As tens of thousands of people gathered in Moscow on December 10 to protest recent parliamentary elections, it was clear that Vladimir Putin and his regime faced the biggest political crisis in Russia since the fall of communism. After five days of near silence, Mr. Putin gave his response. Following a format that he himself invented, he sat down in front of a live television audience to answer scores of carefully screened questions.
Four and a half hours later, the carefully selected questions and emphatic answers revealed Mr. Putin’s emerging strategy. Although he acknowledged the people’s mood and offered some reforms, he dismissed any charges of election fraud and crudely insulted the political opposition. The elections, he argued, were an accurate reflection of the political forces in Russia: the party of power – United Russia – had even lost ground. In the end, Mr. Putin was sending a message to (what he hopes is) a silent majority of Russians: any problems are “normal” and will be solved during Russia’s continued stable development.
From the very beginning of this staged question and answer session, it was clear that this one would be different. Instead of opening the session with a long laundry list of accomplishments as he had in the past, Mr. Putin addressed a series of questions surrounding the recent protests in the center of Moscow. Abandoning his flimsy claim that the protests were orchestrated by the United States, Mr. Putin acknowledged that the people were dissatisfied with the political system and that he was happy to see the protestors legally voicing their opinions.
Once he had acknowledged the people’s dissatisfaction, he turned his attention to the disputed election. Drawing an implicit distinction between the “political opposition” and the “people”, Mr. Putin dismissed the evidence showing widespread election fraud. These allegations, he argued, were simply the “natural” reaction of a political opposition that was dissatisfied with the elections and was trying to “destabilize society.” And the opposition? He could not avoid a crude attack on their white ribbons, confessing that his first thought was that they were part of an anti-AIDS campaign because they looked like “tied up condoms.”
To ensure that similar charges were not leveled against the upcoming March presidential elections, Mr. Putin emphatically stated that web cameras should be placed in every polling station across Russia’s vast landmass. These cameras would work day and night and the opposition could see for themselves that the election was free and fair. He also stated that it would make sense to liberalize the regime of registering political parties.
Trust me, We Have Everything Under Control
Once he had dismissed any charges of fraud, Mr. Putin acknowledged that the people did have a legitimate grievance: the political system was increasingly plagued by a growing gulf between the people and the regional elite. After recounting a story of a local official too scared to face his own constituents, he put forward his most concrete reform proposal of the session: a return to a system of elections for regional representatives. Subject to appropriate presidential filtering, these elections would ensure that mid-level officials would no longer be able to stay in power by ignoring the demands of their constituents.
Other than this proposal to return to a system of “controlled elections”, however, Mr. Putin – much as he did almost a month earlier at the Valdai Conference – failed to go into any further details about concrete solutions to Russia’s existing political or economic challenges (including the dangers of an oil price below $80 a barrel). He demonstrated vague support for devolving power to the local level (remembering a meeting he had with Aleksandr Solzhentisyn on this topic) but gave few specifics on how his local power would be increased in his top-down system of power. Other than that, his proposals were bereft of detail.
This was perhaps best demonstrated when Putin faced a softball question about his “mission” if elected president in March 2012. After spending most of his answer cataloguing his previous accomplishments, he spent a brief time rotely declaring Russia’s need to “diversify the economy”, “strengthen its political system”, and “develop the social sphere.” Behind these slogans, his message was clear: trust me, we will continue a stable and orderly process of development.
We Don’t Need Great Revolutions!
Mr. Putin’s question and answer session therefore was not directed at the internet-savvy, westernized elite who are demanding tangible change and furiously organizing another protest for December 24th in Moscow. Instead, Mr. Putin’s vague promises of “stable development” were directed at what Putin hopes is his own silent majority: the pensioners, factory workers, and office workers who have benefited from ten years of “stable development.” The regime is hoping that this majority will agree with a Russian factory worker and Duma member who addressed Mr. Putin early in the session. Instead of asking a concrete question, he simply addressed all Russians and said “In every family and house there are problems. . . . We Russians have always endured. We don’t need great revolutions.”