Putin’s press conference for all seasons
For over three hours the Russian president transfixed the world’s media, even those who viscerally oppose him.
Former Speaker of the US House of Representatives ‘Tip’ O’Neill is best remembered for his remark “all politics is local.” That moniker seemed apt while listening to the remarkable pre-Christmas marathon which is President Putin’s annual press conference. A massive 1259 journalists were accredited although my first reaction was that an awful lot of them looked rather scruffy. This emphasized the neat tailoring of the Kremlin team who regained sartorial elegance somewhere during Gorbachev’s Glasnost era and have retained it through subsequent revolutions and elections.
The venue was a veritable cauldron of anticipation as President Putin’s opening remarks demonstrated that just like any road accident; there are two ways to view many situations. Nonetheless many Western media were eager to remain convinced that no matter what Mr. Putin said, it would imply imminent Russian decline and overthrow of the Putin government. Neither appeared remotely apparent today as Mr. Putin did the sort of thing that I thought democrats were supposed to do - facilitate dialogue with the voting public. Indeed, if Russia is as economically irrelevant as so many Western commentators feel, quite why did they spend over three hours transfixed by this press conference when they could concentrate on their domestic economic problems instead?
Some of the most instructive answers were amongst the local issues which Western media ignored. Indeed the ability of President Putin to opine on the problems of Moscow’s parking laws is alone impressive, particularly given Western ‘leaders’’ aloofness from ordinary people’s problems. Could any Western politician withstand several hours being grilled by diverse global media without notes? Indeed Britain’s David Cameron has previously spent months in office without a single press conference.
President Putin has clearly mastered the “all politics is local” missive which is truly an achievement given that his constituency is the world’s largest nation stretching from...well somewhere about the middle to way over there in the east, according to my world map. Wikipedia notes succinctly: “Due to its size, Russia displays both monotony and diversity,” which brings us back to the press conference. While the world’s media waited for sparks to fly (veteran British journalist John Simpson generated a few asking the ‘new cold war’ question), much discussion centered on parking, pensions and other items deemed banal by global media. Yet amidst this local talk Mr. Putin demonstrated clear commitment to keep improving Russian living standards. This not fitting with their templates seeking to profile an irrational despot, collective Western media amnesia has already ensued. Displaying, well, leadership, Putin’s core economic message involved resolutely tough love: prepare for a two year downturn (it may end earlier). This contrasts starkly with Western political denial of local problems whether at national level (ballooning debt all round despite austerity chit chat) let alone that debauched debacle parodying coherent economics which is the eurozone.
There is a desire to diversify the economy from dependence on oil and Mr. Putin seemed keen to encourage enterprise. The Kvas question was instructive: that drink may not displace Coca-Cola but across the vast terrain of Russia, the President correctly perceives many such products, some traditional, others innovative, can be nurtured; can help wean the economy away from its ‘energycentricity.’
Meanwhile, the emphasis that China is now Russia’s primary economic partner was a hammer blow largely unreported in the West. It ought to generate sleepless nights for everybody in the German manufacturing food chain from lavish downtown Mercedes dealerships in Vladivostok all the way west to Berlin and Bavaria. A blunt message the West ignores at its peril: sanctions have driven a pivot that will reduce traditionally significant exports (which the EU cannot afford to lose).
Finally a simple thought. The annual Presidential press conference marathon fills the world’s news agenda for a day. Some Western media appear to spend inordinate resources slanting Presidential statements to fit their relentlessly negative agenda of the moment. However, if Russia is really the economic anti-democratic political irrelevance they are so eager to trumpet, then why bother giving Mr. Putin the oxygen of blanket publicity?
On both the local and international level, no current leader fascinates the media like President Putin.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.