LIVE UPDATES: Searches are underway in the offices of oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov in an effort to pressure him to sell the independent news service RBC.
Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here.
Recent Analysis and Translations:
– Getting The News From Chechnya â The Crackdown On Free Press You May Have Missed
– Aurangzeb, Putin, Realism and a Lesson from History
– Why the World Should Care About the Assassination of Boris Nemtsov
– How Boris Nemtsov Was Murdered: Investigation by Novaya Gazeta
– How Stalin Returned to Russian Contemporary Life – Meduza
In a tradition that owes as much to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s meticulously-prepared questions as FDR’s Fireside Chats, President Vladimir Putin held his 12th annual call-in show marathon on state TV today, April 14.
Putin went 3 hours and 40 minutes, 16 minutes under his time for last year, Gazeta.ru reported. Three million questions were submitted, but only a fraction of them answered to provide fodder for two propaganda themes: 1) that with the coming parliamentary elections there will be many “information plants” from the West to discredit Russia 2) Putin may ease up somewhat on businesses due to the economic crisis. “We’ll work together,” said Putin in reply to a batch of questions which Gazeta.ru summed up as “When will you stop picking on us?”
RFE/RL ran a live blog through the show, focusing on Putin’s coy answers about whether he will run for president in 2018 — “it’s too early to say” — and his remarks on rising prices — he showed off a bare wrist, supposedly the result of his donating his watch to a worker.
RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson provided further analysis of the show, focusing on Putin’s admissions about the economy — “the rise in food prices has been substantial” — but celebrating Russia’s shift from reliance on export of natural resources to “exports of high-tech products” — by which he means weapons, not computers.
Annual Putin Call-In Show Focuses On Economy
Economic questions have dominated the early portion of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual televised question-and-answer session, followed by queries about Russia's foreign relations with countries such as Turkey, Ukraine, and Syria. One of the first questions put to Putin concerned rising prices for groceries and other necessities.
It’s also watched with horrified fascination as right during the show, various things happen that seem to “make a statement” — they either occur because Russia watchers across the country — and some of the world — are distracted by the show, or they occur because Putin reaches out his all-powerful finger and touches some remote area on the map of the world’s largest country.
Translation: A case was opened against the director of the fish plant before an hour had even passed after they asked Putin the question. That means the file on him was already there.
The offices of Ikea — one of the last big foreign businesses remaining in Russia — were also searched in connection with a fraud case. This commentator invoked the Soviet concept of the “correlation of forces” and related the search to the restructuring of law enforcement.
Translation: Interior Ministry [police] searches in the office of Ikea during Putin’s Direct Speech – a visible step in the actualization of the topic of last week on establishing a new balance between the force ministries.
Nikolai Polozkov, lawyer for convicted Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, came to Rosotov to vist his client in prison and found that she had been isolated and he was denied a meeting, a fact he attributed to Putin’s marathon show. Savchenko had earlier declared a dry hunger strike.
This year, we noticed far fewer independent reporters getting the floor.
The image makes reference to a common Russian proverb — “don’t hang noodles on my ears” which means “don’t deceive me.”
For independent journalists, the sight of sycophantic types was particularly grating.
Snob.ru published a photo of an eager young Olympics speed skater named Ivan Skobrev that summed up the attitude of the independent media to the event:
Translation: When you have come to listen to your favorite president.
The ice skater looked like the man featured in many Soviet-era propaganda posters — here he is saying “no” to an offer of a drink of vodka, as part of the new communist youth.
Translation: #DirectLine from Golden Fish – to Chinese fish to “outrageous facts” in Shikotane. What, is this the Fitil magazine?
The references are as follows:
1) a well-known Russian fairy-tale about a peasant man and his wife, who urges him to make ever great demands to a magic golden fish to grant her wishes — but then finally when she goes beyond being queen to wishing to rule the earth and sea, the fish puts her back to her original level of poverty;
2) China, competing with Russia’s fish industry;
3) The main fish company in the town of Shikotan in Sakhalin Region whose owner was arrested during the marathon for not paying 6 million rubles ($90,840) in back wages to 229 of his workers ($396 per person);
4) Leonid Gaidai’s Fitil [Burning Fuse], a popular Soviet-era comedy show.
Popular blogger Ilya Varlamov also summed up the marathon ironically:
Translation: “I wanted to thank you that there’s no electricity! We have begun reading more! But still, WHERE IS THE ELECTRICITY?” The khokhly [pejorative name for Ukrainians] are to blame for everything.
