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Putin reviews achievements and leaves some questions unanswered

President Putin’s press conference made it clear that he is satisfied with his chosen course; no substantial changes should be expected in foreign or domestic policy, and the question of even a hypothetical “successor” should wait for at least a year.


This is the fifth year that President Vladimir Putin has assembled Russian and Western journalists for his major annual press conference, on the official pretext of summing up results for the past year. Each time, this event has gone beyond the national-scale framework; after all, this kind of format makes it possible to specify accents and priorities in domestic and foreign policy, at least in the short term. With every year, we have watched Putin come to enjoy this kind of communication more; after all, there’s always the risk of running up against a question that isn’t quite convenient or politically correct. This offers a bigger adrenalin rush than skiing.

Pre-prepared

Among Putin’s obvious strengths are his openness and ability to answer even the most ticklish questions. This time, yet again, Putin didn’t refer to any notes at all as he cited facts and figures, diluting the serious official event with jokes of a free-and-easy nature, to put it mildly. After several hours of this, it even seemed like the press conference might have gone on for longer, were it not for the understandable tiredness of the journalists, who had been there in the Kremlin since 9 a.m. due to security procedures.

The main points made by Putin in nearly four hours of talking to journalists have already been covered by the electronic media, of course; the first commentaries and analyses have been published.

It was clear from Putin’s statements that he is satisfied with his chosen course; no substantial changes should be expected in foreign or domestic policy, and the question of even a hypothetical “successor” should wait for at least a year. The parliament and the government can breathe a sigh of relief – Putin didn’t drop the slightest hint that he’s dissatisfied with the performance of the executive and legislative branches; rather the reverse. This year, Putin clearly minimized statements of the kind that the media usually considers “sensational.” The impression was that his report on work done in 2005 took the form of repeating statements made earlier. They were obviously pre-prepared.

As if by order, a female journalist from the newly-established Russia Today television channel asked Putin to comment on the statements made by some Westerners who are skeptical about whether Russia ought to chair the Group of Eight, or even be a member of it. The answer was striking in its sharpness and the terms used. Putin said: “I’m aware of the mood among G8 leaders. No one is opposed – all of them are in favor of Russia’s membership and active participation in this club, since no one wants the G8 to turn into a gathering of fat cats. What’s more, the G8 is the club that considers global issues – the problem of security, above all. But can anyone here today imagine that decisions concerning global nuclear security, for example, might be made without the participation of the Russian Federation, the world’s largest nuclear power? Of course not. So all those who talk of such things – whether Russia should or shouldn’t be there – let them talk. That’s their job. The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.”

Ukraine got another reprimand for stealing gas. Putin repeated once again that Russia has essentially subsidized its neighbor for the past 15 years, to the sum of $3-5 billion a year. No less sharp was the statement directed at the Georgian authorities; according to Putin, they were “spitting” at our backs while Russian workers were laboring in temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius to repair the gas pipeline section damaged by an explosion.

Questions about domestic policy issues were also fairly predictable. “One of the main arguments in favor of the new selection procedures for the regional elite,” said Putin, “is that it makes it impossible for anyone with a criminal record to become a regional leader. And economic growth is astounding. Naturally, the growth of the Central Bank’s gold and currency reserves has been significant – simply record-breaking. Let me point out that we started off with $12 billion back in 2000; it’s now up to $185 billion, after finishing 2005 at over $182 billion. The government’s Stabilization Fund has grown as well. And as a result, the social consequences: the average wage has risen by 9.8%, real incomes have risen by an average of 8.7%, pensions by 13%. The incomes of our war veterans have increased substantially – in general, for the entire category of World War Two veterans and those of equal status.”

Unasked questions

Putin’s outward openness and erudition were certainly striking. The number of questions asked and answers given were also impressive. Still, there was the impression that not enough had been said.

At the start of his introductory speech, Putin spoke about political development, noting the formation of the Public Chamber as a substantial instrument for civil society. Surprisingly, however, not a single question was asked about it in the course of the press conference. Yet plenty of questions still remain. Judging by its membership list, the Public Chamber ought to be redefined as a high assembly of the Russian elite; although the members are entrusted with upholding the interests of the public, their only view of the public is through the windows of limousines. It would be naive to assume that people like Alla Pugacheva or Alina Kabayeva have the skills to evaluate legislation before it is passed. The purpose of this advisory government body remains unclear. It might be understandable, for example, to establish a Chamber of Elders – made up of people whose age and experience gives them the right and the competence to advise or correct the authorities. It might be justifiable to have some sort of Chamber of Nationalities, comprising representatives of Russia’s multi-ethnic society. But in its present form, the Public Chamber elicits incomprehension, to put it mildly.

The answers concerning Ukraine seemed like half-truths. If Putin acknowledges that it was a political error to make Kiev a “gift” of $3-5 billion a year with no return, that means we have lost $15-25 billion over the past five years – so a great many questions remain unanswered.

Hello to the blondes!

Of course, each one of the thousand journalists who gathered in the Round Hall of the Kremlin wanted to ask Putin a question. Towards the end of a major press conference, once all the “necessary” questions have been asked by journalists from the presidential pool, some other journalist might get lucky enough to be picked by Putin himself. Your chances are much higher if you’re blonde, female, and either from St. Petersburg or representing a St. Petersburg newspaper. Then again, a blonde might confirm all the unflattering cliches about blondes. This year, the chosen journalist asked Putin, “on behalf of all blondes,” how he manages to keep looking so good – secretly hoping Putin would confirm her suspicions that he, like Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, makes extensive use of liposuction and anti-wrinkle creams. Alas, however, our president looks good because he doesn’t drink to excess, has never done drugs, doesn’t smoke, exercises regularly, and works hard.

So we have someone to set us a good example.

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