Four points from Putin’s press conference

Moscow, Russia (openDemocracy) – Putin’s annual press conference is a rare opportunity for Russian and international journalists to question—if not always challenge—the Russian president. For over three hours on 17 December, Vladimir Putin discussed a wide range of topics fielded from 1,400 accredited journalists present, selected by press secretary Dmitry Peskov. This was Putin’s eleventh annual major press conference, which have run for up to five hours. Fawning questions were a fixture—such as one on the president’s ‘sporty physique’ (he doesn’t owe it to doping)—but there were several pointed criticisms.

This year saw no real revelations, but a couple of confirmed suspicions. Firstly, Putin hinted that Katerina Tikhonova—identified as such by journalist Oleg Kashin—was indeed his daughter. Putin told journalists following the event that Donald Trump was a ‘colourful and talented man’ who had a positive approach to restoring relations with Russia. Disgraced FIFA head Sepp Blatter ‘should be awarded the Nobel peace prize’ and the Turkish leadership ‘decided to lick the Americans in a certain place’.

The highlight of the evening was his roundabout admission of a Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine. Putin insisted that ‘we never said that there were no people [in Ukraine] who were carrying out certain tasks, including in the military sphere’, adding that ‘this does not mean there are [regular] Russian troops there’. Putin has in fact successively denied the presence of any Russian armed forces—excluding Russian citizens acting independently—in the Donbas. Roman Tsymbalyuk of Ukraine’s UNIAN news agency looked singularly unimpressed. There was, naturally, no follow-up question.

Journalist Yekaterina Vinokurova raised the issue of Aleksei Navalny’s investigation into prosecutor Yuri Chaika and his links to organised crime. The Kremlin has dismissed the investigation as ‘foreign ordered’. Putin equivocated, not explicitly defending the prosecutor general, saying that he had not ‘wanted to mention the issue’ and that the government ‘was working on it’. The president moved swiftly on, though perhaps pro-Kremlin media has answered for him: a new documentary on the Gazprom-owned NTV channel now attempts to prove Navalny’s links to Bill Browder, head of Hermitage Capital and earlier accused by Chaika of having commissioned the investigation.

Yet the Russian president also addressed many more issues in domestic and foreign affairs—some of which have remained under the radar. Here are four you might have missed.

Carrots and sticks

In response to a question from Georgian journalist Tamara Gotsiridze on relations between the two countries, Putin lost no opportunity to mention his old nemesis from 2008. Saakashvili’s nomination as governor of Odessa was a ‘slap in the face of the Ukrainian people’ which put them under ‘external administration’, he declared, adding that the former Georgian president had been sent to Odessa at the behest of the US. He reserved kinder words for the current Georgian government of Irakli Garibashvili, mentioning the right ‘signals’ made from Tbilisi and hinting that normalised relations with Russia were in the best interests of the Georgian economy.

Putin added unequivocally that Russia was ready to cancel visa requirements for Georgian citizens. Garibashvili soon praised this ‘step in the right direction’, which came not long after the European Commission—in its fourth and final progress report—declared that Georgia met the criteria for visa liberalisation for the Schengen zone. Tbilisi’s government buildings have since been illuminated in EU colours and following preparations, Georgian citizens should receive visa-free entry by April-May 2016.

However, Russian political scientist Sergey Markedonov notes that government ministers in Moscow are sceptical—among them foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. Markedonov noted that Putin made similar overtures in his 2013 press conference. Fully normalising relations with Russia would entail reaching an accord with unrecognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia, stressed the Russian president.

The move may have been a tactical one—with tangible promises on the same from Brussels, Moscow has to ensure that a pro-Russian trajectory in Georgia’s politics remains tempting. Although a majority of Georgians still support EU membership, ambivalence and mistrust have been on the rise. Georgians have also grown more sceptical towards the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, which faces a close parliamentary election next year.

Tatar troubles

Putin’s ire at Ankara’s ‘backstabbing’ also had repercussions for Russian regions. Yelena Kolebakina of Tatarstan’s Business Online asked what was expected of the predominantly Turkic and Muslim region on the Volga given Russia’s recent rift with Turkey. She then noted that Turkish firms amount for one quarter of all FDI in the region, which formed extensive cultural and economic ties with Turkey after 1991. Yelena Teslova of the Anadolu News Agency repeated Putin’s own words that the people and the political elite should not be conflated—but that the Kremlin’s policy appeared to be rather different.

Turkish firms in Russia are now under threat after a wave of strict sanctions. From new year onwards, only those Russian businesses on an approved list will be able to employ Turkish citizens. The Duma also considered further bansagainst Turkish citizens—including real estate and construction, a key area for Turkish investment in Russia. Cultural institutions are also under threat: the Turkish studies centre of Kazan State University was closed on 4 December, and culture minister Vladimir Medinsky has ‘recommended’ that all contacts with TURKSOY—the international organisation for Turkic culture—be broken.

Over 300 Turkish firms are active in Tatarstan, whose strong economy has seen a turnover of $254.1 million since the beginning of this year. Tatarstan’s president Rustam Minnikhanov visited Turkey to promote trade ties as recently as October. In his long response to three related questions on relations with Ankara, Putin said that he understood Russia’s Turkic peoples, and that ‘we must continue to do business with those close to us… I say us, because Turkic-speaking peoples of Russia are part of Russia, while other Turkic-speaking peoples remain our partners and friends.’

