Another “direct line with Vladimir Putin” has come and gone, with one questioner wondering why governors aren’t required to use such a convenient way to connect with the people. Putin liked the idea: why not adopt a grassroots suggestion and organize not only federal, but also regional direct lines?
Picture this: Each governor answers calls from individual citizens, waving their golden tickets and rattling complaints about their particular leaky roofs or gas problems. Then officials (and photographers) arrive on site, the roofs are repaired and gas starts flowing. Citizens living in the regions of Russia may also enjoy learning some fun facts about their leadership.
For example, their thoughts on geopolitics, what kind of music they like and where they get their shirts printed. Of course, only if such a license is not considered an infringement of the presidential prerogative. Ramzan Kadyrov was quick to point out that an analog direct line in Chechnya has long existed.
I’ve written before about how “Direct Line,” where the president deals with the people, becomes the only political institution in the country. In Russia, where courts are unreliable, the ruling party does not risk leaving elections to chance, the president is not subject to criticism from the opposition when he appears before parliament and news organizations are thrown out of the “Kremlin pool”. for reporting protests, “Direct Line” is a space where authorities and citizens express their feelings towards each other. If ordinary democratic institutions for effective governance, legitimacy and feedback cannot be obtained, a Russian homegrown invention has taken its place.
There are no middlemen between the president and the people – nothing but “Direct Line” and the scorched earth of Russian politics.
In 2021, of course, this model will be reproduced at a regional level: we are poised to become the first country in the world to conduct public politics and governance through daytime television.
On “Direct Line” the president had time to express his views on many topics: no, the sinking of a British destroyer off the coast of Crimea would not lead to a third world war; yes, there are problems with subsidized mortgages, but the benefits are greater; higher costs for vacationers in Russia can be traced to fears of traveling abroad; we have weathered the worst of the pandemic better than many countries, for which the Duma deserves some credit; climate change could turn Earth into Venus, where temperatures reach 500 degrees Celsius; the problem of waste management in the Russian Federation is of great concern.
But the most challenging of all the issues raised on “Direct Line” involved the sharpest controversy in recent weeks: the social conflict over voluntary (and mandatory) vaccination. After months of speculation as to what formulation he would receive, the president confirmed he had been vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V and advised others to follow suit. At the same time, he expressed his opposition to mandatory vaccination and maintained that an employee cannot be fired for refusing the shot. This capped stance leaves vaccine skeptics room to speculate and does not provide a concrete answer as to how Russia plans to reduce the third wave of the pandemic and record deaths.
As in 2020, the responsibility for introducing new restrictions has been delegated to the regions. Accordingly, it is the governors who will bear the brunt of any criticism that follows.
Not all questions were current. The traditional questions were asked about the president’s plans: will there be a successor, and what will Putin do after his retirement?
In Russia’s current political reality, such questions belong to the genre of science fiction, devoted as they are to the distant future – possibly the era of transhumanism. Now that Putin’s constitutional term limit has been set to zero, he could delay the search for a successor for decades. The president even seemed to suggest this in his ironic response: the time will come when a successor will be appointed, and then the Russian people will decide whether to accept him or not.
As for retirement plans, maybe he won’t do anything at all, just “sit by the fire,” as Putin himself said towards the end of the broadcast.
“Direct Line 2021” has thus outlined the new contours of Russian political life. The president now has no public opponents or partners for debate, not to mention the metaphysical construction of the Russian public created by a television show to become one with his national leader. Furthermore, Putin offers no promises or plans. To him, it seems like we already live in the best of all possible worlds.
A Russian version of this article was first published by Novaya Gazeta.