Kirill Kleymenov and Maria Sittel, “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin” (RT.com, 16 April 2015)
Every year since he has been President of Russia, and also when he served as Prime Minister under Dmitri Medvedev’s term as President from 2009 to 2013, Vladimir Putin has willingly fielded questions about the Russian economy, politics, social issues, foreign policy and just about any other topic raised by Russian citizens live on this 4-hour Q&A marathon broadcast by four Russian TV channels and three radio stations from Moscow. The questions come to Putin through many channels: studio audience, phone-in or phone messages, live video links and electronic mail. The 2015 edition ran for five hours and over three million questions and messages were received by the show. Over the years, the show’s hosts have changed but Kirill Kleymenov and Maria Sittel have been the main stalwarts and this year was no different. Kleymenov and Sittel receive able assistance from people monitoring the questions coming into the studio through various media.
Due to the length of the Q&A session and to the variety of questions and issues raised , this essay attempts to group the questions and responses into rough groups relating to the Russian economy, social and political issues, foreign policy and particular issues that arose during 2014 and early 2015. I make no claim to being impartial in looking at and emphasising particular parts of the marathon session. My essay is based on the English-language transcript provided by The Vineyard of the Saker website.
Maria Sittel was the first to lead off with a question to Putin and this question dealt with the complicated economic situation that faced Russia for most of 2014. Western economic sanctions were applied against Russia as a result of the political crisis that erupted in Ukraine after February 2014, the ensuing restrictions on non-Ukrainians and their use of their own languages in public life, Crimea’s independence referendum and the peninsula’s subsequent return to Russia, the outbreak of civil war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, and the West’s perception of Russia ‘s response to that war; and the deliberate crashing of global oil prices by the United States and Saudi Arabia by flooding world markets with oil with the aim of wrecking the Russian economy, perceived to be wholly dependent on oil and natural gas exports. Russia responded by imposing its own economic sanctions on EU and other Western products entering Russia, thus stimulating its own industries to replace those products, and by entering into trade deals with other countries. The Russian rouble was allowed to fall in value and the Russian Central Bank hiked up interest rates to stem the decline. (Though The Saker disapproved of this move, in retrospect it may have been a brilliant master-stroke: Russian oil is bought and sold in US dollars, so Russia would be hoarding US dollars until such time as the value of the rouble is low enough that US dollars can be exchanged for roubles, and then Russia would flood world markets with US dollars, depressing the US dollar’s value.) Putin’s response to Sittel’s question was to highlight positive developments in Russia’s economy over 2014 / early 2015. In response to Kleymenov’s question as to whether Russia could have acted differently, Putin replied that Moscow took the best approach possible at the time.
Still Kleymenov and Sittel pressed Putin more by bringing out a big gun: former government finance minister Alexei Kudrin who criticised Moscow’s application of the “Strategy 2020″ programme he (Kudrin) helped develop, saying that Russia has not gone far enough in pushing structural economic reform. He urged that under the present economic conditions, Russia needs to adopt Strategy 2020 and pursue it fully, rather than use it as a guide or handy source of individual policies to be picked at. Putin replied that Strategy 2020 was in effect as a guide but its full practical implementation is difficult as it would squeeze incomes that are already too low in crucial areas of economy and society such as primary and secondary school education. One can sense here a clash between Kudrin’s preferred neoliberal reforms which among other things might have imposed austerity measures on the bulk of the working population and Putin’s liking for a mixed economy in which capitalist and socialist policies and programmes co-exist and complement one another in different proportions depending on the particular socioeconomic spheres in which they are applied.
