Dispatch

Mr. Fix-It

Vladimir Putin's problem-solver schtick just shows how weak Russia's institutions have become.

On Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared in his eighth annual televised séance with the Russian public. More than 2 million questions poured in by phone, e-mail, or text message, and, for a record four hours, Putin fielded some 80 of them from Russians across the country. All told, it was an odd spectacle. For one thing, Putin looked uncharacteristically weary, as if he was tired of putting on his populist hat and hearing the umpteenth pensioner complaining about a bad apartment -- something he's normally very good at.

It also made for a striking contrast with President Dmitry Medvedev's state of the nation address to the Russian political elite a month ago. Granted, it was for a different audience, but Medvedev, in calling for urgent modernization, struck a very negative tone: Russia was behind; Russia was backward; Russia needed to modernize or drown in the riptides of history. Stop whining, he said; start doing.

Putin's address, on the other hand, resembled an extended episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show. He kicked off by answering some T-ball questions from the anchors about how well Russia had weathered the financial crisis. "With a big dose of certainty, we can say that the peak of the crisis has been overcome," Putin said, to the anchors' seeming relief.

And then to the mailbox. Even for what was obviously a scripted event, the range of questions was stunning. Once the weariness wore off, Putin covered everything from industrial accidents to Russia's lack of aeronautical engineers, the World Cup, legless veterans, pensions, birthday greetings, Stalin's legacy, the gaudy nouveaux riches, and Russian rap. (There was even what seemed like a surprise question on imprisoned Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which seemed to blindside Putin -- though he probably had to agree to have it asked -- before sending him into a controlled but apoplectic rage about contract killings and the Western bankers who, Putin claimed, brought about Yukos's bankruptcy.)

The vast majority of questions, however, were highly specific and highly personal. My great aunt is a veteran of World War II; how come she can't get an apartment? I lost my husband in an industrial accident and was hired as a replacement; what if they fire me? My niece works at a day-care center and gets paid too little for the number of kids she supervises; how can she live on such a small salary? My pension finally went up; thank you very much, Vladimir Vladimirovich.

In his answers to these requests, Putin sounded a bit like a genie. Someone writes in, "I am a diabetic but haven't been able to get free medicine for more than a year." Putin: "What region is this?" Irkutsk oblast, Angarsk. Putin: "We're going to see what's going on in Irkutsk oblast, and in Angarsk in particular. This I promise you." A caller brings Putin's attention to the poverty of an old woman living by the railroad tracks where the Nevsky Express train was blown up last week. Putin: "To her very modest pension -- I think just 4,500 rubles [$150] a month -- will be added an equal amount.... They will restore her home ... and look into the possibility of moving her closer to her relatives." A young man named Nikita studying aeronautical engineering volunteers to go build planes in the remote Russian Far East at the Sukhoi Superjet complex. Putin: "I support Nikita's choice, and if you're not against it, I will definitely talk to the CEO so that he can help you get over there."

But there were more than 2 million requests, and about two-thirds were highly specific -- a daunting workload for even the most powerful of genies. More than that, though, the piling on of personal, domestic troubles underscored one of the fundamental things holding Russia back and one of the things Medvedev addressed in his state of the nation address: a lack of working institutions that address citizens' basic needs. To receive social services, solve a grievance, or even seek compensation for an injury in Russia, people normally work through personal connections or understandings, which is exactly why corruption is so firmly woven into the fabric of Russian life. There are simply no working institutions -- impersonal and effective -- that can do something better than a bribe can. And if you've exhausted all your options or didn't have many options to begin with, you turn to the top, to the traditional figure of the Tsar-Father to intercede with the wicked authorities -- or with wicked fate. Putin's annual performances as this mystical wand-waver, as crucial as they are to his image and his ratings, only perpetuate the very thing Medvedev is purportedly trying to fight.

Another telling phenomenon was on display in Putin's TV appearance: Whenever possible, he blamed the regional governors. The woman whose niece doesn't make enough working in day care? "I think I understood correctly that you're from Krasnoyarsk," Putin said, acknowledging that the young woman's salary was impossible to live on. "Krasnoyarsk has a relatively young and energetic governor. He and I will absolutely discuss this problem. If this hasn't happened yet in Krasnoyarsk, it's about time it got started." This kind of ominous threat came down over and over again -- usually when Putin couldn't find a good answer -- and one could imagine governors across Russia gulping uneasily in front of their TVs.

What it indicates, though, is not Putin's authoritarian aggression, but the fact that Russians no longer have any means of directly addressing their own officials. After Putin abolished the direct election of regional governors in 2004 in favor of their appointment by the Kremlin, it undid any sense of accountability to the electorate. Now the governors are responsible to the Kremlin, which, through venues like the Putin phone-a-thon, can then tell the governors what's going on under their very noses. "In the West, there's a sense of public opinion," says political observer and former cabinet member Evgeny Gontmakher. "There's the mass media, elections. Here it's all atrophied, and I guess you can see this as a kind of ersatz form of feedback." But, Gontmakher warns, the phone-a-thon is no substitute for a real discussion. "The people asking the questions can't respond to the answers they get. It's one-sided; it's rehearsed."

