Is Putin still a man of the people?

The Bell

Russian President Vladimir Putin held his 18th televised call-in show Wednesday. This annual event has evolved to the point where it has become almost a parody of itself. Despite rising public discontent over coronavirus restrictions and approaching parliamentary elections, it passed off without incident.

  • Putin’s call-in show is a type of event that has much in common with the personality cult practices of former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez — he held a similar show though it took place almost every week and it lasted almost eight hours.
  • Over the years, Putin has fielded answers to phone calls, video messages and texts (all tightly controlled by Kremlin officials). But the essence remains the same: the president, like a magician, promises to help with a litany of petty problems — supplying a village with gas, a new prom outfit or an unpaid pension.
  • Putin even held these call-in shows even when he was prime minister between 2008 and 2012, and it’s a format that fits his image as a ‘man of the people’ who can empathize with the travails of ordinary men and women.
  • However, with each passing year, Putin appears less and less interested in such everyday issues (he’s understood to be far more preoccupied with geopolitics). In this year’s call-in show, he answered most of the questions on auto-pilot, immediately delegating decisions to the relevant officials. Unlike on previous occasions, he did not publicly scold officials – perhaps because of the approaching parliamentary elections.

What did Putin talk about?

Successors — Putin answered a traditional question about when he might step down by promising to name a worthy candidate when the time comes. He didn’t say when this might be. Asked what he wanted to do when he steps down, Putin said he wanted to take a break.

Vaccination — Putin finally revealed he was vaccinated with Russian vaccine Sputnik V (he previously stated that would not reveal the manufacturer of the vaccine he used so as not to be an unwitting advertiser). He said that another Russian vaccine — EpiVacCorona — is “also good” but that it does not last as long as Sputnik V (a claim the creators of EpiVacCorona swiftly denied).

United Russia — The ruling United Russia party has seen a sharp fall in its popularity in recent years, but Putin spoke out in its favor. He reminded his audience he was the de-facto founder of United Russia and said he would back it at upcoming elections.

Why the world should care: Surprisingly, Putin did not say much about the most important political topic in Russia today: the coronavirus. There were some questions about the pandemic, but the most sensitive issues went unaddressed. Most noticeably, Putin did not use the occasion to issue an unequivocal call for all Russians to get vaccinated. It seems that unpopular measures like mandatory vaccination will be left as the sole responsibility of local officials.

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