Agricultural Issues and Issues affecting Small Business
Whether by accident or deliberate choice, several questions targeted at Putin focused on Moscow’s support for agriculture and small farmers in particular. A number of farmers, especially dairy farmers, called attention to the difficulties small farmers have in obtaining bank credit to develop their herds and increase milking capacity and yields. One farmer in particular complained that his dairy farm had yielded no profit over the 15 years it has operated and that he distrusted the official statistics given by the dairying industry as they did not reflect the reality he was experiencing. Another dairy farmer complained that government funding was going to large farms while small farmers were “left with crumbs”. To these people, Putin replied that Moscow had allocated an extra 50 billion roubles to support agriculture and another 4 billion roubles to subsidise the leasing of equipment. In addition, Moscow had also increased subsidies for farmers on bank loans taken out to increase working capital.
A third farmer complained that small farmers had to compete against larger agricultural enterprises to supply milk to customers and that small farmers who wanted to supply milk and other products directly to customers through farmers’ markets needed help to do so from local municipal authorities. Putin sympathised with this farmer, added that council authorities had had problems in the past with outdoor markets selling expired goods and that Moscow would take up this issue with regional governors and they in turn would contact council authorities about it.
The issues raised by small farmers point to the need for the Russian government to assist small and medium-sized farming enterprises financially and in marketing their products. Support could be given to small farmers to form private co-operatives that would market and distribute their produce directly to customers. The relevant government ministries could consider offering business advice to small farmers, establish a system of banks specifically to offer loans to small farmers and set up a unit to offer financial advice. Such systems could also be part of broader systems to offer advice and funding to small businesses and entrepreneurs generally.
Indeed there was a brief discussion about raised interest rates for small business loans that annoyed two questioners from Sverdlovsk and Irkutsk. Putin said he would look into the situation of Sberbank’s raising of the interest rates for small business loans and refer it to the head of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. There were support programmes already in place for small to medium-sized businesses including a two-year tax holiday for new businesses.
Politicial and Foreign Policy Issues
Kleymenov brought out liberal politician Irina Khakamada who spoke of the recent gunshot death of the liberal political activist Boris Nemtsov and queried how the investigation into his shooting was going and whether other opposition politicians such as Alexei Navalny are able to run for parliament on an equal footing with politicians allied with Putin. Putin pointed out that suspects in Nemtsov’s murder had already been arrested and charged a few days after the killing but those ultimately responsible for hiring the hitmen and who stood to benefit from Nemtsov’s death were unknown. Putin also said that opposition politicians should be able to campaign on an equal basis with other politicians provided that they have popular support and that their activities are within the law.
The issue of Boris Nemtsov’s death was taken up again later in the show by Ekho Moskvy radio station chief editor Alexei Venediktov who queried why investigators were unable to question eyewitnesses hiding in Russian territory, and insinuated that this demonstrated a weakness in Russia’s internal security. Putin replied that investigations were still ongoing and that among other things they would lead to the real killers in due course.
A number of people raised concerns about Russia’s place in the world, whether Russia would be attacked and who Russia’s friends were in the revived fight against a resurgent Nazism in Ukraine. Putin tended to skirt around these questions, more out of the need perhaps to be diplomatic and not reveal state secrets. To one military historian who asked if Russia should respond to those countries that refused to send leaders to attend the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in Moscow on 9 May 2015, Putin replied such countries were free to do what they liked; the Victory Parade was Russia’s celebration after all and Russia could celebrate without others.
A newspaper editor, Konstantin Remchukov, challenged Putin in suggesting that his (Putin) popularity ratings were based on people’s perceptions of the West as bullying Russia and their feelings of patriotism and nationalism rising as a result. Remchukov wanted to know what Putin would do to counter radical nationalism (and by implication risk seeing his popularity plummet). Putin replied that he did not agree with Remchukov’s perception of his popularity and that Russian people knew and understood what was really happening. (In other words, Russian people have more intelligence than what Remchukov credits them with.) From Putin’s point of view, nationalism, patriotism and xenophobia are not to be confused and that nationalism has no place in Russia which historically developed as a multinational / multicultural society dominated by no one religion.