And let's not forget the most important thing: In their appeals to Putin, the public seemed to forget that he was no longer president, and hasn't been for a while. Why wasn't Medvedev doing this?

"This is Putin's trademark genre," says Gleb Pavlovsky, who chairs the Foundation for Effective Politics, a think tank linked closely to the Kremlin. "It was discovered early on, by accident, and it's the genre in which Putin feels most like himself and in which people most like to see him. And he needs to keep his audience."

But the phone-a-thon was more than just about differences of style between the tech-savvy, übercorporate Medvedev and the hucksterish patriarch Putin. The four-hour slog came, incidentally, after Putin's approval rating sank to its lowest level since March. And, though he is still well ahead of Medvedev, Putin needs to make sure he doesn't disappear from popular consciousness.

"In a certain sense, it's theater," Pavlovsky says, "but theater with colossal political consequences. If Putin loses his audience, the tandem would become unbalanced.... This is Putin's strategic weapon, that in a difficult situation he can turn to the country. This is his main strength, and this is why the apparatus is scared of him, because he still has that card."

Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

The Soccer Wars

The latest source of instability in the Middle East isn't the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Iran's nukes -- it's a bitter soccer rivalry between Egypt and Algeria.

It was described as a "historic opportunity," a "decisive battle," a matter of "divine justice," a question of "dignity." But this was neither a deciding military encounter nor a fraught diplomatic negotiation; it was a soccer match, the bout to determine whether Egypt or Algeria would be the lone Arab country in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The rhetoric was overheated from the start, but reality more than lived up to it. What started as a soccer rivalry has become a deep diplomatic rift between two erstwhile allies, revealing the shaky self-confidence of two autocratic Middle Eastern governments and the volatile combination of demagoguery and new media.

On Nov. 12, the Algerian national team arrived in Cairo to play a qualifying match for the World Cup. The Algerian team needed a one-point victory to qualify for the 2010 championship in South Africa; the Egyptian team need to win by two goals to earn a rematch, or by three to knock the Algerians out in one blow.

The Algerians and Egyptians had played a similar match 20 years ago, from which Egypt emerged victorious. Violence erupted after that match, leaving an Egyptian team doctor blind in one eye and an Algerian soccer player wanted by Interpol. That was also the last time Egypt gained admission into the World Cup, while Algeria hasn't participated since 1986.

The rematch was hotly anticipated by both countries. Flag sales soared; both the official and the privately owned media focused breathlessly on the upcoming game. The day before, the newspaper Al Akhbar ran the headline: "Eight-four million Egyptians say: Please, God."

Partly because of the history, partly because of the stakes, the cheering was accompanied by an undercurrent of animosity from the start. For weeks, Egyptian and Algerian fans engaged in cyberwars, taunting each other in online forums, trading doctored team photos, provocative homemade songs, and YouTube videos -- and finally hacking each other's websites. Amr Adeeb, anchor of the popular evening talk show Al Qahera Al Youm (Cairo Today) on the Orbit satellite channel, and one of the prime instigators of Egyptian soccer mania, said the night before the match, "What annoys me is the way the Algerians talk ... this provocation, this conceit.... Why do the Algerians hate us so much? We supported them during their million-martyr revolution; we sent them teachers to teach them Arabic." Needless to say, provocative and paternalistic remarks like Adeeb's -- and there were many -- were not well-received in Algeria.

On the night the Algerian team arrived in Cairo, its bus was pursued and stoned by Egyptian fans. Footage quickly surfaced on the Internet of Algerian players arriving, bloodied and indignant, at their hotel. Meanwhile, the Egyptian media claimed the attack was staged and that the Algerian players had smashed the windows of their own vehicle as part of a scam to get the venue changed. FIFA launched an investigation that remains open.

In round one, the Egyptian team beat Algeria 2-0. Ecstatic crowds poured into Cairo's streets, blocking traffic, waving homemade flamethrowers and celebrating until dawn. According to the Egyptian Health Ministry, 20 Algerian and 12 Egyptian supporters were injured that night. Back in Algeria, the accounts were much more dramatic: Algerians had been killed in Cairo's streets; women had been stripped naked; an Algerian supporter was burned alive by Egyptian fans and police. When the Algerian ambassador in Cairo formally denied that any murders had taken place, the Algerian newspaper Echorouk posted a video to its website, showing an Algerian rapper crying over his dead brother, supposedly killed in Egypt (it was apparently a hoax).

Partly in retaliation, Egyptian businesses in Algeria were looted, and Egyptian workers had to be protected by police. The mobile telephone operator Djezzy -- which is owned by the Egyptian company Orascom Telecom -- was a particular target. Customers were reported to have burned their Djezzy phone chips and looted the company's offices, causing, according to Orascom officials, tens of millions of dollars worth of damage.

In this atmosphere of recrimination and growing hostility, the sides prepared for the final and deciding match, held in Khartoum on Nov. 18. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika sent his personal representative. The two sons of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Alaa and the heir apparent, Gamal, were also present.

