By Agence France-Presse
President Vladimir Putin on Thursday opened his annual televised phone-in, a carefully choreographed Kremlin event in which he promised Russians the country was going in the “right direction”.
The annual event allows Russians to submit questions via phone, text and online to the president, who addresses their concerns and weighs in on geopolitical issues.
This year’s “direct line” is the first in Putin’s fourth presidential term, which has already seen crackdowns on civil society and internet freedoms, and comes a week before Russia hosts the World Cup.
“Overall, we are moving completely in the right direction. We are on track for durable growth in the economy,” he said in opening remarks to two moderators introducing questions from the public.
“There are, of course, a number of problems to address,” he said of an economy that continues to stall after a crash in 2014 following sanctions introduced by the West over the annexation of Crimea.
The event has in the past lasted over four hours, with the president fielding questions on subjects as varied as his love life, teachers’ salaries, Crimea and provincial roads.
State television ran a breathless countdown to the session, updating the number of questions submitted — some two million as the programme began.
Written questions appeared on screens beside the president during the broadcast, some of them less than flattering about the state of the nation.
“When will Russia start allocating its money to Russians?” one read.
“Why didn’t Alexei Navalny get registered for the presidential elections?” asked another, referring to Putin’s top critic who was barred from contesting presidential polls in March.
In contrast to previous phone-ins, this year Putin has called on regional leaders and ministers to stand by to go on live with the president to address nitty-gritty questions.
“They will be sitting by the television with bated breath… the phone in their hand and a sedative in the pocket,” the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid joked.
Last year the president jokingly offered ex-FBI chief James Comey political asylum and confirmed that he had grandchildren — a rare glimpse into an otherwise strictly guarded private life.
The phone-in has in the past seen Putin reject calls to annex Alaska and take a question from the US whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Putin, who was re-elected in a landslide in March, has promised to slash poverty and revive a stalled economy in the face of Western sanctions.