Vladimir Putin's Annual Grand Press Conference - Notable Elements and Messages

2020 / 12 / 23

Giorgi Bilanishvili, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation

Vladimir Putin’s 16th annual press conference was held on December 17, 2020 during which the President of Russia answered questions about fighting COVID 19, the economy and domestic and foreign policy. In order to correctly assess the importance of this event and Putin’s messages, we must take into account that a grand annual press conference represents one of the important components of Putin’s public relations strategy. Therefore, we must assume that it is held with a pre-prepared written scenario and is, as a rule, subject to certain ramifications.

In terms of public relations, this kind of press conference has the following purpose:  show the voters that Putin is informed of all the current developments and is in full control of the situation. This year, another important task was added to this. Given the on-going COVID 19 pandemic, Putin was less active in the public for almost the entire year. At the same time, news had been recently spreading through various electronic media sources regarding his severe health condition. Therefore, Putin used the press conference to show that he maintains his usual “form.”

This is possibly the reason why this year’s press conference turned out to be as lengthy as it was. It was in progress for 4 hours and 30 minutes, just 10 minutes short of setting a record. At the same time, Putin, who turned 68 in October, also emphasized his good health when he answered a question about the COVID 19 vaccination, saying that such vaccines are not yet designated for people of his age and, therefore, he has not yet been vaccinated. However, it is probably clear that judging Putin’s health on the basis of his answers or the length of the press conference would be naïve. Below, therefore, we will try to discuss more substantial issues.

The main topic of the press conference, naturally, was Russia dealing with COVID 19 and the complications caused by it. Putin’s main message here was that Russia managed to do this better than other countries. In terms of this topic, the most notable for us is probably that Russia is trying to improve its image among the international community. This issue was prioritized by Russia from the very beginning of the spread of the pandemic when Russian propaganda was trying to paint a picture that the West was helpless against the pandemic while Russia was trying to assist it.

This time around, Russian propaganda is trying to convince the world that the Russian vaccine is efficient. In order to succeed in this task, Russia seems to be needing authoritative international partners as trust towards it is rather low. This is precisely why Putin focused on the fact that more recently the skepticism towards the Russian vaccine has supposedly been changing and the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca has expressed its readiness to cooperate with Russia on this issue.

Obviously, the most important messages from the press conference for Georgia are those regarding foreign policy. However, before we move on to this, we must also mention Putin’s response to the question about the poisoning of a Russian opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, which has both domestic as well as foreign policy dimensions. Namely, according to Putin, the joint investigation by The Insider, Bellingcat and CNN published on December 14, where the Russian Federal Security Service employees suspected in poisoning Navalny are named, is an “information operation” by foreign intelligence services. Also, the Russian side is aware that Navalny is backed by US intelligence services. Therefore, Navalny is supposed to be under the observation of Russian special forces. As for the poisoning, in Putin’s words, if poisoning Navalny had indeed been intended, it would have probably been concluded successfully (Если бы уж хотели, наверное, довели бы до конца).

It is worth noting that according to the information disseminated on December 21, Alexei Navalny himself called one of the Federal Security Service officers accused of trying to poison him according to the aforementioned investigation. In that phone conversation, Navalny presented himself as an assistant to the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, asking the officer to explain why the “poisoning operation” had not been successful. The officer told him that Navalny’s life was saved by the plane pilot who, after learning that an opposition politician was not feeling well during his travel on the Tomsk-Moscow flight, performed an emergency landing at Omsk airport where an ambulance provided emergency first aid to Navalny.

Given this, Putin was faced with a threat of his public relations victory turning into a loss. However, we must also take into account that the government of Russia exerts a rather firm control over the informational space of the mass media; therefore, it is in possession of mechanisms for reducing the risks of such a threat materializing.

As for social media, the positions of the government of Russia are much weaker in this domain. However, social media is only popular among young people and its serious influence on public opinion is not visible in surveys or election results. In a long-term perspective, however, the government of Russia sees social media as a significant threat to itself and is seriously concerned with the so-called gadget-dependent new generation as it fears that the mechanisms of public opinion control currently in the hands of the government are inefficient when it comes to the people of the aforementioned generation.

As for the foreign policy issues specifically, even though less attention was paid to them during Putin’s annual press conference, several notable moments nonetheless meet the eye. First of all, it must be pointed out that only two foreign journalists were allowed to ask a question. To the first of these from the BBC, Putin answered so harshly that he soon even left the press conference in a probably protest to the question. The second was from a journalist from Iceland who stated his good will and positive views towards President Putin and Russia in general openly and very eagerly.

It is interesting to note that the aforementioned journalist from Iceland was later invited by the TV channel Dozhd which is famous for its critical position towards the government of Russia. As it turned out in his interview with the channel, the journalist has been living in Russia for 30 years and what is more, he cooperates with the information agency owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin (RIA FAN news - https://riafan.ru) who is known as Putin’s cook. Prigozhin himself is well-known due to the fact that he is a member of Putin’s close circle and has accumulated solid wealth. At the same time, he is subject to sanctions due to his attempted interference in the 2016 US presidential elections and most importantly, his name is also associated with a Russian private military force, Wagner, which serves Russian interests in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic.

Putin did not mention Georgia during his press conference. Of the post-Soviet states, he spoke about Moldova, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan and traditionally blamed the West for the manipulations and destabilization of the situation in these countries.

While speaking about Karabakh, Putin was trying to strike a sort of a balance between Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, he did fleetingly mention that Karabakh’s status must be determined in the future, naming the 1988 Sumgait pogroms as the origins of the Karabakh conflict and thereby indirectly stating a position acceptable for Armenia.

When discussing Ukraine, Putin categorically demanded that Kyiv fulfill the Minsk Agreement. He did not criticize the West this time, probably in order to avoid irritating France and Germany which are involved in the Normandy Format with regard to this issue.

What is more important is that Putin directly commented on Russia’s intentions to further strengthen its support towards the so-called Donbas (territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts occupied by Russia) which is a dangerous message not only for Ukraine but Georgia as well.

Such an open message about Donbas is not coincidental as it would seem that Moscow is cooking up a new plan. Lately, Russian politicians have been talking more and more about creating a new union around Russia in which, in their opinion, Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region must also participate.

With regard to this, it is worth noting that on November 12, after meeting Vladimir Putin and followed by the adoption of the program on the Formation of a Socio-Economic Space between the Russian Federation and Abkhazia, the President of occupied Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, started openly speaking about a plan of creating a new “allied state” with Russia.

It is worth pointing out that the Abkhazian side used to have a negative position towards integration with Russia. As for the occupied Tskhinvali region, here Moscow does not need to put in a lot of effort as the leaders of Tskhinvali have long sought integration with Russia in any possible form.

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