Twice a year President Putin holds mass live Q-&-A sessions – one with journalists in December and another with “ordinary Russians” in April. The latter, which took place last week, is considered by the Kremlin to be like a large scale opinion poll, with more than 3 million questions addressed to the president being grouped by region and answered by governors (and carefully vetted beforehand). More than three hours long, the show is intended to reassure and entertain millions of Putin’s fellow countrymen at the expense of the elites who need to react immediately in course of the show not to incite the wrath of the president. Some of Putin’s ministers are present in a big studio along with celebrities and specially prepared guests, others watch the broadcast.
This year Putin’s live show took place in a Russia where the standard of living has fallen for the third year running, but also in a Russia that has just five months to go until the September parliamentary elections. There were two major themes in the Kremlin’s approach this year. Firstly, to say what Russians would like to hear, as a kind of psychotherapy; and secondly, to send positive signals about the future of Russia – to make everybody a little happier and address the concerns of various social groups. The televised interview spins former Finance Minister and well-known liberal Alexei Kudrin as a knowledgeable expert who may soon be back in government, while Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov is good and faithful, though a little wild. Both are commended in different ways in order to satisfy supporters across the political spectrum.
This tactic of embracing both extremes of the political spectrum is not meant to hide the problems Russia faces (runaway inflation, bad roads, wage arrears and so on), but rather to relativise the problems. And sometimes even turn them upside down by exposing them as blessings, for example, when a farmer was quoted as worrying that if Western sanctions are lifted, then cheap Western products might flood the market and lead to lower prices.
The major emphasis of the interview was on domestic problems this time, with Putin being less aggressive and emotional than usual. After all, there is nothing inspiring to be found in domestic politics or the economy. Putin has demonstrated limited optimism with regard to economic growth in the near future. If there were any mistakes made in the past year, he made it clear that this was down to regional leaders.
The regional dimension of the debate, in which residents from five Russian regions were able to ask questions, illustrates this point well. Questions were asked about the construction of the bridge from Russia to Crimea, about the fishery industry in the port of Sakhalin, the farming industry in the black earth heartland of Voronezh, student issues, and the military-industrial complex and so on. In each case, the idea was to touch on a typical problem which could also apply to other regions in Russia. Moreover, Moscow took the opportunity to send a signal to Japan over the disputed Kurile Islands with the question from Sakhalin on corruption and wage arrears on one of the islands. Before the live show had even finished airing, the presenter reported an immediate reaction to Putin’s orders; apparently a criminal investigation was to be opened and the next day the deputy Prosecutor General and Sakhalin governor went to Shikotan Island to investigate.
The major message in terms of international relations was clear: Moscow does not want to revise its position in foreign policy, at least publicly, before the September elections, or to make any concessions to the West. Russia considers that its goals have been achieved at this stage in Syria, and is not launching further attacks in Ukraine. It supports Poroshenko’s suggestion of an armed OSCE mission along the demarcation line and does not see the need for changes with regard to frozen post-Soviet conflicts. In addition, there was far less attention this year on the concept of Eurasian integration than in previous years.
One should not overestimate or underestimate Putin’s words, which were addressed to his domestic audience most of all. However, it looks like the phase of expansionism, both factual and rhetorical, is coming to end. It can only be followed by a more isolationist approach.
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