With Russia in the grips of another major wave of coronavirus infections, President Vladimir Putin is set to host his nationally televised call-in show, an annual performance aimed at showcasing his willingness to respond to average Russian concerns.
Officially known as “Direct Line,” the June 30 event comes with less than 11 weeks remaining before Russia holds national parliamentary elections, the last major vote before Putin’s current term ends in 2024. Kremlin-engineered constitutional changes have opened to door for Putin to stay on as president, possibly until 2036, though the longest-serving Russian leader since Josef Stalin has not indicated whether he will seek to remain in power. In past years, the Kremlin has used the hours-long event to show Putin as a responsive, sympathetic leader who can both extol Russia’s past and current successes, and also pay attention to local issues like trash landfills or unpaid salaries. The event typically features screened calls ostensibly from average Russians, plus messages sent via text or social media Last year, the Kremlin canceled the event as Russia grappled with the pandemic. This year, the country is in the throes of a new wave of COVID-19 infections and a sharp uptick in deaths, which has alarmed officials and forced the reimplementation of restrictions on public life. The trendlines runs counter to Russia’s success last year when it announced it had approved the world’s first COVID vaccine. Two other vaccines were later approved for use. Despite that success, Russia has one of the worst vaccination rates among industrial nations, with many people either distrusting the science behind the Russian vaccine, or the government more generally. On June 29, the eve of the call-in show, health authorities reported nearly 21,000 new infections, and 652 deaths, a new daily mortality record for the country. In all, more than 135,000 COVID-19 deaths have been recorded in Russia since the pandemic’s beginning. The Kremlin also acknowledged that the national goal of vaccinating 60 percent of the population would be missed. Amid the struggle to contain the coronavirus, Putin has tried to remain above the nitty-gritty details, leaving major decisions like imposing, or lifting, public restrictions to regional officials like Moscow’s mayor. The president himself has been vaccinated, but the Kremlin has refused to release any details of the move such as which vaccine he received. He also declined to be shown on camera receiving the shot, a move some say has hurt confidence in the vaccination drive. Whether Putin will field a question on the bad news surrounding the fight with the virus is a question itself. However, some epidemiologists have observed that the current trajectory of cases means Russia will see a peak in late August or early September, close to the final run-up to the September 19 election. That could be problematic for United Russia, the Kremlin-allied political party, which is hoping to maintain its dominance in the 450-seat lower house of parliament. A strong showing and a supermajority would smooth the way for possible future legislative or constitutional changes depending on Putin’s political intentions in 2024. However, United Russia is deeply unpopular, with some opinion polls giving the party its worst ratings ever. That has resulted in the Kremlin and the powerful Presidential Administration tinkering with political parties and alliances, and trying to generate interest using celebrities or high-profile political figures, like the defense or foreign ministers.
The government has also taken steps to quash opposition political movements, including that of Aleksei Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader who built a formidable national organization that has dented Putin's public image.
At a United Russia party congress this month, Putin, who is not formally a party member, signaled the government would do some high-profile public spending on infrastructure such as roads between now and the election. "People's well-being is of the highest value," he said. Putin’s approval is still high, but has taken a hit in recent years, dragged down by controversial pension reforms and what many Russian view as stagnating wages, slipping living standards, and persistent high-level corruption. Nonetheless, Putin is now in his 22nd year in power and he is still all but unrivaled, according to analysts Andrei Kolesnikov and Boris Markarenko. “Putin remains, in the eyes of most Russians, a unifying national symbol and the guarantor of stability,” they wrote in a commentary published this month.
An equally pressing concern is apathy. The last parliamentary election, held in 2016, had the lowest turnout for a parliamentary vote in post-Soviet history. One top Kremlin official has predicted turnout in the September vote will be even lower.