MOSCOW—On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin answered questions from ordinary Russian people in a televised phone-in show. It was his 15th such Q & A since President Boris Yeltsin appointed him to be Russia’s acting president in 1999. It’s now seen as an annual event, and the headlines he grabbed in the international press were quick and easy for him.
When Putin talked about the independent nation of Ukraine, whose Crimean Peninsula he annexed three years ago, and where he’s backed secessionists in the east of the country who are waging a bloody civil war, he referred ominously to “territories now called Ukraine.”
Looking at the American uproar about Russian cyber attacks on the United States and subversion of its presidential elections, he took another tack. Alluding to U.S. President Donald Trump’s fury at incriminating testimony from fired former FBI director James Comey, the Russian president joked that he was ready to offer Comey political asylum. Indeed, he compared him to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, now resident in Moscow.
"What's the difference between the FBI director and Mr. Snowden?" Putin asked rhetorically, echoing with sinister irony the talking points of Trump and his supporters in Congress. "He said he'd written down his conversation with President [Trump] and handed it to the media through a friend of his," Putin said. "This does sound and look odd: the director of a security service making records of his talks with the supreme commander and handing it over to the media through a friend of his."
But for the Russian people, these were not the key observations nor the core problems in Putin’s discourse on Thursday. On his call-in show Putin sounded as if there were just a few minor issues to deal with and Russia is doing really well. (He had convinced Stone, as the director told The Independent, that, “The Russian people have never been better off.”)
As a matter of fact more than 20 million of Russia’s 144 million citizens are homeless and more than 13 percent live below the poverty line, without enough money to buy food or medicine. Another 40 percent of the population say they fear to get sacked any day. These are the examples of Russia’s serious issues, statistics easily found online, on state websites. It would take President Vladimir Putin (or his obsequious American interviewers) just a few minutes of digging on the internet to read about the level of corruption, described as “not just an issue but a catastrophe,” on one of the Kremlin’s own news services.
Digging further on the internet, Putin could also find that the state provides only $38.56 a month for a hospice patient, that doctors and teachers complain about miserable salaries all across the country, that only 22 to 24 percent of Russians trust the parliament.
Some officials in Russia like to brag that Putin mistrusts the “American internet.” But the bottom line is that Putin, who enjoys an 86.1 approval rating, if opinion polls are to be believed, does not want to hear any real criticism. Putin claims that when his opponents criticize his policy and list the country’s issues, “They use these difficulties for their own self-promotion.”
So in Thursday’s Q & A, journalists waited for Putin to comment on the mass street protests that took place in 145 cities last weekend. Two hours and 45 minutes into Putin’s show an Associated Press reporter, Natalia Vasilyeva, pointed out on Twitter that “no one has asked Putin about young, angry, loud protest 500 meters away from the Kremlin.”
Almost at the end of the show a young TV host finally asked the president: “The number of unhappy people is growing both on social networks and on the streets, is this the opposition? Are you ready to talk with any of them?”
Putin answered that he was ready to talk with anybody who was not going to use the issues for their own benefit. “They should not speculate but suggest solutions, and those who suggest solutions, they are people who deserve the most attention and they have a right for a dialogue with power.” Putin carved his answer as if out of solid rock.
If callers told Putin about their rights violations, the misery of their everyday lives, Putin reacted with “I am surprised” or “strange.” A person with health issues, Claudia from Orel, complained to Putin that the state did not provide her with free medicine, that she, as a person with disabilities had a right to receive. “This is very strange,” Putin sounded surprised and blamed local authorities for the problem.
Many Russians believe in a lucky chance, a sort of holy dispensation from President Putin, if they can manage to reach him on this annual show. On Wednesday morning a passenger boarding a plane from Sochi to Moscow was angry when the airline made her pay a fine for carrying a small plastic bag with a souvenir that she had bought in the airport.
“I will call Putin and complain to him about this terrible airline, Pobeda, mistreating passengers,” she said, quite seriously, and in tears.
After so many years of watching Putin’s question and answer shows for hours, many Russians realized that not every question gets answered, that the show is rehearsed, censored, and parts may even be pre-filmed. Some call it “a circus” meant to please Putin.
This year the show’s producers entertained the President with scenes of dancing Russians, of Russians working at a construction site, a Russian mother giving birth at a hospital—and even Russians asking uncomfortable question.
“The thing is, that a long time ago corrupt bureaucrats and ministers in our country’s government stopped being the news; the show of convictions leading to house arrest does not give any results,” a teenager in a white shirt asked, reading his question from a piece of paper. “Do you realize that you undermine citizens’ trust for you? How are you currently solving this problem?”
The young man continued, explaining that that thousands of police families were not able to receive subsidized apartments promised by the state.
Putin was trying to hide a little smile.
The boy continued: “This reckless attitude harms a big part of our population, including my own family,” he said.
Putin expressed frustration: “Danila, did you prepare this question yourself or did somebody suggest it to you?”
“My life prepared me for this question,” the teenager answered with a serious face.”
“What-what-what?” Putin asked.
The show’s TV host chimed in: “His life prepared him, life.”
Putin admitted that corruption was an issue but insisted that it was not as significant, as a few years ago.
During the four-hour-long show Putin had a few more reasons for frustration but not a single time did the president admit that he had ever made mistakes in domestic or foreign policy in all these years at the ruler of Russia.
When somebody asked if the country was going to live under the West’s sanctions for decades, Putin sighed, as if he had to explain obvious things.
“Russia’s history shows that as a rule we had to live under sanctions, from the moment Russia began to rise off its knees and feel stronger,” he said. “As soon as our partners in the world felt that Russia became a serious competitor, they imposed some sanctions.” Putin meant Russia’s history before and after the October Revolution that led to the creation of the Soviet Empire.
The U.S. Senate was once again planning to harden the economic sanctions against Russia, Putin informed his country fellows. On Wednesday it voted overwhelmingly to do so in retaliation for Russian meddling in U.S. elections, but Putin feigned puzzlement. “By the way, I wonder why—there is nothing extraordinary happening.”
Why did Putin agree to perform in this televised “direct line”?
“Somewhere, where they [his subordinates] were moving badly, they will now do something good: pave a road where it is needed, take care of the medical service, and solve other social issues,” Putin said and then revealed what is most likely his true reason for the annual Q & A show: “These are fragments, I am interested in something else: I want to understand the mood in the society, what people are concerned about today.”
If only the Russia’s president really wanted to get the true picture, he could have checked out Facebook comments after the show. These are some real, non-censored questions that people asked:
“When are you going to resign?”
“When will you stop violating constitution’s 2-presidency limit?”
“Who needed your confession to Stone?”
But these questions were left unanswered.
—With additional reporting by Christopher Dickey