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Ask Putin Anything? Russian President Faces Strange, Stage-Managed Questions in Annual Public Call-In

Vladimir Putin took 55 questions out of the 3 million submitted and touched on burning bathhouses and dogs as gifts, as well as Russian troops in Ukraine and the country's battered economy.
April 16, 2015, 6:05pm
Photo by Musa Sadulayev/AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't want to clone himself, thinks a woman named Yelena should get a dog for her birthday, and once took former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to a bathhouse that caught fire.

The answers to these and other pressing questions were on hand during Putin's 13th annual call-in show, a carefully orchestrated television event during which everyday Russians — those luckily enough to be picked by the TV anchors — can ask something of the president. In total he answered 55 questions, most of them dealing with the economy or other domestic problems.

Putin demurred on the few hard-hitting questions he took, however. "I will tell you directly and unequivocally: There are no Russian troops in Ukraine," he said when asked about the military intervention to back pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Although the evidence of this is nearly irrefutable — rebels and Russian soldiers in Ukraine have even told journalists about Moscow's involvement — the topic was closed with this single sentence from Putin. Instead, he accused of the Kiev government of violating the peace process by conducting a "total blockade of Donbas," referring to the area of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed rebels. "We don't see a desire on the part of the Kiev authorities to restore Donbas, neither the economy nor social benefits," he added.

Related: Russia's Ghost Army in Ukraine. Watch here.

Over the past year, Moscow's troops have secretly deployed to eastern Ukraine to back pro-Russian rebels there, and the Russian economy has been battered by the resulting Western sanctions, as well as by falling oil prices. The largest part of the show was dedicated to economic issues.

Unemployment has remained low at around 5 percent, and the ruble has recently been gaining against the dollar, but real wages have shrunk for the first time in Putin's reign. With oil prices currently at around $56 per barrel, Russia's economy, which grew only 0.6 percent in 2014, is expected to go into recession this year.

In the studio audience, former finance minister Alexei Kudrin asked Putin why the government doesn't have a wide-reaching plan for economic development. "During your first presidential term, GDP growth was 7 percent, and the oil price was $30," Kudrin said. "Now even if the price would be $70 a barrel, growth will be about 1.5 percent on average. Russia's share of [the] world economy will shrink."

'It wasn't us who ruined relations with the West.'

But Putin argued that the country's crisis was less serious than had been expected, adding that his government had acted "optimally" in responding to problems he said were caused by "external factors." Russia has passed the "peak of the problem" with its slumping currency, the president added.

During the show, one of the anchors brought up the breaking news that Oles Buzina, a Ukrainian journalist with pro-Russia views, had been gunned down by two masked men in Kiev. His death follows the killing in Ukraine's capital last night of Oleg Kalashnikov, a former parliamentarian with ousted president Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions.

"Where are these people's killers? They haven't found the trigger men nor the masterminds," Putin responded, arguing that Ukraine's attempts to "be a democratic government and move toward democratic Europe" were coming to nothing.

But at the same time, Putin doesn't appear disturbed by the lack of progress in the investigation of the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov outside the Kremlin in February. Although five men have been charged with carrying out the shooting, no one has been arrested for ordering the hit, which bears all the hallmarks of a contract killing.

The president called Nemtsov's murder a tragedy, but at the same time seemed to hint that, as in many previous political killings, the true masterminds would never be found.

"I don't know whether they will be able to track down those who ordered [the killing], or whether someone ordered it," Putin said.

Related: In a move that everyone is sure to like, Russia might have just banned internet porn. Read more here.

Federal investigators were not able to question high-profile suspects on a recent trip to Russia's Chechen Republic, where Nemtsov's alleged killer was an officer in leader Ramzan Kadyrov's security forces. When Alexei Venediktov, editor of the independent radio station and news site Echo of Moscow, later asked why these suspects weren't being brought in, Putin said that he had already discussed the Nemtsov case.

TV ads before the call-in show played up Putin's image as a wartime leader standing up to American aggression. A video by the Rossiya 24 channel showed Russian Su-27 fighter jets flying over Crimea and footage of Putin saluting a Russian navy ship as his voice warns in the background that the "enemy will not pass."

"Answers to the challenges of our time," an announcer's voice intones as a clever splicing of footage appears to show Putin and Barack Obama staring each other down, during which POTUS quickly looks away and Putin nods in satisfaction.

Not to disappoint, Putin frequently referred indirectly to what he said were the catastrophic results of US interference in world affairs. "Countries that think they are exceptional do not need allies, they need vassals. The US-Russia relationship cannot exist in such a framework," he said.

But Russia's more aggressive foreign policy stance has led to a rise in nationalistic rhetoric at home, and many Russian nationalists have traveled to eastern Ukraine to fight on the side of the rebels, often with the help of military organizations and draft offices.

"You've spoken several times about how the West uses a containment policy against Russia. At the same time, it's you who has put the current confrontation in this context," Konstantin Remchukov, editor of the Independent Newspaper, told Putin. "In this way, xenophobia and hatred is growing in the country."

Putin said Remchukov was conflating patriotism and xenophobia arguing, "It wasn't us who ruined relations with the West."

The call-in was carefully stage-managed. Although the anchors said they had received 3 million questions, the vast majority of those that Putin answered were from the studio audience or from employees assembled by film crews at workplaces in the regions.

As in years past, most of the regular people Putin took questions from asked him for help. Dairy farmers asked Putin to help them gain access to marketplaces, a WWII veteran asked for help obtaining the apartment the state promised him, and a woman from Siberia's Khakassia region broke down in tears as she asked for assistance to rebuild after forest fires.

Related: Russian soldiers have given up pretending they are not fighting in Ukraine. Read more here.

As with previous call-in shows and press conferences, which have been described as a more modern version of peasants petitioning the tsar, Putin in almost every case promised to have his officials deal with these problems. But he also made it clear that citizens would sometimes have to sacrifice for the sake of Kremlin priorities.

When asked by workers at the Vostochny cosmodrome in Siberia — were work has been interrupted and employees have complained of delayed salaries, — to take the project under his personal control as he did with Crimea, Putin declined. "I agree that the cosmodrome is a very important project, but in Crimea we were talking about the fate of millions of people," Putin said.

Politicians and pundits praised Putin's performance in talk shows aired directly after the call-in event and the major channels played highlights from the show. The main goal of allowing the population to let out steam over social problems had been met, according to pro-Kremlin publicist Mikhail Leontiev. "As a form of therapy, it was a very useful séance," he said.

Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn