Putin: “Here, Thank God, There Aren’t Any Elections”

Russian Prime Minister Putin during a live question-and-answer session. Source: REUTERS/Ria Novosti/Pool/Alexei DruzhininIn his annual live question-and-answer session on Russian television Thursday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin fielded questions from citizens across the country on a variety of topics over the span of four hours and one minute. “Conversation with Vladimir Putin: the Sequel” featured questions that came over by telephone, text message, email, and camera crews set up in areas that have recently featured prominently in the Russian news.

During the highly choreographed production, the prime minister told the country not to hold its breath for his departure from politics, expressed interest in running for president again in 2012, accused jailed Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky of murder, blamed the United States for preventing Russia’s inception into the World Trade Organization, and expounded upon the subtleties of understanding Stalin, among other things.

The Crisis

Even before Putin began to speak, host Maria Sittel took the floor and exalted the government for its handling of the economic crisis. “We all know perfectly well how the year of the crisis began: millions of Russian citizens feared poverty; tens of thousands expected to be fired; business calculated future losses,” she said. But instead of throwing its citizens to the “mercy of fate,” she continued, the government “laboriously, step by step…scrutinized the affairs of individual companies, made agreements with businesses, and helped our national manufacturers.”

Putin himself turned out to be pleased with his work on the crisis. He assured viewers that “the peak of the crisis has been overcome,” although “turbulent phenomena in the world economy, and consequently also in Russia, do remain.”

Despite a nearly 9 percent fall in GDP, a 13 percent fall in industry, and growing inflation, Putin listed a 0.5 percent growth in agriculture and a rising birth rate as commendable compared to the government response to the economic crisis in 1998.

Putin on Terrorism

In the wake of last week’s bombing of the Nevsky Express luxury train, which authorities are calling a terrorist attack, Putin addressed the problem of terrorism in Russia on the whole. “We’ve done a lot to ‘break the spine’ of terrorism, but the menace has not yet been eliminated.”

“It raises the question,” he said, “can we prevent crimes of this type? Our country is enormous, our territory is large, and there is a lot of infrastructure. Nevertheless, we need to work effectively. We need to be on the advance.”

Putin Saves Pikalevo, Again

Among sites chosen to host camera teams to field questions live to the prime minister was Pikalevo, one of Russia’s so-called “mono-towns” dependent on a sole industry – in this case, aluminum. The majority of the town’s 21,000 residents lost their jobs when all three plants were shut down last winter, and the city shut off all heat and hot water in May. A massive protest erupted when the long-unpaid citizens blocked off a nearby federal highway and demanded Putin’s personal intervention. The Prime Minister responded with an embarrassing public chastisement of Oleg Deripaska, the oligarch owner of the largest of the three plants, and ordered him to negotiate a decision that would reopen the factories.

During the broadcast, a manager of the largest of the plants asked the prime minister whether he would return to the town. The reason that this might be necessary, he said, was that the promised negotiations had not yet been signed.

In response, Putin promised that he would travel to any place in Russia where he was needed. “If the situation demands it, I will go to you again, or to any other place at any different point in the Russian Federation – that is my duty,” That aside, Putin said he currently saw “no such necessity.” He promised, however, that the government had control of the situation and an agreement would soon be written.

Indeed, even before the end of the broadcast, reports came in that the agreement between Pikalevo and the company had been signed.

The United States and the WTO

At one point, host Ernest Matskyavichyus told the audience that many questions had come in regarding Russia’s inception into the WTO. In response, Putin abruptly pounced on the United States, blaming it for not annulling the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a piece of Cold War-era legislation intended to help Soviet dissidents and religious minorities emigrate to America. Russia now criticizes the amendment as anachronistic and harmful for trade relations.

Putin said the amendment is used by “representatives of various lobbies in the United States Congress” for “decisions of rather narrow and selfish sectoral economic problems.”

“Entry into the WTO remains our strategic goal, but we get the impression that, due to motives that we are aware of, several countries – including the United States – are hindering our entry into the WTO,” he concluded rather sharply.

Love for Belarus

One question focused on recent angry remarks that the totalitarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had aimed at Putin. “You were harshly criticized by Belarusian President Lukashenko. You don’t answer him. Why?” a viewer asked.

“Maybe it’s love?” Putin replied.

The prime minister added that he has very kind, warm feelings for the Belarusian people, and especially for its government. The Russian government, he said, imports nearly all Belarusian agricultural products and has given the country 3.5 billion dollars over the past two years.

Putin Clarifies his Relationship with Tymoshenko

The prime minister’s position on upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine turned out to be less ambiguous than four years ago, when the Kremlin supported Viktor Yanukovych.

“Why do you support Yulia Tymoshenko in the presidential elections in Ukraine?” one viewer asked.

“I do not support Yulia Tymoshenko in the presidential elections in Ukraine,” Putin replied. “I am cooperating with Yulia Vladimirovna Tymoshenko as the prime minister of the Ukrainian government,” stressing his role as a “humble servant” while also misstating his Ukrainian counterpart’s patronymic (which is actually Volodymyrivna).

