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On TV, Putin Fields Softballs From Public and Tougher Queries From Press

It was all supposed to be spontaneous, with organizers announcing days in advance that a huge number of questions were pouring in. They said there were some 2.6 million submitted, from a country of around 143 million people.

After the public quizzing, Mr. Putin took questions from journalists, and it was then that he was asked pointedly about the anti-Putin chants shouted during protests that swept Russia last Monday.

Any such protests should be legal, he said, and should not be motivated by personal ambition — an oblique reference to the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who wants to run for president. Mr. Putin also took a dig at the Western reporter asking about the protests, saying that the very question suggested support for the protesters.

Despite regular denials by the Kremlin, there are obvious signs that the call-in program was canned, not least the absence of really tough questions and the seemingly easy opportunities for the president to score points with the public.


President Vladimir V. Putin enters the studio Thursday for his annual live call-in show, during which he fields questions from the audience and social media. Credit Pool photo by Alexei Druzhinin

One studio anchor served Mr. Putin an easy lob right at the beginning, by saying that peopled wanted to know about the future. Russia will hold a presidential election in March 2018, and although the campaign is not expected to begin in earnest this year, Mr. Putin is always burnishing his image.

He lent a sympathetic ear to all those who voiced their problems on the show, including a cancer victim, a teacher with an abysmal salary, and a woman whose house was slowly rotting after a flood.

In virtually every case, he expressed wonder that the problem had not already been solved, given that the Federal government had allotted money for such issues, and he promised to address the problem at once.

“What you just said is very strange,” he told one woman who said she was being made to pay to apply for relief from a flood last May that damaged her home. Mr. Putin suggested that the local governor pay her a visit before the end of the day.

The women grinned, relieved. Later she told a Russian newspaper that an unknown man materialized at her door and said the flood relief money had already been deposited in her bank account.

For those with issues, being chosen to ask about them was akin to winning the lottery. The government officials who were singled out probably had a different reaction.

If there were any cracks in the format, it was the emphasis this year on questions solicited on social media, which seemed designed to show that state-controlled TV is hip. Critical remarks from social media were allowed to scroll across a large screen set up on one side of the studio.

“Putin, do you really believe that the people believe in this circus with staged questions” read one message that popped up. Another asked, “When will you stop violating the constitutional stipulation about a two-term presidency?”

The Kremlin maintains that the annual call-in show is spontaneous, but the RBC newspaper reported this year that some of the questions are rehearsed, and that those who are lucky enough to be chosen to ask Mr. Putin a question are given tips for their television appearance (avoid wearing plaid clothing, and do not drink the night before).

Periodic foreign-policy questions popped up, giving Mr. Putin another chance to denigrate Ukraine and to insist that accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 American election were merely Russophobia and a mark of domestic American political problems.

A question about relations with the United States was submitted on recorded video by an American man, Jeremy Bowling of Mesa, Ariz., who said on the recording that he did not expect it to be used.

Ultimately, the program showed Mr. Putin, who scribbled notes on small blocks of paper, in the role he likes best, as the benevolent father of the nation in control of all situations.

Source: NYT > World

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