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Mr. Putin: Super-Democrat

Who tries to increase his exposure to the electorate — Vladimir Putin or George W. Bush?

January 4, 2002

Who tries to increase his exposure to the electorate — Vladimir Putin or George W. Bush?

Russian Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7. But Russia’s President Vladimir Putin nonetheless spent December 24, the Western Christmas eve, like a true vote-getting democratic politician: addressing constituents on a call-in television show.

For an unprecedented two-and-a-half hours, the ex-KGB man, whose instincts one would expect to be far less people-minded, fielded dozens of timely, tough questions. They were presented to him by e-mail, over the telephone, or asked directly on live TV by the inhabitants of 10 different Russian cities.

Broadcast live by two Russian television networks, it was an astounding technological feat. The phone network for the call-in show spanned 11 time zones — almost half the globe — and handled hundreds of thousands of calls at a rate of 40 per second. But it was the questions themselves that made the event most newsworthy.

Mr. Putin was bombarded with a variety of complaints having to do with plunging standards of living, crime and corruption, collapsing social infrastructure and lack of basic services, such as heat and education.

Russia is undoubtedly a country in an economic crisis. The average salary is only a little over $100 per month, and pensions for retirees are considerably smaller. Moreover, government wages and pensions are paid irregularly — and often only after a long delay.

The sprawling state bureaucracy is hopelessly corrupt and organized crime permeates many aspects of everyday life, especially business. Hence, the grilling administered to Mr. Putin before an audience of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Russians who wanted to know whether he is aware of the true economic situation in the country — and what he intends to do about it.

Of course, the United States is considerably more prosperous than Russia. And Americans are definitely not facing the kind of social breakdown that Russians have been experiencing for the past 15 years.

Nonetheless, Americans are also starting to worry about their own financial future. The stock market collapse and the bursting of the technology bubble hit their retirement savings hard — at a time when the survival of the state-run social security system is by no means assured.

The U.S. economy, which hummed for 10 years, has gone into reverse. Hundreds of thousands of American workers are facing layoffs and a period of protracted unemployment. The war on terrorism has gone well in Afghanistan, but the defeat of the Taliban regime has not appreciably bolstered the sense of homeland security in the United States itself.

Now imagine President Bush adressing the kind of tough questions from randomly picked Americans on live national TV — as faced by President Putin. They would ask questions such as: Why is your administration advocating another tax cut for the rich, while so many ordinary citizens and their children do not have even basic health insurance?

Or: Why did you not manage to provide extended unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans? Or: How can we protect ourselves effectively against terrorism without a national ID card system?

Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Mr. Bush, in fact, has never done anything of the kind. Although he does weekly radio broadcasts on Saturdays, in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats,” there is nothing chatty about Mr. Bush’s performance. In fact, Mr. Bush has not taken questions from the nation at large since being elected President more than a year ago.

Even the U.S. President’s appearances in Congress tend to be painfully stage-managed events. Mr. Bush has mastered the art of delivering prepared remarks, but he continues to shun extemporaneous speeches of any kind.

Press conferences at home and abroad mostly feature previously vetted questions from a rather tame press. And the President gets extremely annoyed whenever a reporter dares to deviate from the pre-approved script.

Of course, for all its spontaneity, the Russian call-in show was also carefully stage-managed. It was a deliberate maneuver to promote Mr. Putin as an accessible, democratic politician.

Still, the questions were genuine — and the Russian president was often put on the spot. He managed to strut his stuff, responded impressively about all issues, took notes and wrote down names — and promised prompt follow-up. All of this was to prove that he is a true leader, even under direct pressure from his voters.

Mr. Bush, by contrast, has chosen to present a more remote image, one that is unfortunately reminiscent of the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union. Those old enough may remember Communist Party Secretary Leonid I. Brezhnev, who was active in Russian politics dating back to the 1950s and served as the Soviet Union’s president from 1977 until his death in 1982.

It was Mr. Brezhnev who set his country on the course of cooperation and détente with the West. In addition to this legacy, however, Brezhnev is unfortunately remembered for his long speeches, all of them read in a stumbling, semi-literate and monotone voice from typewritten sheets.

Obviously, it would be a mistake to overstate the resemblance between the public persona of Mr. Bush and Mr. Brezhnev. All the same, by not speaking to his nation openly President Bush risks squandering his great popularity — a fate suffered by his father in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

Tomorrow: Be sure to read Part 2 of our series on Vladimir Putin, “Czar Vladimir, the Autocrat of All Pussia”