Putin to Russia: “Don’t hold your breath!”

Vladmir Ryzhkov, writing in the Moscow Times:

“Don’t hold your breath!”

That is how Prime Minister Vladimir Putin answered the question asked during Thursday’s televised call-in show, “Do you ever want to quit politics with all its problems and to live for yourself, for your family and relax?” This pithy quip not only answers the specific question posed, but it also answers the broader question of whether there will be any changes to the autocracy that he has built up over the past nine years. In one single phrase, Putin set the record straight for Russia and the world.

Many commentators have remarked that the call-in program — Putin’s eighth — was completely lacking in substance. Putin’s fans spoke of his psychotherapeutic talents in which he reassures his audience that everything in the country is under control. The authorities know everything and are taking care of everything so there is no need to worry. But the opposite is true. The four-hour program was full of very specific content, and what’s more, Putin spelled out Russia’s future in explicit detail.

Putin all but announced his presidential bid for the 2012 election, saying he would make that decision “based on the situation in the economy and in the social sphere,” while spending the entire four hours telling his rapt listeners how well everything is going in the country.

If you are expecting changes in the Cabinet, don’t hold your breath. Putin warmly thanked his ministers for their excellent job performance. For example, he spoke out against radically changing the country’s police force — the focus of a lot of discussion ever since State Duma Deputy Andrei Makarov from United Russia proposed liquidating the nearly 1-million-member police force and building a leaner and more qualified one from scratch. There is nothing to fear now for Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko, who heads the board of directors of RusHydro, the company that owns the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant where 75 people died in August. Nor has Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu anything to worry about. He heads the agency that allows people to be burned alive in nightclubs that do not comply with the most basic fire-safety regulations. Neither should Federal Security Service director Alexander Bortnikov lose any sleep, even though his agency failed to prevent a second bombing of the Nevsky Express train or curb the growing wave of terrorism in the Caucasus. Putin has made it explicitly clear that these are his handpicked men, that they do not fall under President Dmitry Medvedev’s jurisdiction, and that he will never betray staff members who are loyal and proven — no matter how many people die because of government corruption and gross negligence.

Regarding corruption, Putin’s answer to this eternal problem was the most vague of the 87 questions that he fielded during the program.

If you are expecting Putin to modernize the economy, don’t hold your breath. Putin outlined his economic strategy very clearly, and it differs strikingly from Medvedev’s vague plans for modernization. The main points of Putin’s economic policy are protectionism and maintaining the strength of state-owned companies, which he called a “necessity.” And it does not include limiting monopolization and bureaucratization of the economy or improving transparency and the country’s investment climate.

While defending nationalization, Putin took advantage of the opportunity to condemn the privatization of the 1990s that “ruined the unified industrial complex” of the country. He hotly defended the introduction of higher import duties on automobiles, agricultural equipment and other goods. Putin stated that it is more important for Russia to integrate the economies of the Commonwealth of Independent States and to create a uniform customs policy with Belarus and Kazakhstan than it is to join the World Trade Organization.

Putin took particular pride in how he intervenes directly to solve specific economic crises, coming across as the white knight who saves factory jobs. He used the call-in show to remind everyone about how in June he forced the owners of the Pikalyovo plant to keep the factory running. In the same spirit, Putin promised workers of the Izhorskiye Works, located near St. Petersburg, that Rosatom would buy their products and not those produced by their competitors. The prime minister also ordered Russian Railways to initiate nonstop train service between Moscow and Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Khabarovsk region. Putin decreed what the Amur shipbuilding factory would construct and for what price, and he outlined the mechanism for state regulation of over-the-counter drug prices.

Putin referred to Medvedev only twice during the program — when he said they have a good relationship and when he said Medvedev “had spoken more than once” about corruption.

There is no reason for Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky to hold his breath either. In answer to a carefully selected question about when Khodorkovsky would be released from jail, it became clear from Putin’s answer that Khodorkovsky cannot expect any form of clemency from the Kremlin. Putin used harsh words in speaking about the former oligarch, accusing him of, among other things, being connected with several killings, although no such charges were ever formally made in either the first or the second court case against Khodorkovsky.

At one point, Putin criticized the welfare mentality of Russians who have traditionally relied on government handouts. But amazingly, this did not stop Putin from playing the role of Santa Claus, personally distributing gifts to his subjects. He gave computers to rural schools, promised to personally intervene to get Moscow Aviation Institute student Nikita Kuprekov into the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Production Association and gave an apartment to a certain Aunt Nina from Azov. Many in the Kremlin may think that this is great PR — particularly since Putin turns this trick during every call-in show — but the only problem is what to do with the other 2 million people whose questions were not chosen for this program. Apparently, they will have to wait for the next “Conversation with Vladimir Putin” and dream of getting through to the kind tsar.

In the end, Putin confirmed that everything in Russia will remain the same for a very long time. “Don’t hold your breath” should be the catchall answer to Russians expecting any kind of economic and political modernization or reform under Putin’s rule. Putin will return to the Kremlin in 2012 with the clear intention of maintaining — or even strengthening — his two greatest political “innovations”: the vertical power structure and sovereign democracy. And the Russian people will continue to have no choice whatsoever in the matter.

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