems
First, the most interesting aspect of Putin’s call-in show was the fact that he switched from long monologues to short, direct answers. However, this was hardly likely to have been orchestrated in advance: the President responded briefly just because he was too reluctant to give long explanations to most of the problems. Before the economic crisis, Putin was more verbose when answering questions during “Direct Line” shows. Usually, he was confident and pledged to make budget allocations to resolve different problems.
However, today there are a lot of unresolved and urgent challenges. But the President has nothing to do except express his regrets and hope for the best. What he can propose in the current situation is just patience.
This is how he would like to deal with inflation, bad roads and infrastructure, the deteriorating investment climate and other problems. Of course, even “the world’s most influential man,” as he is described by some media, is not happy to admit that his capability to resolve Russia’s domestic challenges is flawed despite all his efforts to strengthen the vertical of power within the country and establish control over all spheres of public and political life.
The Panama Papers
The second interesting aspect of the “Direct Line” was Putin’s answers about the controversial Panama Papers, the documents that revealed possible fraud, corruption, and dubious offshore deals within the highest ranks of the Russian political leadership, including Putin’s inner circle.
In particular, the Russian President said the controversial revelations came from German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which, according to him, is owned by Goldman Sachs, an American multinational investment bank. Based on these allegations, Putin suggested an entire theory about the behind-the-scenes involvement of the U.S. in the publication of the Panama Papers. According to such logic, the Panama Papers are just another anti-Russian campaign prepared by the U.S.
The next day, however, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov had to apologize to Süddeutsche Zeitung, which is not related to Goldman Sachs at all and, in fact, didn’t play the leading role in the publication of the Panama Papers [in reality, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists verified the documents after Süddeutsche Zeitung‘s request – Editor’s note].
Peskov explains the awkward mistake with the fact that Putin received the wrong information before the “Direct Line” show. However, if the information is wrong, does it mean that the Kremlin will dismiss the whole conspiracy theory about the so-called anti-Russian plot? Or will it try to find new, more persuasive arguments? It remains to be seen."
Another example of how Putin's "Direct Line" responses revealed inconsistencies in the Kremlin's rhetoric is when the Russian President, unexpectedly, acknowledged that the Panama Papers were "trustworthy." But previously his spokesperson questioned the reliability of the documents several times and said that the Kremlin "was disappointed" with the quality of the Panama Papers investigation.
The Russian opposition
Third, Putin’s “Direct Line” sent conflicting signals about the future of the nation’s liberal opposition.
On the one hand, Putin slightly criticized Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who identifies himself as a guard against the so-called “fifth column” [In early 2016 he made very inflammatory comments about the opposition and identified them as enemies of the people — Editor’s note]. The Russian President also acknowledged that well-known liberal economist and former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin might soon work on a new economic strategy, a roadmap of how to tackle the current crisis.
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On the other hand, some controversial moves from the Russian authorities discouraged the liberal opposition on the same day: While Putin was discussing in detail Kadyrov’s responsibility before the people and opposition during the call-in show, law enforcement officers were conducting searches in the office of the ONEXIM Group company belonging to billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the RBK media holding, which is well-known for its consistent criticism toward the Kremlin.
At the same time, on the eve of this year’s “Direct Line,” the authorities detained Anton Tyurishev, a construction worker in the Far Eastern city of Ussuriysk at the Vostochny Cosmodome, who planned to organize a protest during the call-in marathon, according to Russia’s liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Tyurishev wanted to ask a question about Putin’s pledges last year to take under his personal control the problem of delayed salaries at the Vostochny Cosmodrome. The salaries still haven’t been paid, and the construction worker was taken into custody for five days.
At the time when no new crises are breaking out in the international arena, President Putin is forced to shift his focus to domestic problems. Yet, he seems to be less comfortable in dealing with domestic policy challenges than with foreign policy ones. Within the country he is more conservative. He aims at securing the status quo and allows his advisors and certain governmental agencies to take the initiative.
The question, of course, is whether the challenges that have resulted from the protracted crisis will drive the Kremlin to act and come up with a new development strategy, or whether that burden will simply be shifted to others.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.