Putin holds first nationwide phone-in of new Kremlin term
Agence France-Presse in Moscow
President Vladimir Putin on Thursday holds his first nationwide phone-in with Russians since he returned to the Kremlin for a third term against the background of protests and a crackdown that critics compare to Soviet repression.
The phone-in has become a traditional event during Putin’s 13-year domination over Russia, usually lasting a marathon span of up to five hours as the Russian strongman fields questions on everything from plumbing in Siberia to Kremlin’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
But this year it will be particularly closely watched as the first edition since Putin on May 7, last year returned to the Kremlin for a third term after his four-year stint as prime minister.
Russia is currently going through a critical moment in its post-Soviet development, with society seeing unprecedented change but the Kremlin hitting back with tough laws and the economy also starting to show troubling signs of weakness.
The event, which will be broadcast by several state television channels which have tirelessly promoted it in advance, will get underway at midday (0800 GMT) and may not finish until the early evening.
By Wednesday afternoon, Russians had already posed 1.2 million questions for Putin through call-centres, SMS messages and the Internet, the organisers said in a statement quoted by Russian news agencies.
Putin will likely comment on the trial of charismatic protest leader Alexei Navalny which the opposition claims is a set-up by the Kremlin to eliminate a dangerous opponent from politics.
He will also most probably justify the string of laws adopted by parliament condemned as repressive by activists and raids by prosecutors against NGOs which the groups say have stymied their work.
Over a dozen activists are still arrested and facing lengthy prison stints over their participation in a protest on the eve of Putin’s inauguration that saw violent clashes with the police.
Amnesty International on Wednesday called the crackdown on activists a “witch hunt”, while Human Rights Watch said it was “unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history”.
Much of the phone-in is still likely to be dominated by bread-and-butter issues, with Russians worried by the slowdown in the economy, which saw growth of only 1.1 per cent in the first quarter.
The protest movement has lost momentum since it began in the wake of December 2011’s fraud-tainted parliamentary elections. But the Kremlin is acutely aware of the potential political risks if the economy starts to suffer.
The question-and-answer session is known as a forum where Putin has made some of his most provocative and controversial comments.
During the December 2011 phone-in, which took place just after the first mass protests of his rule had shaken the authorities, Putin compared the white ribbons worn by the demonstrators to condoms.
And while the second trial of anti-Kremlin tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was still in progress in December 2010, Putin stridently declared that a “thief must be in prison”.
Putin did not hold a phone-in in 2011 at the traditional end-of-year time in a change from the usual routine that some commentators suggested was due to a back injury he appeared to have been suffering from at the time.