The nature of authoritarian regimes, especially those that depend on a «mobilized» social base, requires constant communications between a leader and his audiences. On April 25, Vladimir Putin answered questions from Russian citizens during a live televised call-in show. This political show is becoming a key attribute of the regime. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses the peculiarities of Putin’s dialogue with the people.
It seems that Vladimir Putin has no surprises left for analysts or for the public: his «direct lines» (live televised call-in shows) have become routine events, and interest in them decreases every year. But one should not expect the Russian president to abandon this practice: «direct lines» remain one of the most effective instruments for manipulating the electorate through the communication with the head of state. Last October, the question of abandoning «direct lines» was seriously discussed; an anonymous Kremlin source told Kommersant that they would be replaced by a different communication format—the traditional «large press conference» and the state-of-the-nation address to the Federal Assembly. At the time, the Kremlin seemed to have decided that this would be enough.
The annual «direct lines» represent a unique format that Putin has been using since 2001. They fulfill a number of important functions, the first of which is a “therapeutic” one. Putin has always used «direct lines» to encourage optimism, to convince people of the rightness of the chosen course, and to reduce the public effect of social problems. Secondly, «direct lines» have consistently helped accentuate the «national leader’s» closeness to the people. The president demonstrated a good knowledge of different financial, economic, industrial and business problems, and spoke in the same language as ordinary citizens, emphasizing everyday issues and making clear that he was not only tackling the «global questions» but also taking care of small things. He has listened carefully to old women, students and workmen, and it seemed that nothing was more important to him that these people’s problems. Finally, Vladimir Putin has always used «direct lines» to distance himself from the bureaucracy, the oligarchs, and the elite, criticizing governors and mayors and emphasizing that his power is based on popular support and not on «moneybags.»
The 2011-2012 street protests made a «direct line» politically risky.
Last year, it seemed that under new political conditions, a «direct line» could contribute more to a further polarization between the country’s active minority and passive majority than to the consolidation of society around the leader. The 2011-2012 street protests and the aggravation of the situation in key social spheres made a «direct line» politically risky. No matter how meticulously the participants in the event and their questions are selected, no one is safe from a force majeure. That is why the principal characteristic of the most recent «direct line» was the change in format. Most of the questions were posed by participants who are loyal to the president. A considerable part of the studio audience consisted of Putin’s so-called “proxies”—an institution that has been used in the presidential election. Its objective was to engage prominent cultural and sports figures in the «national leader’s” campaign. Notably, a decision was made to keep the “proxies” after the election: Putin needs non-stop propaganda since the new political era seems to bring too many challenges.
Thus, the main function of the 2013 «direct line» consisted in preserving Putin’s political image: he has to constantly promote the appearance of a modern, active, competent and just «father of the nation.» At the same time, moral and ethical issues, questions of patriotism and spirituality are often used to substitute the content of the government’s agenda.
Hence the «direct line’s» second characteristic, which consisted in increasing control over its format. The participants and the questions were selected in such manner as to avoid awkward situations. This is a reflection of the president’s entire political course. Strengthening controls and increasing regulation can be observed in all spheres of political life (for example, in last year’s laws restricting civic rights and freedoms and in the persecution of the opposition); in the economy (an unprecedented expansion of Rosneft and «state oligarchs» close to Putin); and in the government’s relations with the elites (a ban on foreign bank accounts for officials, the laws on income and spending declarations). This could be a result of both subjective and objective processes within the ruling clan. On the one hand, the Kremlin undoubtedly fears the dynamics of the regime’s future development, with pressure coming both from the world energy market and from domestic political risks. On the other hand, these fears are being constantly fed by the waves of public protests, the nature and prospects of which still remain unclear to experts and sociologists. The feeling of uncertainty about the development of the political situation in Russia has deepened, and the regime will consequently look for ways to toughen its own positions.
The third characteristic of last week’s «direct line» was the regime’s clear tendency to monopolize power in the hands of a single «sovereign.» This concerns both the internal and the external competitors. Funny as it sounds, Putin’s internal competitor is Dmitri Medvedev’s government. However much experts and journalists mock the politically weak prime minister; however often they debate rumors of his upcoming dismissal, in the structure of Putin’s regime the Medvedev cabinet represents a unique semi-autonomous body, which does not follow the traditional rules of subordination. Putin has to work with a premier whom he does not fully trust—either personally or professionally.
In the days leading up to the «direct line,» the government’s position appeared increasingly precarious. A week earlier, Putin held a meeting of the so-called «super government,» which includes ministers in charge of the economy, representatives of the presidential administration, and experts close to the Kremlin. The creation of this new management structure constitutes a negative verdict on the competence of Medvedev’s cabinet. The «direct line» was supposed to deepen this impression. Putin made it clear that, although he failed to see any positive results of the cabinet’s work, he was prepared to give it another chance to prove its effectiveness. «There have not yet been any special measures,» the president said in answer to a question about the steps taken to boost economic growth. «It is the government’s fault,» Putin noted when talking about the delays in adopting the standards of medical services. The presence in the studio of former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin was the biggest humiliation for Medvedev. During the show, Putin twice referred to him as “the world’s best finance minister.» Putin demonstrated such a degree of personal trust in Kudrin, and raised him on the pedestal of such an incomparable competence, that the current cabinet, in comparison, seemed a complete disgrace. «Today we do not have a program of freeing our economy from its dependence on oil, a program in which every measure would have its proper place: money, institutional and structural reforms, and the role of the regions… That’s the problem, Vladimir Vladimirovich! I am not ready to be in charge of inertial processes and to micromanage the economy. I want to do real work,» Kudrin said during the show, hinting at the exclusiveness of his relations with the president.
A political monopoly also means that the regime is closed to its «external enemies,» that is, the non-systemic opposition. Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio, initiated a dialogue about the relations between the government and the opposition. In the eyes of the Kremlin, Venediktov heads a biased radio station, which all but lobbies the interests of the US State Department. Last year, the Kremlin publicly made such accusations against Ekho Moskvy. By depreciating the reputation of the author of the tough questions, the Kremlin tries to devaluate the significance of the questions themselves. This is a well-known KGB trick. This seemingly gives Putin the moral right to disagree with Venediktov on everything. The Ekho Moskvy editor suggested that Putin’s third presidential term had noticeable «Stalinist» elements and mentioned the recent notorious examples, such as the trials of Pussy Riot, Bolotnaya Square protesters, and Alexei Navalny, the new NGO law and so on. The president’s response was reserved and less emotional than before. Putin affirmed that, in today’s Russia, there were not and would never be any elements of Stalinism, which is associated with the Gulag; but that a country requires order, discipline, and equality before the law. He denied that people are being jailed for political reasons. «These girls from Pussy Riot and these youngsters who desecrate the graves of our soldiers must all be equal before the law and must be held responsible for their actions,» the president said. When talking about street rallies, Putin added: «Yes, they can, and they should [be held]. But they must be legal and must not interfere with people’s everyday life.»
The only issue in which Putin showed emotion was the trial of Alexei Navalny. It was evident that it touched the president’s nerve. Putin has decided beforehand that the trial would be fair to the utmost. «If you fight corruption, you have to be squeaky clean yourself, otherwise it can all turn into self-promotion and political advertising. Everyone must be equal before the law… No one should be under any illusion that just because they spend their time shouting ‘Stop a thief!’ they can get away with theft themselves,» Putin declared, breaking his own «public» principle of not interfering in judicial matters. The non-systemic opposition was faced with the traditional trap: opposition leaders were offered to establish political parties and participate in elections on the regime’s terms. These terms, which are constantly changing in the interests of the «main player,» invariably disadvantage the regime’s opponents.
The illusion of mass popular support—the biggest deception of Putin’s regime—can quickly dissipate.
The fourth characteristic of the 2013 «direct line» was the regime’s self-defense from outside attacks. Although this is not a new tendency, it is becoming more pronounced. This reflects the principal internal conflict within Putin’s regime: he is forced to listen to the majority of the public by initiating anti-corruption cases, but at the same time he is not ready to start throwing corrupt officials in prison. As a result, he had to make excuses for the fact that former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and his partner Elena Vasilyeva are still not behind bars. He also had to defend Anatoly Chubais—although with big reservations (the president all but accused Chubais’s close circle of espionage.) It appears that the Kremlin views corruption as an internal matter that has nothing to do with the people. Corrupt officials will be persecuted, but their fate will be decided not on the basis of law and justice, but according to the regime’s own needs.
The last and fifth characteristic of April’s «direct line» was a gap between the real and the desired in the discussion of social problems. The stability of Putin’s regime is based on social “good news”—the promises of payments, benefits and other economic advantages that are constantly being offered to different categories of citizens. Today, the deficit of social «gifts» is evident. The only exception was the fact that families with adopted children have been equated in the eyes of the state with multiple-children families—but for most Russians, this is a secondary issue. In the conditions of a necessary budget restraint, the Kremlin has to curb its social responsibilities as well. In practice, this often results in the deterioration of the situation, but Putin is not prepared to comment on that. Why is it, for instance, that contrary to government promises, the salaries of medical workers are decreasing? After the «direct line,» the Kremlin promised to check this information and, as usual, to punish those who are guilty. Another pressing issue is the growth of tariffs for housing and communal services. After the task of regulating tariffs was delegated to the regions, people felt a steep rise in their housing and communal bills. Earlier this year, a scandal broke out when a small town in the Murmansk region saw a 225 percent jump in rates.
No matter how hard Putin tries to convince the country that everything is all right; that pensions and salaries are growing; that tariffs for housing and communal services will be put under control; and that the country will soon take its place among the world’s leaders, the people feel with their wallets that something very different is happening. Putin’s actions increasingly belie his words; his promises do not seem simply routine, but actually misleading. Under the circumstances, all the president can do is create the «façade» of an enduring majority support, so that anyone who is against the regime thinks that he or she is the one in the minority. The illusion of mass popular support—the biggest deception of Putin’s regime—can quickly dissipate. That is why the president is in such a hurry to strengthen control wherever this is still possible.