In the 13th instalment of his marathon end-of-year press-conference, President Vladimir Putin displayed all the swagger of a man at ease. He straddled the same roles as in previous shows – world leader, national defender and benevolent agony aunt. But something of the sharpness of previous episodes was missing. Red-eyed and coughing, Mr Putin seemed at times almost uninterested in the affair.
By now, the President’s signature piece is fine-tuned. The pretence is spontaneity, but the master of ceremonies is never in doubt. Predictable, softball questions from regional journalists and oddballs prevail. Today, journalists were called upon to ask such zingers as “Will you come to our awards ceremony and listen to children talking about the future?” Follow-ups are banned, allowing the half-dozen difficult questions that are asked to be expertly sidestepped.
“Sit down, this is question and answer, not a discussion,” the President reminded one journalist at one point.
With an election around the corner, the main focus was domestic affairs. As expected, the President confirmed he would run as an independent. Detail was for another day, he said, but he’d be sure to increase wages. There would be new payments for mothers. Life is getting better, life is getting gayer, to borrow a phrase from history. The economy is growing at 1.6 per cent, and – no – those figures were not being fiddled. GDP was up 76 per cent over his 17 years in power (he had promised to double GDP in a decade, but still).
Some of the kids criticising him had no idea of the chaos he inherited in the 1990s, he added.
Today’s conference lasted 3 hours 40 minutes, which was a full hour short of the record set in 2008. But it was not an experience for the faint-hearted. The first two hours went very slowly. New proposals on land registry and pension reform were arguably highlights. It was the problem of the election campaign writ large: how to excite a nation when there is little good to report, and nothing is changing?
There were moments of fire. Most memorably, Echo of Moscow’s Tatyana Felgenhauer, who was subjected to a horrifying knife attack in October, asked a question about the Russian legal system. With scars still visible around her throat, Ms Felgenhauer asked why “innocent” Russians were doing jail sentences, but Mr Putin’s close associate, Igor Sechin, was not punished over his refusal to appear in court. Mr Sechin, head of state oil company Rosneft, was summoned to give evidence four times in the ongoing corruption trial of former minister Alexei Ulyukayev.
“Does this not bring the entire system into disrepute?” Ms Felgenhauer wondered.
The President fudged an answer. Of course, Mr Sechin should have – could have – attended the court session and given evidence. But as far as he was aware, no law had been broken. And as for innocent people being imprisoned, that was her opinion.
Ms Felgenhauer shook her head, but was unable to ask a follow-up question.
And there was Kseniya Sobchak, celebrity presidential candidate, and daughter to the President’s mentor, Anatoly Sobchak. Ms Sobchak said she was in the hall as a journalist because the President had refused a debate. Why was the Kremlin so afraid of honest competition? Why was the president doing everything to ensure that the nation’s most prominent opposition politician, Alexey Navalny, could not participate in the elections?
Mr Putin has never referred to his leading critic by name – usually referring to “that man” or “that leader of the opposition movement.” This time was no exception, and Mr Navalny became the “Russian Saakashvili.” Mr Putin has made no secret of his contempt of the former Georgian President, turned Ukrainian opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili. The latest news from Kiev, which saw Mr Saakashvili threatening to throw himself off a rooftop, provided him with easy ammunition.
“Do you want dozens of these Saakashvili’s running around from one Maidan to another?” Mr Putin asked. “The opposition needs to develop candidates which have positive programmes to put to the country.”
With a straight face, Mr Putin then claimed dominance of Russian politics had begun to worry him. Competition was a good thing, in politics and in the economy, he said – and, yes, he would do everything he could to introduce more of it. Maybe. But as if to emphasise insecurity over the issue, Mr Putin then noticed a sign in the hall that he thought said “bye bye Putin.” In fact, the sign, written in Tatar, read “grandpa Putin.”
The President called on tested narratives of unfair isolation and anti-Americanism, but considerably less than in previous years. There were moments of support for President Trump, who was doing “really well” in the economy. Mr Putin gave short shrift to allegations of collusion between his administration and the Trump team. These were the “fabrications of the US opposition,” he said.
The US opposition was discrediting the entire US political system with their “spy mania”, Mr Putin added – almost immediately after dismissing US congressman as being “not right in the head.”
But the main bogeyman of the day was Grigory Rodchenkov. The former head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory, who fled to the US and gave damning testimony over Russia’s alleged doping programme, was mentioned several times. According to the President, the scientist was working on the orders of the FBI to disrupt the forthcoming Russian presidential elections. It was “absurd” that the International Olympic Committee disqualified athletes on the basis his evidence, and the Russian state had every intention to challenge the decisions in civil courts.
“They have said Rodchenkov is an honest person, but that is rubbish – he is a conman,” Mr Putin said. “He is under FBI protection… and [You have to ask what] pills they’re giving him.”
As the conference passed the two and a half hour mark, Mr Putin stepped up and began to find his rhythm. And he found his subject, lecturing a Ukrainian journalist about the impossibility of Ukraine as a nation.
“Just listen to your Russian,” he said. “You speak without an accent, and mentally you’re Russian.” Russia and Ukraine were “one nation,” he said. “There’s nothing between us. Nothing”
It was a snap of the Putin of old: insulting, sharp, belligerent, confident, assertive, unifying, divisive. It will be interesting to see how much of that Putin remains during what could be his final six year term in power.