Live from Moscow! It's the Vladimir Putin Show!
Meet Putin, the wise and kindly father figure. Gaze in admiration as the Good Tsar Vladimir soothes the nerves of a jittery nation. Watch in awe as the tough-guy strongman describes how he will take care of his foreign enemies who would do his people harm.
It has become an annual ritual of political theater, this virtual-town-hall extravaganza. It doesn't even matter that Putin is no longer president -- he's still the "national leader" after all. And sitting on a round electric-blue stage surrounded by an adoring studio audience and sycophantic television anchors, he's the star, fielding three hours' worth of carefully choreographed questions from meticulously prescreened ordinary citizens.
"Greetings Uncle Volodya!" Dasha Varfolomeyeva, a little girl from the Buryat Republic in Siberia, said over a crackling phone line, using the diminutive form of Putin's name usually reserved for close friends and family members.
"Soon it will be New Year's. We live on grandmother's pension and there is no work in our village. My sister and I dream about having new dresses, like Cinderella, and would like to ask you to buy them for us."
"Dashenka," Putin answered with a bemused smile, also using the diminutive. "I think that you and other children should be able to celebrate New Year's in a dignified manner and adults must see to it that this wish is fulfilled. As far as gifts are concerned, I would like to invite you, your sister, and your grandmother to Moscow for New Year's Eve, and then we will decide about gifts."
But Cinderella dresses and holiday invitations aside, not all of the exchanges were suitable for children.
"Is this true you promised to hang Saakashvili by a special part of his anatomy?" a man from the city of Penza asked. The man was referring to media reports that Putin told French President Nicholas Sarkozy that the Georgian leader should be "hung by his balls" for the war in South Ossetia in August.
"But why by just one part," Putin deadpanned with a wry smile as the audience erupted in laughter.
Putin mainly tried to sooth fears over the global financial crisis that is hitting Russia's economy hard.
"We have every opportunity to get through this difficult period with minimal problems," Putin said, despite rising inflation, increased unemployment, plummeting growth. True to form, he blamed the crisis on the United States, which Putin said has "contaminated all leading economies of the world."
One has to wonder how much longer Russia's ruling elite can keep blowing smoke into the eyes of their citizens. As Putin was performing for an adoring nation today, oil prices plummeted to a four-year low. And despite protestations to the contrary, Russia's rulers have made little to no progress in diversifying the economy to make it less dependent on energy and commodities prices.
If current economic trends continue, it will take more than New Year's invitations, Cinderella dresses, and references to the Georgian president's private parts to pacify an increasingly panicky public.
-- Brian Whitmore