When a woman complained about the lack of back wages and people “going homeless” in Shikhotan and the prosecutor “not reacting,” Putin said he “had not been briefed about it,” and within the hour the owner was arrested.
The omniscient and omnipotent eye of Putin may not help every situation, however, as Dmitry Dudkin, a worker in Chelyabinsk, found out, after he asked a question of Putin about his back wages. The security men from the plant where he worked summoned him for interrogation and threatened him with more questioning due to his complaint, LifeNews reported.
It will be interesting to see if LifeNews, which has close ties to intelligence and police, stays on this story. But the problems of a rust-belt area like Chelyabinsk, recently covered in a new book Putin-Country: A Journey Into the Real Russia by veteran NPR reporter Anne Garrels, are too great to be solved by even a good tsar on a case-by-case basis.
Even so, the televised propaganda event seems to be designed to create an image of Putin as an all-wise, all-seeing tsar who is able to reach out and change things in his vast empire. The show creates opportunities for carefully-staged citizens to ask small favors that the president himself can be seen to magnanimously perform to popular delight.
Like a Russian Art Linkletter’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” children’s questions are also exploited to make larger philosophical or political points. Varya Kuznetsova, age 12, referenced a joke from 2014, and asked “Last year, you said you’d rescue Obama. But if Poroshenko and Erdogan were drowning now, who would you save first?” Putin replied:
“Varya, you put me in a hard position. I don’t know what to say. If someone has decided to drown, it’s no longer possible to save them. But of course we are prepared to extend a hand of help and a hand of friendship to any of our partners. If he wants that himself.”
Isn’t Putin sad that Obama is leaving, asks one caller?
“We are in contact with him. He works well” and the work on Syria “is in a fairly positive vein.”
Some of the other highlights as featured by independent media:
On swearing – Putin admits to using curse words, when he curses himself. “There is such a sin in Russia. We will pray it away.”
Putin resorts to Soviet slogans – “Strike at the lack of roads and negligence” and “From the taiga to the British seas, there is nothing stronger than the Red Army.”
Putin as faux liberal – a school boy says, “My papa says only Putin can cope with that America,” and he replies that the “main issue is to cope with domestic problems.” A woman could in principle become head of Russia, and then she will cope “even better” with some of these domestic problems, says Putin.
Asked about education for children with autism, Putin says there must be “inclusive education” and the problem “isn’t us,” i.e. the government “but society” which is intolerant.
Putin as faux dove – A resident of Tula region, famous not only for its samovars but the arms plant founded by Peters the Great, noted that the Syrian war had shown off Russia’s latest weapons — would there be more orders? Putin said there would be and added:
“We must suppress the appetites of the force agencies just as we must suppress the appetites of the civilian agencies. We must increase the efficiency of the use of budget resources.”
Putin as faux peace-maker – “Above all, do no harm,” quotes Putin on the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis as if he is a helpful and disinterested bystander.
Putin as magnanimous tsar – “We will leave Timiryasev alone” — promising not to seize the land of the academy there.
Putin as rational scientist – to a man who urges messages printed on palm oil products to warn they are damaging to health (they are high in saturated fats), “Write that palm oil kills people? That’s excessive, not everyone considers that this is harmful to health.” Putin said deciding such things about imports was the job of the economic union made up of the former Soviet republics — along with the question of unified currency, which he was for delaying until all countries were at the same level of development.
Putin as promoter of science – a 12-year-old child genius who builds robots and speaks English complained that he was too young to be accepted into state youth summer camps – but now he has several offers.
The independent press also sifted out the most newsworth clips, beyond Putin’s image-making.
This year, the questions about Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, recently reconfirmed by Putin as acting head of Chechnya, didn’t come from figures like Xseniya Sobchak, but an establishment figure.
Putin replied in such a way to make sure the audience understood that Chechnya is far away from the power center of Moscow — it’s “one of the republics,” and that the people are primitive — they were only just yesterday fighting against the Kremlin in the forest, and only have just come out of the woods now to govern their republic
Sergei Dorenko, a prominent newscaster and editor of Ekho Moskvy’s Govit Moskva (Moscow Calling), asked Putin where the limits were — wasn’t it the role of the state to set the boundaries on things like Kadyrov’s putting former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov in an image with a sniper’s site? Aren’t there any rules? “If we start now with the ‘enemies of the people,’ we don’t know where it will end…” said Dorenko, invoking the Stalinist past.
