Russians watch Putin's annual call-in show for clues about what the future will bring, but the president took them back to the past. Facing questions about when things like wages, real income, health care, and living standards will get better, Putin invoked the 1990s at least twice in an effort to show that life could be worse, if not for his 20 years in power as president or prime minister. We republish, slightly abridged, a report of the show, written by Steve Gutterman for Radio Free Europe, followed by quotations of Putin's most remarkable statements.
by Steve Gutterman
The Direct Line With Vladimir Putin, with the omission of the word 'president' perhaps meant to suggest that at least for a few hours - four hours and nine minutes this time, short of the record of nearly five hours in 2013 - the bond between the leader and the people is too close to require formalities like a title.
Direct Line with Vladimir Putin. Photo Kremlin.ru
This year’s Direct Line comes as Putin’s approval rating has dropped below 50% according to state-run polling agencies, among his lowest numbers since he first became president in 2000. Polling experts point at economic causes for the president's decreasing popularity: pension age has been raised with five years and real wages have been falling.
The show came nine days after the abrupt release from house arrest of investigative reporter Ivan Golunov and a handful of other climbdowns by law enforcement authorities in the cases of journalists and activists. The moves raised hopes for a thaw. In the end, his comments seemed to suggest that there will be little change in the near term.
Back To The Future
First, he went out of his way to respond to a text-messaged question from a viewer who likened the United Russia party - which dominates parliament and is a major instrument of power for Putin nationwide - to a 'gang.'
He said - twice, for emphasis - that he would not call the people in power in the 1990s a gang, but suggested that many of them were responsible for what he described as the horrors of the decade that followed the Soviet collapse in 1991.
The tattered economy, weakened military, idled industries, and Chechen wars that he said nearly tore the country apart were 'the result of their work,' Putin, whose administration has cast him as something close to a savior who raised Russia from its knees, told the country in the nationally televised show.
Putin came out against reform of Article 228, an anti-narcotics law that activists say is widely used to take out perceived enemies of those in power --such as human rights defenders like the Chechen Memorial-activist Oyub Titiyev and journalists digging into alleged corruption, like Golunov -- by simply planting drugs on them.
He said that rather than changing the law, which would be 'dangerous,' the law enforcement authorities should make sure it is not abused, and suggested that special units should be created to perform this function: police to police the police.
Putin also reiterated calls for fewer people accused of economic crimes to be jailed pending trial, saying that more lenient measures such as bail and house arrest should be used more widely. But he has made such calls before, with little apparent effect, and he made no promises about any particular inmate.
Michael Calvey, American businessman and owner of the Russian investment company Barings, whose arrest on fraud charges (he contends are unfounded) has chilled investment, remains confined to his Moscow home pending trial. Four colleagues, including a Frenchman, Philippe Delpal, are in jail.
Asked about 24 Ukrainian seamen who are jailed in Moscow and face trial after being seized by Russian forces in November near the tense Kerch Strait off Crimea, the peninsula Russia occupied and seized in 2014, Putin suggested that they -- and other Ukrainians behind bars in Russia -- would only go home if Russians he said were being held in Ukraine are freed.
As for the prospects of an end to the conflict between Ukraine and the Russia-backed separatists who hold part of that country's Donbas region, Putin suggested that Moscow is not about to make any concessions, saying that a resolution depends on 'political will' in Kyiv. Ukraine and the United States say it is up to Russia to show it really wants to bring the conflict to an end.
Putin listens to complaints at the annual call-in show. Photo Kremlin.ru
MH17 and relations with the West
A day after Dutch prosecutors announced plans to try three Russians and a Ukrainian for murder for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over separatist-held territory in Ukraine in 2014, which killed all 298 people aboard, Putin signaled no change in Moscow's position, telling reporters after the show that international investigators had shown 'no proof' of Russian responsibility.
As he has in the past, he also indicated that it is up to Washington to take the first step to improve relations with Russia -- and again asserted that it was internal discord among U.S. politicians, not Russian actions such as the takeover of Crimea and alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, that is keeping Russian-U.S. relations cold.
Putin's words about Ukraine, Washington, and the West were a sideshow in a performance that was focused mainly on domestic issues. At the start, he said he understood the main things Russians are concerned about are living standards, real incomes, health care, and garbage dumps -- a hot-button issue that has underscored anger at authorities accused of ignoring the interests of the people.
Repeating a word he has used on several big occasions in the last year, Putin called for a 'breakthrough' that would raise living standards. Russia needs to restructure its economy 'to make it a high-technology one, a digital one, so that it comprises elements of artificial intelligence, to develop drones and infrastructure,' he said, giving few details about how it could be achieved.
Putin in his own words
The newssite Meduza summarized and translated the most interesting statements Putin made during the 4 hours lasting Direct Line. We republish those quotes.
The country needs to revitalize the economy, but first we need to figure out where to find the money for this development work. That’s why we raised the VAT [value added tax), and as expected it increased inflation, but only temporarily. The cabinet ministers are personally responsible for seeing their work through.
