A kinder and gentler Vladimir Putin chatted with Russians from across the country in his annual town hall-like telethon Thursday, aiming to show that while still a tough, almost omniscient technocrat, he does feel the pain of ordinary people enduring their second full year of economic recession.
During a relatively short session of three hours and forty minutes – these things have been known to last well over 4 hours – Mr. Putin focused on the personal complaints of average Russians who've been hit hard by inflation, unpaid wages, expensive medicines, bad roads, and increasingly out-of-reach social services.
He accepted queries about his relations with his ex-wife, whether Russia will get a new first lady (he dodged that one), and what kind of medicines he takes when he's sick. He admitted offshore interests of his friends revealed in the Panama Papers are accurate, but insisted it was of no consequence. He also fielded a disproportionate number of questions from children who wanted to know things like "do you like porridge?" and "if you had three wishes, what would they be?" and "could a woman ever be president?"
"Putin is certainly showing a softer side today" than in previous telethons, says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics.
"He obviously got advice to demonstrate that he knows about the troubles a lot of people are going through, that he understands, and is doing what he can to make things better. The fact that people are able to address the president directly and complain about real problems is meant to demonstrate that Putin is not afraid of this information, that he is on top of it."
The telethon format has been well-developed over nearly 16 years of the Putin era. The president fields questions from a studio audience, reporters, and groups of people assembled in venues all around the country.
Today he took questions about power blackouts from Crimea, heard complaints of unpaid wages from a defense worker in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk and another from workers in a far eastern fish factory, assured the manager of a defense factory in the central Russian city of Tula that cuts in military spending won't blight his industry, and consoled a lady in Moscow who said that her weekly grocery bill has doubled over the past year.
Bristling with statistics, Putin said the recession has probably bottomed out, and the economy will return to modest growth next year.
As in the past, Putin demonstrated an astoundingly detailed grasp of the individual problems related by people, and pledged to deal with each of them personally. Experts say that beneath the appearance of spontaneity, Kremlin spin-doctors have worked hard to select questions and prep the "average citizens" who get their two minutes to appeal to the president. Several media reports have described dress rehearsals for participants, shepherded by officials, held in hotels around the country over the past week.
Still, experts say, the softer tone suggests that the Kremlin is worried about the ongoing crisis and its impact on public moods as September parliamentary elections loom. Putin's personal approval ratings remain above 80 percent, but opinion polls show people are less happy with government in general. A January survey by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that just 45 percent of Russians believe the country is "on the right track."
"I think we see preparations for the coming elections in this more personal, engaged style of Putin's," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "It's still two years before the next presidential elections [which so far Putin has not declared he will run in]. Voters are interested in Putin's personality, and it's easy for him to open up a bit. He didn't actually tell us much, but he did show a bit of warmth."
Analysts also noted a more conciliatory tone than usual on international affairs. Contrary to some memes of Russian propaganda, Putin insisted that Russia is not encircled by enemies, that Turkey – which triggered a furious Kremlin reaction when it shot down a Russian bomber over Syria last year – is a "friendly country," called for peace in Ukraine, and complimented Barack Obama for having the courage to admit US mistakes in Libya.
But, asked by a schoolchild who he would choose to save if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko were drowning, the response sounded more like the old Putin.
"If someone is determined to drown, there's nothing you can do to save him," Putin said.