20 years under Putin: a timeline

On December 20, the “Day of the Chekist [Soviet secret police officer],” Vladimir Putin held his annual press conference. The event was expected to be the traditional end-of-year public relations show by Russia’s head of state who has always used such occasions to demonstrate his self-confidence. This time, however, it did not turn out as planned. According to Tatyana Stanovaya, chief of the analytical department of the Center of Political Technologies and IMR advisor, this was the first time that Putin did not control the conversation and appeared visibly weak.



Vladimir Putin’s strength as a statesman has always been the ability to articulate his points clearly, without hesitation, and with irrefutable logic.  Previously he was able to drive his opponents into a corner and overwhelm them with his unshakeable confidence in the correctness of his positions. This time, Putin showed himself to the public in an altogether different light.  He often avoided answering questions about the most complex and politically controversial topics  by saying he was unaware of the matter mentioned, had no idea how to deal with issue raised, or just was not prepared to respond. He made these excuses in spite of the fact that few observers would be so gullible as to believe that Russia’s head of state is so strikingly uninformed about the most hotly debated political issues.

For example, Putin confessed that he had no idea how to normalize Russia’s relations with Georgia. In response to the Bloomberg reporter who asked whether the money that Rosneft was going to pay for its TNK-BP deal would later be returned to Russia (since, as the reporter noted, the deal was an offshore transaction), Putin answered: “We cannot know for sure whether they will.”  He explained that with respect to “de-offshorization,” if the transaction was legal, it was up to the company whether or not to move its funds to another tax jurisdiction. But then, what is the point of “de-offshorization” if it applies only to illegal cash flows? Thus, Russia’s head of state appeared incapable of elucidating one of the main proposals he himself presented in his annual state-of-the-nation address.

Equally astonishing was Putin’s uncertainty as to whether the anti-American legislation that bans the activities of U.S.-funded NGOs on Russian territory and prohibits the adoption of Russian orphans by American citizens had passed the final reading in the Duma. This issue was the primary topic of the press conference. This was unprecedented for such an event, and it demonstrated that Putin is either unable to be clear and comprehensible, or that he simply does not have a well-defined view.

He was unable to answer the question about the implications of passing the “children’s bill” for those children who were already at the final stage of the adoption process. “I am just not ready to answer your question,” confided Putin, in spite of his press secretary’s earlier statement that the president was spending his nights studying mounds of information to prepare for his meeting with the journalists.  It seems he did not prepare well enough.

Putin’s answers also showed a lack of familiarity with domestic political matters. Speaking of the protesters arrested for “organizing mass disturbances” during the May 6 rally, Putin shrugged his shoulders: “I don’t know on what grounds these people were detained.” “I don’t know the details of this case,” was his comment on the video allegedly showing a meeting of Russian opposition leaders with Georgian politician Givi Targamadze.  The biggest “hit of the day” was his comment about the death of Sergey Magnitsky, the Moscow lawyer who died from savage mistreatment during his pre-trial detention: “I don’t know the details of this tragic death.”

Putin is tired of criticism, of proving his points, of trying to break through the wall that increasingly separates him from the politically active part of society.

What happened to Putin that he is suddenly unable to respond to questions?  The answer is clear: the gulf between the powers-that-be and society, and the gulf between the political leader and his base of support is growing wider. There is an increasing alienation and loss of mutual understanding between the people and their political leaders, which, in turn, fuels Putin’s petulance. He is tired of criticism, of proving his points, of trying to break through the wall that increasingly separates him from the politically active part of society. During the press conference, Putin lost his temper several times – starting from the very first two questions, both of which were about the law prohibiting adoption by Americans. “What is normal about being humiliated? Would you like that? Are you a sadomasochist? A country should not be humiliated!” - shouted Putin at his unlucky questioner. He also charged the United States with violating the rights of adopted Russian children.

