On December 18, Vladimir Putin gave his annual end-of-year press conference, summarizing the events of the past twelve months. But during this three-hour talk, he said nothing new. According to Olga Khvostunova, editor-in-chief of imrussia.org, this lack of originality means that the Kremlin has neither a concrete plan nor a clear view for how the country will emerge from the current crisis.

 

Despite expectations, Vladimir Putin’s press conference lasted for three hours and ten minutes—an hour less than in the previous two years. Photo: ITAR-TASS.

 

The question that invariably arises after Vladimir Putin’s public speeches is the following: Does the Russian president actually believe his own bravura, or is he merely a skillful actor? Putin’s latest press conference was anticipated with special eagerness, since the country has been plunging toward a full-blown economic crisis. But after the Russian leader had finished his speech, it became clear that even if he realized the significance of the recent developments in the country, he was foredoomed by the political system that he had built to follow the path he had chosen. In systems like this, there is no way back.

Before the press conference, analysts had discussed two main scenarios of what Putin might say. The first one suggested that the president would attempt to calm the public after the collapse of the ruble on Tuesday. The second scenario suggested that Putin would take a strong stance by dissolving the cabinet of ministers or firing Central Bank chief Elvira Nabiullina. The press conference made it clear that the Kremlin had decided on the first scenario, likely because, with such a high level of public anxiety, any abrupt move could have caused another market meltdown.

The essence of what Putin said at the December 17 press conference can be boiled down to a few points: everything is going well in Russia, the leadership’s actions are “correct and adequate,” and everything will inevitably be fine. Frankly, the press conference could have been wrapped up after a few minutes (Putin actually made an effort to do so—whether he was joking or serious is unclear), as the remaining three hours of his talk were meaningless reiteration of the points he had made many times before.

It is noteworthy, though, that at the beginning of the press conference, Putin looked tense, which suggests that the Kremlin is not completely oblivious to either the acuteness of the current situation or public fears. Speaking of Russia’s key economic and social indicators, he constantly stumbled, cleared his throat, and looked down at his papers, frowning. Despite the turbulence of the financial markets, the indicators are good: for the past year, the balance of trade averaged out at $148.4 billion; GDP “most likely” grew by 0.6 percent; the federal budget had a surplus of 1.2 trillion rubles (about $200 billion); and unemployment never exceeded 5 percent. The demographic situation seemed fine as well: the mortality rate has been dropping and the birth rate increasing. The government has also continued to raise pensions and increase federal subsidies for multiple-child families.

However, the hundreds of journalists who gathered in the room where the press conference was held craved a different kind of news. Responding to the first and most critical question, concerning the currency crisis and current economic situation, Putin answered in his favorite manner—by casting blame. He identified external factors, primarily the drop in oil prices, as the key reasons for the current situation. Poor market conditions might last for up to two years, he said, assuring the audience that the Russian economy will “inevitably rebound.” Putin promised that the government would focus on diversifying the economy and, harking back to fiscal measures taken in 2008, drawing on state reserves.

“My optimism is based on the fact that the Russian economy will adjust to foreign market conditions. It is inevitable,” Putin repeated. He also pointed to a second factor responsible for the lack of diversification in the Russian economy—Russian business itself, which has been investing in the raw material sector, looking for fast and easy profits. Another factor that took a toll on the Russian economy, according to Putin, is Western sanctions, which, he said, should take 25 to 30 percent of the blame for the collapse of the ruble. At the same time, the Russian president waved off the idea that the current situation is a consequence of the country’s annexation of Crimea. Instead, he claimed that the economic troubles are the price of Russia’s “desire for self-preservation as a nation.” Finally, he didn’t take any responsibility himself and emphasized that he approved of the actions of the Central Bank and the government, noting that he only wished that they had acted a little bit faster.

If Putin’s goal was to have a therapeutic effect on the public, he hardly succeeded in that either. Putin looked tired and bored—he hardly projected beaming confidence in himself and in the government’s economic course.