Egypt's World Cup hopes evaporated that night. Algeria won the game, scoring the only goal in an unimpressive match. Afterward, buses of Egyptian supporters on their way to the airport were reportedly waylaid, their windows smashed. Panicked phone calls were made to TV talk shows by Egyptians who described themselves as under siege, the victims of a "bloodbath."

In the end, the Egyptian fans left Khartoum shaken but generally unscathed. The Egyptian health minister reported that 21 Egyptians had been injured. Nonetheless, back in Cairo, the escalation continued. The media ran stories of the Algerian government emptying its jails and transporting thousands of criminals to Sudan, of Algerian supporters chasing Egyptians with what Egypt's English-language Al-Ahram Weekly listed as "knives, nails, daggers, switchblades, scalpels and heavy wooden sticks." Crowds of indignant Egypt supporters tried to attack the Algerian Embassy in Cairo; dozens of policemen and fans were injured in the fighting and rock-throwing that ensued. Alaa Mubarak, the president's son, called in repeatedly to TV talk shows to complain of the behavior of the Algerians in Khartoum and to call them "terrorists" and "mercenaries." Elsewhere in the Egyptian media, Algerians have been described, en masse, as "uncivilized," "violent," and "sick."

This virulence has shocked observers, especially considering that historically, the two countries have had good relations. Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser was an active backer of the Algerian revolution; in 1973, Algeria sent military equipment and 3,000 men to support Egypt's retaking of the Sinai Peninsula from the Israelis.

But any vestiges of pan-Arab fellow-feeling are in shreds today, and underlying political issues have come to the fore as the soccer fight grows more personal. Alaa Mubarak told TV presenters: "There is nothing called Arab nationalism or brotherhood. This is just talk  that doesn't mean anything in reality.... When Algerians learn how to speak Arabic they can then come and say that they are Arabs." This led the Algerian newspaper Liberté to ask whether Algeria should leave the Arab League, an organization that "has always been in the hands of Egyptians," and to wonder: "How is it that the Egyptians today shamelessly proclaim themselves leaders of the Arab world, whose most noble cause, Palestine, they betrayed by being the first to sign a peace and exchange ambassadors with Israel?"

Egypt's relationship with Israel has been the focus of many Algerian taunts. Before the games, Algerian hackers placed a Star of David over the Egyptian flag on the national soccer teams' website. An Algerian newspaper referred to the stadium in Cairo as "Tel Aviv stadium." Egypt has long been one of the leaders of the Arab world and continues to see itself that way. But the government's unwillingness or inability to offer succour to blockaded Gaza, especially during the Israeli bombing in 2008, has done long-term damage to its prestige among other Arab countries.

Far from ending after the game, the rift between Egypt and Algeria has intensified. Egypt recalled its ambassador. Both the Algerian and the Egyptian parliaments have discussed retaliatory measures. A few Egyptian artists have returned prizes from Algeria, and there have been calls to exclude Algeria from Egyptian cultural festivals. Algerian tour operators have suspended trips to Egypt.

Many have pointed out that the soccer frenzy may have served the interests of both autocratic regimes, whose populations might otherwise be striking over living conditions or demonstrating for greater political freedom. An article published on the website Algeria-Watch notes the similarities between Egypt and Algeria: "The crushing of freedoms, daily oppression, misery and despair are the common lot of the majority of both people. Life-long presidents, all-powerful secret police services, large scale predation are the characteristic that the two regimes, which have both kept their people under emergency law for decades, share." The pseudonymous Algerian blogger The Moor Next Door notes: "The cycle of despotism and vulgarity will continue and the ultimate winners are not the national teams or young men in the street, but rather their governments and them alone. Such are the 'politics of sports' in the Arab countries."

The other oft-cited culprit is the media, which in both countries fomented the fight. Of course the authorities could almost certainly have put the lid on this incitement, if they'd wanted to. But though they did their best to direct and profit from the superficial nationalism of cheering soccer fans, the rulers of Algeria and Egypt seem also to have been somewhat overtaken by passions and events. The role played by new media -- Twitter, blogs, cell-phone footage, YouTube videos -- can't be underestimated. It was thanks to this technology that Algerians could see, within hours, amateur footage of their soccer stars displaying their injuries, and Egyptians could watch in horror as their flag was set on fire or desecrated in other creative ways.

In the end, Egypt is the greater loser. The Egyptian overreaction to perceived Algerian impertinence and aggression seems a symptom of a larger crisis of confidence, a sense that its prestige and authority in the region is not what it used to be. The government's lack of legitimacy was highlighted by the chaos in Khartoum; aiding and abetting the crudest nationalism, while blocking all forms of real political participation, is a shortsighted tactic that doesn't address the population's underlying discontent. "The Egyptian regime cheapened the Egyptian citizen in the eyes of the world," wrote Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the opposition newspaper Al-Dustour, holding the government responsible for the attacks on Egyptians in Khartoum. "We've come to have no value, no standing, no esteem, because our government has destroyed our dignity." Are we still talking about soccer?

BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images