Putin also mentioned his confusion at the presence of Syrian Turkmen—whose militia was allegedly attacked by the Russian Su-24 jet downed on 24 November—mentioning that ‘our’ Turkmen live in Turkmenistan. ‘Our’ Turkic peoples, it seemed to follow, count their losses.

Keep your heads

One such loss could be the title of president for Tatarstan’s leader Rustam Minnikhanov. Yeltsin’s invitation to Russia’s republics and regions to ‘take as much sovereignty as they could swallow’ was taken all too seriously by Tatarstan, which held a controversial referendum on ‘state sovereignty’ in 1992.

There may be no appetite for independence today, but as one of Russia’s best-performing regional economies, the republic’s elite and much of its population have a taste for meaningful autonomy. For Tatarstan, the title of president is an important symbol of those vestiges of federalism in Russia which Putin’s presidency has largely curtailed. While Putin insisted that the title of their leader was a decision for the people of Tatarstan, a federal law suggests otherwise—and mandates all regional leaders to rename themselves ‘heads’ by new year.

The Tatar scholar Rafael Khakimov once wrote that it would be an ironic federation in which the heads of football federations could call themselves presidents, but not the leaders of autonomous republics. The law in question, signed in February 2015, addressed statement made in 2010 by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who declared that the ‘parade of presidents must stop’, and that there was to be only one president in the Russian Federation. Putin referenced Kadyrov’s statements in the press conference, calling the change of title the ‘will of the Chechen people’. Kadyrov’s title was in fact changed to ‘head of the Chechen republic’ by parliamentary decree in August 2010, on his initiative alone.

Retirement age

In response to a question from Kira Latukhina of Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Putin stated that the government was to increase the retirement age of state officials to 65 years, which is to be increased gradually every six months. The legal retirement age in Russia is currently 60 years for men and 55 years for women.

With an ageing population and bleak economic prospects, Russia’s pension system has been in the gaze of bureaucrats since 2002, when a plan was introduced to encourage voluntary savings accounts for retirement. This arrangement has since been gradually unravelled, and in 2014 the state froze pension payments to private fund managers. Billions of roubles flowed into government coffers, which were used to plug widening holes in the state’s budget. Putin added that the state must either decrease pensions or gradually increase retirement age to avoid a systemic problem with replenishing the pension fund or its complete collapse within 15 years.

Image Source: DonkeyHotey, Flickr, Creative Commons Vladimir Putin - Caricature Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, aka Vladimir Putin, is the President of Russia.

Image Source: DonkeyHotey, Flickr, Creative Commons
Vladimir Putin – Caricature
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, aka Vladimir Putin, is the President of Russia.

He also pointed out that he personally had been ‘fighting against’ an increase in the retirement age, despite the Duma’s deliberations on the matter over the past year. Putin made sure to add ‘what people want to hear’: that the retirement age increase will not be retroactive. In his annual phone-in appearance in April 2015, the president estimated that Russia would spend some 3 per cent of its GDP on pension payments in 2016.

Putin said twice throughout the three hours that the Russian economy ‘has generally overcome the crisis—or at least the peak of the crisis—but not the crisis itself’. However, Russia’s finance minister Anton Siluanov predicts a drop in oil prices to as low as $30 a barrel. Unfortunately for Russians, the 2016 budget recently approved by Putin depends on a $50 estimate. Whether the state’s reserve funds can cover pension payments looks doubtful. Furthermore, Putin argued that pension rights for working people above retirement age were not to be affected—but their pensions would not be indexed while they work. As Putin noted earlier during the press conference, inflation in Russia had reached a yearly low of 12.3 per cent by 7 December. A noticeable decrease perhaps, but further challenges ahead and rising prices of utilities and essential goods could nonetheless make the changes felt.

Political repercussions are possible: a Levada Centre poll in February found that 79 per cent of Russians opposed the proposed retirement age for men (65), and 81 per cent the proposal for women (60). Russia faces parliamentary elections next year, and weak rouble and declining real wages could make raising the retirement age a risky move.

Heeding the call-in

In her study of the ‘Putin Mystique’, Anna Arutunyan analyses the role of the similar—and much celebrated—televised phone-ins held by Putin, which allows citizens to air their grievances before the president. She writes that such ritualised petitions to the president illustrate the symbolic power of supreme government and the ability of its leader to micromanage, mediate in favour of the disgruntled citizen against corrupt local bureaucrats. This year, there was precious little of the shrewd populist. He appeared more transfixed on foreign policy adventures than domestic woes—which are plentiful.

With shrinking reserves to pay for the costs of social stability, Putin kicked the responsibility—and the substantive answers—to domestic discontent down the power vertical. When answering these questions, he appeared more an apologist for the elite than a champion of the people. Tatyana Stanovaya callsthis new guise that of a ‘politically neutral state strategist… a state functionary with faded charisma’. Increasing the retirement age could anger many. His justification for Moscow’s loathed paid parking system and for the Platon freight tax system against which hundreds of truckers are now demonstrating will irritate many more.

Putin’s geopolitical grandstanding on Syria and Ukraine took the spotlight, but his insipid responses to tomorrow’s social unrest are telling. Andrei Kolesnikovwrites that Russia’s truckers have travelled to Moscow in the name of a society which doesn’t want to see, to appeal to a government which doesn’t want to listen. If Putin is no longer a convincing image of the ultimate arbiter between the people and a corrupt bureaucracy, then the Kremlin will have lost a key ability to co-opt and redirect the focus of social protest.

This report prepared by MAXIM EDWARDS  for openDemocracy.