Thanking President Putin 41 times

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“Everything’s going to be all right,” said President Vladimir Putin to Arkady Kakayev, a resident of the village of Podgorodneye in the Orenburg region, during the question-and-answer broadcast on October 25. As the Vremya Novostei newspaper observed, Kakayev’s question came out as a cry from the heart: “We all know that you’re leaving office in 2008. But what will happen to us and to our country after 2008?”

In response, Putin acknowledged frankly that he enjoys his job, but also cited the Constitution, which “doesn’t give me the right to run for a third consecutive term.”

All the same, his response continued in an optimistic tone: Putin said he has no doubts that even after losing his “powers of authority and the levers of presidential power,” he will still “retain the most important thing that anyone engaged in politics should value – your confidence.”

In that event, said Putin reassuringly, “you and I will be able to influence public life in our country and the process of guaranteeing its progressive development so as to be able to influence what is happening in Russia.” (Quoted from the transcript published in the Izvestia newspaper.)

The general meaning of this reply is very simple: “Don’t be afraid, I’m with you!” Although, as Maksim Sokolov puts it in Ekspert magazine, Putin’s departure from the Kremlin “appears to be a settled matter,” and he even seems to be looking forward to his “demobilization.”

In commenting on Putin’s broadcast, the RBK Daily newspaper notes that he started it by setting out the government’s achievements. In particular, he pointed out that Russia’s GDP growth rate has now reached 6.6%, as compared to 1-2% in Europe, 3% in the United States, and an average of 10% in Asia.

“Overall, we seem to be in the middle,” said Putin, “but if we recall the problems our economy was experiencing five, seven, or eight years ago, we must admit that this is a good economic growth rate.” Moreover, Putin predicted that year-end inflation would be “just over 8%.”

RBK Daily requested comments from Natalia Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank, who said that Putin’s forecast is “optimistic” but noted that “he probably wouldn’t have given any other estimate. After all, the government’s inflation forecast was 7.5-8%, and Putin probably wanted to show that the government isn’t too far off target.”

RBK Daily notes that this is the first time Putin has adopted such a favorable tone in commenting on the government’s performance: in his broadcast, he used every opportunity to emphasize the government’s successes.

The reasons behind Putin’s favorable tone were explained to RBK Daily by Dmitri Badovsky, special projects manager at the Social Systems Institute, Moscow State University. In Badovsky’s view, this is all about the lead-up to elections.

The time for “drastic turnarounds” and unexpected decisions in Putin’s addresses to the public is now over: “If he’s preparing to step down, what he needs to convey isn’t a decision, but reassurance and explanations. He needs to take a less active stance, becoming more of an observer or commentator, since this is the role he will retain after leaving office.”

However, in order to maintain the status quo, Putin will inevitably have to share part of his authority with the rest of Russia’s government and state administration institutions: “Public confidence in Putin is very high, in contrast to confidence in other representatives of the state.” This is precisely why Putin “said a great deal about the government ‘working’ – although playing up the contrasts between himself and the government had been his usual style when he was an active president.”

The Vremya Novostei newspaper picks up a different but also novel note in Putin’s broadcast: “The presidency’s administrative resources are not limitless.”

As Vremya Novostei points out, when Putin was speaking of his instructions to the government, he twice used the words “I will strive to achieve that.” Vremya Novostei comments: “This indicates that it’s not enough for him to give the government an order. He really has to make an effort to ensure that his directives are carried out.”

In one case, this referred to developing some legislation to regulate direct access to trade for agricultural producers; the other case concerned export duty rates for timber logs. Putin even admitted that he’d instructed the government five or six years ago to do something about the situation in the timber and forestry sector, but the government is still being led by industry lobby groups, who find it more profitable to export unprocessed logs than to organize processing in Russia.

Putin’s broadcast also made it clear that even when the government sincerely wishes to solve a problem, it’s not always capable of doing so – as in this summer’s alcoholic beverages crisis.

