On 20 June 2019, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, took part in the annual “Direct Line” television show. The concept is simple: Russians submit questions on a wide range of topics for Putin to answer during a live broadcast.
This was the seventeenth such TV event since Putin was elected to the presidency in 2000. During his time as prime minister, 2008-2012, the show was called “A Conversation with Vladimir Putin” – and, not to be left out, President Medvedev had his own “Results of the Year with the President of Russia”.
Reporting on “Direct Line” is dominated by numbers – not only viewership figures (which were down this year), but also the number of questions submitted (more than 1.5 million by the morning of the broadcast), the number of questions answered (81), the percentage of Russians planning to keep an eye on the show (75%), as well as the length of the broadcast (four hours and eight minutes).
The Kremlin reported that Putin was preparing right up until he went on air. The dutiful, conscientious, hard-working president pored over documents to learn about the state of the federation – meticulous training for the marathon phone-in itself. That was the image to be conveyed: dedication and endurance. And Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, admitted as much: “The hallmark of this entire chain [sic] is the president’s ability to answer direct questions for many hours”.
Beyond demonstrating knowledge of, and interest in, the state of the country, the show also provides an opportunity for Putin to address citizens’ grievances. “Direct Line” allows the “good Tsar” to correct the errors of lower-level officials and to improve the lot of everyday Russians. Putin promised, for instance, to raise salaries for firemen and to provide additional support for young families. One of the show’s hosts, Yelena Vinnik, even said that “[p]roblems end as soon as Direct Line starts”. The intended takeaway is clear: if only Putin himself were able to deal with all Russian citizens’ problems personally, all would be well.
Following Putin’s pronouncements on various topics, it’s the job of officials to put them into action. For example, the steering body of the State Duma – the lower chamber of the national-level legislature, the Federal Assembly – planned to meet on 24 June to discuss how to turn Putin’s statements into legislation. Similarly, Putin said that regional heads should take careful notice of the problems mentioned by citizens during the show and take steps to remedy them. Already, the governor of Murmansk has fired one of his deputies in response to a complaint made during “Direct Line”.
The problem, of course, with “hands-on management” is its basic inefficiency. One clear, unintended signal from the “Direct Line” shows, therefore, is that the current system of state management isn’t working. If everyday problems require intervention from the head of state to be resolved, then delegation chains and lines of responsibility are not functioning as they should. For those citizens who “win the lottery” of having their problem taken on by Putin, life might get a bit better for a short time, but the flipside is that the vast majority of people’s problems are not addressed directly. And, even if a flurry of laws are produced following the show, this is far from a guarantee that things will actually change for the better for ordinary Russians.
Why, then, does Putin continue with the show? “Direct Line” is an opportunity for the president to perform his “direct” connection with the Russian people. Who needs formal political institutions like parties, elections, and legislatures when people can talk directly with the head of state? In one widely reported moment, Putin was on the verge of tears recalling the time a woman fell to her knees, handing him a piece of paper with a problem noted on it. Putin promised to look into the issue she raised, but the note was lost by one of his assistants. According to this narrative, a lowly functionary messed up, but Putin felt personal responsibility.
Although modern-day Russia has an authoritarian political system, Putin’s genuine popularity is crucial to the durability of the regime. Not only does it reduce the likelihood of revolution from the streets – it also reduces the likelihood of a palace coup, as second-tier elites are less sure of a viable coalition against the leader. Putin’s popularity is, of course, partly engineered through denying the emergence of potential rivals, as well as other mechanisms, such as media control. But it’s the end state of popularity that matters for the Kremlin, less so the means of getting there.
And Putin is more conscious than ever of the importance of popularity – and trust. Since the introduction of a deeply unpopular pension reform in 2018, Putin’s approval ratings have dropped markedly. So too have his trust ratings – to the extent that the Kremlin put pressure on a polling agency to revise its methodology to produce a rosier picture of Putin. Even still, the latest figures show a declining trend. Events like “Direct Line” will be seen by the Kremlin as an opportunity to stop this decline.
For all of the problems of this “tired format”, “routinized” show, “Direct Line” is here to stay – as long as Putin is around. Even though the president’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, had to deny accusations that questions purportedly from citizens were actually written by Russian special services personnel, to cancel the show would be too risky – interpreted as a sign that Putin can’t handle the preparation workload or that he is no longer interested in the concerns of Russian citizens.
Even in light of all of this, Peskov is, apparently, puzzled as to why European leaders haven’t copied the “Direct Line” format. The answer should be clear: in consolidated democracies, institutions like parties, elections, and legislatures provide the machinery for accountability and responsiveness between the people and officials, reducing the need for the type of executive magnanimity on display in “Direct Line”. The president’s public intervention on certain problems might seem like good PR, but this format only perpetuates a system of personalist rule that’s increasingly vexed by the question of life after Putin. What happens when Putin no longer picks up the phone?