Last Wednesday, October 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual live call-in television show. For three hours he answered questions from 10 specially arranged locations, from Nakhodka, near Vladivostok in the Far East, to Baltiisk, near Kaliningrad. Public attention to this PR exercise was noticeably less than on previous occasions, and the questions were very carefully organized, so that many political commentators gave less attention to the smooth answers loaded with facts and figures and more to the issues that were emphasized by the Kremlin — or left completely out of this exercise (Kommersant, October 27). The list of non-issues for this show included Russia’s chairmanship of the G-8, relations with the United States and NATO, the situation in the Middle East and Iran’s nuclear program, Chechnya and terrorism, Russia’s delayed entry into the WTO, and, remarkably, Putin’s personal life (Vremya novostei, October 26).
The usual attempts to draw attention to particular local problems were disallowed this time, but there were plenty of questions on current macro-economic and social themes, from excessive dependency on oil exports to the protection of the automobile industry and family support programs (Izvestiya, October 26). Putin’s answers were invariably positive and reassuring, with promises of further improvements in the near future and without any criticism of the government that had been often conveniently blamed for neglecting the needs of “common people” (Gazeta.ru, October 25). Even the “difficult” questions about the series of contract killings, including the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and about the nationalist pogroms in Kondopoga, Karelia, received the same unsubstantiated promises to conduct thorough investigations.
Putin was also remarkably cautious on foreign policy, limiting the subject mostly to Russia’s immediate neighborhood. He outlined the perspectives of the Commonwealth of Independent States in a very vague manner, indicating only that this barely alive organization would not be disbanded, and he added only a slight note of skepticism describing the status of “union” between Russia and Belarus. The hottest foreign policy issue was certainly Georgia, but even here Putin assumed a far more careful stance than in some previous statements, emphasizing the great respect and feeling of “closeness” towards the Georgian people and the need for dialogue. Concerns about the security situation around Abkhazia and South Ossetia were moderated by the point that Russia has no plans to incorporate these territories, with the very pronounced preference for de-escalating tensions (Polit.ru, October 26).
The Georgian theme was also prevalent when NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer visited Moscow on October 26. The guest from Brussels insisted that the economic blockade of Georgia should be lifted, but his hosts argued that except for minor trade disputes and the “normal” return of illegal migrants there was nothing resembling any kind of blockade (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 27). Putin assumed a “problem-free” attitude, while Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov suggested that the ongoing rapprochement between Georgia and NATO had prompted Tbilisi to adopt an “aggressive” stance against its “former” autonomies Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Kommersant, October 27). Ivanov also mentioned concerns (clarifying that there was no “fears”) about the expansion of NATO’s military infrastructure toward Russia’s borders, which could necessitate certain “precautions” in its military build-up (Vedomosti, October 27).
The desire to downplay the disagreements is quite remarkable, given the sustained decline in Russian-U.S. relations and Putin’s recent setbacks in the European arena. The Kremlin expects nothing but trouble from the forthcoming NATO summit in Riga despite reassurances from de Hoop Scheffer that no decisions on further enlargement would be taken. Putin also knows that the Russia-EU summit in late November will be difficult, since the disagreements run progressively deeper into the very heart of these relations — energy inter-dependency. The European states have good reasons to worry about the asymmetry of these ties, since every interruption in the flow of natural gas from Russia immediately resonates in the continent’s vulnerable economic infrastructure, while Moscow can easily weather any delays in payments for gas. The EU experts also know full well about the growing energy shortages in Russia’s domestic market, which inevitably throw into doubt the reliability of Moscow’s export commitments.
Putin can offer only his personal reassurances, but they carry far less weight in the international arena than for the home crowd, which for now appears content to follow his advice “to believe in all good things.” The Kremlin counts on keeping this positive momentum going at least until the presidential elections in early 2008, so that Putin would be able to secure sufficient public support for the as-yet-unknown successor. His system of power is so rigidly centralized and personified that it is not certain at all whether a new leader would fit in. What is certain is that the “team” of presidential lieutenants and minions has no intention of risking democratic competition, assuming that Putin’s once-a-year tightly orchestrated Q&A sessions provide quite sufficient space for “direct democracy.”
Their problem appears to be that none of them is sufficiently reliable and “presidential” for the others, while bringing in an outsider means taking great risks. The real problem, however, is that the current “life-is-good” leitmotiv covers the pattern of postponement of many big and small decisions, since nobody in the vast bureaucratic pyramid wants to take responsibility — and Putin prefers to pose like the “father-of-the-nation” than to act like one. He received more than two million questions from the worried “subjects” because nobody else could provide any answers — but his confirmation that “everything will be fine” after his departure in just 15 months was not really rock solid. Things that could go wrong in Russia more often than not do exactly that, and the main plank of Putin’s plan seems to be to jump ship before the going gets tough. But if he is counting on a comeback that would set things back on track, he definitely underestimates how wrong they could go.