Russian President Vladimir Putin has established an annual tradition of long, televised meetings where he answers carefully selected questions from “loyal subjects.” The session held on Thursday, October 18, had one notable feature – it was supposed to be the last installment of the show. But Putin made only one casual mention that next year there would be a new person in the Kremlin who, as he clarified later for the journalists, might adopt different forms of communicating with the populace (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 19).
All questions about the mechanics of this transfer of power and “reformatting” the structures of government were cut out of the script for this tightly orchestrated public expression of trust in the massively popular leader. In fact, the tone and the substance of Putin’s answers to the 68 questions and one emotional statement of deep gratitude were so “business-as-usual” that the very familiar and slightly boring show underlined the message of continuity and well-established “normalcy” (Ezhednevny zhurnal, October 19). Despite this political hypnosis, the real situation in the country and in the top echelons of power is far from serene.
There was an unmistakable intensity behind the questions about salaries and various social-support programs, as long-promised benefits are running ahead of the fast-expanding budget distributions. Putin did not show a shadow of doubt when promising even more payments, and he demonstrated a particular generosity to military pensioners who constitute a numerous and active part of the electorate (Gazeta, October 19). This strong demand for “social fairness” and bridging the enormous income gap between the nouveau riche and the dispossessed has forced the government to offer graceless populist pirouettes that fall short of the “left turn” once outlined by imprisoned entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Vedomosti, August 1, 2005).
One direct result of this lax financial policy is accelerating inflation. Putin had to acknowledge this problem, but he blamed the EU agricultural policy, while mumbling something barely comprehensible about “prices that accompany inflation.” His promise to curb rising prices was punctured by Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who bluntly asserted that inflation would exceed 10% this year and only in 2010 could the ruble enter a “stability zone” (Newsru.com, October 21).
The anxiety among the general population may look inconsequential, compared with the fierce feud between the Kremlin clans and “internecine war” between the special services that are increasingly becoming public (see EDM, October 11). Speaking with journalists after the Q & A session, Putin made a convincing pretence that he was not aware of the latest round of this fighting, but he did say that taking these problems out to the media was “incorrect” (Kommersant, October 19). However, Viktor Cherkesov, the main culprit in the public score settling, was promoted one day after his televised fracas and has become a real drug tsar heading the newly created State Anti-Narcotics Committee (Gazeta.ru, October 20). Putin is clearly trying to calm his over-excited lieutenants; hence such gestures as inviting the top brass for his 55th birthday party in the Kremlin or a visit to the headquarters of the Foreign Intelligence Service in order to introduce former prime minister Mikhail Fradkov as the agency’s new chief (Rossiiskaya gazeta, October 20). That, however, restores only a modicum of order, since the public cannot see a convincing plan for maintaining his role as the supreme arbiter.
Putin’s infallible response to all this angst and squabbling is to stir up “patriotic feelings” that increasingly take a pronounced anti-American character. He sharply rebuffed the claim that Siberia’s natural resources “unfairly” belonged to Russia, which was ascribed by a “concerned citizen” to former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and reproduced in dozens of Russian periodicals without a single precise reference.
He also confirmed a commitment to deliver a proper response to U.S. plans for deploying a strategic radar in the Czech Republic and ten anti-missiles in Poland, and he outlined big plans for upgrading Russia’s strategic arsenal. The shallowness of this bragging was revealed by Putin’s blunder in insisting that the test-launch performed on the day of his TV show involved a modern Topol-M inter-continental missile; the embarrassed commander had to clarify that it was an old Topol that was tested in order to prolong its service life. Behind all the loud rhetoric on restoring Russia’s military might and abandoning arms-control limitations there is actually very little content, so General Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the General Staff, had to admit that scrapping the INF Treaty (1987) was not such a great idea after all (RIA-Novosti, October 17). Another peculiar twist in Putin’s “patriotic” tale was the assertion that the move to reduce the draft service commitment to 12 months was driven by a desire to increase the workforce available for the economy; however, since no plans for cutting the total strength of the army have been announced, hardly any gains on the labor market could occur.
While there is much pose and pretence in Putin’s military build-up, there was still one point off-camera where he verbalized a bit of his real thinking. Russia, according to Putin, will continue to require “manual steering” for another 15-20 years and only then would the institutions be mature enough for “automatic control” (Vremya novostei, October 19). It comes out clearly that Putin intends to keep his hands on the steering wheel, but it is hardly possible to reconcile this intention with the expressed objections against reducing presidential authority and with the proposition that a “modern and capable” person will be elected as the next president in only a few months. Having too many hands on the control levels is always a recipe for disaster, and if these levers are attached to a divided and massively corrupt bureaucratic machine, political disaster might strike with real vengeance. Giving up on a successor and trying in haste to build an arrangement for “collective authoritarianism,” Putin looks like a man without a plan wiggling in a trap he spent eight years building.