The political message Prime Minister Vladimir Putin conveyed during his annual live Q&A session can be summed up as follows: there will be reforms, but nothing to please the radical opposition. Putin had a similar message for the West: relations will be friendly on the condition that foreign governments and organizations do not meddle in Russia’s domestic affairs.
The reforms Putin proposed are based on the same assumptions: elections of governors by the people but through the “presidential filter”; reviving the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs; easier registration for parties but with a total ban on foreign influence, not to mention direct funding.
On the whole, Putin’s program may satisfy members of the loyal opposition but by no means the radical opposition. The latter have not seen any signs of a “new Putin,” but this could hardly be expected. During his rule, Putin has shown that he never makes concessions under pressure. In his view, the December 10 demonstration and the planned future rallies are a form of pressure.
Hence his curt, often sarcastic remarks about rank-and-file protesters (comparing their symbolic white ribbons to condoms) and especially their leaders. Putin lashed out at Boris Nemtsov for importing the tactics of Viktor Yushchenko (whom Nemtsov advised) onto Russian soil. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov also got his share of criticism. Putin recalled that former deputy prime ministers did not want to work under Kasyanov because they suspected him of being corrupt.
Putin’s critics, who compare him with the old leaders of the late Soviet era, are wrong about one thing – unlike Brezhnev, Putin does not shy away from an open clash. He has an uncanny ability to boomerang rude remarks back on his detractors. It seems no topic was out of bounds during the Q&A session. At any rate, none of the sensitive issues being discussed on the Russian Internet were ignored.
Putin was not embarrassed in the least by the mention of the “nasty” articles published in the magazine Kommersant-Vlast, including a ballot with a four-letter word scrawled on it. Putin used this issue to send a clear signal to the oligarchs of the 1990s living in London: “We know who these people are and why they are not returning to Russia. And them telling me to go to hell can be explained by their desire to return home, which they cannot do as long as I'm around – I understand this perfectly well.” He went on to sarcastically thank them for coming out to vote: “Moreover, I had called upon all Russian citizens to vote, and they did, they heeded my call. I thank them for that.”
However, Putin faces a much more formidable opponent than any members of the radical opposition, as he admitted. This opponent is Putin himself, or rather his first two terms as president. Putin is the main author of the current Russian political system, but society now wants reforms. Can the creator of a system become its reformer? All the questions asked during the call-in boiled down to this one central question. And Putin gave nuanced answers designed to meet the wishes of the public halfway.
Bringing back direct elections of governors was a major issue. Apparently, by punishing governors for the poor election results of United Russia, they are driven to violate the law. In a bid to preserve their positions, some of them may exert pressure on voters or even resort to outright fraud. To reassure the public, Putin explained there is a whole number of criteria for evaluating the performance of governors. He said the regions that did not vote for United Russia will not be deprived of funding. Putin also proposed a new system for electing governors.
Under this system, the parties that win the elections to regional legislative assemblies will submit their nominees to the president. Having passed through the “presidential filter” the nominees will be subject to the public voting by secret ballot. However, the president will retain the right to dismiss an elected governor in whom he’s lost confidence.
Mark Urnov, head of the department of applied political science at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, said: “I’m not quite sure how this system differs from the previous one if the president can still dismiss a popularly elected governor.” Georgy Satarov, head of the INDEM Foundation and former spokesman for President Yeltsin in the State Duma, agrees: “Under the law, the president and the governors have completely different mandates and legally they represent different branches of power – federal and regional ones. How can the president fire an elected regional leader? Putin’s idea is unlikely to satisfy those who want a fundamental restructuring of our political system.”
Urnov does not think that protests are necessary, but he points to the lack of clarity concerning yet another major issue – ethnic relations: “Restoring the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs is the right decision but it remains unclear what policies it will pursue.”
As for lowering the bar for registering political parties, President Dmitry Medvedev also promised this reform to the nation as early as in 2009. The West – the EU and the United States – has also made better relations with Russia dependent on implementation of this reform.
Putin did not disavow Medvedev’s promise but skirted the specifics once again. Having confirmed his intention to make registration easier, he repeated the idea that the parties must achieve a certain quota for regional affiliates and membership. Meanwhile, the failure of some parties to comply with these quotas is now the main excuse for refusing to register them.
Alexander Shumilin, head of an analytical center at the Institute of U.S. and Canada Studies, comments: “I think Putin will have to take part in a certain ‘competition’ with Medvedev – both in the eyes of the Russian people and the West. Now that Medvedev has positioned himself as a liberal for four years, leaving Putin the role of a conservative, Putin will find it hard to shed this image. Now it will be even more difficult for Putin to persuade the West of his liberalism than 10 years ago.”
Putin is a resolute and unconventional politician, and there should be no surprise if a “new Putin” does, in fact, emerge. The voters will have their say in the March election. The prime minister promised he would not stay in office for another minute if he feels he has lost the support of the electorate.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.