This post originally appeared at The Moscow Times.Once again, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has refused to participate in presidential debates. He skipped out in the 2000 and 2004 presidential races, and two weeks ago Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, announced that Putin was too busy to participate in the 2012 debates, scheduled for next month. Taking time off for debates would “impede his ability to carry out his duties,” Peskov told Interfax.
This explanation is hardly convincing. Throughout his decade in power, Putin has found the time to conduct 10 live call-in shows — each lasting from three to four hours and famous for their soft, staged questions. He also found time to dive for amphorae, meet with bikers and drive a yellow Lada 2,000 kilometers across Siberia — an adventure that took four days to complete. But he apparently has no time to debate his rivals in an important election year polemicized by large street protests and tainted by election fraud.
Even more ridiculous was Putin’s statement that he could just as well send one of his authorised representatives to debate in his place. United Russia pulled this trick during the debates before the December State Duma elections when the party’s leader,Boris Gryzlov, sent other party functionaries on his behalf to debate with leaders of other parties.
Putin would have been better sticking to the “I’m too busy to bother” excuse. His blunder about sending someone else to debate for him became the butt of many jokes. Satirist Viktor Shenderovich quipped on Ekho Moskvy radio that sending a representative to debate in your place is like finding a trusted friend to fill in for you when you are too tired or disinterested to fulfil your “marital obligations” to your wife.
At the same time, however, it is understandable why Putin is more scared of debates this time around. A Levada centre poll in early January showed that only 42 per cent of voters would vote for Putin in the first round. By facing even mildly uncomfortable questions from the other four candidates in the debate, all of whom are considered Kremlin friendly, Putin would still run the risk that this rating could drop even further before the election. Despite Putin’s superior orator skills and sharp mind, he prefers to play it safe and opt out of the debates.