Income and wages
If someone says they’re earning below the minimum wage (by the way, we’ve raised it to the subsistence minimum), then you need to check if that person is working part time. A few years ago, earnings dropped because of economic shocks — not just the sanctions, but also because of falling prices on our raw materials. Falling earnings are primarily due to borrowed credit. We’ve already taken measures to raise wages, and the average pay is rising.
There are a lot of problems here, but the main ones are availability of medical care, a lack of specialists, and shortages of certain medicines. We’re going to build new first aid and obstetric centers, remodel existing facilities, and create mobile brigades to bring assistance to villages. Doctors have just told us via video link that their salaries are too low, but in fact they’re rising across the country. Yes, they say there aren’t enough subsidized medicines, but the money has definitely been allocated; people are just unable to spend it correctly.
Putin answering questions from discontent Russian voters. Photo Kremlin.ru
During last year’s Direct Line, we learned that nobody in Russia wants to deal with waste management. One of the reasons for the trash accumulation is that we’ve developed a consumer society with lots of packaged goods. No one wants a landfill near their home, which means we have to move the trash even farther away.
Russia has lost $50 billion, because of the sanctions, whereas the European Union has lost $240 billion. The United States has lost just $17 billion, because of the relatively small amount of trade it does with Russia, while Japan has lost $27 billion. They accuse us of occupying the Donbas, which is utter nonsense. We’re ready to work together, if all partners can adhere to some general rules, instead of trying to pressure the market’s major players, like what’s happening now with China.
The people in charge in the 1990s started a civil war in the Caucasus, and nearly cost Russia its sovereignty. Someone should be held responsible for this. United Russia, meanwhile, takes responsibility for what’s happening in Russia today, and is working to improve the lives of Russia’s citizens.
The battle against corruption
I’m sometimes encouraged not to disclose information about corruption offenses, but I insist. State officials and security officers receive billions of rubles from businesses, which means somebody is paying them bribes. The main thing isn’t the prison sentences handed down to corrupt officials, but the inevitability of punishment. The number of these offenses is falling.
We cannot abuse the practice of jailing people suspected of economic offenses. I’m constantly repeating this. Can we release these people on bail more often? We can! In fact, we should! But we can’t completely rule out jailing suspects in these situations. After all, if the wealthy can buy their way out of trouble over and over, ordinary people will think the rich are allowed to get away with anything. But the board of directors at any organization can be tried under Russia’s law on criminal networks, if one member breaks the law, and that’s totally unacceptable.
It’s true that we have a lot of convictions for violations in the sphere of drug trafficking. Moreover roughly 26 percent of the entire prison population is there for crimes related to illicit trafficking in narcotics and other controlled substances. Do we need to relax the laws in this sphere of activity? In my view, no, because the threat to the country, the nation, and our people is very great. And that’s why, if someone illegally stores, transports, or distributes even small volumes and doses, they must be held responsible. There can be no relaxing of the laws here.
It’s another matter that we need to establish control over the actions of law-enforcement agencies, to prevent any wrongdoing on their part, so people don’t end up behind bars for the sake of check marks and crime statistics. So there are no cases, like with the journalist you mentioned [Ivan Golunov]. By the way, the police generals were fired for that. I hope the necessary investigative steps will be taken to identify everyone responsible for creating this abnormal situation. I repeat: the most important thing here is to establish control. I will speak again to the Attorney General’s Office, the FSB, and the Interior Ministry. Maybe we need to create a separate office in the Interior Ministry’s security system that would control this sphere of activity. And it wouldn’t hurt the FSB to monitor this more closely.
Punishment for fake news and online insults against state officials
Russians have the right to criticize the authorities, but the law addresses something else: insults against state symbols, to stop people from desecrating Russia’s flag and coat of arms. To protect people’s rights, the new law should not be misused. Fake news, meanwhile, can alarm the public. We’re talking about the deliberate dissemination of false information. We need to look at this practice and determine whether tighter regulations are necessary.
Why was this law adopted? It wasn’t to restrict the Internet. Most servers are located abroad, but what if they’re shut off? We need to ensure the reliable operation of the RuNet. This isn’t about restrictions — just our sovereignty.
Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky
He’s a talented person. I recall his comedy performances on KVN — they were funny. But what’s happening now in Ukraine isn’t a comedy but a tragedy. We need to address problems, but he doesn’t want to talk to representatives of the DNR and LNR. He needs the political will.
The U.S. of A.
If the Americans ever show any interest, we’re always ready for dialogue. The president there just isn’t allowed to take any steps, even if he wants to. In the United States, the political establishment is trying to cash in on ties with Russia. Some American companies, incidentally, aren’t leaving the Russian market.
Militarization and military parades
“If you want peace, be ready for war.” The U.S., China, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, France, and Japan all spend more dollars on defense than Russia. We’ve actually reduced our military spending, which is something no one else is doing. But our weapons are unrivaled around the world, and this is a point of pride.
Why am I so polite? I may have been raised in the courtyard, but it was a Leningrad courtyard. I haven’t gotten bored of being president, otherwise I wouldn’t have run for another term in office. I’m not an alien, and I have witnesses: my family. Like anyone, I feel ashamed at times. Twenty years ago, a woman in front of me dropped to her knees to hand me a note, and my assistants lost it. To this day, I can’t forget it.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock