A LITTLE OINTMENT AMIDST THE FLIES

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President Putin communicates with the people

President Putin loves talking with the people, and the people love talking with President Putin. His question-and-answer broadcasts are like televised high-level meetings – both reassuring sermons and public confessions. Are these collective meditation sessions really necessary?


President Putin loves talking with the people, and the people love talking with President Putin. His question-and-answer broadcasts are like televised high-level meetings, bearing a simultaneous resemblance to reassuring sermons (all is well – Russia is on an upswing, thank God) and public confessions (alas, I don’t have time to get everything done, and not everything turns out right). Are these collective meditation sessions really necessary?

Some would say that they’re not necessary: citing the experience of industrialized democracies, where it would be inconceivable for a president to communicate via television with selected groups of citizens.

But this question is more complicated than that. It goes deeper, as Mikhail Gorbachev would have said. Obviously, Putin himself doesn’t really need these popular chats; his approval ratings are already sky-high. He’s already made his decision not to seek a third term. Yet another question-and-answer broadcast doesn’t make any difference to him.

But Putin’s inner circle in the Kremlin isn’t made up of fools, presumably. So if they have advised their boss to talk to the people, that means there really is some advantage and purpose in doing so, though we may not be aware of it. What is this purpose?

Russia’s present-day political system is like a ship with a problem: the power of its engine is somehow prevented from reaching the propeller. The engine is the very latest liberal model. There’s plenty of fuel. The ship’s refrigerators are full of food. The galley is staffed with Harvard-educated cooks. Instruments installed by specialists from the Federal Statistics Service show perfect pressure, and the compasses indicate the right direction.

And so the first mate gives the order: “Full speed ahead!” The accredited press shouts hurrah. The orchestra plays a cheery tune. But the ship slips out of the dock rather half-heartedly…

Meanwhile, smoke is pouring from the smokestacks and everyone can hear that some sort of unseen but very important and useful work is being done in the depths of the engine-room. But the ship, heavily laden with Stabilization Fund gold, is behaving as if the bosun forgot to give the order to cast off.

Under the circumstances, what does the wise inner circle do? It persuades the nation’s beloved captain to come out on the bridge and explain what is currently happening. Tell the people that this powerful ship is just about to attain cruising speed. Tell them that the valuable cargo will be delivered to the correct destination, and ahead of schedule at that. Tell them that international waters are completely calm (except for a few ripples off the coast of Georgia and the Baltic states). But… he should also tell them that there’s been an unfortunate misunderstanding just before the voyage began, and the crew will correct it shortly. Look, the bosun (slightly resembling Mikhail Fradkov) is already smacking incompetent crew-members upside the head. The guilty parties (perhaps even corrupt ministers) are just about to be seized and handed over to the strong arm of the law, as represented by Ustinov and Chaika. And to keep the passengers from getting bored, a lively boxing match (between United Russia and Just Russia) will take place on the upper deck.

Amazingly enough, the number of people seeking to participate in Putin’s television broadcasts is rising with every year. This year, over two million people submitted questions – even though they know that only 50-100 questions will be answered. They also know that Putin won’t be pulling any rabbits out of the Kremlin hat. That’s because our street-wise passengers already know what proportion of the pie they can expect to receive, and what proportion will be stolen and eaten by the ship’s rats. Nevertheless, people are prepared to stand in the rain, or in the biting Siberian winds, reaching for the magic microphone. Why do they do it?

Is it just a case of wanting to be on television and hear their names mentioned? Or are they hoping that the president will be so emotionally moved by communicating with the people that he’ll turn to them (as Stalin once did: “Brothers and sisters…”) and reveal some sort of secret that will change their lives and give them new hope?

It seems to me that the answer lies elsewhere. The people are so disillusioned with the authorities, so tired of bureaucratic carrion, so tired of deceit and promises, that they crave to hear a living, honest word – if only once a year. They want to hear Putin say, clearly and distinctly: guys, I’m on your side – not the side of those thieves, pigs, and yes-men. The people still believe in Russia’s timeless fairy-tale: waiting for the mighty hero-president to show his righteous wrath, taking up his Kremlin sword and cutting a few heads off the fearsome dragon known as “the bureaucracy.”

On President Putin’s orders, the government has prepared and circulated a memorandum requesting ministries to submit proposals for bringing the authorities closer to ordinary citizens, cutting back the weight of the bureaucracy, and eliminating corruption. Will this memo change our lives? Or will millions of citizens once again submit their questions to their beloved president a year from now, and stand in the streets on another gray October day, waiting their turn at the microphone?

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