As one of the assistants to Kleymenov and Sittel remarked while monitoring the phone calls and SMS text messages, many questions put to the President concern housing, utilities, the ability of Russia’s healthcare system to cope with particular conditions affecting many people and the cost of medicines. Particular questions on Russian healthcare focused on the system’s ability to deliver prompt treatment at the level needed by people with life-threatening or chronic diseases and conditions. The show received complaints from people registered in special categories to receive free prescriptions for certain drugs but who were unable to obtain such prescriptions because the medicines were not available in the areas where they lived. One woman expressed a fear that the Ministry for Health was planning to stop importing foreign medicines. The questions asked suggest that Russia needs to develop a pharmaceutical industry, ideally spread over a number of cities in its European and Asian territories, to make drugs either under licence from Western pharmaceutical firms or to develop its own drugs. Other questions indicate that the healthcare system needs to do more to provide proper treatment and care for the country’s most vulnerable groups: pensioners, cancer patients and children with chronic conditions who live far from the major cities. There may be a huge discrepancy in people’s access to quality healthcare between the larger cities and towns on the one hand and on the other small provincial towns and villages in isolated areas where transport links need development.
Interestingly with respect to housing, the main issue that arose was the plight of people who had taken out mortgage loans in foreign currencies some time before the rouble began falling in value, and who were now having problems in paying off their loans. Putin said his government could investigate ways of helping such people but no more than it would help people who had taken out mortgages in roubles. He pledged that the government would subsidise mortgage loans to help support the growth of residential construction and to help people buy affordable housing. The country has been experiencing a housing construction boom in recent years and subsidising mortgage loans will help maintain and increasing available housing stock.
A man complained that his rural town’s regular train service had been cancelled a year ago and that as a result people were unable to move around. The cancellation of the service particularly affected young people’s ability to attend colleges and universities. Putin promised to look into the town’s situation and to find a solution that was both economical and helpful to the town’s population.
Crimea and Ukraine
2015 is the second year that people in Crimea would have been able to participate in the Direct Line with Vladimir Putin show. The main questions focused on the peninsula’s transport links with Russia, in particular the ferry links between Crimea and SE Russia at Kerch Strait and the poor state of the air terminal and runway at what I presume is Sevastopol. Putin mentioned that Aeroflot was cutting the price of tickets to Crimea from several cities and that ferry services between Crimea and Russia would be increased.
The elephant in the room that is Ukraine was present in many questions and at times the situation in that country and the ramifications for Russia were discussed at some length. Direct Line received a report that a prominent journalist in Ukraine, Oles Buzina, had just been shot dead and that a former politician Oleg Kalashnikov, associated with former Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, had also been killed previously. The hosts and Putin expressed condolences to Buzina’s family. Irina Khakamada asked Putin if Russia had troops in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine and Putin emphatically said no. An online question asked why Russia’s support for Ukraine had failed given that Russia had invested the equivalent of US$32-33 billion in Ukraine; Putin’s reply was that the Ukrainian government itself had wasted the money with the greed and corruption of its politicians.
At this point Putin delved into a brief and interesting lecture into why Russia had allowed Ukraine to develop the way it had since 1991 when Ukraine became independent: Ukraine is a sovereign state and must be allowed to make its own way in the world. As a fellow sovereign state, Russia must respect Ukraine’s decisions even if they incur bad or injurious results. There is no desire on Russia’s part to revive an empire or force other countries into an imagined sphere of influence in spite of Western propaganda that says the contrary. At the same time, Putin recognised that a considerable number of Russians and Russian-speaking people live outside the borders of Russia in neighbouring countries like Ukraine and that their interests had to be considered. The way to do this, according to Putin, is through interaction, cooperation and mutual respect.
On the question of the future status of Ukraine’s breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, Putin took a minimalist position in stating that he hoped for the recent Minsk II agreements, brokered with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the leaders of Germany and France, would be implemented and adhered to by the Ukrainian government. In the long run, whether Donetsk and Lugansk would stay within Ukraine or not would depend on the people living in those oblasts and their decision would in turn depend on the Ukrainian leadership’s attitude towards these two regions.
