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The Week In Russia: Save The Whales, Slam The '90s -- Putin's Not-So-Direct Line

As Russians wonder about the future, Putin talks about the past.
As Russians wonder about the future, Putin talks about the past.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin took aim at a frequent target -- the 1990s -- in his annual call-in show on state TV. In a Direct Line program in which the line between Putin and the people sometimes looked less than direct, he also repeated calls for a technological "breakthrough" that would bolster the economy and raise living standards.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Back To The Future

Russians watch Putin's annual call-in show for clues about what the future will bring, but the president took them back to the past -- to the 1990s, to be precise -- several times in the marathon Direct Line program, which lasted more than four hours.

Facing questions about when things like wages, real income, health care, and living standards will get better, Putin invoked the 1990s at least twice in an effort to show that they could be worse -- and suggest that they would be, if not for his 20 years in power as president or prime minister.

First, he went out of his way to respond to a text-messaged question from a viewer who likened the United Russia party -- which dominates parliament and is a major instrument of power for Putin nationwide -- to a "gang."

He said -- twice, for emphasis -- that he would not call the people in power in the 1990s a gang, but suggested that many of them were responsible for what he described as the horrors of the decade that followed the Soviet collapse in 1991.

The tattered economy, weakened military, idled industries, and Chechen wars that he said nearly tore the country apart were "the result of their work," Putin, whose administration has cast him as something close to a savior who raised Russia from its knees, told the country in the nationally televised show.

Putin’s Direct Line had some indirect moments.
Putin’s Direct Line had some indirect moments.

Putin took aim at the turbulent decade again a little later, when he was asked when he would finally understand that "1990s economists" will get the country nowhere. He responded by suggesting that he had finally rid Russia of the problems caused by the economic policies of the 1990s.

He killed two birds with one stone, in fact, getting in a jibe at Aleksei Kudrin, a longtime former finance minister who is close to Putin but has clashed with the government, criticized policies in place today, and called the arrest of American equity fund founder Michael Calvey an "emergency" for the economy.

Putin also turned back to the 1990s in an episode that seemed tailor-made to revive memories of the final summer of that decade, when he had just become prime minister and his involvement in setting the second war against militants in Chechnya in motion helped vault him from relative obscurity to a position of popularity.

A Long-Ago War

It came when a state TV reporter introduced a group of rugged men speaking from a hillside in Daghestan, near a town where fighting was taking place at the time, and described them as "militia" members who had fired some of the first shots against alleged militants in the war, which ended with neighboring Chechnya back under Moscow's control.

The man thanked "deeply respected Vladimir Vladimirovich" for a visit he made by helicopter at "the most difficult hour" in August 1999. As with Putin’s trash talk about the 1990s economy, the message was clear: It's largely thanks to me that Russia is even whole now, having survived a threat from "international terrorists" with its sovereignty and territorial integrity intact.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the marathon call-in show.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the marathon call-in show.

Months after that Daghestan visit, President Boris Yeltsin stepped down and handed the job to Putin, who was then elected in March 2000. He has been president ever since, except for a four-year stint as prime minister in 2008-12, and the call-in show on June 20 was the 17th such program he has conducted.

It's called Direct Line With Vladimir Putin, with the omission of the word "president" perhaps meant to suggest that at least for a few hours -- four hours and nine minutes this time, short of the record of nearly five hours in 2013 -- the bond between the leader and the people is too close to require formalities like a title.

But for long stretches during the program, the line between Putin and the people seemed less than direct. There were few questions posed by Russians to Putin without an intermediary of some kind, such as a journalist in the provinces or a host in the studio, and several lengthy segments looked a lot like reports on a regular state-television newscast.

Save The Whales

In one of those, Russians learned that officials have set plans in motion to release dozens of illegally captured whales whose confinement on the Russian coast of the Sea of Japan -- in pens dubbed a "whale jail," of course -- has prompted an outcry and drawn international attention. On the scene in the Russian Far East, a state TV reporter said the timing of the release operation was a coincidence.

