In annual TV marathon, Putin offers Russians a fleeting moment of intimacy

President Vladimir Putin gave little away during Thursday's event, but his mastery of the virtual town-hall meeting was evident. 

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at his annual end of year news conference as reporters hold up posters to attract his attention, in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. Putin said Thursday Russia is ready to improve ties with the United States and work with whomever is elected its next president.

President Vladimir Putin sailed through his 11th annual marathon telethon Thursday, offering the usual panoramic view of his thinking and a few tidbits of real news, all within a relatively brief three hours and 10 minutes.

Featuring an audience of more than a thousand journalists and with questions sent via social media from around Russia, the event plays to Mr. Putin’s personal strengths. It enables him to seemingly drop the barriers between himself and his far-flung public, and display his lucid command of the full spectrum of issues facing Russia. The effect is to reassure the public that he is in control and push back at critics who claim he lives in a Kremlin bubble.

"Putin's performance is impressive," says Nikolai Svanidze, a leading Russian TV personality. "We have this saying in Russia that there is a constant battle between the refrigerator and the TV," meaning the tension between actual living standards and the propaganda that viewers are fed. "Putin manages to keep TV winning that game." 

Pulling that off this year was more critical than ever. Russia is in the second year of a deep economic slump; embroiled in Syria’s civil war; engaged a nasty spat with its former partner Turkey; and threatened by terrorism for the first time in several years. Moreover, it continues to face a wall of Western sanctions over its intervention in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea.

In an optimistic vein, Putin insisted today that Russia had passed the zenith of the economic crisis and returned to modest economic growth. As for the ongoing standoff with the West, he suggested that Russia and the US are moving toward agreement about the way forward in Syria, and that Russian military forces will pull out once a political solution has been found.

One key feature of these Putin telethons is that he does allow the hard questions to be posed, though his responses can be evasive. This year he was asked directly about specific recent reports of corruption in upper levels of the state (he'll look into it, went the reply), and the whereabouts of his two grown daughters (they live in Russia, he's very proud of them, but he protects their privacy).

Another question was on the involvement of Russian forces in Ukraine's civil war (some Russian personnel took part "in the military sphere," but no regular troops, he said.) Perhaps the most eye-catching for a US audience was Putin’s comment on Donald Trump: he called him a "very talented" politician and the "absolute leader" in the US presidential race.

Asked about the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov earlier this year, Putin said the crime would definitely be solved and the killers punished. On striking truck drivers, whose protests over a new tax have paralyzed traffic in some Russian cities, Putin said that they have a point and the government will ease the amounts they have to pay.

And despite allegations to the contrary, he insisted that Russia fairly won the right to hold the 2018 soccer World Cup. He also defended the disgraced former head of the sport's governing body, Sepp Blatter, saying he deserves "a Nobel Prize" for all he did to promote the game.

All in all, experts say, Putin managed pretty well this year, despite being more squarely on the defensive than in past telethons.

"I don't think he was in his best form," says Gleb Pavlovsky, who was Putin's chief image-maker during his first two terms in the Kremlin, and is now one of his toughest critics. "He wasn't as focused as he used to be. Often he got away with saying 'we'll look into this, or think about that.' His answers were too predictable."

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