Vladimir Putin’s annual year-end press conferences were always more about the spectacle than submitting to genuine scrutiny. He decided who to call upon – prompting many journalists to wave flags or handmade signs to attract his attention – and even when he did take difficult questions, he permitted no follow-ups. The most notable feature of the whole performance was generally its length, with the Russian president often fielding questions for more than four hours.
Yet this bizarre annual ritual served two important functions for Putin. First, the sheer stamina it required was meant to show that he was in good physical shape – this was a stark contrast to his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, who slurred his words and looked increasingly frail before stepping down in 1999. Second, and more importantly, it allowed him to show that he was in full command of the situation. He took questions on Russia’s national security, which often made the headlines overseas, but also on local issues, such as the status of road repairs or the closure of a factory, making notes on the papers in front of him and promising to follow up.
This helped to perpetuate the message that I often heard from people I interviewed in Russia: that it was not Putin that was the problem, but the corrupt officials under him. He appeared nightly on the television news shows, ordering bureaucrats around or striding into global summits to press Russia’s interests abroad. He was working constantly, the propaganda insisted, and he was doing everything he could. He sat down once a year for most of the past two decades (the event was not held in 2005 or between 2008-12 when he was prime minister) to pretend that he cared about the problems facing the country and that Russia was a democracy.
It is tempting to view the news, announced by the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on 12 December, that Putin will not hold his annual press conference this year as evidence that the Russian president is nervous as his war against Ukraine founders. Perhaps he has realised that he has no answers to the questions that would inevitably come from the journalists who are watching the bodies of Russian soldiers arrive home week after week, and speaking to the families of the mobilised men who have been sent to the front without proper training or equipment. Even the most highly choreographed performance would have to address the mounting costs and the dismal outlook for the war.
Yet it is equally possible that Putin, who has now been in power for 22 years (including the four years when he was prime minister), has simply decided that he no longer deigns to be questioned, and certainly not in public. To do so risks humiliation. Why put himself through the whole performance, he might well think, when he can issue soundbites to handpicked interlocutors whenever he chooses. Perhaps he can no longer be bothered to maintain the tedious charade of democracy.
One of the problems with being a dictator is that those around you stop telling you what they really think in favour of what they think you want to hear. So if it was Putin’s idea to dispense with the press conference, then it is unlikely that those around him told him how bad this would make him look – that it would give the impression that he was either afraid of the questions or indifferent to his citizens’ concerns. Inevitably, it will also stoke rumours that he is seriously ill and no longer able to endure several hours of questioning beneath the bright lights of the television studio. There was always an element of machismo to Putin’s press conferences – the smirk with which he typically greeted tough questions signalled cocky self-assuredness, and the whole endeavour seemed designed to demonstrate that he could outlast his questioners. But no longer. Hiding from scrutiny just makes him look weak.