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Four-hour “citizens’ consultation hour”: Putin’s grand propaganda show culminates in a curious double theater

In a four-hour “citizens’ consultation hour” on television, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed his people for the first time. This is a tradition. And it is always skillfully staged.

Not all people are funny, and humor is not a simple matter – this applies even to great leaders like Vladimir Putin.

It was probably meant to be funny when, during the grand TV show of the Russian president, a second Putin suddenly appeared on the screen and started blabbering. The real Putin didn’t last long with that. He quickly explained that it was artificial intelligence – probably also to dispel the persistent rumors that he uses doubles for security reasons at public events. It didn’t seem funny, but rather desperate.

This scene was a curious highlight in the grand propaganda show of the Kremlin chief: On Thursday, for the first time since the start of his war of aggression against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, he held the citizens’ consultation hour “The direct line” – traditionally a spectacle on state television. What was new was that the TV show, in which citizens from all parts of the country can seemingly spontaneously ask questions, was combined with the annual grand press conference.

The Russians are not naive. They recognize that everything is staged and that it’s propaganda. But at the same time, it is practically their only chance to draw attention to their problem if their question is chosen by the television producers.

Furthermore, the event can be seen as a kind of election campaign kickoff: Putin, who has ruled his country for more than a quarter of a century, wants to be elected president for the fifth time on March 17th.

“From time to time, Putin must pretend to listen to the people”

“From time to time, Putin must pretend to listen to the people – all dictators in the past have done this and still do it today, to pretend to be just like democratic leaders,” said Jakub Kalenský, an expert on Russian disinformation, to Tagesspiegel.

“The show is supposed to show: Putin is a man of the people,” says Alexander Gabuev, head of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin. Elected representatives such as members of the Duma or municipal parliaments would be considered members of the elite. The Russians know that the elections are staged and that ordinary people generally cannot reach these positions of power.

The opportunity for the common people to ask Putin a question contributes to his legitimacy, explains Gabuev. To the elite, Putin wants to send the signal that he is still a competent, resolute head of state who can react quickly and whose leadership qualities no one should doubt.

The TV show is taking place at a favorable time from the Kremlin’s point of view, says Simon Weiß, Russia expert at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. “With the taking over of the initiative on most front sections and against the background of political and militaryIssues at the Ukrainian side, Vladimir Putin is currently feeling a resurgence for the first time in the last 22 months,” he says.

The flawless staging

Citizens from all walks of life and regions of the country were connected. According to state media, allegedly more than one and a half million questions were submitted.

As usual for the format, the impression of a casual, open discussion should be created.

However, everything is staged, Jakub Kalenský makes it clear: “Everything that happens on the Kremlin’s state television, especially when Putin appears, is carefully controlled and orchestrated, including the spontaneous questions. This does not mean that individual people can never succeed in ‘hacking’ the system and asking a real question – it has happened a few times already – but this risk is minimized.”

Perhaps a journalist has succeeded in doing just that: Among the few international journalists was the correspondent from the “New York Times”. She inquired about the whereabouts of her colleague Evan Gershkovich from the “Wall Street Journal”, who was arrested in the Urals in March during a reporting trip and has been in custody since then. Whether this critical question was previously coordinated with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and the production team of the program is unclear.

At first, Putin acted as if he knew nothing about the case, and asked casually: “You mean the Australian?” Suddenly he seemed to know and said, “I hope we find a solution.” But the US should also listen.

Just this Thursday, a Moscow court extended Gershkovich’s detention until January 24. The 32-year-old reporter is accused of espionage. However, no evidence has been presented. The proceedings are classified as secret by Russia. Critics believe that the Kremlin wants to free Gershkovich in exchange for a spy imprisoned in the USA.

Putin’s offer to Ukraine

Alongside the country’s social problems, one of the main topics was the war in Ukraine. “Peace will come when we have achieved our goals in Ukraine – and our goals have not changed,” Putin emphasized. The condition is the country’s neutral status, meaning the renunciation of NATO membership, and the demilitarization of the neighboring country. Observers saw this as an offer to the West with the demand for Ukraine to surrender in the war.

At the same time, he promised that no further partial mobilization would be necessary. The number of volunteers would reach half a million contract soldiers by the end of the year, with 1500 being added daily. However, Kremlin-critical media repeatedly report recruitment problems.

Soldiers from war zones such as the Donbass were also connected, and Putin thanked them for their service. He also promised help for the veterans: in Russia, there are more and more severely traumatized fighters from the war who have so far received little support.

He unsurprisingly did not mention that it was he who led Russia into a long war of aggression and thereby into international isolation. Instead, Putin turned the facts around, criticizing the alleged “imperial policy” of the Americans.

Putin compares Gaza to Ukraine

Probably in an attempt to portray himself better than the Israeli government, he compared the fighting in Ukraine to the situation in Gaza, which is the “largest grave for children” in the world. He claimed that nothing of the sort happens in Ukraine. Currently, the Russian army is carrying out heavy air strikes, including on Kyiv. Without the advanced air defense that the Palestinians do not have, there would be significantly more casualties and destruction in Ukraine than has been seen so far.

On Tuesday, one of the hospitals in Russia was targeted in a bombing. Since the beginning of the war, Moscow has also separated and abducted almost 20,000 Ukrainian children from their families and taken them to Russia, with only a few hundred being found and brought back – a particularly insidious tool of psychological warfare.

Issues criticized by the “ordinary people” included housing shortages, unequal salaries, shortage of doctors, and the urban-rural development gap. A highlight was an elderly lady who, visibly upset during a video call, read out the current exorbitant prices of groceries – such as the price per kilo for chicken drumsticks.

And then something happened, which was probably intended to warm the hearts of the dissatisfied in Putin’s core voter base. Furrowing his brow deeply, the Kremlin chief said, “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.” This was followed by kind words, with the standard message: The Kremlin is listening, the Kremlin has already taken action. And: The Kremlin has more solutions in store.

Russians see through the staging

“Russians are not foolish. They recognize that everything is staged and it’s propaganda. But at the same time, it’s practically their only chance to draw attention to their problem if their question is chosen by the television producers,” explains expert Gabuev.

Simon Weiß from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation adds, “No matter how favorable the timing may be compared to the situation in Kiev, recent surveys show that impatience and dissatisfaction with the current political course are also growing in Russia.” The high personnel losses and specific effects of Western sanctions, combined with great uncertainty and the lack of clarity on when and how this war will end, are impacting the people in the country and must be addressed even within an autocratic system. This is what Putin attempted to do with the ‘direct line,’ says Weiß.

“Of course, there are plenty of people who make fun of it,” says Jakub Kalenský. “But in general, it works, because Putin is still in power. And keeping him in power – that’s the entire purpose of his propaganda ecosystem.”

By Viktoria Bräuner

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