Having sorted out the unpleasant questions regarding the crisis, Putin noticeably lightened up, especially when the discussion turned to foreign policy issues. His stance on the cooling down of Russia’s relationship with the West, though, was yet another reiteration of the statement “I think I’m right and our Western partners are wrong.” Putin reminded the audience that it was the West (and mostly the United States) that went to great lengths to expand NATO to the east and withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; it was the West, he said, that maintains military bases all over the world and openly makes promises of delivering aid to the new Ukrainian authorities who seized power after the state coup. “No one stopped them; our partners decided that they are an empire,” Putin continued, casting Russia’s tough stance as merely a reaction to challenges from abroad. Putin couldn’t help but compare Russia with a bear that the West wants to weaken, chain down, or “make [into] a stuffed animal.”

Interestingly enough, Putin’s usual jokes did not produce as many laughs and cheers in the audience as they have in the past. On the contrary, traces of disappointment and even annoyance were noticeable. Perhaps the “Teflon effect” that the Russian president has been enjoying for years is finally starting to wear off.

Before the press conference, a number of analysts also speculated that Putin might move to deescalate the geopolitical tensions caused by the lingering crisis in Donbass. But Putin was quick to dismiss these expectations, saying that although he aspired for peace and a restoration of the common political space with Ukraine, responsibility for violating the Minsk peace agreement lay with the Ukrainian government and separatists. (Putin did notably make the diplomatic move to distinguish between Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who wanted to resolve the crisis, and his subordinates, who probably disobeyed his orders.) “In our view, what is happening in Ukraine is a punitive operation conducted by the Kiev authorities,” Putin clarified. Once again, he maintained that Russia was not part of the conflict and simply ignored a question about the number of Russian soldiers who are fighting with the separatists.

Though the course of the press conference was mostly predictable, there were three surprisingly sharp questions that animated the otherwise boring event. These questions addressed the government’s harassment campaigns against the opposition, the increasing degree of hatred within Russian society, and the re-introduction of such terms as “fifth column” and “national traitors” to the political dialogue. One of these questions was posed by Xenia Sobchak, a TV Rain journalist, opposition figure, and daughter of Putin’s former boss Anatoly Sobchak (who served as mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s). Putin made a point of mocking her a little bit, shooting a comment to his spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who was moderating the questions: “Why did you give her the microphone?” But the hit missed the target: Sobchak didn’t look embarrassed. Putin’s answer was again predictable: there were no sanctioned harassment campaigns or any coordinated campaigns whatsoever against dissidents and the opposition in the country. Answering a question on whether he considered top-level managers of state corporations who get millions in bonuses and officials and representatives of law enforcement who put innocent people (such as Alexei Navalny) in jail to be members of the “fifth column,” the Russian president essentially shrugged, stating that excesses happen and he will look into the bonuses situation.

The event took a curious turn when a Lifenews.ru correspondent asked a question about Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his political ambitions. (It was while leaving last year’s press conference that Putin broke the news that he was pardoning Khodorkovsky, his former political opponent and Russia’s number-one political prisoner.) However, Putin expressed no hard feelings, merely implying that Khodorkovsky will have a difficult time running for political office in Russia, since he lives in Zurich. Putin left out one crucial detail—Khodorkovsky has been banned from returning to his home country.

Putin also touched on the topics of offshore capital amnesty, the recent release of Evgeny Yevtushenko from house arrest, and health care reform, and said a few words on Russia’s relationship with China, Iran, Turkey, and Georgia. Some journalists offered ritual compliments to the president (although there were fewer of these than usual), while others asked “funny” questions to lighten the mood (e.g., on Putin’s personal life as “the country’s most eligible bachelor”). Noticeably feeling more confident as the press conference was nearing its end, Putin denied the possibility of a “palace revolution” in Russia, noting that he doesn’t own any palaces. But what he does have, he emphasized, is public support: “The people’s hearts and minds are with the head of state,” he said proudly. At the beginning of the fourth hour, Putin stopped taking questions and concluded the press conference.

If Putin’s goal was to cool down the markets, he didn’t achieve it: the dollar and the euro strengthened against the ruble as the president spoke, showing the markets’ lack of trust in his words. If the goal was to have a therapeutic effect on the public, he hardly succeeded in that either. Putin looked tired and bored—he hardly projected beaming confidence in himself and in the government’s economic course. Considering the fact that Putin gave no concrete answers to questions on the crisis, it looks like neither he nor the government has any solid plan in the works to get the country out of the mess. Most likely, the Kremlin expects that the Russian people will soon get distracted by the long New Year holidays. Given the current economic developments, one doesn’t need to be a prophet to predict that 2015 will be Putin’s hardest year since coming to power.

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