Vlad TV: Putin hits airwaves to reassure Russians
No longer president, he still commands center stage and a high level of trust
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.