What kind of questions do you usually expect from a Town Hall meeting in the US? Healthcare? Climate change? Pensions? Schools? Roads? You would be surprised, but these are also the kind of questions journalists asked President Putin last Thursday at his annual presser (his 15th one, no less). Apart from the recurrent theme of the Great Patriotic War, it was your run of the mill, banal Q & A session; just instead of concerned citizens you have a room full of 1895 journalists from Russia and abroad with varying level of sanity and servility.
The range was big to say the least: from icon-waving crackpots and terrified young reporters reading out encomiums about Putin’s involvement into youth programs to BBC correspondents asking about his daughters’ business ventures or about Boris Johnson’s comparing Putin to Dobbie the Elf from Harry Potter. The ones playing annual Putin bingo probably got everything down during the over 4-hour exercise in democracy and transparency: a bunch of mostly correct statistics, a traditional jab at the US, a signature lidded cup with (allegedly) tea, record numbers in agriculture, a snarky exchange with a Ukrainian journalist, as well as a couple of lessons in history.
The atmosphere was nervous. A lot of shouting, objections from journalists about their colleagues hogging question time; Putin even tried to restrain the crowd and asked them not to look like an “Oriental bazaar”. Some real grievances made it to the floor although in a much less extreme form: medication shortages (in part due to the almost universally hated import substitution), hospital problems, possible healthcare reform (“we shouldn’t change it”), infrastructure and one of the most literally burning issues – garbage disposal. The latter one sparked several protests around the country and was a catalyst for civic involvement. Nobody wants that, so Putin fielded a quick question on that with a non-answer.
What was on the mind a lot of Russian (and a couple Belarusian journalists) was the upcoming celebration of the World War Two Victory. Several were thanking Putin for raising fallen heroes from obscurity others were asking for commemorating soldiers, some incensed over the recent EU Parliament resolution on totalitarianism. Putin dutifully reminded everyone that Leningrad shouldn’t have been surrendered, otherwise “morons, you wouldn’t be there”, as well as defended Soviet invasion of Poland as justified given its participation in the Munich agreement and subsequent annexation of Teschen. The surprising part was that after years of media barrage that likened Ukrainians to Nazis, this time around there was not even a trace of that. Ukrainians are partners, gas negotiations are successful, Zelensky – a serious counterpart. And Russian military is not in Donbas (wink-wink).
What was unusual was Putin’s long-anticipated green light to the Union State of Russia and Belarus (that was met with massive protests in Minsk who don’t want to join the party). If you have ever been to Russia, booth signs at the border control for “citizens of the Union State of Russia and Belarus” have been there a while, but it seems that only now something less nebulous is happening. It’s still unclear, what. At least, not a nuclear war, based on Putin’s exchange with a Japanese journalist.
How’s Putin’s American pal doing? That’s where we get back to a Republican town hall. Poor Trump, Russia thing is a hoax, the Democrats are just a bunch of sore losers and Russia is ready to have a constructive dialogue and strategic partnership. Also, suck on your sanctions everyone, Russian economy is doing great!
Overall conclusion? Putin might be getting a bit tired but he definitely has a “firm grip”*. Less statistics, less zingers, but overall a relatively reassuring impression before New Year’s hibernation that most Russians are going into. Next comes the big Great Patriotic War celebration in May 2020 and another reminder of a great leader leading a great country. Who wants to think about insulin shortages and landfills when you can hold on to the memory of your ancestors defeating the Nazis? The problem for Putin though is that, at some point, the feeling that you live in a great nation will have to become more tangible than the parade on the Red Square. He himself even forgot to name Crimea “re-unification” as one of his main accomplishments as president. What if the rest of Russians will neglect it too?
*”Firm grip” was an expression that President Yeltsyn’s spokesperson used to describe his health after his re-election 1996. Yeltsyn had to undergo a heart surgery and disappeared from the public eye for a while. It’s in no reference to Putin’s health, of course.