President Vladimir Putin on Thursday lashed out at US trade tariffs and Western sanctions against oligarchs during an annual televised phone-in that also saw him address the concerns of ordinary Russians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony to bestow state awards on military personnel who fought in Syria, at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 28, 2017. / AFP PHOTO

The event, which this year lasted almost five hours, allows Russians to submit questions on any theme and has in the past seen the president talk on topics as varied as his love life, Crimea and the state of provincial roads.

The phone-in was Putin’s first since being re-elected to a historic fourth Kremlin term in March, and comes just a week before Russia is set to host 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.

He also slammed the “persecution” of Russian business people abroad after billionaire industrialist Oleg Deripaska was targeted in US sanctions and Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich faced delays to his British visa application.

Putin also compared the trade tariffs announced by President Donald Trump on US allies to Western sanctions against Russia.

“This is the imposition of sanctions, expressed in a different way,” he said, adding that he had warned other Western nations years ago they would suffer from US dominance.
– ‘Sedatives in hand’ –

The Q&A on Thursday was more subdued than usual, with no studio audience. The only uncomfortable questions were projected onto screens on either side of Putin rather than put to him directly.

On the international front, Putin also took the opportunity to say that Russia would remain in Syria for as long as it was beneficial to Moscow.

“Our military is there to ensure Russia’s interests in an important region of the world,” he said.

The president added the continued presence of Russian troops in the country would provide “invaluable experience” in the testing of new Russian weapons.

He meanwhile boasted Russia’s new hypersonic intercontinental missile would enter service next year and guarantee Moscow maintains military parity with Washington.

State television ran a breathless countdown to the session, updating the number of questions submitted — some two million as the programme began.

In contrast to previous phone-ins, this year Putin called on ministers and regional leaders to stand by, ready to go live on air to discuss practical issues with callers.

“They will be sitting by the television with bated breath… with a phone in one hand and a sedative in their pocket,” the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid joked.

A governor was called on to engage with a group of residents from a town in the Vladimir region, near Moscow, who were complaining about the state of their local health services.
– A stable ruble? –

Putin has in the past stepped in fairy godmother-like to solve problems that might otherwise be thought beneath him and this year was no exception.

On Thursday, he promised Russian citizenship to a Ukrainian woman seriously injured by an explosive device in Syria and who lost an arm and leg.

Irina Barakat said she was wounded in 2016 while living in the city of Aleppo with her Syrian husband and children and was evacuated by Russian forces.

Lacking a Russian passport, Barakat said she cannot bring into the country her husband and three children, who are still living in Syria and whom she has not seen in two years.

“It falls within the remit of the Russian president to grant citizenship, you’ll get it,” he told her, after saying she would ask the defence ministry to bring her relatives to Russia.

Putin also touched on the subject of the World Cup, saying that stadiums built for the event could not be allowed to turn into “markets” as sports facilities did in the turbulent 1990s.

While the questions moderators selected for the president were relatively softball, others briefly flashed on the screen expressed dissatisfaction at his 18-year rule.

“Will there ever be a stable ruble?” one asked, while another questioned if Russians themselves would be seeing a part of the country’s vast wealth anytime soon.

Other unanswered questions were more specific, such as one complaining about the lack of toilets in the Moscow metro system.


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