This week, Vladimir Putin held his annual “Direct Line” with the Russian people asserting for the 16th time his power and the “correctness” of his policies. The composition of the new Russian government was a topic of expert discussions in the light of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s sagging rating. Meanwhile, the country is about to kick off a major international event—the FIFA World Cup, whose sole goal (pardon the pun) may be to improve Russia’s global image.

 

The format of Vladimir Putin's 16th Direct Line was slightly different this year. However, it was carefully directed and produced, with no questions asked about political opposition or recent protests in Russia. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev | TASS.

 

  1. Putin’s Direct Line

The gist: On June 7, Vladimir Putin held his 16th conference dubbed the “Direct Line.” During a four-plus-hour televised Q&A session, he asserted the “correctness” of Russia’s course while responding to an array of personal questions from Russian citizens across the country. 

  • The variety of questions randomly spanned virtually all spheres of Russian life,including Western sanctions and problems with Russian businessmen in the West, Russia’s economic growth, pension reform, fuel price hike, World Cup, internet restrictions, Russian troops in Syria, and the potential World War III. [RBC]
  • The format of the Direct Line was slightly different this year: there was no live audience in the room with the president and some of the questions were deferred by Putin to federal and regional officials who tuned in to respond live. Putin might be sending a peaceful message to the elite: all members of the public administration are colleagues. [Kommersant]. 

Dig deeper:

  • The Direct Line was to show a new format of Putin’s demonstration of power: energetic management of officials and on-the-fly resolution of major issues. However, at a closer look, some of the most pressing of them (e.g. raising the retirement age and public sector wages) were essentially fumbled and remained unanswered.
  • There were few questions on domestic politics—nothing was said about the opposition, protests, public administration, and judiciary reforms. There was no improvisation; each episode was carefully staged and produced. At the same time, Putin readily spoke about foreign policy, traditionally criticizing the United States, Britain, and Ukraine. [New Times]
  • One of the domestic issues that never reached Putin’s attention is the ongoing protest of the so-called “cheated co-investors”—one of the largest movements in Russia. Many of them organized and sent petitions to the President to resolve their situation, with one Yekaterinburg group recording a video message kneeling down and begging for help, but to no avail. [MBK Media]
  • Ivan Davydov, columnist: Putin had three major interviews this week: one with the Austrian ORF anchor Armin Wolfe, one with China Media Group president Shen Haixiong, and the Direct Line with the Russian people.
  • All three communications serve as opposing points of the spectrum: Wolfe’s interview went viral with many Western observers praising it for hard-hitting journalism; Shen’s interview, which was filled with flattery and praise, appeared virtually unnoticed in the West and Russia; and the Direct Line with the Russian people resembled a “conversation with emptiness.” [Republic]

 

  1. Medvedev’s “Inertia Government”

The story: Fifty-one percent of Russian citizens do not approve of Dmitry Medvedev’s reappointment as prime minister, according to a survey by the Levada Center—a sharp increase since 2012, when 35 percent disapproved of his position in the government. [Kommersant]

  • Denis Volkov, Levada Center: Various respondent groups have different complaints against Medvedev. Some still harbor disappointment over the crushed hopes for liberalization associated with his presidency.
  • But overall, negative feelings toward Medvedev are more about dissatisfaction with the quality of life in Russia, uncertainty, and accumulated fatigue, than a personal denunciation. Despite his unpopularity, Medvedev still remains a likely candidate for the presidency in the eyes of Russian citizens, simply because no alternative political figures have appeared. [RBC] 

Does the government even matter?

  • Yekaterina Schulman, political scientist: one should not underestimate the importance of a bureaucratic structure. Even though the president may retain the final word in crucial decisions, it is the bureaucracy that processes information and brings issues to the agenda. This system is interconnected and works as one organism.
  • Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Moscow Center: this is a “government of inertia” marked by Dmitry Medvedev’s leadership. Medvedev is largely underestimated but still remains a Kremlin player. In fact, being constantly underestimated is one of his fortes, so it remains to be seen whether he makes it into the 2024 list of candidates for Putin’s succession. [Carnegie.ru]

Meanwhile in the Presidential Administration:

  • Maxim Artemyev, columnist: The Presidential Administration (PA) in Russia plays a much more prominent role (more so than the parliament or the government) compared to other countries. With its overreaching powers and functionality, it is Russia’s political headquarters where key decisions are made.
  • Today, the PA is still waiting reappointments—one particular vacancy to look out for is Konstantin Chuichenko’s, who headed the control department (a post previously held by Putin himself under Boris Yeltsin). Another prominent official expected to retire is Vladislav Surkov.
  • As of now, however, the PA is not in crisis management mode because Putin’s next six years as president do not forebode any major political crisis, but toward the end of his term, the inevitable issue of a successor may cause some structural change in this body. [Forbes.ru]

 

  1. World Cup Economics

The story: The 2018 FIFA World Cup, which begins on June 14, is set to take place across 11 Russian cities. The championship will be the most expensive in history, amounting to $13.2 billion. For Russia, the main reason for hosting the championship is to improve the country’s international image and value as a tourist attraction.

The breakdown:

  • Ivan Tkachev and Anton Feinberg: There are three major areas of spending: stadiums construction (30 percent of the championship budget), road and airport infrastructure (50 percent), fans and tourism (14 percent).
  • But while there are some arguments in favor of the construction of the new sports sites and associated infrastructure, economists argue that the World Cup is not about long-term economic effects but rather international image; the investments are not even expected to pay off. [RBC]
  • Andrei Kolesnikov, Moscow Carnegie Center: Sport in Russia has always been an occasion for patriotic mobilization. Like the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the 2018 World Cup creates a compulsion for the Russian authorities to clean everything up and show the West that Russia is able to organize a big celebration. Accordingly, any act of resistance will be seen as political protest, even if it’s as small as student vandalism. [New Times]

Other problems:

  • The September 9 regional elections may suffer because of strengthened security measures during the World Cup. In the regions hosting the games, any public events unrelated to the championship must be registered not only with the local authorities, but also with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB. Restrictions on freedom of movement may also prevent candidates from collecting signatures. [Vedomosti]
  • Sergei Teplyakov: Construction for the World Cup has already harmed plant and animal life in Vorobyovy Gory, a natural forest reserve in Moscow. Activists say that powerful searchlights have already uprooted birds and insects, and that trenches for a new cable car line have damaged soil and roots. After being shuffled between departments, their complaints got a 500,000 ruble fine slapped on the contractor, but this fails to compensate for the damage. [MBK Media]

 

Other stories that mattered this week (in Russian):

  • Rigging of the presidential elections is obvious”: Novaya Gazeta publishes an exclusive investigation conducted with the help of volunteers who had been tracking footage of thousands of polling station webcams. Their work revealed that in some of the most problematic regions (Chechnya, Dagestan, Tatarstan), the real turnout was two to five times lower than the official numbers. [Novaya Gazeta]
  • New Cold War and Westernization of Russia”: Indiana University Professor Dmitry Shlapentokh provides a counter-argument to the current Western consensus on Russia. He argues that never in its most recent history was Russia more pro-Western than it is today. [Russia in Global Affairs]
  • Fight for Million-Plus Cities”: Journalist Andrei Pertsev discusses the Kremlin’s domestic policy challenge—the need to hold elections in two of Russia’s largest cities, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk, both of which, until recently, have enjoyed relative political freedom. The Kremlin’s efforts, if not careful, may backfire. [Carnegie.ru]

 

 

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