Recent agreements concerning Russia’s sale to Ukraine of natural gas have raised speculation that the Kremlin would back Tymoshenko in the upcoming Ukrainian elections.

The Police

A recent slew of high-profile incidents has brought a renewed wave of criticism on Russia’s police forces, and one of the key questions in Thursday’s broadcast reflected this concern.

“The police are now out of favor, and every day there are reports of police attacks on citizens…Maybe, [we should] just dissolve them and create a police force from scratch?”

Putin began his response by saying that no police reform would occur in Russia as has occurred in Georgia and Ukraine.

“In Ukraine, our neighbors and friends have already had this experience. They dissolved what we call the GAI, the road services – nothing good came from this. Bribes increased, and there came to be less order on the roads,” elaborating no further on the situation in Georgia.

In general, Putin said, the police should not be excessively slandered. “I consider it unnecessary to smear all police officers with red paint,” he said, but noted that the reaction to police offenses should be “especially critical, fast, and severe.”

Media attention to problems with the police, which have long plagued Russia, was renewed in April when police chief Denis Yevsyukov killed three people and wounded six in a Moscow supermarket while drunk. Novorossiysky Major Aleksei Dymovsky drew unprecedented media attention in November when he posted two YouTube videos of himself discussing corruption that he had seen in the police force.

Khodorkovsky and Murder

For the first time since the 2005 arrest of oligarch and former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin allowed himself to comment on the controversial case. Khodorkovsky’s trial, in which he was sentenced to eight years in prison for oil embezzlement in the sum of 900 billion rubles (approx. $31 billion), is criticized as highly flawed and politically motivated. Until Thursday, no questions on the subject had been posed during a live broadcast.

“When will Khodorkovsky be released?” a viewer asked via text message.

“This well-known figure is in prison by the sentencing of the court. And the problem is not when he will be released,” Putin stressed, “but so that crimes of this type are never repeated among us,” referring to economic crimes.

The prime minister went on to say that the money resulting from the case went a housing and communal services reform fund that has helped 10 million Russian citizens. “If at some point this money was stolen from the people, it needs to be returned to those same people,” he asserted.

In an unexpected additionally commentary, Putin went on to accuse Khodorkovsky of murder.

Referring to chief Yukos security official Alexey Pichugin, currently serving a life sentence for conspiracy in several murders, Putin remarked that “nobody remembers, unfortunately, that one of the leaders of the security services of the Yukos company is in prison. What, you think that he acted on his own discretion, at his own peril and risk? He had no concrete interests. He is not the main shareholder in the company. It is clear that he acted in the interests and by the instructions of his bosses,” implying that Khodorkovsky had ordered the murders.

Putin for President, Again

Two questions were posed in regards to speculation that Putin might run for a third term as president in 2012.

“Don’t you feel like leaving politics with all its problems and live for yourself, your children, your family, and finally rest?” one viewer asked. “If that’s it, I’ll take your place, just give me a call.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” the prime minister replied.

The second question was from a St. Petersburg student, who directly asked whether Putin was planning to participate in the 2012 presidential elections.

“I’ll think about it,” replied Putin. “There’s plenty of time.”

Approximately an hour after this statement, an Italian reporter asked Russian President Dmitri Medvedev whether it was possible that both he and Putin would run for president in 2012.

“Prime Minister Putin said that he isn’t ruling out this possibility, and I’m also not ruling out this possibility,” replied Medvedev, who was at a press conference in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

“We can agree in what way not to elbow each other, and make a rational decision for our country,” he asserted.

Putin and Stalin

At the end of the program, Putin answered a number of questions that he said he had chosen himself. One of these turned out to concern Stalin.

“Do you consider the activities of Stalin on the whole to be positive or negative?” the question asked.

Saying that he understood the “subtlety” of the question, Putin qualified his answer by saying that there were both positive and negative qualities to the dictator’s reign. “One cannot, in my view, make a judgment on the whole,” said Putin. He praised Stalin for successfully changing the country’s focus from agriculture to industry, and said that victory in World War II was Stalin’s achievement.

At the same time, he continued, these positives “were nevertheless reached at an unacceptable price.”

Putin called Stalin’s repressions, which killed an estimated 30 million people, “a fact,” saying that “millions of our fellow citizens suffered from them. Such a means of managing the government to achieve a result is not acceptable.”

“Here, Thank God, There Aren’t Any Elections”

Putin’s most significant slip of the tongue came the prime minister was asked whether his recent appearance in the hip-hop contest “Battle for Respect” was motivated by his falling ratings.

“Ratings have absolutely nothing to do with it. Here, thank God, there aren’t any elections,” he responded.

Elections in Russia are notoriously fraudulent. Regional elections on October 11 delivered sweeping wins for Putin’s leading United Russia party across Russia, continuing the political monopoly it has held since its conception in 2001. Observers noted massive electoral violations, including ballot stuffing and multiple voting with the same absentee ballot, much of which has been statistically documented. Medvedev himself has admitted that the elections were flawed and chastised United Russia for “backwardness.”

Compiled from reports by Gazeta.ru.