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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Kremlin's Crisis Line

Last week's big entertainment news was President Vladimir Putin's two-hour live call-in show. Of the huge number of people hoping for a chance to put their question to the president, only 51 lucky -- thoroughly vetted and 100 percent loyal -- souls actually got the chance.

On Thursday morning, as the select few were preparing to dial, a Canadian friend of mine asked me if I was planning to call the president as well. Why should I? I have power in my apartment, thank goodness. The heat works, and the roof doesn't leak. If I lived in some small town with icicles hanging off my radiators and no power, I would definitely have lined up to call our leader.

Calling the Kremlin is like playing the lottery. The game is set up like the promotional contests run by radio stations. The prize goes to the person who calls at just the right time and asks just the right question. Of the tens of thousands of people who call in to complain about their lives, one gets through, and the government takes urgent action to address his grievances. A few lucky ones really do get help after each show, and the show is held on a regular basis.

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It's not hard to figure out why people call the president. What's harder to fathom is why the Kremlin bothers to put on the annual Putin show. Radio stations run promotional contests in their continual battle for listeners. The Kremlin has no competitors. Putin's official popularity rating is already over 86 percent, and when the next election rolls around it will no doubt top 100 percent.

The Putin show is the product of tradition and uncertainty. Tradition demands that the autocrat associate with the people, even if neither party particularly enjoys it. But what is the source of the autocrat's uncertainty that leads to this yearly flirtation with the people?

Not long ago I had occasion to appear on an "interactive" television show. Viewers were invited to call the studio and weigh in on the following question: What does the Constitution guarantee for you -- your safety, your civil rights, or nothing at all? By the end of the program 3 percent of callers said the Constitution guarantees their safety, 2 percent said it guarantees their civil rights, while a whopping 95 percent said it guarantees absolutely nothing.

You'd think this would be proof of the people's total alienation from power. But if you were to ask those same people if they agree with the principles laid out in the Constitution or if they support the current order, their responses would have been entirely different. I'm certain that a majority of Russians would answer both those questions affirmatively, even though they understand perfectly well that the current order is unfair, that most of the population in practice have no rights whatsoever, and so on.

The same illogic applies to Putin's job approval numbers. A majority of Russians do not support his domestic or foreign policy, as borne out by the same polls usually cited to prove the president's overwhelming popularity. But when asked if they support the president, people answer yes.

This isn't really a paradox. In essence the question of supporting the current regime comes down to whether you're prepared to go on living in this country. It has been made abundantly clear that no other regime is possible. Love it or leave it. And most people go along because they have nowhere else to go.

The people recognize autocracy as the natural state of affairs and the president as their rightful leader. His power is as natural as slush in Moscow. But in this situation, the actual ruler loses all significance. If Putin were replaced tomorrow and his policies were reversed, the obedient majority would back the new regime no differently than it backed the old. The social and political base of the government's current course is dangerously narrow. The order that has been established with such difficulty is fraught with new instability.

In the 18th century it was said that the Russian state amounted to an autocracy held in check by palace revolutions. As recent history has shown, you can pull off a political revolution in today's Russia without hitting the tsar over the head with a snuffbox. You can simply force him to name a successor.

The people only notice palace revolutions when a new face appears on their coins and a new portrait is hung on their walls. For the favorites at court, however, they can be catastrophic.

The regime must strengthen its course. Its decisions must be made irreversible. But how? Unfortunately, the current generation of Kremlin favorites has come up with nothing better than a live call-in show.



Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.