by Dmitry Orlov, Russia Insider:
Yesterday I spent four hours watching television. This is not something I normally do because I find the entire television medium tedious, boring and a waste of time. All television programs are, in my case, a bad idea, because I dislike being programmed. In fact, I don’t even own a TV. When I need to watch something, I do so in a window on the screen of my laptop. But this was a special occasion.
What I watched was Putin’s nearly four-hour annual live Q&A marathon. People all over Russia submitted questions—over 2.3 million of them—by calling in, writing in, texting, recording videos, giving interviews to television crews. A very large team then organized the questions into general themes and prepared the most representative and best-expressed ones to be presented. A fair number of questions were asked live, on screen.
The main reason I watched the whole thing was because I had asked Putin a question, and I wanted to see if he was going to answer it. He did.
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These marathon Q&A sessions are a very interesting feature of contemporary Russian political life. They give people throughout the country the ability to voice their complaints directly before the president, going over the heads of all the other officials, from regional governors to federal ministers. Over the years it has evolved into a uniquely effective tool to fix things and get things done.
On the one hand, it is rather sad that people in Russia sometimes need to get the president involved if they want a pothole fixed, but on the other it shows some promise as a tool of direct democracy. In comparison, “the right of the people… to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” guaranteed by the first amendment to the US constitution, isn’t particularly useful unless the complaint is accompanied by a check for a large amount. In the US, only the lobbyists and the political campaign donors are granted an audience.
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This year’s innovation was that all 85 regional governors and all cabinet ministers were required to be present in their offices throughout the broadcast, ready to be videoconferenced into the national broadcast at a moment’s notice. But they didn’t get to just sit quietly picking their noses; the production’s hundreds of staffers and volunteers directly reached out to them with the questions they were receiving from people in their regions or on subjects pertinent to their positions.
Nor is their involvement going to be limited to the few hours of the show; later, they will receive all of the questions they need to address. They will also get to meet with Putin face to face and on camera, and he will hand each of them a green folder with action items they will be required to work on and report results. “I presume that all of this will get done,” said Putin. He didn’t say “it better!” but I am sure he meant it.
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A lot of people asked why Putin didn’t clean house after his reelection and instead reappointed mostly the same people to same or different ministerial positions within the government, prime minister Medvedev in particular. Putin’s explanation was that these were the people who had spent the previous year or more planning the breakthrough, the great Russian leap forward, that is scheduled to occur over the next six years—Putin’s “six-year plan”—and that two years would be lost if they were replaced with new people who haven’t been part of the process all along. The task before them is known; they have accepted the challenge. “Personification of responsibility” is a phrase Putin repeated three times. “Personal responsibility must be absolute,” he added.