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Russia's Minorities Have Plenty Of Questions For Putin

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) takes questions during his annual TV marathon in Moscow on December 16. But he left some questions unanswered.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) takes questions during his annual TV marathon in Moscow on December 16. But he left some questions unanswered.
We all like well-choreographed, nicely staged political spectacles, let's admit it. After all, what's not to like about theatrical, ritualized behavior impeccably executed in front of millions of television viewers? Like pretty women on the street, such shows lift your spirits and make you proud of your country and your politicians, even if the next day you wake up in the same dank apartment surrounded by tragic-faced family members who incessantly demand to know why we can't afford a new kitchen table.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has dominated Russia's political scene for over a decade now, has become particularly good at such shows, even if on occasion he somewhat overdoes them.

Over the years, he has flown in a fighter jet to rebellious Chechnya, cruised in a nuclear submarine under the Arctic Sea, swum across icy rivers, saved baby seals from being clubbed to death, raced a Formula-1 car, rescued a television crew from a "runaway" Siberian tiger, rode bare-chested through the wilderness, harpooned a whale, tracked brown bears, crooned golden oldies with a bunch of Russian spies expelled from the United States, dumped 24 tons of water on a forest fire from a fire-fighting plane, driven a yellow -- yellow! -- Lada across Russia's far east, tagged a polar bear, descended to the bottom of the world's deepest lake in a mini-submarine.... It's like watching the Discovery Channel, only more exciting.

Vladimir Putin tags a Siberian tiger in August 2008.
If you think all these tough-guy pursuits indicate the man is having a prolonged midlife crisis, think again. The public displays of Putin's manifold talents are meant to show he's a man of action and he's in charge. You have to hand it to him, such stunts work.

Opinion polls suggest that Putin still tops the list of most-trusted Russian politicians. According to the All-Russia Institute for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), Putin enjoys a 55 percent trust rating, compared with President Dmitry Medvedev's 48 percent.

Man Of Action

Putin's latest public-relations exercise, dubbed "A Conversation With Vladimir Putin -- Continued," didn't buck the trend. Putin, who visibly basked in the limelight during the lengthy nationally televised event last week, was keen not to leave any doubt in the public mind as to who rules the roost, so much so that he never once mentioned Medvedev by name.

The questions that Putin fielded ranged from the effect of the economic crisis on ordinary Russians ("This year we saw a positive trend") and the plight of the jailed former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky ("It is my conviction that 'a thief should be in jail'") to Putin's new cute puppy, Buffy ("He makes huge puddles and messes on the floor all around the house, but despite that, he is a nice chap and I'm very fond of him. (Applause)").

True, the festive mood of Putin's question-and-answer session was somewhat overshadowed by mass riots in Moscow the previous weekend that were directed mainly against Russian citizens from the North Caucasus. When a caller complained that the police were doing nothing to prevent the attacks by Russian nationalists on non-Russians, Putin said, "We must cut short extremist actions on all sides."

At the same time, he warned against treating law enforcement agencies "like dirt." "Otherwise our liberal intelligentsia will have to shave off their beards, don helmets, and go out onto the streets and squares to fight the radicals," Putin quipped.

Even more bizarrely, Putin claimed that "the state exists to provide for the interests of the majority." Fair enough, but what about minorities? Who will protect them from the majority?

Tough Questions Unanswered

No doubt many in Russia would also like to know if Putin, who lent his name to the present-day political system in the country, feels that he has had any part in fuelling anti-Caucasian and anti-Muslim sentiment in Russia.

University students in Grozny watch Putin taking questions on TV.
This sentiment is largely the result of the two conflicts in Chechnya. On Putin's watch, the North Caucasus has become a hard place to live and an easy place to die. Bitter experience has taught people there to stand up for themselves. In a state that sees itself solely as the defender of the majority, that becomes the only realistic strategy for survival.

Finally, what if today's non-ethnic Russian minority becomes a majority one day? Will the Russian state still insist on protecting the interests of that majority? This is not merely a hypothetical question, since research suggests that if the current demographic tendencies continue non-Russians may outnumber ethnic Russian within three decades.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those crucial questions remained unanswered, leaving Putin more time to focus on such abstruse ones as "Are you a shaman or something?" Putin assured viewers he is not, whereupon some in the country may have heaved a sigh of relief and gone happily to bed in their dank high rises.

Others may have thought to themselves: "Our life is mysterious enough, prime minister, without your conundrums, topless horse-backing, and theatrics."

Aslan Doukaev is the director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL