Vladimir Putin changed the format for this year's live call-in show. He responded to more questions this time, but his answers were brief, and he fielded fewer queries from Russia's regions (outside Moscow and St. Petersburg). Despite the shakeup and 3.5 hours of live television, Putin didn't say much that was all that new, but any time Russia's leader speaks for so long, there are always a few curious kernels of information. Meduza boils it down here.
Question: Why isn't Putin suing the the journalists who wrote about offshore assets belonging to Putin's close friend, cellist Sergey Roldugin?
Putin's answer: “Strange as it may seem, they do not publish false information about offshore businesses. Their information is reliable. It looks like it was put together by lawyers rather than reporters—just look at the presentation style and the facts. After all, they are not accusing anyone of anything specifically. This is their entire point. They are simply pulling the wool over our eyes. Some of my friends engage in some sort of business. The question is whether a portion of this offshore funds makes it to government officials, including the president? However, no one could ever think that Mr. Roldugin would spend all of the money that he earned there to buy musical instruments.”
Meduza's commentary: Putin's comments about these offshores don't say anything new, except for the fact that he's now acknowledging that reports about the accounts' existence are true. According to the Panama Papers, Sergei Roldugin owned multi-billion-dollar offshores until last year, and his companies still own a stake in Russia's biggest seller of television advertising. Roldugin's businesses are also involved in questionable off-exchange transactions and the receipt of massive unsecured loans from a subsidiary of Russia's state-owned VTB bank. Putin didn't say anything new about these aspects of Roldugin's offshore accounts.
Question: Ahead of parliamentary elections this fall, it seems Russia's opposition is being treated like “enemies of the people.” Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has even been marked in the crosshairs of a rifle scope [this was a reference to an Instagram post by Ramzan Kadyrov]. Shouldn't the government set boundaries in such political conflicts?
Putin's answer: “Yes, I see who you are referring to. You are referring to the head of one of Russia’s regions in the Caucasus. I see that. I raised this issue with him personally. That said, let’s look at how things are in reality. [...] It is true that he now heads one of Russia’s regions, the Chechen Republic. Where did he start? By conducting a partisan war against us. Have you forgotten? He was armed and fighting alongside his father. No one forced his father, no one recruited or coerced him. He came to the conclusion on his own that Chechnya should be with the Russian people and be part of Russia.
“We are all people, we have our past. However, I believe that the head of Chechnya and other Russian regions will understand the level and degree to which they are liable to people living on the territories they manage and to Russia in general. They must understand that undertaking extreme actions or making radical statements regarding opponents does not mean enhancing stability in the country. On the contrary, it is detrimental to stability. Once they understand it, and I’m confident that they will, as they are sincerely committed to serving national interests, there will be no statements of this kind. It may be also that there were omissions on my behalf in this respect.”
Meduza's commentary: Putin preferred not to answer the broader question about the limits of what should be allowed between political adversaries, focusing instead on Kadyrov's personal history. Characteristically, Putin started answering the question without mentioning Kadyrov by name, but he later did it anyway, as he got deeper into his response.
Question: Employees at a fish-processing plant on Shikotan Island haven't been paid their wages in six months. The local district attorney's office refuses to act. What should they do?
Putin's answer: “I hope the Prosecutor General is listening to this part of our discussion and will look into the situation and decide on whether the Sakhalin Region prosecutor is really fit for his job, and I want the Labor Ministry to look into the work of its local offices on Sakhalin, as well.”
Meduza's commentary: This was Putin's toughest response to any question in the first half of the call-in show, and it led to the first and only mention of Attorney General Yuri Chaika (whose family's shady businesses, recently exposed in a documentary film, weren't discussed). But it turns out that Putin reserved his tough talk for a case that's already getting police attention: Before the show was even over, reporters learned that prosecutors opened a criminal case against the fish-processing plant back in 2014. Just yesterday, in fact (a day before Putin's call-in show), the district attorney reported that the company owes 10 million rubles ($151,000) in back pay.
Question: In Syria, Russia showed the world how good its weapons are. But did some of the military tech fail?
Putin's answer: “Interest in our arms, especially during and since our joint air campaign with the Syrian government, has increased dramatically. With some types of weapons, we're not even able to meet the foreign market's demand—for instance, with air defense systems. [...] Yes, there was everything, including the discovery of some defects. But I should tell you that they were very few, and they're all being reviewed carefully by our experts.”
Meduza's commentary: There have been zero reports in the Russian news about military hardware breaking down. From a news perspective, this was the closest thing to a bombshell in the entire call-in show.
Question: How do you feel about Barack Obama saying Libya was his biggest mistake?
Putin's answer: “It confirms once again that the current president of the United States is a decent man. I say this without the slightest irony, because saying such things is nothing simple. [...] The problem is that this series of errors continues. After all, [the Americans] nearly made the same mistake in Syria, where it's unclear how it will end.”
Meduza's commentary: The question was loaded with false information: Obama never said Libya was his biggest mistake. (He said his mistake was planning poorly for a military operation in an African country.) Putin's answer, meanwhile, was one of the few surprising moments in the show, during which he sharply criticized Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan. When it came to Obama, however, Putin spoke with great respect (which is in keeping with the US president's characterization of Putin in “The Obama Doctrine,” which appeared in this month's edition of The Atlantic).