Putin became irritated yet again when asked about direct elections of regional governors. In response to this question, he urged the reporter of Kommercheskie vesti (Commerce News) to listen carefully and “not to return to this question again.” “We have been dancing around this issue for many years already, we keep repeating the same position – you just need to listen at least once and hear what I say: We support – and I personally support – direct gubernatorial elections,” said Putin. In reality, however, his position on this issue includes many limitations. Notably, a few years ago, he expressed reservations based on what he perceived as the negative aspects of direct elections in Russia (the influence of organized crime, the immaturity of the political system, and so on). Recently, he found a new reason to limit his endorsement of direct gubernatorial elections: the risk of destabilizing Russia’s ethnic-based republics where government jobs are distributed among different clans according to strict quotas. Putin had never mentioned this before, and there was no reason for him to attack the journalist who most likely wanted to know his opinion about a bill that was recently introduced in the Duma. This bill would transfer the right to define the system of electing regional leaders to each individual region. With his comment, Putin raised more questions than he answered.

Putin became incensed a third time when a Reuters journalist asked him about Mikhail Khodorkovsky: wasn’t it time for him to be released from prison? Putin was outraged by the very fact that this issue was being raised, and he repeated several times that he was not able to influence the courts or the law enforcement agencies. The president evidently forgot that in the past he repeatedly spoke of his authority over the police: “I will instruct the law enforcement agencies to verify…”; “I shall order an inspection…”; “I will draw the attention of the law enforcement agencies…,” and so on, and so forth. An even clearer example of his ability to control government agencies occurred in 2008 when he threatened to dispatch “doctors” to Igor Zyuzin, the head of Mechel, Russia’s largest steel company. Why does Putin not want, at least publicly, to show that he has this authority now?  “I have no influence on them! I want all of you the hear this: I did not exert any influence on law enforcement or the judiciary in any way! I stayed completely out of these matters! I was doing my own work,” exclaimed the indignant president. Was that an attempt to evade responsibility?

Putin’s emotionalism is a sign of an increasing lack of understanding and psychological exhaustion due to the growing resistance to his authority from society, the elites, and the West.   In addition Putin finds himself in a vice, being squeezed on the one hand by the “creative class” that demands change and, on the other hand, by some of the “hardliners” who know no limits in their aspirations for more state capitalism and a political “tightening of the screws.” In this context, it was interesting to hear Putin’s slip of the tongue in his discussion of judicial reform: he confided that “some people” have already expressed their concern that the government had gone too far in advancing the independence of the judiciary; a concern that the courts were departing from society’s and the government’s control.  This was an odd expression, from which there can be only one inference: the fear of losing political control over the judiciary, as well as the insistence of the “hawks,” behind the scenes, on a reevaluation and a reversal of the Medvedev reforms.


At his press conference, Vladimir Putin tried to convince journalists that he "did not exert any influence on law enforcement or the judiciary" in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (pictured).


Putin gave practically no substantive answers to difficult questions. “What happened to Sergey Magnitsky? Why did he become the victim of a 1937-style persecution?” asked a reporter of the Los Angeles Times. Putin dodged the question: “This issue is not at all about Magnitsky.” Was this a press conference, or did Putin think his role was to deliver a monologue on predetermined subjects? Even in response to the query about his plans for the next several years - a textbook question for any office holder – Putin deflected it by enumerating his accomplishments and not saying a word about his intentions. He kept looking into the past while sidestepping discussions about the future – with the exception of his joke about the end of the world in 4.5 billion years.

