A farmer thanked him for banning Turkish tomatoes. A Siberian teacher asked him how she’s supposed to live on $120 a month. The residents of a Moscow suburb complained about a giant pile of garbage that is visible from space.
Facing a wave of popular unrest not seen in Russia in years, President Vladimir Putin took to the nation’s airwaves Thursday for his annual call-in show that gives Russians the chance to take up their problems directly with the Kremlin leader.
The carefully choreographed, four-hour long show has traditionally been a showcase for Putin to show he understands his people’s problems, and how he’ll get to the bottom of them. This year’s telethon is no different, as Putin sought to assure Russians that the economy is beginning to grow after a long recession and that ordinary people “will soon begin to feel the effect.”
Answering questions about U.S. and European sanctions imposed over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Putin said the West has been trying to isolate Russia “for centuries.” A farmer praised him for counter-sanctions, thanks to which Russian agriculture has never had it so good.
A Siberian teacher asked Putin how she can survive on teacher’s salary of $120 amonth.
“I also don’t see how!” Putin said, and promised to find out from local education leaders.
And to the residents of Balashikha, a municipality outside Moscow where trash has accumulated untouched for years, the Russian president promised that a new trash-processing facility would begin working soon.
“Direct Line with the President” is airing just three days after tens of thousands of people turned out in more than 180 cities across Russia to express their dissatisfaction with the Russian government, the most widespread protest in the country since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. More than 1,700 people were arrested in the protest, which marred official Russia Day celebrations.
This turbulence is not likely to prevent Putin, whose approval rating hasn’t been below 80 percent in three years, from winning reelection next March, but pollsters say Russians feel like their leaders are unaccountable. And the Kremlin agrees.
“As always, unfortunately, people often say that it can be easier to get through to the president than to the leaders of their own regions,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, acknowledged in remarks to reporters on Wednesday.
In previous years, the telethon has lasted close to four hours as Putin answers usually about 80 questions from citizens who are shown on split screens making their appeals – all of them pre-screened.
In the days leading up to this year’s show, nearly two million Russians had submitted questions, some of which were displayed on the official website of the show.
Many of them asked Putin to address the poor state of roads, housing, construction projects, the mortgage market, education and the accountability of officials. One young man asked why so many young Russians want to emigrate. Several asked Putin to explain why the rest of the world fears Russia. And there was the odd softball, such as the Russian who wanted to pass along his hope for peace in Syria.
In recent months, there have been rallies by long-distance truckers angry about road tolls, apartment owners angry about a massive plan to relocate as many as 1.6 million Muscovites, and Russians up in arms about official corruption.
Putin often uses the annual call-in forums to press a central point – Ukraine in 2014, the economic crisis in 2015 – but also takes queries about such issues as the need for exercise machines in provincial health centers and a marital dispute over getting a new dog.
Putin’s responses come off as spontaneous, and state-run media fawn over his command of the facts.
“We’re always amazed at how many statistics Putin knows by heart,” tweeted the NTV national television network.
But a crawl of unedited questions on the bottom of the screen revealed the anger and frustration some Russians feel about their leader and the system he has created.
“Putin, do you really think people believe in all this circus with set-up questions?” read one.
Another asked when Putin would get around to firing officials who have faced corruption allegations, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
The news site RBC.ru this week reported that a rehearsal of the call-in show took place in a Moscow suburban resort. Guests were divided into groups and asked to read their questions for Putin to clerks who “made notes in a notebook,” according to the report.
The audience were advised not to drink alcohol the day before the show, and not to drink too much water because the show could last up to five hours. The audience were also advised not to wear checkered or striped clothing.
Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, acknowledged that there was meeting with participants to discuss logistics but denied that it was a rehearsal.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · David Filipov