Firstly the very notion that Vladimir Putin would participate in a marathon 5-hour session answering questions, not all of which might be spontaneous and unscripted, seems quite astounding to most Western audiences used to seeing their leaders participate in carefully orchestrated 1-hour “debates” in which all replies have been scripted and vetted in advance. Certainly some questioners appear to have been pre-selected which might explain why Alexei Kudrin and Irina Khakamada, both prominent opposition politicians, got the gong to ask their questions at the expense of other, perhaps more pressing requests. The fact that people in Crimea and Donbass refugees were favoured by Direct Line might suggest pre-selection at work as well in addition to Crimea and the Donbass being issues of considerable importance and urgency in Russia at this time.
Why prominent opposition politicians like Kudrin and Khakamada were given air-time when they could have raised their respective questions in parliament seems a puzzle. It could be that the issues they have raised are in the public interest, given that among other things Boris Nemtsov’s murder attracted worldwide attention. However Putin was able to turn a potential source of criticism into his advantage: the police investigation into Nemtsov’s death netted suspects within a week of the killing. The propaganda value that the West could have mined from Nemtsov’s death ended up being very limited. Also by giving time to Kudrin and Khakamada, Putin gave them the opportunity to hang themselves by their own opinions of what was important and what was not. Khakamada by her own admission and assumptions placed more importance on Western impressions that Russian military units were present in eastern Ukraine than on actual facts: she could have travelled to the area or areas close by and seen for herself that no Russian troops were stationed in positions to invade.
I note that this year’s Q&A session was the longest so far in the programme’s history and I expect that next year’s session will be just as long if not longer. There surely will come a point when the producers realise “Direct Line …” is becoming unwieldy. I can see it running to about six or seven hours but no more. There is a need perhaps to set certain guidelines about what people can ask or petition of the President so as to preserve the programme’s reputation for serious journalism as well as not to waste time with frivolous requests.
The very fact that people pepper their President with questions, requests and petitions which he says he will take up with the relevant regional governors who in turn would be expected to refer to and discuss with the local municipal authorities in charge of the issues raised suggests that democracy from the ground up might still be weak in parts of Russia. There may be regional and local government authorities that still have an authoritarian outlook and culture and which only jump to pressure applied from above. (Much the same can be said about the relationship between and among the different levels of government and their respective relationship with their voters in many supposedly more democratic Western countries; in many governments at regional and even local council levels, ideology and politicking have usurped priorities such as delivering services required by communities.) No doubt a situation in which regional and local government authorities in Russia are more attentive and responsive to their constituents’ needs would be much better than what may currently exist. Citizens should be able to appeal directly to their relevant authorities (through citizen-initiated referendums, online petitions or mini-Q&A sessions with regional governors for example) to get certain things done that benefit their families and communities. Perhaps Moscow itself is working towards this goal. A criticism that could be made about shows like Direct Line … is that they are simply a 21st-century version of rulers holding court and receiving petitions and requests from subjects which are then delegated to the appropriate advisors and ministries.
The impression of Vladimir Putin that I come away with is that he is an intelligent and pragmatic politician and leader who, while he may keep his cards close to his chest, seems dedicated at the very least to leave his country in a much more developed, more prosperous and freer position than it was when he returned to the Soviet Union in 1991 from Germany. This work requires the revival and strengthening of social and cultural institutions and values that were weakened or repressed during the Soviet period and which would serve as a basis for a new Russian society. Putin recognises that Russia is in a period of transition, in the process of becoming, and that he has responsibility for leading the country through that transition – though what the result will be may not necessarily be what he imagines – but still, he is determined to progress to his preferred goal of a Russia strong and secure in its place in the world. This goal is very much in agreement with what he said in his Valdai 2014 speech, in which Russia would not aim at being the world’s enforcer but rather concentrate on its own development and defend its own interests and territory.
The episode can be seen at this Youtube link.