Putin the Campaigner: Scripted and Awkward, Save One Big Hug


Trailed by a scrum of ministers and other aides during a two-day visit to the provincial capitals of Ufa and Kazan, Mr. Putin made a cursory inspection of the machinery and various engines on display before spending exactly 10 minutes and 34 seconds to take four questions from a few preselected workers.

“When will mortgage rates go down in Russia?” asked Ruslan Khalitov, distressed that he was paying a bruising 12 percent. Mr. Putin answered at length, flexing his command of statistics, and then basically told Mr. Khalitov that he should produce more children, which would make him eligible for a subsidized rate.

Another man asked if military spending would be cut. “You will all have work — there is great demand for your products, your engines,” Mr. Putin answered.

The last question came from Viktor M. Bogomolov, a nearly 40-year veteran of the company, which is best known for building the jet engines for Sukhoi fighter planes. Why, he wanted to know, did Russian factories no longer receive outstanding achievement awards like the Soviet-era Order of the Red Banner?

“Let me just give you a hug,” Mr. Putin responded, embracing the chunky man with thinning hair and provoking widespread laughter. It was about the only spontaneous public moment during the entire trip.

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Workers at the factory in Ufa waiting for Mr. Putin’s arrival.

Credit
James Hill for The New York Times

Mr. Bogomolov, a Putin supporter even before the hug, became an instant celebrity, interviewed repeatedly about the moment. “I didn’t think this would happen, but it did, perhaps he liked the question,” he said.

Actually, Mr. Putin hopes to embrace — at least figuratively — more than 108 million registered Russian voters through visits like this one in Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan, some 800 miles east of Moscow.

His campaign trips differ little from his presidential visits, but they have increased in frequency and geographic spread in advance of the March 18 vote.

Mr. Putin, seeking his fourth presidential term after 18 years as the most powerful man in Russia, does not really need to campaign, and appears to find the activity distasteful. Why, his attitude seems to be, after all that he has done for Russia, should he have to ask people for their votes?

Moreover, he is the certain winner among a field expected to contain eight candidates, particularly since his most potent potential adversary, the anticorruption critic Aleksei A. Navalny, was barred from the race.

The Kremlin, however, wants to stoke turnout and to present a democratic face. Hence Mr. Putin’s campaign stops, each meant to provide television footage — the Ufa factory visit was a headline on the nightly news — that signals something about his achievements.

The foreign press, rarely allowed close to Mr. Putin, is invited along too, so that reports of an “election” in Russia will reach outside the border. “It’s a media campaign; they are creating a picture,” said Rashid Galyamov, the publisher of Business Online, a popular news website based in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, Mr. Putin’s second stop on this trip.

The visits are not meant to address issues, Mr. Galyamov said. “There is no discussion of problems, even though there are problems,” he said. “This is what is missing.”

The signals were fairly obvious. In addition to stopping at the Ufa factory, Mr. Putin visited a manufacturer of long-range bombers. Both appearances underscored his effort to restore Russia’s superpower status.

Tatarstan and nearby Bashkortostan are also among the most heavily Muslim regions in Russia. Mr. Putin drank tea with a senior religious leader and visited a mosque. The signal: Russia’s Muslim minority is part of the Russian people, too.

He also attended a forum about improving higher education at the famous Kazan Federal University (Lenin was a student there), signaling that he cared about youth.

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In another regional capital, Kazan, Mr. Putin met with drivers from a successful truck rally team, Kamaz-Master.

Credit
James Hill for The New York Times

Notably, neither he nor anyone with him publicly broached the two main topics of concern in Tatarstan.

Last March, Tatfondbank, the second largest bank in the oil-rich region, collapsed under nearly $2 billion in questionable debts, wiping out the savings of several thousand residents.

Then, in July, Mr. Putin gave a speech saying that ethnic Russians should not be forced to learn minority languages, and the government subsequently failed to renew a longstanding agreement that granted Tatarstan a measure of autonomy.

After that, prosecutors ordered Tatar language instruction, formerly mandatory, reduced to only two voluntary hours a week.

Various local residents hoped the language topic would come up at the university forum, but there was zero discussion beyond canned speeches beamed in from other elite federal universities.

The 20 or so students at the forum did not even get the chance to meet Mr. Putin, though they were in the same room as him.

One said he still liked the president as a strong leader, but that Mr. Putin needed to fight corruption. “This could be a great country,” he said, before catching himself in implied criticism of their illustrious guest and adding, “Even if it is already.”

Amid an extended economic downturn, even some students at elite universities are worried about their career prospects, many said they were considering emigrating to improve their salaries and other circumstances.

Students feel that “the elite in this country is not changing, there is no entry point, no social mobility,” said Natalia Pavlova, the Kommersant newspaper correspondent in Ufa.

She and other analysts thought that while Mr. Putin did well among voters in highlighting past achievements, he left voters uneasy about what he might do for them in the future. Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political consultant, called that the fundamental problem for the Putin campaign.

“People know that Putin will win, and in this case the election means nothing, it is not interesting,” said Mr. Gallyamov, noting that apathy could hinder the quest for a significant turnout. “The problem is whether Russian voters feel that he is leading in the right direction now. They have this feeling that his past is brighter than his future.”

Summing up on ordinary voter’s thinking, Mr. Gallyamov said, “My heart, my emotions tell me that this is important, but my head tells me nothing will change.”

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