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If Things Go Wrong In Russia, Who Will Take The Blame?

Putin answering questions as prime minister
Putin answering questions as prime minister
"Lenin answers all questions." For Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, these words from a poem every Soviet schoolchild read, Andrei Voznesensky's "Longjumeau,"* are not an abstraction.

Each year during his presidency, Putin answered questions put to him by viewers of federal television, questions phoned in by viewers along with some posed by people who gathered at specially prepared regional centers.

Some moments from these telecasts have become the stuff of humor. One year a girl from the Far Eastern city of Birobidzhan called and told Putin there was no real New Year's tree in her city's main square. In truth, there was already a tree there, but local authorities -- having heard Putin promise to rectify the matter -- rushed to put up another one. That year, Birobidzhan had two trees -- one from the governor and one from the president.

This year's performance was interesting because it was Putin's first as prime minister. There had been some speculation about whether President Dmitry Medvedev might inherit this tradition from Putin. By hanging on to it, even if it was only broadcast on one of the country's national television networks instead of on all of them as in past years, Putin seems to be asserting visibly that he is still setting the tone for the country's leadership.

But appearing as the leader is not without its risks, especially in times like these. In the eyes of average Russians, Putin is taking on himself responsibility for the social problems and other issues arising from the financial and economic crisis in Russia. At times he seemed to be trying to be a television president: he answered questions about relations with Ukraine, Georgia, and the United States. But at the same time, he was forced to be the television prime minister, facing questions about layoffs, inflation, business closures, and the like.

Although he continued to promise and promise and promise like he did in the good old days of $150-a-barrel oil, every now and again an apprehensive qualification such as "we must look if there is enough money" crept into his answers. Back then, Putin could confidently play the Good Tsar and grant the wishes of all petitioners. Now he must act more like the professional chairman of a government faced with choices. Russia's post-Soviet tradition has been for the president to blame and sack the prime minister when things go awry. Who will bear responsibility now if Putin's pledges are not realized?

This is the main intrigue of this year's television appearance and a serious question for the future of Russian politics. The Russian state has made some bold promises in terms of raising state-sector wages, pensions, and other benefits, promises that Putin said today he will not abandon.

If problems arise, will Putin blame the bureaucrats? Or will the bureaucrats blame Putin? Will the president blame the prime minister or will the prime minister blame the president?

The state's coffers are far from empty at this point, but Putin is taking chances by continuing to function as the father of the nation. But maybe that work is more attractive than the meticulous tasks of overcoming the crisis in an economically underdeveloped state -- one that took its present shape during Putin's presidency.

Vitaliy Portnikov is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

* Text edited on December 10, 2008, to add name of poem and poet.

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    Vitaliy Portnikov

    Vitaliy Portnikov has been a contributor to RFE/RL since 1990, working with the Ukrainian and Russian services. He currently provides analysis of current affairs on the weekly Ukrainian Service video show Dialogues With Portnikov and hosts the weekly Russian Service video show Roads To Liberty. A prominent Ukrainian journalist and publicist, he also works with the independent Espreso TV. Portnikov has written several books and was awarded Ukraine’s Taras Shevchenko prize in 2023.