MOSCOW, June 20 — Russians today took their fears over falling incomes and a creaking healthcare system to President Vladimir Putin during a glossy annual phone-in that comes following a decline in his ratings.
Some 1.5 million people submitted questions via telephone and online to the annual event that in the past has seen the leader upbraid regional officials as well as drop hints about his closely guarded private life.
Despite Moscow facing tensions abroad — most recently over international investigators’ announcement that they would charge Russian citizens over the downing of a passenger plane over Ukraine in 2014 — the show opened with a firm focus on domestic issues.
Putin began the televised session by acknowledging Russians’ concerns over incomes but said the country had put the worst behind it following a recession from 2014.
He sought to play down the effect of Western sanctions following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and continued support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, saying the economy had endured shocks because of a fall in oil prices.
“We are seeing that production has started to grow and inflation has dropped to below five per cent and incomes have started to go up,” he told a studio audience of invited guests.
But he said Russia needed to “change the structure of our economy, to make it high-tech, digital”.
Screened questions from around Russia focused on quality of life and the difficulty of accessing healthcare.
One section saw roving correspondents walk into doctors’ surgeries and quiz receptionists about their work as Putin looked on, before the health minister was brought on via video-link to discuss the service.
“Despite the problems, and there are many problems here...overall, the sector is developing,” Putin said of the public health service.
Wave of protests
The choreographed Q&A comes amid a fresh wave of protests across the country against a range of issues, from the arrest of a journalist on trumped-up drug charges to plans on how to deal with household waste.
It also follows a steep decline in Putin’s personal approval ratings following unpopular moves last year such as increasing the state pension age and hiking VAT.
Two thirds of Russians approve of Putin’s policies, according to independent pollster Levada — a level many Western leaders might envy but well down from highs of up to 90 per cent in 2014.
When a separate survey by a state pollster last month showed Russians’ trust in Putin had fallen to a 13-year low, the institution changed the way it posed the question and the rating immediately more than doubled.
This is Putin’s 17th such phone-in since he came to power in 1999 and the events typically last several hours.
Pictures released the day before via state media showed the usually technology-averse leader using a laptop, as well as thick binders of briefing notes, to prepare for the programme.
“The main aim of the phone-in is to show that Vladimir Putin is the chief defender of the interests of the people, that he’s the most humane president and the last hope for justice,” political analyst Konstantin Kalachev told AFP.
Kalachev added that Putin could turn a downbeat national mood to his advantage.
The president positions himself as “the person you can turn to when you are totally desperate and this style impresses many Russians,” he said. — AFP