Vladimir Putin has a fairly clear vision that may be accepted or rejected, but not denied. The problem is that his opponents are trying to argue with him about details rather than offer an alternative vision for Russia’s development. In this sense, Putin is very calm because nobody has suggested a serious alternative.
Vladimir Putin feels more confident at such events as news conferences with each passing year. At last news conference he was the master of the situation. It was up to him how to reply to questions, which of them to ignore or answer indirectly. However, as distinct from the past year, journalists should have been given a chance to make their questions more specific or object to the president in the event they were dissatisfied with his answers. Otherwise, no dialogue is possible. This format is not very good for fact-finding, and the president replies as he sees fit.
Second, the level of questions was extremely low. Russian reality suggests many questions, and it was even possible to cast a challenge to the president in a good sense of the word. In fact, a news conference is conducted to give the president food for thought – to give him an opportunity to think about issues that journalists are worried about and that he hasn't gotten around to. It is important for Putin to feel challenged at least in some way. He wants some kind of drive, a hit of adrenaline. But it is perfectly obvious that this news conference could not provide any of this. Putin did what he wanted to do, and I think journalists came out fundamentally on the losing end. In the Western political tradition, a politician is afraid to attend a news conference with so many journalists. In general, Western politicians are very frightened of dealing with journalists who may ask difficult questions and who write what they want, because the reputation of politicians depends considerably on their image in the media.
Putin’s recent news conference has shown that problems exist not only on the side of the government, which may be or may not be accused of trying to control the media, but also on the side of journalists who do not understand and do not want to understand their opportunities. They are afraid and censor themselves. They do not challenge the authorities like their Western colleagues do. This news conference resembled somewhat the question & answer sessions that Putin conducts in spring. They consist of requests, complaints and questions. The level of questions at these sessions differs little from that of professional journalists. It is not quite clear why the format of a news conference exists at all. We have not learned anything new, although this is ostensibly the reason journalists exist in Russian society: to find out news and the president’s views. We have not felt this. We do not need news conferences just to find out that journalists are people like us and have to resolve their own social and household problems. If the president wants to bring something to the public he can do this without a news conference, as the Khodorkovsky case bears out. After this, it became clear that we can just forget about this news conference. On my twitter account I wondered why a thousand journalists had to sit at this event for four hours without learning anything.
This format is only necessary if the two sides are honestly ready to sort out their relationships, search for the truth and expose each other. If this is a peaceful event with a policy of pinpricks and requests to Putin as if he were Father Frost, he is bored himself and four hours are being wasted for nothing. Probably, it is formally possible to make the point that the president spoke with journalists, and now no Western leader or human rights champion can accuse him of an unwillingness to reply to journalists.
Putin is confident. He has obviously kept the protest attitudes at bay in Russia. The domestic protest movement has dwindled tremendously and is now represented by small groups of angry people that are unable to attract public attention. Regrettably, this is the case. Putin has prevailed. He has produced the impression of a man who does not see a threat in the political system of his making.
Questions that were never asked
Nobody asked why Russia does not have new, serious politicians. A system must be dynamic; life is moving ahead, political arrangements are changing and new people are always in demand. However, during Putin’s entire term in power, no new names have appeared at the top of Russian policy. Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky, Mironov and Medvedev have been around for a long time. Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky emerged even before Putin. Why doesn’t this system give birth to new politicians on a federal level, on Putin’s level? These are the questions that Putin should be asked. Why is the country’s personnel policy dead? Where are the elevators for young politicians who could legitimately challenge the current authorities at elections? Those we see today are the team from the day before yesterday, but Putin again called them Russia’s major politicians. People cannot be at the top for 25 years. If they are, we are back to the Soviet system where one and the same man was the party’s leader and main successor for a quarter century. Such a leader can spend his entire life at the top.
Nobody has challenged other political leaders, for instance the heads of the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party. So the entire system duplicates itself at all levels, and this is a bad thing.
I would have also asked Putin a question about the Constitution. He said Russia is no longer a post-Soviet country, that we have passed this stage. But the Constitution was written as a transitional document and continuously requires amendments; the presidential term was extended and now two courts are being merged. What does the president think about the role of the Constitution as Russia’s Fundamental Law? Maybe we need a new Constitution?
I’m also interested in a foreign policy question. Who are Russia’s allies after all? We complain that we have been surrounded by enemies on all sides, be it the West, America or NATO, while some post-Soviet countries are aggressive toward us. What countries are on our side then? This is very important. Foreign policy primarily implies a search for allies, those on whom you may rely. There exists the expression “the United States and its allies” and I’ve already told Putin about this, but there is no expression “Russia and its allies.” Why doesn’t this concept exist? Why don’t we have allies? After all, Putin has been in power for a fairly long time.
There are many questions, including difficult ones that should have been raised at this event. Moreover, journalists shouldn’t have let Putin brush them aside, but should have pressed on. I am confident he would have appreciated a question that would give him something to think about, or that would have prompted serious action. Questions should have been serious, systemic and political, not just requests to deal with some police station or build children’s playgrounds. Putin would have appreciated a question in this vein, because he also needs feedback that was absent at the recent news conference.
In general, Putin was a great success at this event. He is a strong and systemic politician. He did not improvise much or concoct something out of thin air. He has a fairly clear vision that may be accepted or rejected, but not denied. The problem is that his opponents are trying to argue with him about details rather than offer an alternative vision for Russia’s development. In this sense, Putin is very calm because nobody has suggested a serious alternative. All politicians are arguing about details and Putin does not find this interesting or productive. When we argue about details we accept Putin’s dominant vision by default, thereby reaffirming his leading role.