Ask Putin Anything the Kremlin Will Let You: a Guide to His Call-In ShowTony Halpin and Torrey Clark
Russians get their opportunity to shower praise on President Vladimir Putin or to win a promise to solve their problems when he holds his annual televised call-in show.
More than ever, though, they are now worried by Russia’s confrontation with the U.S. and its allies over the conflict in Ukraine, said Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
“The number of questions on foreign affairs has risen significantly,” Peskov told reporters on Tuesday. “These include a possible standoff with NATO, with Western countries, and the new situation in international affairs in general.”
Other than marveling at Putin’s stamina during Thursday’s live broadcast while placing bets on how long he’ll last -- last year he fell short of his record of 4 hours and 47 minutes -- watch out for his responses to these key themes among questions vetted on the official website for the show dubbed “Direct Line” to the president:
1: Hard times: The ruble has strengthened 20 percent this year after hitting a record low in December. Russian consumers are still feeling the pain as a slump in oil prices pushes the economy toward its first recession in six years. Inflation at 16.9 percent in March is the fastest in 13 years.
Most questions sent in concern “wages, rising prices, currency exchange rates, pensions,” and issues of poor housing and the quality of local services, Peskov said. “People in many regions are discontented,” he said.
Russians tend to blame bureaucrats rather than Putin and look to him to pledge action to resolve issues. Beyond touting the ruble’s strength and ritual accusations that the U.S. and the European Union are trying to humble Russia with sanctions, what comfort can Putin offer?
2: Patriotism: With his support still above 80 percent after the annexation of Crimea last year, Putin is riding a wave of patriotic feeling in Russia. He’s often used the show to bash the U.S., the EU, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as former Soviet allies that seek closer ties with the military alliance. This year should be no exception. Expect lots of loyal declarations of defiance from callers, particularly those from Russia’s far-flung regions. There may also be a focus on the 70th anniversary Victory Day commemorations on May 9 of the end of World War II, which Russians call the Great Patriotic War.
In 2011, Putin said the Soviet Union should have tried to preserve its territorial integrity instead of leaving itself vulnerable. He announced “grandiose plans” in 2007 to continue the largest military buildup since the Cold War.
3: Ukraine: One question highlighted on the official site asks: “I’m worried about the war in Ukraine, will it cross into Russia?” Another wants to know if Russia will recognize separatists in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics in eastern Ukraine as independent states. As a recent spike in violence in the conflict zone prompts international concern about the fragility of a two-month cease-fire, Putin’s words will be scrutinized intensely.
Last year, the president also recognized for the first time publicly that the “polite people” or “little green men,” who appeared in unmarked uniforms in Crimea to lay the ground for the annexation, were Russian troops despite his previous denials.
4: The opposition: One of the “popular questions” submitted this year asks Putin what three things he’d ask the country’s leadership if he were in the opposition, while another asks why the investigation into the murder of protest leader Boris Nemtsov in February is moving so slowly.
Putin has used the format to belittle opposition leaders such as Mikhail Kasyanov and Alexey Navalny. In 2010, then-Prime Minister Putin said during the show that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil-tycoon and a political opponent, had blood on his hands and that “thieves should sit in jail.”
5: Surprises: Last year, Edward Snowden, the fugitive U.S. security contractor with asylum in Russia, made a surprise video appearance to ask Putin if the nation spies on its citizens like the U.S. The answer was a qualified no.
Many callers have asked Putin to give something to them, their families or their hometowns. A nine-year-old girl living in an impoverished town near the Mongolian border with her grandmother and sister in 2008 asked for a fairytale dress to see in the New Year. Putin granted her wish and invited the family to Moscow to celebrate the holiday.
6: Humor: Putin is known for sprinkling his responses to questions with harsh language, salty humor and prison slang. In 2008, after a five-day war between Russia and Georgia, he answered one caller who had asked if he’d really wanted to see the then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili “hanged by a certain body part” by quipping “Why just one?”
7: Personal life: Putin’s personal life is usually off-limits so don’t expect probing questions on whether he’s dating anyone or about claims that his mysterious 10-day disappearance from the public eye last month was related to his allegedly becoming a father again. Most Russians didn’t even know he was absent from view, since state television didn’t report on it.
8: How long can he go?: More than 1.5 million questions have been sent in for the program via an official website, text messages and calls to phone operators, state-run Rossiya 24 television reported on Wednesday. This will be the 13th time since 2001 that Putin has held the marathon session, having skipped the 2004 and 2012 installments. He answered 81 questions in almost four hours last year, still 51 minutes shorter than the record 4 hours 47 minutes set by the 2013 show.
9: Access: The website address for submitting questions is http://moskva-putinu.ru. The phone numbers and text message services are for within Russia only: 8-800-200-4040 and 04040