One overwhelming conclusion was clear from President Vladimir Putin’s “direct line” conversation with the Russian nation on April 14: he has returned to domestic politics.

In the president’s annual phone-in, where he takes direct questions from ordinary Russians across the country, a very different man was on show from the person we saw last year. This Putin engaged with the questioners, spent most of the time discussing everyday issues, and portrayed himself as a human being.

One couldn’t miss Putin’s attempt to return to the role of the national leader and arbiter who is above party configurations. By doing so, he also seemed to be beginning his campaign for the elections of 2018.

This is a strong contrast with the Putin who was on display in 2015. Last year, the system malfunctioned, as was evident at last April’s “direct line” as well as at Putin’s annual Kremlin press conference.

No doubt 2015 was a psychologically trying year for Vladimir Putin, as international sanctions stayed in place and the oil price remained low. Even though Russia’s Syrian maneuver helped to improve its weakened stature in the global arena, the country is still far from its former status as a full-fledged G-8 member.

In last year’s hotline appearance, Putin’s demeanor was cold and he failed to understand the needs of the common people. The president looked out of touch with what was happening in the country. He got defensive, aggressively shielding his “friends” from attacks. When someone touched on an issue that he did not deem important, he told the questioner to address their grievance to the government.

That trend had become even more pronounced during his December press conference. The president often failed to answer questions and avoided discussing domestic policy altogether, as if it no longer existed, at least for him. He was really tired, and it showed.

Today’s Putin is the complete opposite of the one we saw in 2015. The message is that Putin is learning to rebrand himself—which is not always an easy trick for authoritarian leaders.

This phone-in was more people-oriented than before. The president was empathetic and even made an apology to the residents of the Sakhalin region, who complained about unpaid wages. He was more open and less tense.

Putin also did not bristle at what was evidently an orchestrated question about his private life and whether he planned to remarry. He admitted he has someone special in his life, like any other normal person, and may even introduce the new “First Lady” to the public in time.

This answer was helpful in presenting Putin as a human being once more. The idea that, since his divorce, he had been “married to the country” was awkward. The Putin on show this week bashfully admitted that he sometimes swears, eats kasha in the morning, and takes cheap medicine when he gets sick. The image of a simple Russian guy, however primitive, returned.

Last year, Putin’s competence seemed to have shrunk significantly. He relegated all the routine work to the government (actually, anything except Syria and Ukraine was seen as routine). “I don’t know” was a common answer during his annual press conference. The Putin on show was no longer an effective manager but a global strategist far removed from Russian realities.

The Putin of 2016 spewed out numbers left and right and skillfully tackled questions, just like in the good old days. Last year, the impression was that Putin is no longer able to get things done. Now, the authorities in Omsk reacted with lightning speed to the criticism of the region’s roads at the beginning of the broadcast. The Sakhalin region investigative committee brought criminal charges against the Shikotan plant director for delaying workers’ salaries just an hour after the problem was aired on television.

Putin no longer defended the bureaucracy. His comments on Sergei Roldugin, his old friend named in the Panama Papers leak as the owner of a big network of offshore companies, were very cautious. Roldugin, he suggested, was an honest man who could barely make ends meet.

With the economy in trouble, social problems again came to the fore. The agenda under discussion was one of roads, pensions, salaries, prices, expensive medicines, the housing and utility sector, and capital repairs.

Somebody has to be the bearer of bad news, and Putin is learning to do that while minimizing the damage. He explained why capital repairs have to be paid for, the reason for salary delays in the machine-building sector, and how to act if the housing and utility tariffs go up.

It looked as though, understanding that he could not simply ignore the socioeconomic situation in the country, the president was launching his reelection campaign.

Last fall, as Russia’s Syrian air campaign got underway, Putin dropped much of the isolationist rhetoric he had used for the previous year and a half. The strategy of “imposed partnership” with the West proved effective, but it required a significant softening of rhetoric. We saw this new stance during the hotline, when there was less talk about foreign affairs.

The president was calmer. He flew off the handle just once, when he got to his favorite topic of intrigues hatched in Washington. Putin still believes that the United States is trying to affect the outcome of Russian elections. He stated that Goldman Sachs is the company behind Süddeutsche Zeitung, the newspaper that first published materials on the Panama Papers. (This is not true in fact. The newspaper is entirely German-owned. Goldman Sachs tried but never succeeded in buying it out).

Except for this one outburst, Putin sounded friendly even towards Turkey and Ukraine. He even discussed his agreement with Petro Poroshenko to expand the OSCE monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine. He did not invoke conspiracy theories when talking about the doping scandal in Russian athletics. Putin called Barack Obama “strong” and “brave” for admitting the failure of the military operation in Libya.

Another subject that was also largely absent from his answers was that of a Western-supported “fifth column” inside Russia, a stance that is at odds with the actual domestic policy of the Kremlin. He defended Ramzan Kadyrov, the most aggressive critic of Russian liberals, while also stressing that he needed to rein in his behavior. At any rate, Putin doesn’t want to be associated with the dirty work of discrediting opposition leaders.

Putin did not sound like a reformer. In Putin’s first presidential term in 2000–2004, he made some structural changes. Since then, he has been a supporter of the market economy without advocating serious change. This week, he had kind words for a man of whom he was critical last year, former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, hinting that he may rehire him in some capacity to make some economic reforms.

This move raises an important question: did Putin approve Kudrin’s return out of fear of losing the initiative on economic agenda in the run-up to the elections, or does he actually understand the dangers of further inaction? We do not yet know the answer, but at the very least Putin himself signaled that he is again trying to make changes on the domestic front as the country confronts a serious economic downturn. 

 

By:
  • Tatiana Stanovaya