Even in those instances when Putin did respond, he had a hard time articulating a position that would impress the listener with its logic. His comments about the “children’s bill” are the most glaring examples of this. Putin was asked this question eight (!) times: what was his stance on the bill and the reasoning behind his support? It is impossible to piece his answers together, however, because the president failed to clarify whether the anti-American bill was a response to the Magnitsky Act. Putin first stated that the bill was “a response by Duma deputies to the position of American authorities;” according to him, “The American system of justice does not respond [to crimes against adopted Russian children] and does not impose criminal punishment on the people who clearly committed a crime against a child.” In addition, Putin was unhappy that Russian observers were not allowed into American courtrooms, and that the U.S.-Russia agreement that regulates adoptions (signed in the summer of 2011 and in force since November 1, 2012) did not give sufficient rights to Russian lawyers in American courts. However, a little later Putin mentioned an altogether different rationale for the adoption of the “children’s bill” –the secret CIA prisons. “Can you imagine what would happen if we, in our country, had anything of the sort? We would be pilloried [by our critics]! They would raise such an uproar throughout the world! But everybody is quiet [about U.S. prisons]. There have been so many promises to close [the detention center in] Guantanamo, but nothing has changed. The prison is still operating and, for all we know, the torturing may still be going on. I am talking about the so-called secret CIA prisons. Has anyone been punished? And they dare to accuse us by saying that we have problems [with Magnitsky’s death]. Thank you, we know about them. But using them to adopt some anti-Russian laws is out of bounds and not justified by anything we have done,” the president stated.

So what is the real reason for the anti-American bill restricting NGOs and the rights of orphaned children? Is it a response to the dysfunctional agreement on adoptions, or to the Magnitsky Act? During the four-and-a-half hours of the press conference Putin failed to provide his answer to this question. Moreover, in the best traditions of the KGB, he did not give a clear indication as to whether he was going to sign the bill adopted by the Duma. After having expressed his unequivocal support for the bill several times, he left himself room for maneuver by announcing that he would make the decision later, since he “had not yet read the bill.” (Note: Vladimir Putin signed the law banning U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans on December 28.)

After four years of “political vacation” Putin lost the practice of hardheaded dialogue. Now, after his return to the Kremlin, he has to grapple with the fact that the country has already changed.

Putin lost his way even when discussing stability – a topic with which he should be familiar. A reporter from the pro-Kremlin Russian State TV and Radio Company asked him whether stability might turn into stagnation. In response, Putin abruptly started talking about China, noting that stability brings billions of dollars in investment to that country. He seemed to confuse political stability with investment appeal. In Russia, the latter is problematic: investors complain about of the absence of stability with respect to the rules of the game, arbitrary decisions by the authorities, excessive dependence of the economy upon the government, politicization of important investment decisions, frequent revisions of regulations, taxes, and administrative rules, corruption and the lack of competition and properly functioning market institutions. This does not sound much like stability. When journalists and experts talk about stagnation, what they mean is the political regime and its conservatism, resistance to change, and degradation. The example of China has noting to do with this. Another example of confusion was Putin’s confident mention of several criminal cases initiated against former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. The problem is that the investigatory authorities have never heard anything about these proceedings.

It is worth noting that there was not only a change in Putin, but in the journalists as well. Compared to previous large-scale press conferences, the mood of the audience was disloyal and occasionally adversarial. Who could have imagined that a reporter from the pro-Kremlin Izvestiya newspaper would ask Putin about the hardline authoritarian regime, or that about 20 out of 80 questions (a quarter of the total) would address such controversial political topics as corruption, persecution of the opposition, Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky, the murders of journalists, authoritarianism, political competition, etc. Meanwhile, only 16 questions touched on the Russian government’s socio-economic policies: infrastructural projects, WTO accession, tax policies, and social issues.

The transformation of Putin’s audience took place in a venue where everything was supposed to be under control, and where even unpleasant surprises, for which he had clearly been preparing, were supposed to be turned to his advantage, not into a demonstration of unpreparedness and evasion. The hero at this press conference was not Putin – the heroes were two people who managed, for the first time in years, to drive him into a corner: Maria Solovyenko, of the Vladivostok-based newspaper Narodnoe Veche (People’s Town Hall) and Sergei Loiko of the Los Angeles Times. They were not afraid to challenge Putin: Solovyenko addressed him with cold sarcasm, and Loiko with considerable toughness. As for Putin, after four years of “political vacation” he lost the practice of hardheaded dialogue. Now, after his return to the Kremlin, he has to grapple with the fact that the country has already changed.