In a reproachful tone, Putin said: “Officials of the very highest rank turned out to be insufficiently prepared. They failed to take account of all the problems and the full scale of the work they had to do, and failed to take timely and appropriate measures to restore order.” However, as Putin went on to say, “even the prime minister devoted a great deal of attention to this issue. Moreover, I’ll let you in on a secret – even though the whole country can hear this: the prime minister was trying to identify and punish those who were to blame for the problem.” But he didn’t succeed in doing so, “because nobody wants to take responsibility for ill-considered solutions.”

Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, says that the broadcast question statistics themselves are evidence of the incredible sloth and incompetence of Russia’s executive branch. According to media reports, citizens sent in a record number of questions for Putin this time: 2,334,000.

Oreshkin told Izvestia: “It seems to me that this isn’t an entirely worthy genre for a country like Russia. Millions of questions for the president – this can only happen if the people lack any realistic instruments for making these decisions at the local level.”

This was followed by an unflattering (for Russia) comparison with the West. Oreshkin said: “I find it hard to imagine President Bush or Prime Minister Blair receiving millions of questions from the American or British people. This indicates that the state apparatus, for which the head of the executive branch is responsible, isn’t functioning effectively.”

All the same, as the press has noted, this time – unlike in his previous “direct exchanges” with the public – Putin didn’t take the opportunity to “sort out the problems of mere mortals,” as RBK Daily puts it.

RBK Daily looks back at last year’s broadcast, when Putin personally issued orders to build a water main in a village in the Stavropol territory. This year’s broadcast didn’t contain any “special effects” of that nature.

However, as prominent journalist Viktor Shenderovich told the Gazeta newspaper, Russia still remains a state where the president is the sole source of boons.

Here are some fresh examples (from October 25): Putin promised a resident of Yekaterinburg to save a patriotic youth club from demolition; he promised a prison inmate in the Perm region, who complained of abuses by the prison administration, that the Prosecutor General’s Office would investigate (Gazeta notes that it would be interesting to see how things work out for that prisoner). Another promise was given to a resident of Bor, a town in the Nizhny Novgorod region: to deal with the problem of local police running protection rackets for drug dealers.

“Managing to get through to the president with this drug problem – that’s lucky,” says Viktor Shenderovich. “In our country, reaching the president is the only way to solve all kinds of problems – those of the elderly in the House of Veterans, a little boy in Birobidzhan, gas mains in Krasnodar.” All these examples have featured in Putin’s previous question-and-answer broadcasts.

What’s more, Shenderovich says he is amazed by how incredibly well-informed Putin is: “A president should not know the exact length of the Chita-Khabarovsk highway, or the size of exported logs, or exactly how many people need gas supplies. And the problem of coniferous softwood volumes isn’t his affair either.”

In Shenderovich’s view, all this is a certain “sign of a totalitarian state.”

At any rate, it’s undeniable that Putin’s latest exchange with ordinary citizens was organized in the very best Soviet traditions.

The Kommersant newspaper published a copy of the detailed instructions handed out to the studio audience in the city of Kaspiisk, Dagestan, before the president’s broadcast.

The leaflet sets out the carefully-edited and clearly-printed question to be asked by a specific female employee of the DagDiesel factory. It also contains some general recommendations for all the other participants: “After the host journalist says ‘…and its residents,’ applaud loudly. When the host says ‘Ask the president a question,’ raise your hands. The first question taken will be from a war veteran, the second from the factory. Assemble at 10 a.m. on the 25th, in the courtyard, bringing identification. No mobile phones allowed.”

It’s very clear and simple: any step to the right, let alone a step to the left, will be regarded as deliberate disruption of the meticulously-planned script.

So it’s hardly surprising, says Kommersant, that citizens proved to be “excellently prepared for the exchange.” They asked hardly any local questions. “In Nakhodka, they asked about the environment and nuclear testing in North Korea. In Irkutsk, they asked about flight safety and the rapid decline in coniferous softwood volumes (there it is! – P.M.) across Russia. In Naberezhnye Chelny, workers at the KamAz auto plant proposed that the state should support the machine-building sector, and expressed concern about Abkhazia, which is no worse than Kosovo, whose independence is being recognized by the whole world. And a resident of Tver called on the president to prevent Russia from turning into a raw materials appendage of the West.”

