Even before Putin began to answer questions, the audience was explained that the corresponding decisions had already been made on 500,000 appeals – and no Putin was needed. Such automation of the system provides the president with managerial comfort, but at the same time kills the magic of Putin’s political power, who finds himself in the role of an outside observer, and not the one who makes decisions.
Vladimir Putin’s straight line on June 30 came at an important political moment. On the one hand, irritation is noticeably growing in Russian society due to the pandemic, vaccinations and other social problems, on the other hand, very little time is left before the September elections to the State Duma. Under these conditions, the president’s speech should have largely predetermined the mood with which the country would approach one of the main electoral cycles of the renewed regime.
Tips instead of solutions
Straight lines have always been an opportunity to show Putin’s skill as a popular leader. For three to four hours live, he demonstrated the wonders of immersion in the details of a variety of topics, the ability to solve any problems on the fly, put officials in their place, and chastise ministers. Straight lines were like a political magic session, where excellent knowledge of any issue was combined with Putin’s sympathy for people.
It became more and more difficult to maintain this magic every year. The president’s satisfaction with the system he built prevented him from acting on the side of society, which began to seem capricious and even spoiled.
On the current direct line, the authorities tried, if not to overcome, then at least mask this gap between the agendas of society and the president, but it was still hard not to notice that the role of a psychotherapist is given to Putin all the worse. From his responses to social topics, ubiquitous delegation of both authority and responsibility stuck out, which turns the president from a ruler of destinies into a transmission link – at levels below.
Even before Putin began answering questions, the audience was explained that the corresponding decisions had already been made on 500,000 appeals (and no Putin was needed) – thanks to the ONF and the volunteers. Such automation of the system provides the president with managerial comfort, allows him to concentrate on what he himself considers important. But there is also a downside – the regime loses the magic of Putin’s political power, who finds himself in the role of an outside observer, and not the one who makes all decisions.
Most of the burning questions were left without a clear answer from the president. Is vaccination voluntary? Do you need a new lockdown? Do I need to get vaccinated and how to protect myself from dismissal in case of refusal? Putin stopped taking responsibility for making a clear choice in favor of this or that decision, leaving instead in lengthy reasoning “on the one hand, on the other hand.” That is, now he is more likely to advise on the part of those who ultimately have to make these decisions.
In this logic, the issue of fake certificates is delegated to law enforcement agencies, the problem of online “phishing” is delegated to the Central Bank, and price increases are delegated to governors and the government. For four hours, the president basically stated that the authorities simply have to do their job. At the same time, he himself repeatedly embarked on long arguments, trying to explain the logic of the problem (for example, high prices in domestic tourism). It looked like an attempt to justify and substantiate the current state of affairs, which, in fact, causes discontent.
At best, the president’s promises boiled down to vague “we’ll see”, “take action”, “think about it,” “analyze it again”. That is, the agreement that the problem exists was accompanied by the admission that he himself was not going to deal with it. It’s like calling a doctor in case of a fracture and getting a certificate instead of treatment that there is a fracture, you need the help of a specialist.
As a result, it is much more difficult for Putin to oppose himself to the bureaucracy, to criticize it and thereby strengthen a direct connection with society. The opposite is happening: the president no longer scolds officials, but relies on them as allies in solving social and economic problems. Putin, who protects the people from bureaucrats, turns into a faceless, collective Putin that includes bureaucracy, with dire consequences for the president’s popularity.
True, the president quickly returned to his usual leadership style when it came to foreign policy. He made it clear that he does not yet see a subject for a conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, calling the Ukrainian leadership “unfriendly” and the Russians and Ukrainians as one people, criticized the United States for the provocation with a British destroyer and expressed concern about “the beginning of the military development of Ukrainian territory.” … He also chastised the American political class for being childish and unwilling to listen to “respected analysts” who point to the need to recognize Russia as one of the centers of global influence.
Not the most popular geopolitical topics aroused excitement and personal interest of the president. Here he demonstrated a willingness to take a clear position and make a choice – something that he never managed to wait for on social issues. But these topics no longer touch society as much as they did six years ago, and expensive carrots cause much more outrage than the British destroyer off the coast of Crimea. How the authorities are going to stitch together these diverging agendas of the president and society is not very clear.
Adjustment for elections
Finally, on the last straight line, there were several political news, the importance of which should not be underestimated. First of all, this is the topic of Putin’s departure from the presidency. Recently, he began to signal that he did not intend to stay in office and was seriously thinking about a successor.
Most recently, in an interview with NBC ahead of the Biden summit, Putin hinted that Russia is much better prepared for a change of leadership today than it was in 2000. Then he made it clear that he would support a person “with constructive views” and “devoted to the country” as a successor. Now Putin has promised that when the time is right, he will name a person who “deserves to lead Russia.”
Perhaps these conversations are just an attempt to smooth over the negative from last year’s zeroing of presidential terms. The prospect of a permanent Putin presidency is unpopular even among many of the regime’s supporters. In response, on the eve of the Duma campaign, the president signals that rotation is inevitable and that there will be renewal.
It can also be a signal that the Kremlin is aware of the growing conflict between the progressively minded part of society and the increasingly conservative government. Although such signals today are hardly enough to convince anyone that Putin is really preparing to hand over power to his successor.
The second important political news concerns the upcoming Duma elections. In the course of the direct line, Putin not only unequivocally supported United Russia, but called himself the creator of this party. This is a clear answer to any speculation about dismantling, reforming, dividing, or creating potential alternatives.
Obviously, Putin sees United Russia as a completed and effective political project that fully justifies itself and performs all the necessary functions, including the adoption of unpopular decisions. Putin closes the topic – there are no other parties in power, and there cannot be, and United Russia as the “foundation of statehood” will receive full and unequivocal support from the entire vertical on the eve of the elections.
The President gave an extremely positive assessment of the work of the entire Duma corps: he praised the deputies of all factions for their work, mentioned 25% of those who had had coronavirus and four deaths. There is no doubt that Putin singles out this convocation for special merit.
The current Duma is the area of responsibility of Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, whose political future is one of the few intrigues of the impending Duma elections. The president’s comments show that he considers the work of the Volodin Duma to be successful and counts on continuity. The state apparatus, therefore, is focused on reproducing the current configuration in a new composition: the constitutional majority of United Russia plus the same three parties – the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Liberal Democratic Party and A Just Russia – For Truth.
Finally, Putin also announced an important decision in the field of public administration – the assignment of individual regions or federal districts to each deputy prime minister. The issue was discussed with the leadership of the government, although, judging by the president’s comments, the initiative is at an early stage of development.
It is clear that deputy prime ministers cannot supervise everyone in the region; rather, we are talking about federal districts. But then they will, in fact, duplicate the functions of plenipotentiaries, which will become redundant. In parallel, there is a discussion of the possible consolidation of the regions, and the updated Constitution gives the governors the right to be members of the government. It is possible that a large-scale structural reform awaits us, affecting the institution of plenipotentiaries, the status of governors and the cabinet of ministers.
It is not surprising that over the years any ruler loses touch with society, becomes alienated and more dependent on his own environment. Putin naturally ceases to be a truly popular leader, as it was in his first term in power and immediately after Crimea. Maintaining the socio-political effectiveness of straight lines is more difficult each time. Formulations turn out to be unsuccessful, emotions are insincere, jokes are ambiguous. Disruption of communication between the authorities and society today is the most serious threat to the regime, and the straight line that has passed only confirms that the Kremlin is far from understanding its potential destructiveness.