By Andrew Osborn and Alexander Winning
President Vladimir Putin assured ordinary Russians on Thursday that he was trying to relieve the hardships inflicted on them by the slowing economy and the financial knock-on effects of Russia’s stand-off with the West.
Putin used a televised phone-in, an annual event when he fields questions from ordinary citizens around the country, to strike a conciliatory tone on foreign policy, saying Russia wanted friendly relations with the rest of the world.
Wrapping up the event after three hours and 40 minutes, Putin said he had heard a lot of impassioned questions from worried citizens. Many of the questions were about issues such as high inflation, poor public services and wage arrears.
“I share your concerns in nearly 100 per cent of cases,” Putin said. “We’ll work together so that your problems are relieved.”
Addressing public concerns over the economy is crucial for the Kremlin because Russians vote in a parliamentary election in September.
The phone-in did not feature criticism directed personally at Putin. Executives at state television, which is deferential to the Kremlin, controlled who had the chance to pose questions. His critics say the phone-in is a ritual designed to mask the lack of true democracy.
But the event provided an opportunity for Putin to show he has voters’ interests at heart, in part by hauling officials over the coals for failing to protect citizens.
Putin took questions via video link from two women, Tatiana and Yelena, who said they had not been paid for months of work at a fish processing plant on a Pacific island, and that officials ignored their complaints.
The issue is a widespread one since Russia’s economy slowed, with businesses that are struggling with falling sales often delaying wages.
The Russian president, live on air, instructed his prosecutor-general to think about firing the local prosecutor for failing to act on the women’s complaints.
“I want to extend my apologies and assure you we will do everything to resolve the situation,”Putin said, addressing the two women. A few minutes later, Russian news agencies reported a criminal investigation had been launched into the fish processing plant.
On foreign policy, Putin did not deploy the kind of bellicose rhetoric against the United States and its allies that he has in the past few years.
He denied that Russia was surrounded by adversaries, said he favoured a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria, and said Russia wanted good ties with Turkey and Ukraine, with which relations have soured.
In return, he said, he asked that foreign powers should treat Russia as an equal partner. “They should not act from a position of strength, dictate imperial ambitions,” Putin said.
He said he did not expect that Western countries would in the near future lift the sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. But he said Russia’s economy would adapt.
Asked by one questioner whom he would save if Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Ukraine’s pro-Western leader Petro Poroshenko were both drowning in front of him, Putin was uncharacteristically diplomatic.
“If someone has decided to drown, then it’s already impossible to save them. But we are of course ready to extend a helping hand, a hand of friendship, to any partner of ours that itself wants that help,” Putin said.
Some of the messages submitted to the phone-in were fawning. “I’m proud of my president and of Russia,” read one message from a viewer which was flashed up on a screen behind Putin. One questioner wanted to know if Putin ate porridge for breakfast.
Most of those questions which were allowed on air focused on pocket-book issues preoccupying Russians at a time when inflation has eroded consumers’ spending power and forced the government to cut spending.
Putin was asked why more money was not being spent fixing potholes in the roads of Omsk, a city in Siberia; he was asked why medicines on sale in pharmacies were so expensive; and he reassured farmers worried they would not be able to pay off their bank loans.
He delivered a spirited defence of his friend Sergei Roldugin, who, according to reports based on the so-called “Panama Papers” leaks, has a business empire involved in offshore transactions that might be linked to Putin.
He said the leaks were an effort, backed by US interests, to discredit people close to the Kremlin.
“But they must understand that the issue is not about specific people, individuals, no matter what position they hold in Russia. The issue is about the country, which cannot be manipulated, which cannot be forced to act as someone wants and dance to their tune,” Putinsaid.