Putin tells Russians on TV call-in show: go on holiday here, vote for my party

Putin tells Russians on TV call-in show: go on holiday here, vote for my party
Putin answers 2.5mn questions on his annual phone in
By Ben Aris in Moscow April 14, 2016

Putin gave his annual televised and choreographed call-in conference on April 14, with more than 1mn people telephoning in and 2.5mn questions submitted.

Putin kicked off the Q&A marathon with his traditional rundown of economic achievements before dealing with several serious complaints like the soaring price of medicines and delayed salaries, and some not so serious ones like “what is your favorite type of porridge?” (The answer: pearly barley, which he had for breakfast that day).

More serious was his response to a question about Russia’s pullout from Syria even though the conflict is still raging. ”The point is not that we left and dropped everything... we withdrew a significant part or our contingent, but after the withdrawal we left the Syrian army in a position where, with the support of the part of the contingent that was left there, it can carry out serious offensive operations. Already, after our withdrawal it has taken some important targets,” Putin said.

“It is necessary to accept – for all to agree and sit down at the negotiating table – to accept the constitution and on the basis of the constitution to hold elections. That is the way to get out of the crisis.”

“The opposition (in Syria) is trying to recover what they lost. Actually, it should be said that really it is not the Syrian army that is fighting there, but some Kurdish formations and some other armed groups fighting among themselves and against the Kurds. We are monitoring closely and will do everything to ensure the situation does not worsen.”

Political tensions were highlighted by a question from a 12-year-old girl who asked: “Who would you save first if [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko were drowning?”

Putin gave a diplomatic answer: “You can’t save someone if they have decided to drown. We are willing to help any of our partners – if they want to be helped.”

Putin also dedicated time to international relations, where he lambasted the US for its “imperialism” and its desire to claim a “special status”, which makes it impossible to have “modern democratic international relations”.

However, he went on to soften the blow by pointing out that there were other areas where Russia enjoyed better relations with the US, such as cooperation over lifting the nuclear sanctions on Iran and in the joint fight against terrorism.

On Ukraine, Putin again repeated his claims that Russia was meeting all the conditions of the Minsk II peace deal and that Ukraine was not.

But his main ire was reserved for Russia’s favourite holiday destinations – Turkey and Egypt. Putin said there were no guarantees of safety for Russian visitors to Turkey and that it was too early to talk about restarting flights to that country and Egypt. He recommended people go on holiday in the Crimea instead – a call many have already heeded.

Economic problems

This year there was little good economic news to report on and Putin read from his notes when running through the results he wanted to highlight: in the past, he usually reels these numbers off from the top of his head.

Indeed, Putin seems to have become somewhat disinterested in Russia’s economic problems at the moment. Late last year at the annual VTB “Russia Calling” conference, he barely said two sentences on the economy during his whole keynote speech, but became agitated and engaged only when asked about Russia’s various conflicts.

Of course, the dire state of the economy helps explain this, though there has been some good economic news of late. Putin pointed out that agricultural production rose (3.1% y/y) in 2015, even though the national economy was stuck in recession, and predicted that the economy would start growing next year.

“(Last year) gross domestic product declined 3.7%. This year the government expects the economy to continue to decline slightly, but only by about 0.3%. Next year we expect 1.4% growth. For sure, it is difficult to feel the bottom,” Putin said. 

Housing construction has slowed, but the total volume of new housing reached an all-time high of 85mn square metres in 2015. Unemployment is also at record lows of 5.6%, while the state has managed to largely preserve its gross international reserves, currently at $387bn.

Asked if Russia was going to run out of money, Putin gave an upbeat reply, saying that the reserves were enough to last the government for four years if the current depressed economic conditions persist, but stressed he expects Russia to return to growth next year.

“If they are spent at the pace at which they were spent last year, if they are not replenished and nothing is done, then they will last for at least four years. But we are planning that the economy will grow next year and therefore there will be no need to spend as much of the reserves as we have been spending. So there should be no fear,” Putin said.

As bne IntelliNews reported capital flight has fallen five-fold in the last year as the process of Russia’s economic deleveraging comes to an end.

Despite a downbeat assessment of Russia’s economy this year by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which predicts a continuation of the recession this year with a 1.8% contraction, a bne IntelliNews survey of investment banks found that Russia’s economy will shrink by 0.9% this year before growing next year by 1.9%.









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The TV call-in is highly choreographed; the studio audience that are part of the live show were given instructions and training after being gathered at a hotel outside of Moscow since April 12, RBC daily reports. One embarrassing slip-up had Putin asking a video questioner a question back, only to be told the message was pre-recorded. In his first term, this correspondent used to attend the show, which was open to foreign correspondents and allowed the fielding of a fewer sharp and unscripted questions. Those days are gone.

Putin’s performance is especially important this year ahead of a general election set for September – the first since the unprecedented popular protests in 2011 following the last Duma elections, which saw crowds of over 100,000 people take to the capital’s streets.

Putin’s personal ratings remain over 80%, but the government and regional authorities are losing their popularity. A January survey by the Levada Center pollster showed that only 45% of Russians believe the country is on the right track, the lowest in two years, as the recession and a “new normal” hurts the electorate in the pocket.

The Kremlin has already been quietly rolling out popularity measures to shore up the government’s support. The minimum monthly salary was hiked in March to $144, which has wide-ranging implications, as the level is used to calculate the size of many state subsidies.

However, in the early part of the show Putin was forced to field several hard questions and open complaints on delays in wage payments and the soaring price of pharmaceuticals in particular.

The Russian constitution guarantees citizens full access to free health care from cradle to grave, however Russia has failed to develop its own pharmaceutical industry and has to import much of its drugs, which has become a major burden on the budget. “Its like a mafia,” complained one questioner. “Drugs cost as much as jewelry.”

Putin batted the questions aside and talked about state support and subsidies for medicines, but admitted that not enough had been done.

The discussion then broadened into questions about the economic slowdown. Putin answered that the key was to promote “investment, promote productivity, promote demand and raise incomes. This is what the government is thinking about”.

“That is a cake that deserves many many candles,” Iikka Korhonen, head of the Bank of Finland Institute of Economies in Transition (BOFIT), tweeted wryly.

The trouble is that little is being done to change the structure of the economy and Russia is probably doomed to four years of stagnation, reckons Natalia Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank.

Putin took the opportunity to sell the pro-Kremlin party of power, United Russia, hard ahead of the election this autumn. United Russia is a “stabilizing element” in the Russian political system, he said, as it strikes a middle ground to “represent the interests of the people”.

Putin went on to highlight the flaws in the Western democratic process where “no one is really satisfied”. He pointed out that US has political dynasties, the Bush family, the Clinton family. “We have to deal with the same devils,” he said. “But maybe our problems are more acute.”

The Kremlin is already in campaign mode, but the mechanism for ensuring victory of United Russia in the upcoming election has changed as bne IntelliNews explored in “Putin’s Viagra problem” recent, where the focus will be on leaning on the regions to deliver at a local level, rather than fixing the count at a national level, as happened in the past.