So, Putin's call-in show brought news that whales would be freed. Human beings, not so much.

The Direct Line came nine days after the abrupt release from house arrest of Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter who walked free after police dropped a drug charge that colleagues contended was clearly fabricated, and a handful of other climbdowns by law enforcement authorities in the cases of journalists and activists.

The moves raised hopes for a thaw -- a retreat from what Kremlin critics say has been the persistent use by the authorities at all levels of the police, prosecutors, and the courts to silence dissent -- and the call-in show was closely watched for signals from Putin on this score. In the end, his comments seemed to suggest that there will be little change in the near term.

Putin came out against reform of Article 228, an anti-narcotics law that activists say is widely used to take out perceived enemies of those in power --such as human rights defenders like Oyub Titiyev and journalists digging into alleged corruption, like Golunov -- by simply planting drugs on them.

He said that rather than changing the law, which would be "dangerous," the law enforcement authorities should make sure it is not abused, and suggested that special units should be created to perform this function: police to police the police.

Putin also reiterated calls for fewer people accused of economic crimes to be jailed pending trial, saying that more lenient measures such as bail and house arrest should be used more widely. But he has made such calls before, with little apparent effect, and he made no promises about any particular inmate.

Behind Bars

Calvey, whose arrest on fraud charges he contends are unfounded has chilled investment, remains confined to his Moscow home pending trial, and four colleagues, including a Frenchman, Philippe Delpal, are in jail.

U.S. investor Michael Calvey attends a court hearing in Moscow on April 12.
U.S. investor Michael Calvey attends a court hearing in Moscow on April 12.

Another American, Paul Whelan, was in a Moscow court on the day of Putin's Direct Line to appeal against an extension of his pretrial jailing on an espionage charge he denies but lost and is to remain in custody through late August -- a term that can be extended.

Russian investigators say Whelan was caught red-handed, but U.S. officials say they have presented no evidence other than a flash drive Whelan contends was planted on him at a hotel near the Kremlin in late December.

Asked about 24 Ukrainian seamen who are jailed in Moscow and face trial after being seized by Russian forces in November near the tense Kerch Strait off Crimea, the peninsula Russia occupied and seized in 2014, Putin suggested that they -- and other Ukrainians behind bars in Russia -- would only go home if Russians he said were being held in Ukraine are freed.

As for the prospects of an end to the conflict between Ukraine and the Russia-backed separatists who hold part of that country's Donbas region, Putin suggested that Moscow is not about to make any concessions, saying that a resolution depends on "political will" in Kyiv. Ukraine and the United States say it is up to Russia to show it really wants to bring the conflict to an end.

Break On Through Already

A day after Dutch prosecutors announced plans to try three Russians and a Ukrainian for murder for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over separatist-held territory in Ukraine in 2014, which killed all 298 people aboard, Putin signaled no change in Moscow's position, telling reporters after the show that international investigators had shown "no proof" of Russian responsibility.

Putin Dismisses MH17 Murder Charges
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As he has in the past, he also indicated that it is up to Washington to take the first step to improve relations with Russia -- and again asserted that it was internal discord among U.S. politicians, not Russian actions such as the takeover of Crimea and alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, that is keeping Russian-U.S. relations cold.

Putin's words about Ukraine, Washington, and the West were a sideshow in a performance that was focused mainly on domestic issues. At the start, he said he understood the main things Russians are concerned about are living standards, real incomes, health care, and garbage dumps -- a hot-button issue that has underscored anger at authorities accused of ignoring the interests of the people.

Repeating a word he has used on several big occasions in the last year, Putin called for a "breakthrough" that would raise living standards. Russia needs to restructure its economy "to make it a high-technology one, a digital one, so that it comprises elements of artificial intelligence, to develop drones and infrastructure," he said, giving few details about how it could be achieved.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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