By Denis Pinchuk and Timothy Heritage
President Vladimir Putin tried to reassure Russians over the ailing economy and said Washington wanted “vassals” rather than allies in his annual phone-in on Thursday, but offered no new financial remedies and gave no ground over Ukraine.
For nearly four hours, the Russian leader fielded mostly tame questions from across the country on problems ranging from Iran’s disputed nuclear programme and the conflict in east Ukraine to the price of milk and the state of roads.
In a live broadcast from a Moscow television studio, Putin burnished his image as the “father of the nation”, offering help for a woman who wept over devastating forest fires in Siberia and for unpaid workers at a cosmodrome in the far east.
Painting a rosy picture of economic prospects and praising government anti-crisis measures, he said growth could return within two years because the Russian rouble is recovering and share prices are rising after dramatic slides in 2014.
“I think that it may happen faster … but somewhere in the region of two years,” Putin said.
His expectation is in line with some forecasts, including those of the Economy Ministry, while the central bank says it expects the economy to contract by 3.5 to 4 per cent this year and by 1 to 1.6 per cent in 2016.
The rouble fell about 40 percent against the dollar in 2014 but has risen in the last few weeks, as has the stock market.
Although he exuded confidence, Putin did not say how growth could be achieved quickly. Global oil prices are still low, despite recent rises, and energy exports are vital for Russia’s economy. Putin also said he did not expect an early end to Western sanctions over Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis.
Instead, he made clear that though the government has cut spending, he will not risk increasing the pain on the population – a move that might dent his popularity.
“To carry out a competent economic policy you have to use your head, of course, but if we want the people to trust us, we also have to have a heart,” he said.
The former KGB officer, who has been in power for 15 years and is eligible to seek a new six-year term in 2018, has had a phone-in almost every year since he was first elected in 2000.
The longest lasted 4 hours 47 minutes in 2013 and Putin has often used it to show he is in command, rarely facing challenging questions.
This year he was not asked why he stayed out of public view for 10 days last month, a disappearance that led to speculation about his health. Asked about the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin on Feb. 27, he said the mastermind of the killing may never be found.
When a farmer in the studio audience challenged him over the economy, he struggled to find a convincing answer.
“You say all is going well – sorry, that’s not true,” the farmer said, demanding assurances over the future of his five children.
As often in the past, Putin shifted at least some of the blame for Russia’s economic woes on to the West, although his criticism was not as fierce as in some years.
Sitting at a desk in front of rows of telephone operators taking viewers’ calls, he said the Western sanctions over Ukraine were part of a policy of “containment” of Russia.
“I think they do not relate directly to events in Ukraine,” he said, describing them as “purely political”.
Putin said full implementation of a Feb. 12 ceasefire deal was vital for ending the conflict in east Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and government forces, but suggested that Kiev and the West were not interested in carrying it out.
He accused the Ukrainian government of abandoning the mainly Russian-speaking population in the east by cutting off pensions and other payments and reiterated Moscow’s policy of helping Russians or Russian speakers abroad.
Putin’s ratings in Russia have soared since the country annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine just over a year ago but relations with the West are at their lowest point since the Cold War ended nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Accusing the United States of trying to dominate world affairs, he said it wanted “not allies, but vassals”.
He blamed Washington for many global conflicts and said it had tried to persuade its allies to boycott a military parade in Moscow on May 9 commemorating the end of World War Two in Europe. Many Western leaders are not attending.
Western officials say they have overwhelming evidence that Moscow has provided the separatists in east Ukraine with soldiers and weapons. Putin again denied this.
He also defended a decision to lift a ban on the delivery of the advanced S-300 missile defence system to Iran following an interim deal at talks on Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme.