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Czar Putin

Mannteufel Ingo Kommentarbild App
Ingo Mannteufel
April 16, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin has talked to his people via "direct line". The show, however, reaches ever higher levels of absurdity, writes DW's Ingo Mannteufel.

Russland Putin Fragestunde
Image: AFP/Getty ImagesD. Semyonov

By now, it's a well-known tradition in Putin's Russia: Once a year, the president appears on television for several hours and answers questions submitted by the studio audience, or coming in by phone, Internet, SMS, live TV broadcast.

At first glance, this kind of communication with the people comes across as modern and democratic. Under scrutiny, it turns out not to be a case of citizens talking to the highest political representative elected by them. Rather, the ruler is talking to his Russian subjects.

The social czar

The show is mercilessly orchestrated: Initially, the president is given the opportunity to present his assessment of the socio-economic situation. In a nutshell: These are difficult times, but he has everything under control.

Afterwards, former Russian Finance Minister Alexej Kudrin, an advocate of market economy, is allowed to point out shortcomings in Russia's economic policies. His prudent, but also cautiously worded critique is then countered by Putin: allegedly, Kudrin calls for too severe cuts in the social system, and the people's well-being is not foremost in his mind.

Putin, by contrast, is full of compassion for his compatriots, as the next couple of hours continue to demonstrate. He pledges support to all and sundry: farmers, air travel industry workers, Cosmodrome builders, war veterans, future pensioners, sick people, Crimea tourists, the list goes on and on.

Ingo Mannteufel, Leiter der Europa-Redaktion der DW
DW's Ingo MannteufelImage: DW

Politicians making a lot of promises to their electorate is customary in western nations as well. However, this kind of communication between the ruler and the governed in Russia points out the peculiarity of the Russian political system. The president is not addressed by a self-confident sovereign who, as a voter, demands an explanation from an elected representative. Rather than that, the Russian subject, acting as meek petitioner, tries to receive assistance from the caring czar.

And Putin, using paternalistic rhetoric, assures them there will be improvements. It's a sad fact that Russians have run out of other avenues to pursue. Democratic institutions, such as political parties, elections and parliaments, are merely empty shells in Russia.

Measured against their original democratic remit - converting the interests of the people into policies -, those institutions have been stripped of their core and are under the control of Russia's executive.

As a result, the president rules as leader of the nation, backed by an omnipotent bureaucracy. The televised question-and-answer session is, therefore, a kafkaesque imitation event which highlights the fact that democratic ways for people to exert influence on Russian politics are non-existent.

Putin's credibility has suffered

Ukraine and Russia's relationship with the West were mentioned again and again throughout the TV address. Not surprisingly, Putin basically justified his foreign policy to date. His words seemed to suggest that his approach to dealing with Ukraine and the West will be less tough in the future: He denied that Russia viewed the West as the enemy and he claimed that the Kremlin was only interested in a political solution to the Donbass conflict.

However, trust in President Putin's integrity has suffered considerably in Ukraine and in the West. After all, Putin had once pledged to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and not to annex Crimea. And, in contradiction to many reports, photos and videos, he once again claimed that there were no Russian troops in Ukraine, which does not improve Putin's credibility.

By now, the West judges the Russian president by his actions only. In the face of his promises of social improvements, the Russians are well advised to follow that example.