At a mere 4 hours and 32 minutes, today’s press conference with 1,200 miscellaneous journalists may not have hit the record, but nonetheless it was one of those classic Putin events, in which endurance seems to matter more than content and the president almost seems to want to be able to talk away any thought of dissent or discontent. The transcript is available on the Kremlin website and a number of journalists admirably live-tweeted it with a mix of interest, surprise and bladder-clenched and back-aching despair (particular kudos to Shaun Walker, Miriam Elder and Nickolaus von Twickel). Nonetheless, here are a few initial thoughts of mine.
1. No new ideas, again. After the surprisingly anodyne state of the union address earlier this month, there was some speculation — to be fair, I indulged too — that this, Putin’s first big set-piece press conference since his return to the presidency might presage something big. Were Kudrin’s unusually vehement criticisms of the Medvedev cabinet a hint that a reshuffle was in the offing? Was the anti-corruption campaign about to kick into a higher gear? Well, no. Instead we had the usual spectacle of a tough and collected VVP fielding a handful of searching questions and a lot of fluff (Will you congratulate my child on her birthday, Mr President? Can we have a special day to celebrate the work of accountants? and so on). He gave stern answers to questions on the usual neuralgic topics such as Magnitsky and Syria and generally exalted Russia’s progress. Stability was, needless to say, his watchword, as without that there can be nothing else. So far, so usual. But I did feel that there was…
2. Something different: context. His past exercises in monarchical press conferences worked, I think, because they were not so much ways of establishing authority so much as of expressing and demonstrating it. He seemed confident, we knew, because he was confident, because he could be confident. However, after a year of drift and protest, while it is not as if the Putin regime is in danger of imminent collapse, claims that he didn’t think he had made any serious errors in the past 12 years (how about the castling, how about the Kursk, etc…?) ring hollow and, more to the point, offer nothing. I don’t think his performance was any different from in the past; I think the lens through which it is viewed certainly is.
3. Signs of life in the Russian media. Part of that change is a new mood within the media, even those in the past hardly defined by their radicalism. Amidst the embarrassing displays of fawning submission (I especially enjoyed the journalist from Magadan who felt the need to tell VVP he was so “energetic and beautiful” although the proposal to name the Kuril Islands after him also gets points), there were also sharp, pointed and serious questions on issues ranging from the adoption row to the authoritarian tendencies of the political system. I can’t say I’ve gone and trawled the old transcripts, but on a subjective level these felt much more critical and incisive than I remember in the past.
4. Personalia: messing with Medvedev. Medvedev didn’t get much of a boost here; indeed, if anything Putin was sticking pins into his little Dima voodoo doll. Serdyukov, whom DAM had praised recently, was touched on and Putin made a point of defending his dismissal, still making a mockery of any sense of innocence until being proven guilty and implicitly slapping the PM down. (For the record, it’s not that I necessarily believe Serdyukov is innocent, I just think this is something for the courts and not the Investigations Committee to decide.) Furthermore Kudrin, who had after all just laid into Medvedev and his cabinet, got a positive shout-out, with Putin reaffirming that he still listens to him.
It was interesting that the goodie bag distributed to the attendees was redolent of tsarist splendor, down to the provision of postcards of the tsars. But without divine right and the support of the elite, a tsar is just a man with a fancy chair.