Russian President Vladimir Putin broke his own record with his longest ever annual Q&A "meet the people" press conference. In just under five hours the president attempted to answer as many of the more than 3m questions submitted by Russians on topics covering the gamut of issues.
Widely ridiculed by western correspondents as the spectacle of AN authoritarian leader burnishing his "Great Leader" profile, the show (for wont of a better word, as it is clearly not quite a "press conference") comes out of a long Russian tradition. In the pre-revolutionary days Russians regularly wrote to the Tsar for help who would regularly descend deus ex-machina to answer their requests. It was a way for the autocrat to reaffirm his leadership over the people and to counter the Russian fatalism enshrined in the classic expression: "God's too high and the Tsar's too far."
And Putin was on form. In answer to a request by a small girl that her local park doesn't have a playground, Putin said one would be built and before the end of the marathon call-in the local governor was on the wires confirming the park is now on its way. Let's just say that western Europeans don't run their countries this way, although to be honest our politicians are prone to flip flop on issues in the face of pubic opinion, albeit delivered by polls rather than phone-ins - Merkel's decision to renege on an election promise to close nuclear power stations after taking office only to reverse that decision after the Fukushima disaster in Japan is a classic example.
However, rather than see this in terms of Tsarist aspirations, it probably is more useful to see it as Putin's efforts to form a rapport with the people by defining a political image that is best understood as a conservative position. The upshot of the demonstrations that started in December 2011 is the Kremlin has reacted by making more of an effort to craft a political stance that it can put up against the liberal opposition.
And Russia is, all said and done, a very conservative society that in many ways mirrors America's brand of conservatism. It is deeply religious. It vaunts its "great nation" status. It is pretty intolerant of minorities of any type, but especially sexual ones. It is overtly racist. And it is elitist. All of this can be said about the US too. The big difference between the two counties is that the US takes as axiomatic its belief in the principle of Herbert Hoover's "rugged individualism" where the citizen is responsible for his own destiny. In Russia, as recent studies have shown, the opposite is true, where the state is expected to take the lead in providing a quiet and prosperous life.
Looking at the Putin presser through this prism and most of the things you would expect to hear from a conservative politician are there. (We reproduce a list from VTB Bank on the main points below.) However, the main takeout from a business point of view is that Putin said there would be no major cabinet shuffle any time soon (quashing rumours that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is on the way out) and that there would also be no major changes in economic policy.
VTB main points of Putin's presser
President Putin's 11th annual live TV phone in with the Russian population lasted a record 4 hours 46 minutes. Overall, we note that it focused less on political aspects than was the case in December 2011 and during the press conference in December 2012. In total, Putin answered some 80 questions submitted by the audience. Below are the highlights of those issues addressed by the President (our views, when included, are italicised in brackets).
On the decrees of 7 May. Summing up, Putin said that the results which had been achieved were tolerable. On a number of occasions, he stressed that the goals which had been set were demanding and were specifically aimed at "raising the bar". In this regard, despite the fact that the current government's achievements have, as yet, been less than outstanding, that does not imply any urgent reshuffle since it has been working for less than a year.
On regional authorities. While addressing social questions, the President in general urged the regional authorities to participate proactively, emphasising the greater role of regional governors and highlighting their personal responsibility for executing the local social and economic agenda, including housing services and bad roads.
On economic policy. Russia's economy has been losing momentum, and while this can largely be linked to the ongoing global downturn, internal issues might be also blamed for this. Despite the need for a stimulus, fiscal discipline remains a top priority. Among the potential ways to boost growth, Putin mentioned the possibility of reducing excessively high lending rates by addressing monetary policy and bank margins. The government has been urged to complete its pension reform proposals as soon as possible.
On tariffs. The government is to prepare proposals to contain increases in tariffs for the natural monopolies, in particular those relating to natural gas and electricity. Right after the conference, MinEconomy released its suggestions for 2014-15. (Were a decision to limit tariff growth to be approved, it would have a positive effect on inflation dynamics, but a negative impact on utilities and gas companies).
On corruption and the opposition. There were a number of questions concerning corruption (in particular, the investigation into the Defence Ministry) and one question about turning the screws on human rights and cases against opposition. On each occasion, Putin answered that "only the courts can decide if a person is guilty" (we note that this is consistent with the views he has expressed on previous occasions).
On Kudrin. Alexey Kudrin was present in the audience and Putin praised him on a number of occasions. The former Deputy Prime Minister said that he had refused recent job offers from Putin and made it clear that he opposed "half measures" (we interpret this to mean that the only arrangement which would work for him is to be Prime Minister with carte blanche on the policy agenda).
Other. The President touched upon a broad range of other topics, including the taxation of SMEs and modernising the army, as well as culture and foreign policy.