Today Russian TV broadcast the 15th annual ‘Direct Line with Vladimir Putin’, in which the Russian president spends four hours answering questions from members of the public. There were no shocking revelations; no new policy initiatives; no changes in direction. In this way, it was a typical Putin performance – measured, pragmatic, and cautious.
The caution revealed itself in Putin’s answer to a question about to when he would go if he had a time machine. It would be better not to go anywhen, was the answer; there’s too much risk of messing up the timeline. The same caution could be seen in answers about the economy (it’s getting better, but the situation is still hard, and the path ahead is difficult), about relations with America (we can work together, but it’s not really up to us and depends on internal American politics), and about Ukraine (refraining from openly expressing support for pro-Russian elements as that could complicate their position).
Putin tiptoed around delicate questions: he seemed to hint that he disapproved of Natalia Poklonskaia’s denunciation of a new film about Tsar Nicholas II, but said that he didn’t want to get in an argument with her; he stated that St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg ought to be a cathedral not just a museum, but didn’t say outright that the Orthodox Church ought to own it; and he noted that many historical Ukrainian nationalists favoured a federated Ukraine, but didn’t actually say that he believed the same thing himself. In this way, many things were implied without being stated outright. Again, it was a cautious approach. Confrontation and controversy were avoided.
Several other things struck me.
- The economic recession caused by the collapse of the oil price and Western sanctions has obviously had a very negative impact on the salaries of ordinary Russians. Low incomes were the number one complaint of those asking Putin questions. Putin seemed to get the point. Near the end he stated that the top priority of whoever becomes president next year (which we must assume will be him) will have to be raising incomes. Russia’s leader will thus be focused on domestic economics, not external affairs.
- Putin made it clear, though, that raising incomes wouldn’t come through a drastic change of economic policy. Macroeconomic stability, he said, was the foundation of progress. Several times, he mentioned the government’s success in reducing inflation to a record low of 4%. We can therefore expect the current tight monetary policy to continue. Putin’s critics on the left, who want to free up the money supply, will find no comfort here.
- On three occasions, Putin made reference to international law as a constraint on government action. The government would support agriculture, he said, but within the rules of the World Trade Organization. The state had international obligations towards the environment, he mentioned elsewhere. And the state also had obligations under international law towards important monuments, especially those listed by UNESCO. It’s often said that Putin is seeking to destroy the ‘rules-based international order’. Yet, here we had a leader who was at pains to point out that he saw his country as firmly bound by international law. It is true, of course, that major states, including both Russia and those in the West, occasionally break that law. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to imagine that occasional lapses mean an outright rejection of the concept, let alone a desire to rip up the international system entirely.
- ‘We do not consider America our enemy’, Putin said, adding that, ‘We can work together. Of course we can.’ Without constructive work together, nothing could be achieved in the international arena, he argued. If I had been in his place I would have added that the macroeconomic stability he seeks is impossible without a stable international order. This is self-evident, and rather undermines the common refrain that Putin is seeking to destabilize the West. Putin remarked that Russia wants its relations with the West to return to normal. That makes far more sense.
In my opinion, the most significant thing Putin said was the following: ‘Our country is large and complicated’. That’s exactly right. The Russian leader is often portrayed as an all-powerful and all-knowing dictator. If anything happens within Russia, or in any way connected with Russia, it must be because Putin has personally ordered it. But in today’s show, we heard numerous complaints that laws weren’t being enforced, that compensation promised after natural disasters hadn’t been delivered, and the like. ‘It’s strange’, Putin said more than once, ‘It’s strange.’ Instructions have been been delivered, but nothing has been done. Putin may be boss in the Kremlin, but in a country as large and complicated as Russia, the Kremlin’s writ doesn’t always reach the provinces. We need ‘social control’ to hold local authorities to account, noted Putin, mentioning the All-Russian Popular Front, a large collection of non-governmental organizations founded by him as a means of mobilizing civil society to support government initiatives. It’s not civil society as many Western critics might imagine it, as it works with the state rather than opposes it, but it’s civil society nonetheless.
Simplistic models which portray Russia as a brutal dictatorship are hardly compatible with this, let alone with an event like the ‘Direct Line’. As Putin said, Russia is ‘large and complicated’. Indeed.