#21 - JRL 7238
June 24, 2003
FORM OVER SUBSTANCE: PUTIN DANCES WITH THE MEDIA
By Peter Lavelle
Most commentators reviewing Russian President Vladimir Putin's 20 June appearance before the domestic and international media stressed his staying power in fielding questions on just about every important issue facing the country and government. Indeed, Putin's stamina should be noted, but his political adroitness deserves even greater recognition, and the kind of political discourse and culture he would like Russia to create should be addressed as well.
Putin answered 48 questions in less than three hours, in what could be called the annual presidential summit with the media. He was remarkably thorough in his answers and clearly enjoyed demonstrating his familiarity with facts and figures that reflect Russia's recent macroeconomic performance. The only major issue that Putin refrained from elaborating on was new legislation currently under discussion that restricts what the media can report during election campaigns. Putin's response that he has not familiarized himself with the bill that is now before the Federation Council after being passed by the Duma on 18 June was more than puzzling in light of the plight of the private TVS television station, whose death agonies ended only hours after the press conference.
What made Putin's news conference noteworthy was the fact that it was almost entirely upbeat, although peppered with a number of comments expressing his anguish that almost one-third of Russians live in poverty. Not a single politician -- domestic and foreign -- was subjected to criticism.
During Putin's 16 May address to the Federal Assembly, the government of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov was at the receiving end of forceful criticism. This time around, the government was praised for its efforts. The only political parties mentioned were United Russia and the Union of Rightist Forces, both of which were praised. The policy differences among the parties currently sitting in the Duma were almost brushed aside. When answering a question about the role of the oligarchs in the economy, Putin replied simply that he does not like the way the term "oligarch" is used. Even the political leadership in Georgia was given a respectful nod. There were many other examples of moderation, including a changed approach to Chechnya. Russia's differences with the United States over Iraq and Iran were diplomatically transformed into niceties to be ironed out.
The tenor of this year's press conference would seem to suggest that a number of political imperatives are in play. Clearly, the election season is on Putin's mind. Remaining above the fray is something Putin has used to his advantage during his term as president, and he decidedly demonstrated during the press conference that he has no intention of abandoning this strategy. The only official political position Putin supports is a government and policies that make Russia strong at home and abroad. This is a generic posture, and it is a relatively safe one for his own political future for the time being.
Putin also backed away from an idea he broached during his spring address concerning the possible creation of a parliamentary republic in which a legislative majority appoints the cabinet. Is this a signal that he will not openly support a party or bloc of parties during the upcoming Duma elections?
Unified Russia, which anchors the pro-presidential bloc in the Duma, is faring poorly in the opinion polls. If Putin is unwilling to throw his considerable personal popularity behind Unified Russia, it is doubtful it can muster a favorable showing in the 7 December elections. Putin has not had to face a hostile Duma, which was the hallmark of the tumultuous years of former President Boris Yeltsin. Clearly, he very much needs to avoid the deadlocks his predecessor had to face if his very ambitious plans to change Russia are to become reality.
During the press conference, Putin gave no indication which party he prefers, but for the sake of his agenda Putin will have to side with at least one party or risk losing much of the political stability that is associated with his presidency.
The treatment of the oligarchs was another political imperative mentioned during the press conference that is worth consideration. Putin appears to support the idea that the intense concentration of wealth in Russia in the hands of a few works in at least two ways. Business tycoons are not "oligarchs" if they respect the law and work with the country's governing authorities. The term "oligarch," according to Putin, should be reserved for those involved in theft and illegality. While the distinction is important, Putin did not demonstrate a meaningful difference between his two uses of the term. Putin came into office decrying the oligarchs' influence on the economy and government. His comments during the press conference suggest that either he is satisfied with efforts to regulate the access the super-wealthy have to the levers of administrative power, or that he has come to terms with this elite clan without completely selling out the role of the state. The answer to this question might explain why Putin suddenly reversed himself on introducing a parliamentary republic in Russia.
A third political imperative is Putin's implied desire to limit, or at least to understate, political differences at home and internationally. Putin's responses demonstrated clearly that there are a number of "Putins" attempting to cover most of Russia's political spectrum. He claimed in turn the political ground of being a democrat, populist, nationalist, and even humanist. In short, Putin's marathon performance showed that he is, beyond a doubt, in command of Russia's political agenda at home and abroad. In a public-relations sense, he is the master of his domain.
However, considering the tensions underlying both domestic and foreign policies, one would have hoped for a more pragmatic, policy-oriented discussion. A superior public performance for the media -- the same media that are currently facing a rough time -- should not be considered a viable substitute for hard political choices.
Putin spoke about hopes he would like to see realized. At the same time, the press conference was short on substance as to how that vision can be actualized. Giving the impression that Russia can and should speak in one unified and mutually agreeable voice underestimates the challenges facing the country.
Peter Lavelle is a Moscow-based analyst and author of the weekly electronic newsletter Untimely Thoughts (http://www.untimely-thoughts.com).