The expressions that Putin puts on his face during this answer are among the best evidence of the actings skills of former KGB agents — and a triumph of Botox-challenged facial muscles.
Watch the video below as Putin says (1:29) “he fought with us in the forest” — delivered in the sing-song tone which Russians use to stress what they believe is a particularly impressive point — which elicited a thoughtful and vigorous head-nod from Dorenko – to his somber, sage and even indignant finger-pointing (1:38) as he strove to get us to believe Kadyrov and his father were never under any pressure from the KGB to rejoin Russia.
Then there’s Putin’s soulful discussion of Kadyrov’s supposed “internal” change (1:59); his emphatic hand spread (2:12) and finger point to his temple (2:13) to convince us that Kadyrov is spiritually and intellectually loyal only to the Kremlin. Then his condescending “just between us” smile (2:38) and even chronic surprise (2:42) at those “hot-headed Caucasians”; the patronizing expression (2:53) about how hard it is to get them to govern themselves; his pragmatic but hopeful claim that these ferocious people will stop attacking liberal opposition (3:12); his veiled threat (3:14) about their “responsibility” if they don’t; and finally his faux-ruefulness in an admission of his own “neglect” in this situation.
Here’s the text of Putin’s reply (translation by The Interpreter):
“Nowhere can you get by without rules. I know about whom you speak, you’re talking about one of our leaders in the Caucasus. I have personally talked with him on this issue. But let’s proceed from the realities of our lives. What are those realities? Who is this man of whom you speak? Yes, he is a leader of one of the regions, the Chechen Republic. But where did he get his start? He fought against us in the forest. Have you forgot this? With arms in his hands. And together with his father. Who — his father — no one forced him, no one recruited him, no one coerced him. He himself came to the conclusion that Chechnya had to be with the Russian people, and must be with Russia. And this is advantageous, this corresponds to the interests of the Chechen people.
This is a very difficult transformation, an internal one. In fact, it really did come from within. They are prepared to die. You know, in the interests of their people. And I know that Ramzan Kadyrov works with these convictions. He would never have started heading a republic within the Russian Federation if he were not convinced that this was the correct choice.
You understand, these are people prepared to risk everything, including their lives. You know, recently, it was said to me, ‘Let me die a worthy death.’ They are prepared even for that. And you know — in the interests of their people. But you do understand nonetheless what these people are. Not to mention that it’s the Caucasus. People are hot-tempered. And the establishment of such people as people involved in government work at a political level does not go easily. We are all human. We have all come from our own past.
But I hope that both the leader of Chechnya and other leaders of the regions of the Russian Federation will become aware of the level and decree of their responsibility. Both to the people who live on their own territory. And to the Russian Federation as a whole. And the understanding will come to them that to act or formulate their attitute to this or that opponent by extreme methods does not mean to foster the stability in our country. On the contrary, it means to damage this stability. And if that awareness comes, I am sure that it will, because they sincerely work for common national interests, then there won’t be such expressions. Likely somewhere my negligence has something to do with it.”
This seems like a rare admission from Putin but it’s also part of the calculated effect — if Kadyrov was able to issue blasts of criticism and threats against the opposition on Instagram, well, maybe Putin just doesn’t read Instagram posts. But now he has and has met with Kadyrov and issued him a vague and mild reprimand, which few noticed but Ilya Yashin, author of a major report on Kadyrov’s abuses. This much higher-trafficked national program clipped by RT will get many more views and burn in the message – so far, Kadyrov is quiet.
On the New National Guard
A resident of Dagestan — perhaps thinking of Kadyrov’s “personal army” made up of Interior Ministry branch troops in Chechnya — asks why the National Guard was formed, and Putin replies that this move was “first and foremost to place under especial control the arms trade in the country.”
Western analysts have given many answers to this question of the rationale for this not-unexpected reform discussed for some years – Putin’s need to rein in the force structures to keep them loyal and stop a possible domestic coup; his need to stop domestic unrest; and to cut costs. This reason about “arms control” has not been supplied at all, and may constitute a tacit recognition that the black market in weapons and the flourishing of various “private security firms” since the break-up of the Soviet Union and the reform of the KGB, army and police under Yeltsin have gotten out of hand despite efforts to control them by Putin the last 15 years.
