Vladimir Putin was only a couple of minutes into his annual “Direct Line” phone-in TV show when his upbeat tone started to change. After straightforward replies to several of the pre-selected questions from the public and experts last Thursday, the Russian president engaged in something akin to self-criticism.
“The currency rate adjustment [of the ruble] was unavoidable – unavoidable – even in the absence of the sanctions,” he said. The devaluation was a result not only of the low oil price but also of quickly growing wages which, driven by social expenditures, outpaced productivity.
The explanation was in response to a question posed by the former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, undoubtedly the most respected economic expert in the country. In a Direct Line talk two years ago, Mr. Kudrin had criticized Mr. Putin for failing to tackle these problems.
Back then, Mr. Putin had countered that Mr. Kudrin may be the best finance minister but he wasn’t the best social minister. Anyway, he said, he never showed up to government meetings.
It was reported that Russia’s Channel One, which broadcasts the Direct Line show, received more than three million questions for the president. The message is that nothing can be done without Mr. Putin. He alone can solve problems ranging from stand-offs with the West to grievances about broken water mains.
Mr. Putin's bluster was almost exclusively reserved for the leadership in Ukraine, who, he said, showed no willingness to resolve the conflict.
Mr. Putin’s casual manner during his marathon appearances on television has become his trademark. So the change in tone in this year’s show couldn’t be ignored. Right at the start, the anchors complained that there were many questions dealing with economic and social problems.
The impression was quickly given that the broadcast was being used as a platform for Russians to let off steam at the president. After all, almost all experts assume there will be a recession this year. During the live phone-in part of the show, Russian citizens expressed their worries about high inflation.
Mr. Putin had some good figures to present: A record number of new homes, growth in agriculture, the ruble recovering. The height of the crisis has passed, he said. But then Kirill Kleymenov, who has been the show’s docile presenter for years, took the initiative.
Mr. Putin’s positive statistics, he said, were contradicted by the reality reported by callers. Mr. Kudrin went a step further: Mr. Putin’s growth models have exhausted their potential.
It took almost one and a half hours before subjects such as the crisis in Ukraine or the relationship with the West were brought up. Comments from Irina Chakamada, a former opposition politician, underscored the change in mood.
Last year, she congratulated Mr. Putin on his successful, bloodless annexation of Crimea.
But this year she wanted to know Mr. Putin’s opinion about the murder of her friend, the politician Boris Nemzov. The murder was “tragic and shameful” for the country, Mr. Putin said. He also remained within diplomatic boundaries when questioned about E.U. finances. Instead, his bluster was almost exclusively reserved for the leadership in Ukraine, who, he said, showed no willingness to resolve the conflict.
But after four hours, the head of state would not be denied a typical Putin-style closing. In answer to a question about his negotiation tactics with Western leaders, he told an anecdote.
He was drinking beer with former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder in a banya (sauna) when it caught fire. Mr. Schröder, however, insisted on finishing his beer. “The bathhouse burned down. Since then, I no longer go into a banya.”
Maxim Kireev is a freelance journalist based in Moscow. To contact the author: email@example.com