” … a blogger wanted to know why there are virtually no electric cars in Russia. Putin explained that electric cars actually mostly run on coal, which is what’s used to generate the electricity they run on, and coal is not an environmentally friendly fuel … The blogger … was positively shocked by this bit of non-news. Teslas burn coal, very inefficiently; I hope you already knew this.”
Yesterday I spent four hours watching television. This is not something I normally do because I find the entire television medium tedious, boring and a waste of time. All television programs are, in my case, a bad idea, because I dislike being programmed. In fact, I don’t even own a TV. When I need to watch something, I do so in a window on the screen of my laptop. But this was a special occasion.
What I watched was Putin’s nearly four-hour annual live Q&A marathon. People all over Russia submitted questions—over 2.3 million of them—by calling in, writing in, texting, recording videos, giving interviews to television crews. A very large team then organized the questions into general themes and prepared the most representative and best-expressed ones to be presented. A fair number of questions were asked live, on screen.
The main reason I watched the whole thing was because I had asked Putin a question, and I wanted to see if he was going to answer it. He did.
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The War Against Putin:... Best Price: $7.55 Buy New $15.87 (as of 06:55 EDT - Details) These marathon Q&A sessions are a very interesting feature of contemporary Russian political life. They give people throughout the country the ability to voice their complaints directly before the president, going over the heads of all the other officials, from regional governors to federal ministers. Over the years it has evolved into a uniquely effective tool to fix things and get things done.
On the one hand, it is rather sad that people in Russia sometimes need to get the president involved if they want a pothole fixed, but on the other it shows some promise as a tool of direct democracy. In comparison, “the right of the people… to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” guaranteed by the first amendment to the US constitution, isn’t particularly useful unless the complaint is accompanied by a check for a large amount. In the US, only the lobbyists and the political campaign donors are granted an audience.
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This year’s innovation was that all 85 regional governors and all cabinet ministers were required to be present in their offices throughout the broadcast, ready to be videoconferenced into the national broadcast at a moment’s notice. But they didn’t get to just sit quietly picking their noses; the production’s hundreds of staffers and volunteers directly reached out to them with the questions they were receiving from people in their regions or on subjects pertinent to their positions.
Nor is their involvement going to be limited to the few hours of the show; later, they will receive all of the questions they need to address. They will also get to meet with Putin face to face and on camera, and he will hand each of them a green folder with action items they will be required to work on and report results. “I presume that all of this will get done,” said Putin. He didn’t say “it better!” but I am sure he meant it.
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A lot of people asked why Putin didn’t clean house after his reelection and instead reappointed mostly the same people to same or different ministerial positions within the government, prime minister Medvedev in particular. Putin’s explanation was that these were the people who had spent the previous year or more planning the breakthrough, the great Russian leap forward, that is scheduled to occur over the next six years—Putin’s “six-year plan”—and that two years would be lost if they were replaced with new people who haven’t been part of the process all along. The task before them is known; they have accepted the challenge. “Personification of responsibility” is a phrase Putin repeated three times. “Personal responsibility must be absolute,” he added.
This largely settles the question of whether this or that person’s ideological leanings might result in them sabotaging the process; if that were to happen, they would suffer immense reputational damage that would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
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As for the overall ideological direction of the country, it shines through in a certain new term Putin casually slipped into the conversation: “shestiletka”—the “six-year plan.” It is an obvious allusion to “pyatiletka”—the five-year plan by which Soviet economic development was planned, except whereas the five-year plans set targets for tons of steel, kilometers of rail and road and other such physical quantities, and the targets were met by state-owned enterprises, the six-year plan essentially sets standards of social well-being, and they are to be met largely by the market economy—but with as much involvement from the state as will be needed to get the job done.
There were a lot of questions asked in a lot of different areas. To do them justice would take tens of thousands of words, not the 1000 or more I usually shoot for in a blog post, and so I will limit my specific comments to just a few that I found particularly interesting.
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One group that was specifically invited to ask questions were bloggers. These were shiny young people who gathered in a swank office in a skyscraper in Moscow City, where they sat around on couches and communicated with their 20 million or so followers on social media. What did these “opinion leaders” want to know about?
One of them asked whether, after the ban on the Telegram app, Russia might also ban YouTube or Instagram. Putin said that they won’t be. In the specific case of Telegram, it was used by the terrorists who planned the bombing in St. Petersburg metro, and Russia’s special services were unable to track them because the traffic was encrypted. But, Putin said, it is easy to ban things, but this is not particularly effective. It is harder but more effective to find solutions that do not limit freedom.
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Another blogger wanted to know when blogging will come to be considered a legitimate profession. Putin responded that if it is a legitimate source of income, it should be granted official recognition, and that the government is interested in formalizing it. Once that happens, I’ll be able to write “blogger” in the various government forms I periodically have to fill out—instead of “tourist,” which is a fun job, but somewhat lacking in dignity.
Yet another blogger wanted to know why there are virtually no electric cars in Russia. Putin explained that electric cars actually mostly run on coal, which is what’s used to generate the electricity they run on, and coal is not an environmentally friendly fuel. The most environmentally friendly fuel, which Russia has in abundance, is natural gas, and so the challenge is to convert as much transportation as possible to run on natural gas. It’s a major task, but Russia is working on it. The blogger who asked this question was positively shocked by this bit of non-news. Teslas burn coal, very inefficiently; I hope you already knew this.
What major road and infrastructure projects are being planned, if any?
Someone asked Putin to tell a joke. He couldn’t come up with one on the spot, but a bit later, when discussing the recent European stampede away from Washington and toward Moscow he said: “We helped Trump win and in gratitude he gave us Europe. Ridiculous! It must be a joke.”
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When asked whether the sanctions on Russia will be dropped, he said that people are talking about it, but that we’ll just have to see what happens. In the meantime, Trump has imposed tariffs on aluminum and steel from Canada and Mexico. “What are these if not sanctions? What did they do, annex Crimea?” Recalling his words at the Munich security conference in 2007, he said that he had warned everybody: “The expansion of US jurisdiction outside of its borders is unacceptable.” The people in the audience were surprised and upset to hear him say it then; well then, now they can be surprised and upset when Washington sanctions them too.
Finally, there was my question.
I asked him about the rationale behind the convoluted and inane laws governing the process by which people are granted Russian citizenship.
Russia also has a serious demographic problem: birth rates plummeted during the horrible period of the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed, and right now the generation that is of childbearing age is rather sparse. This demographic gap will show up again and again as empty kindergartens and classrooms, and a subsequent labor shortage. But Russia has a powerful, though largely unused, demographic resource: Russia’s diaspora is gigantic—between 20 and 40 million—and many of these people would love to move back to Russia. Many of them are specialists in areas such as digital technology, and Russia is in dire need of more workers in these fields. However, when they are confronted with the arduous, expensive and restrictive process of jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops on the way to obtaining a Russian passport, many of them lose interest. Instead of rolling out the red carpet, they are made to stand in long lines next to semiskilled guest workers from Central Asia.
A news story covering Putin’s answer to the author’s question.
Isn’t it in Russia’s interest to attract as many of them as possible, by making the process by which they can return to Russia easy and pleasant?
My specific question wasn’t read out on the air, but it appears that my question, or similar ones, filtered through, because Putin definitely answered it. Also, some of the same points were made in front of television cameras by a group of refugees from Eastern Ukraine. They pointed out that the laws require them to go home every 90 days, but home to where—a war zone? They have children that have already been traumatized by having to hide in bomb shelters while their homes were being shelled by the Ukrainian military. They also pointed out that to apply for permission to stay, then residency, then citizenship, they have to spend money on meeting paperwork requirements, and to make that money they have to work, but they aren’t allowed to work until they meet the paperwork requirements: a Catch-22.
Putin’s answer was:
“We will go down the path of liberalizing everything connected with receiving Russian citizenship.”
He mentioned that there already exist new legislative proposals. He spoke about the echo of the low birth rate during the 1990s and made it clear that attracting compatriots is a priority. He asked that the Minister of Internal Affairs be video-conferenced in and told him:
“You are required to initiate these processes.”
The old cop looked nonplused, but I am sure he knows what’s good for him. Just to be sure, Putin added that the Federal Migration Service was placed within the purview of the Ministry of Internal Affairs because it was thought that this ministry was capable of doing more than just providing security. (That is, get this done or you’ll lose it.) He also said: “Granting of Russian citizenships is within the authority of the president of the Russian Federation.” Thus, if the process doesn’t get whipped into shape soonish, Putin may start handing out passports himself.
I must say, I am entirely satisfied with his answer.
You might think that this is a distinctly odd way to run a country, until you remember that the country in question happens to be Russia: ridiculously vast, horrendously complicated, frozen half the year, traumatized yet unbroken. It is in the midst of a rapid and thorough transformation yet remains bound to traditions that go back a thousand years. You might also think that this method only works as well as it does because of one person: Putin. There’s probably a lot of truth to that.
When asked whether Putin thinks of who will replace him in six years, he said “All the time.”
Then he added: “It’s the voters who will decide.”
This post first appeared on Russia Insider.