By Agence France-Presse
Russian President Vladimir Putin will face hundreds of journalists Thursday during his annual press conference, a bookend event to a year of tensions with the West and crisis with Ukraine.
It also comes with the longtime Russian leader’s approval rating sliding, the first notable decline in his popularity since 2014, following an unpopular pension reform.
More than 1,700 journalists are expected at the Moscow event, some venturing from Russia’s most remote corners, others representing foreign media accredited in Moscow.
In the past the sheer number of people competing to attract the president’s attention led reporters to bring larger and brighter posters they thrust up from the audience.
To regulate the chaos, the Kremlin this year asked the press to keep posters small so they do not block Putin from the view of photographers.
The conference traditionally starts at noon (0900 GMT) and it is never clear how long it will run.
Putin began the tradition of such end-of-year press events in 2001, but with time they evolved into marathon events. Since 2004, all December press conferences have surpassed three hours.
His record was in 2008 when questions and answers went on for four hours and 40 minutes.
The appearance will be shown live on several TV stations, with some channels showing a countdown clock since Wednesday.
Difficulties with Trump
The most pressing geopolitical issue this year will likely be Moscow’s difficult relationship with the United States.
If last December Putin said he hoped to “normalize” relations with Donald Trump, the chances of that have evaporated with multiple investigations of Moscow’s alleged meddling in US politics.
Washington also dramatically announced its intention to pull out of a key Cold War-era nuclear weapons deal — the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty — to which Putin responded that Moscow would develop new missiles.
Another issue likely to figure is the recent escalation of tensions with Ukraine following a naval confrontation in the Kerch Strait and Russia’s arrest of several Ukrainian sailors.
The incident led Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to introduce temporary martial law in parts of the country, while Trump cancelled a planned meeting with Putin at the G20 summit in Argentina.
The most important domestic issues likely to come up are this year’s controversial hike of the retirement age and planned increases in value-added tax and household utility fees.
The pension reform, signed by Putin in early October, sparked rare protests and widespread public opposition.
Putin was re-elected to a fourth term in March with nearly 77 percent of the vote, but recent polls have seen his support falling to below 50 percent.
In an interview with channel NTV, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov promised that the economy would be in focus on Thursday – “both inside the country and in the context of rather unfavorable international market conditions.”
Peskov listed other issues Putin is likely to cover including “the international situation, regional conflicts, Russian-American relations”.
“A lot of questions are about emergency situations that need immediate intervention,” he said.
As Russia became increasingly centralized under Putin, the questions began to resemble lobbying attempts to resolve specific problems, from fixing roads to freeing political prisoners.
One reporter memorably asked Putin in 2014 to help a local drink brand access supermarket chains.