Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have fine-tuned the art of live stagecraft over the years in his annual call-in show. But this year's Direct Line program may have been the first in which the Kremlin leader's performance was far from convincing.
Kremlin watchers say Putin may end up regretting his decision to hold the annual national call-in, which came just days after nationwide antigovernment protests.
Despite being heavily choreographed, many of the questions during the four-hour event on June 15 focused on pocketbook issues that worry average Russians. That may dent the image of Putin as the country's ultimate problem solver.
According to Mark Galeotti, who is a senior researcher the Institute of International Relations in Prague and co-host of RFE/RL's Power Vertical Podcast, "the fundamental message, to which [Putin] returned time and again, is that the economy is finally picking up. Of course, the very fact that he needs to belabor the point reflects the way that most ordinary Russians are not feeling any improvement, whatever the government's statistics say."
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state who's now an analyst with the Brookings Institution, says that "although there is no doubt that Mr. Putin will win reelection," the Russian president may have spent a lot of time talking about economics as a way of "previewing the themes of his campaign."
"That is interesting, since while the Russian economy is growing, it is not growing very much," he told RFE/RL via email. "That is hardly a solid foundation for a campaign but, given Mr. Putin’s current popularity and the relative low ratings of his likely opponents, he may not need much."
The economic woes that many ordinary Russians are still enduring have contributed to growing public discontent.
Earlier this week, Russia witnessed some of the most widespread protests in years. Their ringleader was Kremlin nemesis and anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny, who got a 30-day prison sentence for his role in organizing the June 12 demos in cities across Russia.
"Honestly, I wonder if Putin is cursing ever saddling himself with this ritual that he now cannot shirk. Although one cannot fault his preparedness or his stamina, he certainly no longer seems to be enjoying himself," Galeotti told RFE/RL by email.
Putin could not have been pleased with some of the text messaging that popped up on the screen in the sleek studio. Some expressed dissent that, while awkward for the Kremlin, was humorous to others.
"Putin, do you really think the people are buying this circus with scripted questions?" one viewer asked.
"When are you going to resign?" another from Perm questioned.
"The only things that really spiced up the whole marathon...were the online comments that snuck onto the screen calling for Putin to step down," Galeotti said.
Stanislav Belkovsky, the leading analyst at Russian TV channel Dozhd, questioned whether Putin may have had enough.
"Even Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is getting older -- more slowly than average people, of course, but even he is tired of this meaningless pastime," he wrote on the TV station's website.
'Hostage To Fortune'
Paul Schwartz, an analyst at the Arlington, Virginia-based think-tank CNA and expert on Russian military and security policy, told RFE/RL that Putin appeared uncomfortable talking about the recent protests.
"He barely mentioned them in his responses, and when he did he implied that they had been used primarily as a means for political grandstanding by opposition leaders. Moreover, the protests themselves indicate that the favorable view which had been held by many of Mr. Putin's leadership qualities has at least suffered to some degree over the last few months," Schwartz said.
Few questions steered beyond domestic concerns. Even Ukraine, which saw Russia annex its Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and then stoke a conflict in eastern regions that has killed at least 10,000 people and shows no sign of abating, got little attention.
"Ukraine's place in this year's Putin call-in was limited to a few instances," said Yevhen Fedchenko, co-founder of the Ukraine fact-checking website StopFake.org. "And there are two reasons for that: Putin has no victories to boast about, and he has no vision for Russian audiences on how to end the conflict."
Putin's call for Ukrainian leaders, including President Petro Poroshenko, to give up offshore bank accounts was met by puzzled looks among some experts.
"Calling for Ukraine's leaders to give up their offshore accounts at a time when so much Russian money is still heading out and so many figures within the Russian elite keep their cash abroad is giving up quite a hostage to fortune," Galeotti said.