‘No, I Don’t Want Myself Cloned’ and Other Highlights From Putin’s Marathon Q&A

Putin's annual TV Q&A saw the Russian leader defend his combative leadership.

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469896534crop

No one can deny that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a showman. Twice a year, the image-conscious leader takes to the Russian airwaves to field questions from journalists and the public. The slickly produced events allow Putin to polish his image, share a few humorous anecdotes, and gain insight into the troubles of ordinary Russians.

No one can deny that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a showman. Twice a year, the image-conscious leader takes to the Russian airwaves to field questions from journalists and the public. The slickly produced events allow Putin to polish his image, share a few humorous anecdotes, and gain insight into the troubles of ordinary Russians.

On Thursday, Putin answered 55 questions from across 11 time zones, including about the war in Ukraine and the national milk market, during an annual televised call-in show. Many Russians blame the country’s bureaucrats rather than Putin and look to him to solve issues relating to the creaky Russian state. “Vladimir Vladimirovich, would you like to clone yourself, as nobody trusts any officials except for you?” A smirking Putin replied, “No.” Another caller asked if Putin would order her husband, who is a military veteran, to allow her to have a dog.

Later, a caller asked why Putin didn’t invite more world leaders to join him for talks in a sauna, a relaxed kind of atmosphere where many Russian business deals are sealed. That prompted Putin to drift into a story about a sauna session with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder during which a fire broke out. Despite the Russian president’s requests, Schröder refused to leave until he had finished his beer.

Callers also pressed Putin about more serious concerns. The four-hour event included an exchange with opposition politician Irina Khakamada, who asked whether there are Russian soldiers fighting in eastern Ukraine, a claim the Russian president denied. At another point, Putin called a war between Russia and Ukraine “impossible.” As for his recent decision to lift a ban on the export of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, Putin described the sale as Russia’s sovereign right. Questioned on the killing of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Putin pleaded ignorance. “Did someone order the Nemtsov murder? I don’t know.”

But issues of foreign policy quickly faded from the agenda of the marathon event as it transitioned toward domestic concerns. Russians asked Putin about the state of the Russian economy, which has been hammered by falling oil prices and a weakened ruble, and inquired about issues from fixing potholed streets to the retirement age.

A group of striking workers at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, the spaceport in Russia’s far east, called in to alert the president that they and their colleagues had not been paid in four months. They asked the president to help resolve the issue of their missing salaries. Putin said that he would personally look into it, a display of how the Russian leader uses media spectacles such as these to cement his popularity among his subjects, which has spiked in the aftermath of the conflict in Ukraine. His approval rating currently hovers above 80 percent.

Putin also fielded questions from a live audience. His former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, questioned the president’s handling of the economic crisis, challenging Putin’s inability or unwillingness to decrease the economy’s energy independence. Putin slapped down the question and used it to forecast an economic recovery in two years. “We have to use sanctions to move to a new level of development” using import substitution and promoting local industry, Putin said. “We shouldn’t expect an end to sanctions, because it is a political, strategic issue for some partners, containing Russia.”

Putin said that the ruble’s strength, which has increased 20 percent in the last month, shows that Russia passed the height of the economic problems sparked by sanctions and the collapse in oil prices in 2014. “Experts see that we have passed the peak of the problem,” he said. “Yes we have difficulties, inflation has gone up slightly, unemployment has risen a bit, but this is all helping to reinforce the national currency.”

In short, just another fabulous day in Putin’s kingdom.

MAX VETROV/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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