Vladimir Putin is Russia’s No. 2 leader, according to the Constitution, but you might not have guessed that if you switched on major TV or radio stations today.
Mr. Putin dominated the airwaves for a record-setting four hours as he delivered his eighth annual question-and-answer session with the public, a tradition he began during his two terms as president and has continued since becoming prime minister last year. That’s more than twice as long as his nominal boss, President Dmitri Medvedev, took to deliver his annual State of the Nation address last month.
Displaying his usual magisterial command of detail, he delivered lengthy responses to 80 questions put to him by a carefully selected studio audience covering subjects as diverse as terrorism, struggling farms, the price of coal, the sagging birthrate, his past relations with US President George W. Bush (”a good friend and comrade”), plans to build more nuclear power stations, and the need to bring neighboring Belarus into a political union with Russia.
But his most fascinating answer was also his briefest. Asked whether he would like to leave politics and lead a quieter life, Putin tersely responded: “Don’t hold your breath.”
Ever since he left the Kremlin last year, arranging for his protégé Mr. Medvedev to take his place, speculation has swirled around Putin’s intentions for the next presidential elections, slated for 2012. Constitutional amendments pushed through last year will ensure that the next Kremlin leader enjoys a six-year term of office, instead of the previous four.
“He’s not leaving,” says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. “He said he hasn’t made up his mind what to do in 2012, but I’m sure he already has thought that one through.”
Today’s lengthy performance may have reflected Putin’s worries over his falling popularity ratings, which slipped from a high of 86 percent one year ago to a still-impressive 79 percent early this week.
As usual, he solved the personal problems of several people who appealed to him, live on the air, including a housing problem and an elderly woman’s inadequate pension. Experts say the event is mostly stage-managed, with questions and answers prepared in advance, and little space for spontaneity.
“This yearly session has the main purpose of confirming to the public that Putin is the national leader,” says Pavel Salin, an expert with the Center of Political Conjuncture, an independent Moscow think tank. “If he stops doing it, he’ll stop being the leader.”