Fri, 18 Oct 2019

President Vladimir Putin has faced a slew of critical questions during his annual call-in television program, Direct Line, reflecting a rise in public discontent over the handling of Russia's stagnant economy and the drop in approval ratings for the longtime leader.

As the June 20 broadcast edged its way toward the four-hour mark, Putin tried to parry questions from disgruntled Russians who asked about topics ranging from wages to health care to waste management.

After vague answers on some of those topics, Putin admitted the economy was struggling while ordinary Russians battle to eke out an existence on low wages and falling living standards.

A call from a doctor in the region of Murmansk prompted Putin to pledge to get someone 'to look into this.'

Within minutes, the region's acting governor ordered an inspection of wage-related complaints.

Putin's words appeared to be falling on deaf ears for many Russians, with text messages running on a screen asking tongue-and-cheek questions such as 'When will the serfdom system be back? We are waiting for a new landlord, who could buy out our village and create jobs' and 'I am eager to change our country! Will you help me?'

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Putin eventually turned to Western sanctions on Russia, which he said had cost the country around $50 billion-$55 billion. The president added that Europe had lost more than Russia because of the sanctions, noting that because the moves, Russia was developing its own technologies to replace things that used to be purchased abroad.

The sanctions 'in many ways, have mobilized us,' he said.

When asked whether Moscow will take measures to have sanctions lifted and 'make peace,' Putin replied that 'we don't have disputes with anyone' and with regards to the West's attitude toward Russia, 'nothing will change anyway if we alter our behavior.'

He also said he was ready to meet U.S. President Donald Trump because there was 'plenty' to talk about, including 'the big mistake' of sanctions.

On reports that the United States has prepared a cyberattack on Russia's power grid, Putin said he didn't know whether it was true, but that 'we must react.'

'I want to develop cyber-rules with the Americans,' he said, adding that 'we should think about protecting our infrastructure from cyberattacks.'

Choreographed to portray the president as a benevolent leader who cares about the plight of ordinary Russians, the rare yearly public performance allows Putin to shift blame for much of the country's ills to local officials.

For the 2019 session, millions of Russians nationwide were invited to pose questions. Usually, the hand-picked questions that Putin answers are about domestic issues.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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