Vladimir Putin took his time to react to the December 10 anti-government protest. By doing so, he wanted to show how little they bothered him. His nonchalance was supposed to calm his supporters and remind opponents of their own insignificance. While Putin said yesterday that he hadn’t noticed any “confusion” in the Kremlin, a glance at his official calendar suggests that the last week has been anything but business as usual.
The hyperactive, 24/7 prime minister, whose press service dutifully posts his every activity on his web site, was uncommonly inert since Saturday. His first public appearance after the protests was on Monday, when he opened the fourth reactor of a nuclear power plant north of Moscow.
On Tuesday he met with his protégé Ramzan Kadyrov, the 35-year-old leader of Chechnya who delivered Putin’s United Russia 99.48 percent of the province’s vote in the December 4 parliamentary elections. (Rumors, impossible to confirm, hold that hundreds of members of Kadyrov’s personal guard are based near Moscow because the regular Russian police isn’t considered reliable enough.)
On Wednesday, Putin held no official meetings.
Putin chose his annual, televised call-in show to address his critics. The program is called “A Conversation with Vladimir Putin. Continuation.” (Someone asked on Twitter yesterday when the show will be called “A Conversation with Vladimir Putin. The End.”) Russians are invited to call, write text messages or send e-mails to a special site with their questions, which Putin then fields live on national television.
In past years, Putin enjoyed playing the good czar, once promising a new dress to a little girl who called in from Siberia. Camera teams from the far corners of Russia beam questions from ordinary citizens via satellite into the sleek Moscow studio. This year there was a significant addition: among the members of the studio audience were many prominent personalities.
Some, like film director Nikita Mikhalkov or conductor Valery Gergiev, don’t hide their love for Putin. But others, with independent – even liberal – reputations were also present: pediatrician Leonid Roshal, lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, radio journalist Alexei Venediktov. Well-known experts from foreign think-tanks, Alexander Rahr and Nikolai Zlobin, rounded out the gallery of witting (or unwitting) character witnesses.
All of the special guests got a chance to speak, and all of them seemed sincere in their wish to get across some pressing issue to Putin: the dissatisfaction that drove ordinary people onto the street; broken promises on housing for military personnel; pervasive corruption on all levels of government. From Putin’s answers, it wasn’t clear that these urgent messages were getting through.
When Roshal said businessmen were furious over the level of kickbacks officials demanded, Putin first joked that that meant they must be making good money. Corruption is a problem in any transitional economy, he said, and Russia isn’t an exception.
“Corruption is a fashionable topic.”
TV talk-show host Vladimir Solovyov returned to the subject, asking when there will finally be some high-level convictions for graft. “We’ll start with you,” Putin began his answer. Corruption is a “fashionable topic,” he explained, but officials shouldn’t be thrown in jail just for the purpose of scoring political points. Anyway, more than 4,000 criminal cases for corruption have been opened, with 300 already in the courts and dozens of convictions.
Putin didn’t even bother answering Mikhalkov’s question on whether he was aware that the Russia he sees on his many travels may just be what local officials show him – and have nothing to do with the real state of affairs.
Putin’s political program can be summarized in two words: status quo. His stubborn conviction that past success is the strongest argument for future success blinds him to new realities.
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Putin hears his critics; he just doesn’t listen to them. Yesterday he said that he had developed a thick skin to all the abuse he’s had to face since coming into power.
Somebody asked Putin by SMS if it’s true that the audience at a mixed-martial arts fight in Moscow whistled and booed him in November. Putin answered that he didn’t hear any whistling, though there was some “noise” from the stands. One reason, of course, could be that some fans didn’t like seeing him there, he conceded. Another reason, Putin posited, could be that some spectators thought the fight between Russian Fyodor Yemelianenko and American Jeff Monson had been “falsified.”
While the rest of Russia is abuzz about alleged falsifications at the December 4 elections, Putin talks about falsified fights. It wasn’t the only time during the call-in show that Putin turned catchwords of the opposition on their head.
Thanks to anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, “the party of swindlers and thieves” has become synonymous with Putin’s United Russia. But when Putin mentioned the word “swindler” yesterday, it was in connection to persistent (but never proven) corruption charges against Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister who joined the opposition. Rally organizers shouldn’t treat protesters “like cattle,” Putin said, echoing the most common reason people said they went out on the street Saturday: because the government dealt with them “like cattle.”
Putin’s prickliness toward his enemies doesn’t necessarily translate into kindness toward his friends. When a female student from the Emergencies Ministry Academy asked if the recent police reform wasn’t too “superficial and formal,” Putin replied that he didn’t have anything to do with it. The comment was an indirect barb at his hapless helper, President Dmitry Medvedev, who had made the overhaul of law enforcement one of the cornerstones of his much-trumpeted modernization program.
“I consider myself a person whom the people hire for a certain period of time to do a certain job. If I see that there isn’t support, I won’t stay in my office a single day longer.”
A young woman from Ufa, the capital of the oil-rich Urals region Bashkortostan, asked Putin if the government would reverse its decision to get rid of the seasonal time change. In a bungled effort to show he was capable of making decisions, Medvedev decreed that Russia would keep the same time year-round – only he was in such a hurry that he kept the country on summer time, instead of first returning to “astronomical” winter time. As a result, it’s still pitch dark at 9 o’clock in the morning. Yesterday Putin said he’d pass on the suggestion “to my colleagues.”
“I consider myself a person whom the people hire for a certain period of time to do a certain job,” he said. In a democratic society, a leader can only justify his support on the result of elections, and not on the basis of certain web sites or public squares, Putin continued. “If I see that there isn’t such support, I won’t stay in my office a single day longer.”