Aside from the occasional unexplained absence, there is no time when Vladimir Putin seems more comfortable than when he’s on camera, listening to the sound of his own voice. Twice a year, the Russian president takes over the national airwaves to field questions from journalists and the general public. These events routinely last several hours.
The latest public call-in Q&A was held today in Moscow, the 13th edition under Putin. (His most recent press conference was in December.) Some three million people lodged questions to Putin before and during the broadcast; he fielded a small fraction of them on the day.
Like any image-conscious leader, Putin gives an air of spontaneity when in fact the event is heavily stage-managed—anyone hoping to hear something new during the show is asking for disappointment.
The only real mystery is how long Putin will speak. His first Q&A, in 2001, was a relatively brief (for him) two-and-a-half hours. The call-in show—dubbed “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin”— now routinely runs to four hours or more. Today’s broadcast lasted almost exactly four hours, about the same as last year:
The president can cover a lot of ground in that amount of time—from the serious to the silly and mundane.
Today we learned that the government’s response to Russia’s financial crisis was “optimal.” The economy is performing much better than once feared, and growth will return within two years at the latest. Putin reckons that Western sanctions against Russia won’t be lifted any time soon, despite Moscow adhering to the conditions of a January peace agreement with Ukraine. (And, of course, there are no Russian troops in Ukraine.)
Russia’s recent decision to sell missiles to Iran should not worry anyone in the region, because they will be used exclusively for “defensive” purposes, Putin said. The murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was “tragic and shameful,” but the person who ordered the killing remains a mystery, the president added.
On less weighty topics, Putin took a number of questions from farmers about the intricacies of milk markets, heard from construction workers about a salary dispute, and a war veteran who wanted a better apartment.
Then there were the truly convoluted queries. A woman asked Putin to convince her friend’s husband to let her buy them a dog for her 40th birthday—the president demurred, but seemed to suggest that if she can’t have a dog he may buy her a fur coat instead. (Or something like that.) And another asked why Putin doesn’t invite more world leaders to join him at a banya (sauna) for talks, where the atmosphere is more relaxed. Putin said that the last time he did that, with former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a fire broke out at the bathhouse. The chancellor insisted on finishing his beer before the place burned down, he said.