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.