The Russian president answered citizens' questions for nearly five hours on live television. From playgrounds to military supplies, he showed his concern for the issues that concern Russians.
"Mr. President, please ensure that a playground is built in front of our house," says the young girl from the Russian Far East, addressing the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The president promised to help. Within an hour, the news agencies were reporting that the playground will be built - the local governor will personally see to it.
That was all part of the big Putin question-and-answer show that was carried live on Russian state television on Thursday (25.04.2013). Every year since 2001, Putin has held these press conferences with the people, attracting an audience of millions. This time he broke a new record: the show lasted four hours and 47 minutes, during which Putin answered questions by telephone, text message or live TV link with other parts of the country, from citizens who wanted to tell him their troubles. It was his first such show since his return to the presidency in May 2012.
Putin as Father of the Nation
Putin summarized his first year in office right at the start, and said he was happy with what had been achieved: the birth rate and wages had gone up, and the army was getting new weapons. But he was more reserved when it came to the slow pace of economic growth. He put part of the blame on the rest of the world. "The crisis in the West, and above all in Europe, has not failed to leave its mark on us," he said.
Most of the questions were about problems of the daily life of ordinary Russians: rising prices, low pensions, corrupt officials. Putin presented himself as father of the nation, looking after everything personally: potholes and antiquated fighter jets seemed to him just as important. That's nothing new: Putin has acted for years as someone who cares about the issues that worry ordinary people, and who looks after their interests personally.
Criticism of government
There were critical questions, but evidently only those that Putin wanted to hear. The former finance minister Alexei Kudrin criticized the government, but without naming the current prime minister, Dimitry Medvedev. He said the Russian economy was too dependent on gas and oil exports and the government was doing too little to change that. Putin responded with a faint smile.
He rejected calls for the resignation of the government, saying that the cabinet had only just been appointed and deserved time to prove itself.
Kudrin is close friend of Putin, who praised him three times during the show, saying that experts had called him "the best finance minister in the world." It seemed as if Putin might have been readying Kudrin for the prime minister's post. Medvedev is currently very unpopular and there's been speculation for months about his possible resignation.
Putin even allowed himself a sideswipe at Medvedev, who was his predecessor as president. When asked about corruption in the defense ministry, he pointed out several times that investigations were only started once he came to office as president. He'd sacked the defense minister Anatoli Serdyukov in autumn 2012.
Offer of talks with the opposition?
Only towards the end of the third hour of the show did Putin talk about the opposition and their protests. This time he didn't insult them as he did in December 2011, when he called them "monkeys." He said he was ready for a dialogue with the opposition, although he didn't get more concrete than that.
He called on his opponents to form parties and enter parliament. He didn't mention the blogger and critic Alexei Navalny, who is currently on trial in Kirov for alleged corruption. He merely said that trials against members of the opposition were never instigated for political reasons.
Putin said even less about foreign policy. He thanked the US for helping Russia join the World Trade Organization, and, following the Boston Marathon bombing, called for closer cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
When a journalist asked if Russia and the US should move closer once more, he avoided answering directly, but he rejected any criticism of Russia and said that the two countries were different and each had its own rules.