In general, all this is painfully reminiscent of Soviet-era assemblies on all manner of political pretexts, once lauded so fervently by Alexander Galich (“The Komsomol is rallying in defense of peace…” or “I speak as a mother and as a woman…” and so on).

Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that “of course the questions were subject to selection.” To quote Makarkin’s remarkable expression, “the questions and the questioners went through a selection process and were formulated in a convenient form for the president.”

On the other hand, Makarkin maintains that this selection “essentially corresponds to the priorities of most citizens, and they do not become annoyed by it or reject it.”

One way or another, says Kommersant, only the residents of the town of Kondopoga in Karelia actually talked to Putin about local issues – the recent interethnic conflict and inaction by regional authorities.

The Kondopoga topic was an exception to the generally smooth current of Putin’s exchanges with citizens. It drew the attention of the press.

After taking a question from “a native resident of Kondopoga,” Putin suddenly said that he’s having trouble getting in touch with Karelian Governor Sergei Katanandov: “He’s always on a flight somewhere, or on vacation…”

But Putin promised to have a “very serious” talk with Katanandov, and even admitted: “That kind of government is inadequate, of course.”

But this was followed by a reproach to the initiators of the discussion: “I’d like to ask the residents of Kondopoga, and the residents of other Russian cities, to pay very close attention when they vote for people who aspire to head any particular government insitutions.” (Quoted in Vremya Novostei.)

Meanwhile, the Vedomosti newspaper points out that this isn’t the first time Putin has complained of being unable to get in touch with a subordinate. Back in 2000, at a news conference during a visit to Spain, Putin was asked about the arrest of Vladimir Gusinsky. He replied that he’d been unable to reach then-Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov by phone. Shortly afterwards, Gusinsky was released from custody and even allowed to leave the country; but he lost almost all his Russian assets.

Alexei Makarkin told Vedomosti that there’s no comparison between the two situations: “Back in 2000, Putin was new to the presidency, and his reply was a defensive reaction. When he says he can’t get in touch with Katanandov now, he’s on the offensive – demonstrating irony and feeling quite comfortable.”

Deputy Duma Speaker Sergei Baburin, head of the Motherland (Rodina) faction, told Vremya Novostei: “Naturally, most of the questions – especially those asked live on air by citizens across the country – were staged. Despite this, however, the selected cross-section of questions enables competent aides and analyst to approach an analysis of the whole volume of questions, and get a sense of what people are really interested in.”

Baburin’s colleague and rival, Duma member Ivan Melnikov (deputy chairman of the Communist Party Central Committee), noted nostalgically: “Although most of the questions were quite obviously prepared in advance, there’s one aspect of this that should be understood. Television viewers don’t know that the questions are selected in advance. They take an entirely different view: what they see is the president talking to us, to ordinary citizens. This is a very powerful genre from the standpoint of influencing the people.”

The Communists know what they’re talking about. Melnikov almost sounded envious: “If the same opportunities were available to Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov, for example, his popularity rating would increase several-fold within two hours.”

And that certainly answers the question asked by certain baffled observers: why is this somewhat pointless and rather costly exercise necessary at all?

In conclusion, a few figures.

As mentioned earlier, over 2.3 million questions were submitted to Putin. He answered 55 questions.

In the process, as Kommersant calculated, he greeted citizens only nine times, wheres the citizens who asked him questions greeted him a total of 57 times. So some of them must have greeted the president twice, or even thrice.

Moreover, Putin managed to thank the people four times during the broadcast. Kommersant points out that presidential gratitude to the people has halved over the past year; in his broadcast for 2005, Putin thanked the people eight times.

There was only a slight decrease in the people’s gratitude to the president: from 43 expressions of thanks in 2005 to 41 in 2006.

In all other respects, everything remained unchanged.

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