Putin Emphasizes The Positive In Marathon Question-And-Answer Show
Robert Coalson June 15, 2017
In his last scheduled televised question-and-answer session with the public before Russia's next presidential election in March 2018, President Vladimir Putin sought to convey confidence and competence.
Putin responded to a wide range of questions in the four-hour Direct Line program on June 15, which was heavily stage-managed to depict him and his government in the best possible light.
He sought to deflect blame when faced with queries, complaints, and pleas from Russians desperate for higher wages, better health care, or life a little further from a massive garbage dump on Moscow's outskirts, acknowledging problems but saying that Russia's economy was on the mend and that Western countries had similar troubles.
He blamed the dire state of U.S-Russian relations on what he called "Russophobia" in some circles in the United States and took aim at political opponents at home, suggesting that anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny organized nationwide protests earlier this week to advance his own interests and not those of the people.
Although the lavish, high-tech production was meticulously managed, Russian state television raised eyebrows while Putin was speaking during the first hour of the broadcast by flashing written versions of extra questions and comments being sent by text message, including some about whether Putin tolerates corruption, when he plans to retire, and whether three terms as president are enough for him.
Putin avoided answering that last question during Direct Line, steering clear of confirming the widespread assumption that he will run for a new six-year Kremlin term in March, at age 65. Asked toward the end of the marathon whether he will "leave anyone after him" when he vacates the presidency, he responded: "First of all, I am still working. And secondly, I want to say that this should be determined by the voters -- the Russian people."
Another pointed message flashed on the screen denouncing the entire Direct Line program as a "circus" and asking Putin whether he really thought people take it seriously.
Most of the questions that Putin did address focused on domestic economic and social issues such as low wages in the state sector, demographic problems, and improving health care.
Asked about relations with the United States, which have reached a nadir following a U.S. intelligence assessment that Putin ordered an effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Putin blamed what he called "Russophobia" in the United States on domestic U.S. politics.
Putin compared former U.S. FBI Director James Comey, who recently testified to Congress that he felt President Donald Trump tried to influence his work on the investigation into alleged Russian interference to Edward Snowden, a former U.S. security consultant who leaked sensitive U.S. documents before obtaining temporary political asylum in Russia.
Putin said Comey's leaking of details of his conversations with Trump was "strange" and added jokingly that Russia was ready to provide Comey with political asylum as well.
At the same time, Putin said Moscow was ready to cooperate with the United States on issues such as preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, combating international terrorism, and resolving the conflicts in eastern Ukraine and Syria.
Some of his remarks about U.S. ties came in answer to a question posted on YouTube by a man in the U.S. state of Arizona who said he supported Putin and asked what people like him can do to combat anti-Russian sentiment in the United States. Putin thanked the questioner for his support, but said there was no advice he could give in response to the question.
Putin also denied that Moscow has interfered in the domestic affairs of neighboring Ukraine, despite Moscow's seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and overwhelming evidence that it has provided massive military, economic, and political support to separatists in the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has left more than 10,000 dead since it began in April 2014.
Asked about the country's economy, Putin said that the recession Russia entered in 2014, the year world oil prices collapsed and Western countries imposed sanctions on Moscow over its interference in Ukraine, "has been overcome."
"The economy has moved into a period of growth," he said, citing data going back to the fourth quarter of 2016.
One questioner asked how long Russia could expect to live under the sanctions introduced by the United States, the European Union and other countries.
Putin responded by claiming the sanctions were a bid by Western countries to prevent Russia from playing a competitive political and economic role in the world.
"Russia's history shows that our country has always been under sanctions," Putin said. "Every time Russia begins growing stronger, sanctions are introduced. It has always been like that."
"If there was no Crimea or other problems, they would still create some pretext to contain Russia," Putin said.
Putin said the sanctions -- and countersanctions Moscow imposed in response, which consist largely of trade restrictions -- also have benefits for Russia and were helping the country develop its intellectual potential and reduce its reliance on energy exports.
An audience member representing the agricultural sector thanked Putin for the "antisanctions" and expressed the hope that they would remain in place. Putin responded that when Western countries drop their sanctions, Russia will cancel its countermeasures.
Putin was also asked about his family. He responded that he guards their privacy so that they can have "normal" lives, but he said both his daughters live in Moscow and are not involved in politics. He said he has two grandsons, one of which was born "recently."
He was not asked to confirm or deny widespread Russian media that one of his daughters is Katerina Tikhonova, an acrobatic dancer and the director of two state-funded initiatives at Moscow State University.
When a journalist from the BBC asked Putin about a national wave of anticorruption protests held on June 12 at which security forces detained more than 1,500 people, Putin quipped that he knew the journalist would ask that question "because in a certain way this is propaganda for the people you are supporting."
Putin then criticized the organizers of the protests of "aggravating the situation for public-relations purposes."
Putin was not asked about the allegations put forth in an investigation by opposition leader and June 12 protest organizer Navalny that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has abused his office to gain control of massive wealth both in Russia and abroad.
When one young man in the audience asked a pointed question about official corruption, Putin asked back whether the question was the man's own or whether someone had given it to him.
"Life gave it to me," the young man responded.
Putin was also not asked about media reports of human rights abuses in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya, particularly allegations that gay men are being systematically rounded up, abused, and, in some cases, killed.
Asked whether he would be willing to speak with anyone in the political opposition, Putin said he was ready to speak with anyone who genuinely has Russia's best interests in mind. He accused his opponents of using the real problems Russians face to promote their own political interests.
Among the questions, the program featured optimistic vignettes showing upbeat scenes such as locals dancing on the shores of Lake Baikal, a father in Ufa seeing his newborn son for the first time, construction at a new airport in the city of Rostov-on-Don, and a nearly completed nuclear-powered icebreaker being built in St. Petersburg.
Together with a televised press conference and an address to parliament, Direct Line is one of three high-profile annual events that Putin uses to burnish his image in Russia, send signals abroad, and offer hints about future plans.
Putin has held the event annually since 2001, except for 2004 and 2012. Since 2013, it has been held in April, but in March the Kremlin announced it was being postponed this year because of Putin's "tight schedule."
Russian citizens have used a special website and social media to submit 1.8 million questions and messages for the event, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on June 14.
Kremlin critics say one of the main purposes of the Direct Line program is to perpetuate the idea that Putin, who has been in power as president or prime minister since 1999, stands above ineffectual or corrupt officials and is the only person who can ultimately be counted on to address the problems of ordinary Russians.
At one point in the June 15 session, a woman from southern Russia showed Putin her recently flood-damaged home and said that local officials had refused to help her repair it unless she paid money.
Putin expressed consternation and said he would ask the Prosecutor-General's Office to look into how the federal funds allocated for flood relief had been spent. He ended the exchange by saying: "I hope [Stavropol Krai Governor] Vladimir Vladimirovich [Vladimirov] will be at your house by the end of the day."
Putin has been particularly visible in recent weeks. Earlier this month, he gave an exclusive interview to U.S. journalist Megyn Kelly of NBC.
On June 12, the U.S. network Showtime began showing a four-hour collection of interviews with Putin by Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone. Russia's state Channel One television was scheduled to air the programs on June 19-22.
With reporting by RIA Novosti and Interfax
Copyright (c) 2017. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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