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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 26 New Delhi June 16, 2018

Russian Leader’s Question-Answer Session: Putin Emerging Longest Serving President of Russia — Challenges Persist

Monday 18 June 2018

by R.G. Gidadhubli

Vladimir Putin was elected as the President of Russia with overwhelming majority for the fourth time for a six-year term ending in 2024. Exactly one month after he was sworn in following a landslide election, to express his solidarity with the people a question-answer session was held on June 7, 2018 when about two million questions were fielded from across the country; these were submitted and the leader asked about an array of domestic and foreign-policy issues. While similar Q/A shows were arranged earlier, this was the 16th event which went on for more than four hours and it was hi-tech connecting the main venue of Putin in the Kremlin with several Ministries, heads of republics and also reporters from various parts of the country. Questions were raised by callers from far-flung regions of Russia. Four state television channels and three radio stations were broadcasting Direct Line live.

This Direct Line was Putin’s best chance to increase his popularity by portraying himself as a capable leader who is not only firmly in control of the country but also has his finger on the pulse of the people. While Putin answered most of the questions raised by citizens from various parts of the country, Ministers and Governors were present to answer specific questions concerning their departments.

By 2024, Putin having taken over the presidency for the fourth time will be completing quarter- century of his leadership of Russia; this will be comparable to that of the former Soviet leader, Josef Stalin. That is why it is worth looking into some of the questions on major domestic and foreign issues raised during this event.

There were a few questions raised on socio-economic issues. One comment made by one Russian was as follows: “Our lives are getting worse and worse. It’s in the Kremlin that everything is wonderful.” A similar question was asked: “Why do half of Russians live in barracks?” In fact these were very relevant questions asked for Putin must be aware that about 20 per cent of the population in the country survive below the minimum subsistence level. These are mainly the old-age population in rural and semi-urban areas. In fact a major socio-economic problem facing Russia is the poor status of some sections of pensioners who have been receiving paltry amounts as their pensions; and what is worse, these are not being indexed to the rising living costs. In fact when this issue was raised in 2016, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev stated that there was shortage of money with the government. Perhaps the situation has not much improved. Apart from that many of medium and large enterprises have been suffering from the impact of economic recession and hence could not afford to retain workers leading to unemployment and not able to raise the pensions.

It is important that one frank question was put to Putin. “People are slaves to your oligarchs. And you’re well aware of it. And we see everything and understand. How should we live?” In this context it needs to be stated that Russia’s transition from a socialist economy to a market economy after the Soviet break-up has resulted in the emergence of a rich business class of millionaires and billionaires who managed to acquire state property during the 1990s under Yeltsin’s irrational and hasty economic reform of privatisation. They were either factory managers or heads of regions and former Communist Party or bureaucrats who grabbed property taking advantage of privati-sation of enterprises when proper valuation was not made. At the same time Russia witnessed the worst economic crisis leading to the problem of wide economic disparities among the Russian population.

Putin is aware of this problem but has been unable to solve it despite being in power for the last two decades. In fact there is an allegation by some critics that oligarchs are closely asso-ciated with the Kremlin authorities. Unfortu-nately for Russia, and Putin in particular, many of these oligarchs have parked their money in the West and live in Europe and America.

Questions were asked regarding the poor health facilities in the country. Reporters mentioned and displayed the pathetic health conditions in several parts of the country. They pointed out that there are not enough hospitals in many regions of Russia, due to lack of doctors several sections of hospitals are closed, people suffer on account of the problem of delay in diagnosis, acute shortage of medicines etc. While medical care was free during the Soviet era and fairly efficient, during the last over two decades public health sector has been badly affected due to growing cost of medicines and even lack of medicines resulting in the rising death rate and decline in average life expectancy to less than 60 as compared to over 75 during the Soviet era. The population in Russia has been declining by one million every year. Putin being aware of this problem, assured that the Russian Government will provide about one trillion rubles by 2024.

While claiming that the economy is “moving in the absolutely right direction” after emerging from a two-year recession, Putin was candid in stating that “there are still enough problems” due to multiple causes—the impact of economic sanctions by the West in 2014, decline in oil prices during 2009-2013 followed by economic recession. There is no doubt that all these factors have adversely affected the economy. At the same time Putin not only reversed Yeltsin’s policy of privatisation but also reduced the share of foreign companies that had invested in Russia affecting the investment climate. Corruption, centralisation and bureaucracy are also major factors adversely affecting economic development; these are persisting and have not been resolved despite two decades of his leadership. However, Putin has reasons to be happy as the Central Bank has forecast 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent growth in 2018 overcoming the recession the country suffered so far. Possibly on this basis Putin has assured the country that problems will be solved and there will be a bright future. But this is going to be his major challenge in this tenure of his presidency.

Putin also answered questions on external issues. Russia’s conflict with Ukraine subsequent to the Crimean issue and unending fighting going on in the eastern region of Ukraine by separatists alleged to be supported by Russia, has been a major problem for Putin. In this regard an effort was made with the Minsk peace deal of 2015 which has decreased the fighting but failed to end it and set out a political-settlement plan that has gone largely unfulfilled. He expressed that a fresh bid is scheduled on June 11, 2018 when Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov will meet his counterparts from Ukraine, France, and Germany, the mediators of the 2015 Minsk peace deal, to resolve the issue. But this is going to be a challenge for Putin because, as also opined by some analysts, there have been few signs pointing to a breakthrough.

Lastly, relations between Moscow and the NATO remain at their lowest level in years, severely damaged in 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and its aid for separatists in eastern Ukraine. On June 7, 2018 during the Brussels meet the NATO proposed to increase its defence potentialities in the region with the deployment of 30 troop battalions, 30 squadrons of aircraft, and 30 warships within 30 days—the so-called “Four 30s” plan. On his part Putin claimed that he has given considerable emphasis on the defence sector including production of hi-tech instru-ments to deal with any conflict; he specifically mentioned about this at the Q/A session.

Thus it is evident that Putin has not only emerged as one of the longest serving Presidents of Russia. By interacting with the common citizens through the Q/A session, he has also enhanced his capability and popularity even as challenges persist.

Dr Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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