By Fred Weir, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin returned to his favorite method of interfacing with the public Thursday, taking questions for more than three hours via live television hookups around the country, on the Internet, and from a carefully screened studio audience.
It was the sixth time the former Kremlin leader has held such a marathon press conference, but the first time any prime minister – an appointed technocrat who has been expected to take a distant back seat to the president – has been handed the media catbird seat. His legendary command of detail was on display as he rattled off answers to 72 queries about matters as diverse as the economic crisis, US-Russia ties, military reform, mothers’ allowances, his relations with President Dmitry Medvedev, and last summer’s war with Georgia. But the appearance, broadcast on the main state TV channel, seemed to confirm the widespread belief that Mr. Putin remains Russia’s real boss and not Mr. Medvedev, who is on a visit to India.
“The Russian public perceives Putin as the leader and senior president, not as just a prime minister,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. “Opinion polls show that people trust Putin, whom they see as a symbol of power. I don’t think the public trusts Medvedev; they see him as too young, too inexperienced.”
Russia’s deepening economic troubles dominated the discussion. Putin fielded worried questions from workers in a greenhouse, a shipyard, and a hospital about how the crisis will affect the tenuous prosperity that was the chief legacy of his eight years in the Kremlin. Putin admitted the problems are serious, but insisted they are containable.
Russia’s stock market has shed about 75 percent of its value since last May, while the ruble has slid almost 20 percent against the dollar in recent months. Inflation is way above official targets and expected to hit 13 percent for 2008.
“We have every chance of getting through this difficult period with minimal losses for the economy and, what is most important, for ordinary people,” Putin said. He pledged that the government will use its massive cash reserves to cushion the impact of the global credit crunch on Russian banks and might also employ the state’s muscle in a “rather large-scale way” to take over failing industries that are of importance to the national interest.
Some analysts have suggested that Putin’s willingness to take center stage could be connected to his ambition to return to Russia’s top job in future. “This is aimed at keeping Putin in the public eye, to support all the talk of him as ‘national leader’,” says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who studies Russia’s political elite.
Putin dampened speculation that he might be seeking an early return to the Kremlin by noting that Russia’s next scheduled presidential election is in 2012, and adding “I think everyone should carry out his duties in his job.”
Some analysts argue that mounting popular fears over the faltering economy, compounded by official efforts to block sensitive information about layoffs and price rises, may have compelled Putin to take to the airwaves to calm the situation. “People are very concerned about the ‘troubles,’ as they’re being called,” says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “As long as there is trust in Putin, and polls show that there is, he uses it to issue a reassuring note.
“His performance was totally in line with the official TV coverage, which is not focused on the impact of the crisis but rather on how the government is firmly in charge,” she says.
The Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported Thursday that the Ministry of Labor has banned officials around the country from releasing information about layoffs or factory slowdowns. Last month, the Kremlin ordered prosecutors around the country to open a watch on how media outlets cover the crisis in order to root out “misinformation.” Editors of several regional outlets have been called in for “conversations” with security officials about their coverage, according to the Russian Union of Journalists.
“This doesn’t mean censorship, but it does represent a further limitation on our relative press freedoms,” says Oleg Panfilov, director of Moscow’s independent Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. “Under the pretext of struggle against panic, they’ve opened an attack on all fronts. The main impact will be to compel journalists to self-censor. Fear makes journalists stop writing about certain subjects, and the list … is already rather long.”
Putin also answered questions concerning foreign affairs, an area that in the past was entirely a presidential prerogative.
Putin warned Ukraine that Russia may cut its energy supplies if it fails to pay its outstanding debts to the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom. Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili briefly received the sharp side of Putin’s tongue. On troubled US-Russian relations, Putin said he sees hopeful signs that President-elect Barack Obama will bring positive change.
“After all the tensions of the George W. Bush era, and all the damage done, the mood in the Kremlin is that the ball is now in the US court,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “We’ll wait and see, but we won’t make the first move.”