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The Annual Press Conference conducted by President Putin is viewed as one of the innovative practices in the Public Administration of Russia. The annual Q&A session has been carried out by the President since 2001. In 2001-2016 there were twelve such news conferences: seven in 2001-2008 (except for 2005) and five in 2012-2016. While holding the post of Russia’s prime minister (from May 2008 to May 2012) Putin paused such meetings with the media. The tradition resumed after his re-election as the head of state.
Putin’s annual pressers are supposed to be the media event of the year. They are normally held in late December, around Western Christmas time (Orthodox Christians in Russia celebrate Christmas two weeks later). This probably explains why Putin’s pressers don’t get much coverage outside of Russia, except in a relatively narrow niche of Russia-watchers. Putin’s pressers are televised live across all Russian TV channels, attended by all kinds of media — federal news agencies, small local publications and foreign reporters based in Moscow — and are supposed to overshadow every other event in Russia or abroad. These conferences are carefully choreographed, typically lasts almost four hours, and Putin always comes off as an omniscient and benevolent leader bearing the torchlight for development of the country.
On December 14, 2017, Putin’s annual media event was held at World Trade Centre in Moscow, attended by 1650 journalists (the maximum so far). It led to an intensive 3 hour 45 minute Q & A session by the President covered both internal and external issues. Kremlin billed it as Putin’s “Big Press Conference,” though with all the adoring words followed by requests for help. While the Russian president has held such annual media gatherings for 14 years, this event was hailed as the largest ever. And with Putin’s re-election (which he won on March 18, 2018) Russia’s State-controlled TV networks hyped the behind-the-scenes preparations (hauling in 35 tons of equipment) and all work (performed by 400 technicians) that was being put into giving Putin the best possible platform to get his message out. Only twice were Western media outlets-Associated Press (AP) and ABC of USA attended to, although many networks flew in correspondents for the occasion. During the last few years, the questions ranged on the following domestic and international issues:
Annual conferences have been used as a part of the President’s image building and projection strategy as a tough leader to the world. His gesture of an omnipotent leader having confidence to make decisions for any domestic and international issue reinforces confidence about him in the Russian populace. Since he was first elected president, in 2000, Putin has systematically rolled back media freedom in Russia. Yet he’s also forged a love-hate relationship with journalists. When Putin appears in front of more than 1,000 reporters during his annual news conferences, he owns the room, keeping reporters fascinated for hours by alternating between threats, jokes and flirtation. Even some of Putin’s biggest critics say he knows how to work an audience. These press meetings are also used as a stage-setter for upcoming elections. During the conference, Putin announced his intention to run as an independent candidate in the 2018 election and highlighted the living standard of Russian people as an electoral priority.
Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister of Russia, says Putin learned how to craft his image in a special educational program at a school for KGB officers. So tactfully handled are these conferences, that Russian populace in particular wait eagerly for these annual press meets. The projection of their country head as a confident, omnipotent leader in the world in a way satisfies the mass-psychological need after the breakdown of earlier USSR for the older generation. These conferences have contributed to maintain positive image of the President as an able head of the government, especially after 2012 anti- Putin protests.
Moreover, after international issues like Crimean crisis, alleged meddling in the elections in USA, Western sanctions, Skripal incidence, the opinion in the country has definitely turned more anti-western and these annual conferences have been used tactfully by the president to bolster self-image as well as to renew confidence in the general populace about resurgent Russia. This Annual media event by President Putin led to the following outcomes:
Western media dubs this media event as a farcical exercise that was largely about projecting Putin’s unquestioned authority into the far corners of Russia. They accuse Kremlin of wanting to keep things interesting without risking a loss of control. They mock that the event often felt more like a scene from The Godfather than an exercise in journalism! Sycophancy is also displayed at this event. During this exercise, no follow-up questions are allowed, as sometimes, Putin himself ordered a questioner to sit down and give up the microphone! These meetings are often criticized as no major policy announcements are made at these events, and Putin has a whole bag of rhetorical tricks to evade and deflect critical inquiries, using loyalist media asking softball questions to appear an omniscient and wise ruler.
Russian media jostle for room space, mic time and most importantly Putin’s attention in a fiercely competitive, crashing market where the only currency in this market is whatever that man on the stage says. Putin understands perfectly well that he is the news. Increasingly, many reporters come with large, bright placards aimed at attracting his attention to names of their regions or specific issues. Analysis of Putin’s media style of interaction: Case study: Putin has developed recognizable style of public speaking. President uses that style during Direct Line (Teleconference). Putin’s response can be divided into 6 techniques:
The above techniques are used by President Putin, which are a set of simple, but very effective methods of oral speech. First, speaker evades a direct answer to the question, and then saying the threat to one address and promises in the other. So it shows the details of his omnipotence and at the same time do not assume responsibility for the failure. The listener is drawn a very simplified picture of what is happening: it is enough to understand who is offered “pies & crumpets”, and to whom – “bruises and bumps”. As a result, President Putin achieves an effect that is also greatly enhanced by TV. The expectation is that at the time of the speech, the viewer is not easy to notice the use of these techniques.
Speech is perceived by the ears of millions of citizens, and read at best a few hundred thousand. This gap and ensures the success of all such rhetorical tricks, which were used for decades by Castro in Cuba or Chavez in Venezuela.
Media is used an effective tool to build and maintain the image of the head of the governments. President Putin is no exception. But what is unique about this forum is the opportunity made available by him to the general populace to reach the president directly in a very simple way and the follow-up mechanisms to address some of the burning issues in their day-to-day lives, which can be considered as an effective mechanism of communication and grievance redressal.
In India, in the radio program ‘Mann ki baat’, we can see similar attempt to reach out directly to the masses by Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, although, at present, the mechanism is one-sided in this program. In addition to serving as a mechanism to acknowledge and address issues raised by the citizens, these annual press meets are an attempt by the President to develop rapport and induce confidence in the citizenry about his leadership, which, despite the criticism leveled by the western media, can be considered as a tool of effective leadership in public administration. In the background of limited freedom of media and nature of the conferences (no follow up questions allowed and selection of questions by Kremlin itself), it is widely criticized as a ‘four hour love affair’ by western media. Despite these limitations, to conclude, these annual conferences have been able to contribute in creating and maintaining image of the president as a leader strong and competent to maneuver through challenges in international affairs, leader of the masses and approachable head of the state receptive and willing to address the issues of the citizenry and dedicated to development of the country which has survived through difficult past.
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