He thought they were condoms.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flatly rejected calls to rerun a parliamentary election during a lengthy call-in on Russian media earlier today. The show lasted a record 4 hours and 32 minutes during which producers received over 1.7 million calls and texts, also a record.
Popular Russian TV anchor Maria Sittel hosted the forum along with co-host Ernest Mackevicius. Journalists Tatiana Remezova, Ivan Kudryavtsev, Maria Kitayeva, Dmitry Shchugorev and Maria Morgun also helped field questions from a large live audience and from remote locations around Russia.
An elaborate set had been designed for the forum and television networks Rossiya 1, Rossiya 24, RTR-Planet and radio stations Mayak, Vesti FM, and Radio Rossii broadcast the show live. Hundreds of operators took calls and Mr. Putin answered a total of 90 questions during the marathon session from the Moscow studios of the Rossiya television network. Questions were also taken from the live studio audience.
Mr. Putin said that as he watched protesters last week he mistook the white ribbons they wore for condoms, thinking it was some sort of an anti-AIDS gathering. Many Russians find that hard to believe as Russian TV largely ignored the protests so it is clear that he watched the event play out largely on police and Interior Ministry cameras.
There could be no mistaking the type of gathering—and the comment about condoms struck many in the nationwide audience as an arrogant slap in the face at the protesters. As the government had approved permits for several of the protest locations, accepting the idea of the Prime Minister mistaking the event for something else would be difficult to accept.
During the call the Prime Minister chose to ignore demands of protesters who had complained of electoral fraud and demanded that he step down. As for the massive protests, he repeated that protests are “absolutely normal as long as everyone acts within the framework of the law.” Protesting within the law is difficult however as most protest permits are routinely denied. He also accused many of the protesters of being paid by the West by saying, “They will at least make some money.”
The Prime Minister hinted at an easing of control but even those promises came with strings attached. Ideas such as the return to directly elected regional governors might be allowed he said, but only after candidates for the office were approved the president. As to opposition calls for allowing smaller political parties to be registered, Mr. Putin said, “we can move in this direction,” but gave no specifics or timeline.
When asked to explain his vision for government he said, “We need to strengthen our political system, first of all. We need to expand the foundations of democracy in the country so that people begin to feel their direct connection with the authorities at the municipal, regional and federal levels, so that trust in the authorities grows and the political system becomes self-sufficient and resistant to external shocks and to all kinds of impostors that are trying to get in here from the outside and to influence our domestic political processes. This should be stopped completely.”
As to concrete suggestions for moving forward, only generalities were promised for the future. Mr. Putin acknowledged that, “We need, of course, to diversify the economy, to modernize and renew it. We need innovation and modernization to penetrate the brain of every citizen, for innovation to become part of our general policy. And, of course, we need to improve and develop our social sphere, so that no one feels neglected by the government.”
Many Russians seem to feel the Prime Minister chose to ignore the crisis at hand and instead seemed to focus on the past. “We have indexed all pensions, even though last year we raised them simultaneously by over 40% – something no one was doing during the crisis, as I have repeatedly said. Others acted very differently: they lowered and froze pensions and raised the retirement age, but we chose a different path. This is what has been done. The challenges that remain are completely different. They are far more difficult than the ones we have been dealing with until now.”
There was a bit of moment of tension when the programme began as journalists Ernest Mackevicius and Mariya Kitayeva introduced Duma deputy Andrei Makarov during the live show:
Maria Kitayeva: As I said at the beginning of our programme, we have with us today lawyer Andrei Makarov, a State Duma deputy. I am giving the floor to him.
Andrei Makarov: That’s OK, I can hold the microphone myself. Mr Putin, they won’t let me hold the microphone.
Maria Kitayeva: Promise me you will be brief, and I’ll let you.
Ernest Mackevicius: This is a journalist’s only weapon. Don’t take it away, please.
Andrei Makarov: … in my own hands, that’s what it is called.
Vladimir Putin: The microphone is power here. Seize it.
Andrei Makarov: Thank you.
At one point in the show he commented, “I’ve had enough of these questions about the elections.”
Before the election a Levada Centre survey had shown that more than half of registered voters, 53%, did not believe the results would be fair. Prime Minister Putin called for television cameras to be installed at polling stations in order to prevent any hint of fraud.
He also made official his promise to appoint current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as Prime Minister after his election to the presidency. Medvedev, who is younger, is often viewed as more democratic than Putin.
Several news sources report that initial audience comments after the show labeled Mr. Putin as being “out of touch” with the Russian electorate.
(Editors note: The Mendeleyev Journal will publish extended excerpts soon.)