A timeless ritual in Moscow that is broadcast across the nation: The annual press conference of the Russian president. The spectacle says as much about Russian journalists as it does about Putin, Miodrag Soric says.
It more or less unfolded like a big family get-together on Christmas Eve: Grandpa, on the whole in good spirits, tells tales of days past and opines on the current political situation in the world. When the holiday cheer briefly turns a bit frosty, it is only because of other grumpy relatives who ask uncomfortable questions. But Grandpa expertly brushes their inquiries aside.
Only later did journalists ask some critical questions. But they never had the chance to formulate critical follow-ups. Instead, they had to content themselves with the president's answer alone.
Press conference or opera?
The press conference nearly turned into a comic opera when an old man from the arctic city of Murmansk in Russia's farthest northwest delivered a long lament about the price of fish. No one — not even Putin himself — could get in a word. How did the director of a fish factory come to be at the media event? Who let him in? Why was he allowed to speak for so long?
But even in that case, the president calmed the worked-up guests. Yes, I share your view on fish prices, he said. The message transmitted to millions of TV viewers: "Our president also is up to speed on this issue and has everything under control."
Advisor defends Sobchak candidacy
The scene in the hall played out similarly when Ksenia Sobchak, his opposition candidate in the coming presidential election in February, spoke up — not as a politician but as a freelance journalist for the independent TV channel "Dozhd."
Sobchak, who now styles her hair in a braided crown like former Ukrainian Prime Minister and Orange Revolution leader Julia Timoschenko, strongly attacked the president. But she, just like everyone else at the press conference, had no chance to follow up.
And so Putin rattled away in counterattack, invoking political chaos, were he not to be re-elected. A total mess, nearly as bad as it is today in Ukraine. Here, once again, a sign to the electorate: Me — or chaos!
The president as an election candidate
And so the annual press conference degenerated into a priceless advertising campaign for Putin-the-presidential-candidate. The incumbent really had little new to say. But what is well-known can still seem provocative for the international listener: Russia does not have any national troops in Ukraine; It's the Americans' own fault that there is no progress in the conflict with North Korea; Trump's opponents twist the truth and damage their country; The Minsk process is not effective.
And yes, some Russian athletes obviously doped — but athletes from other nations do that too and they are still allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. Again and again, these half-spoken, half-insinuated allegations: The West banned Russian athletes from the Winter Olympic Games in Korea only to harm Putin.
In taking stock of the whole show, it is just as illuminating as it is lamentable to see how Russian journalists understand their jobs today. It recalls the Soviet era, when they applauded after their president gave an answer. Very few of them seem to be conscious of the fact that they are not an extension of the government's long arm but rather are supposed to control it and uncover its wrongdoings.
And that is how Putin hosted an entertaining four-hour press gathering this year. Almost like Grandpa at Christmas.