But in answering the Dagestani, Putin also said:
“We are counting on raising the effectiveness of this work and lowering the costs for maintenance of the services. At the expense of optimizing the management and staff organizations above all. This concerns both the Interior Ministry and the National Guard.
Putin denied that there would be “massive” lay-offs”
“There will not be massive lay-offs. Optimization is inevitable, but mainly through service organizations, staff, financial…There is an investigative division in the Federal Narcotics Control, naturally it must be merged to the Interior Ministry’s investigative division, the same for the accounting office, etc. And here there will most likely be optimization. But the significance of the tasks is high, and the majority will not be subject to optimization. The Interior Ministry was also charged with the task of fighting drugs — well, why have two agencies work in parallel? The same concerns the Federal Emergencies Service. I will say right off: thee will be no delays with issuing passport over this.”
It’s not clear what Putin means in the last line, but possibly he is referencing the issuing of foreign passports, so that policemen formerly banned from travel will now be able to go abroad if they no longer are employed in law-enforcement.
In any event, Putin does not seem to have contemplated the social costs of laying off tens of thousands of formerly-armed siloviki, some of whom will nevertheless manage to keep their arms, nor the costs of firing their managers who may not fit into civilian agencies as well. The question for this category of people may only be whether they support the Russian Orthodox, neo-pagan or Bolshevik militants fighting in the Donbass and harassing liberals, minorities and gays at home. Even so, Putin is implying that with consolidation, he will have the means to fight mutinies as well — with the unemployed or disgruntled policemen’s co-workers.
Asked if he didn’t trust the armed forces, which is why he was making the National Guard subordinate to him directly, he said all force agencies were directly subordinate to the president and the National Guard, as a new entity, would be as well.
On Russia’s Arms Sales
Putin also reiterated the news from a previous Kremlin meeting — Russia sold a record $14.5 billion in armaments last year, and has orders for $50 billion this year. He noted that the US leads the world in the arms trade, a fact that he can count on legions of Kremlin trolls to replicate as implying the US bears responsibility for civilian deaths. If Putin were honest, he would admit that in fact it’s Russia that leads the world’s arms sales to places of armed conflict.
Here, Putin was predictable. He claimed that Europe dropped tariffs on Ukraine, but trade fell 23% between Ukraine and Europe and 50% between Russia and Europe.
This seems particularly ingenuous, as trade in Russia fell primarily because of Putin’s own counter-sanctions on food from Europe; and Ukraine could only increase trade with Europe if a significant size of its country that produces oil, coal and steel were not at war with many plants shut down.
He also said “people who live in the Donbass must feel that they are secure and that they have rights” — then tied this to constitutional reforms about autonomy of the region, although rights are secured in other existing constitutional articles in force, and security depends on Russia stopping its support of armed militants.
Putin also surprised some by calling for more OSCE monitors in southeastern Ukraine, although the militants Putin supports shoot at those monitors and don’t give them access to many border crossings or positions within the Donbass that the occupy. This is also a disingenuous call, as an increase in monitors isn’t useful unless they have access, and also likely Russia hopes that given the demand for Russian speakers that European countries would find harder to fill, Russia and its allies can supply the personnel.
On Kiev choice of a turn toward the West: “What civilizational choice? Just as oligarchs were in power so they have remained.” On who is to blame for the war – “the accusation against the DNR and LNR is a distraction” – Kiev is violating the Minsk agreement. He promised “there will be no dangerous provocations on the contact line,” although daily, there are such provocations already.
On the Panama Papers
This seems a funny thing for a man who relies on the power of oligarchs himself to say, but it does reveal Putin’s largely Soviet communist mentality. This shone through in his claim that Sueddeutscher Zeiting, the German paper that released the leaked Panama documents, was “financed by Goldman Sachs,” a hated symbol of Western capitalism. SZ denied the claim:
On September Elections
Asked if it wasn’t pointless to go to the parliamentary elections since United Russia, the ruling party, would win, Putin said defensively that the elections system was “effective and fair” and if anyone doubted it, “that’s a means of protecting their interests.” He said United Russia took all the hard responsibility for governing under unstable conditions that other parties didn’t want to take, or if they announced they were taking, didn’t perform well under.
Putin pointed to elections in Irkutsk, where a United Russia candidate lost in the first and second round. But a communist won, which only proves the point that only loyal “system” parties allowed to register and enter the parliament in the first place can win in contested elections.
Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the ice-skater as a reporter. According to 7:40 na Perrone, he is Ivan Skobrev, an Olympics speed skater.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick