Coverage of the 11th Annual Russian Presidential News Conference
The Guardian newspaper summed it up best at the 3 hour and 10 minute mark with this tweet: “That’s it, the marathon is over.”
Instead of using a news channel anchor as moderator, Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov was on stage with Mr. Putin for the 11th annual Putin press conference. Peskov began by taking a question from Alexander Gamov of the Komsomolskaya Pravda. In what seemed and sounded like a set-up opener, Gamov recited from last year’s presser in which Russian president Putin had assured his nationwide audience that the economy would rebound within a year or two.
The president responded with a joke: Two friends meet and one asks the other: ”How are you?“ The other says: ”My life is all stripes – black stripes followed by white ones.“ – ”So which one is it now?“ – ”Now I’m in the black one.“ Another six months pass, they meet again: ”How’s life? I know it’s all stripes, but which one is it now?“ – ”It’s black now.“ – ”But it was black last time!“ – ”Looks like it was white last time.“
Many of the questions fielded concerned the current fighting in Syria. When asked about the recent meeting in Moscow with US Secretary of State Kerry, Mr. Putin answered, Our opinion remains the same, and this is our principled approach. We believe that only Syrians can choose their leaders, establish their government standards and rules. While suggesting that the USA has no business attempting to dictate who should lead Syria, he said that Russia supports the work of the United States in regards to the United Nations Security Council draft resolution on Syria. The Secretary of State’s visit mainly focused on this resolution. We generally agree with it. I think Syrian officials will agree with the draft, too.
When it came to questions about relations with the United States, Mr. Putin showered praise on USA presidential candidate Donald Trump saying that, He is an outstanding man; unquestionably very talented. Putin told his audience that, He (Trump) says that he wants a different level of relations, tighter and deeper relations with Russia, how can we not welcome that?”
Quickly the conversation turned to the price of oil with Mr. Putin admitting that his economic experts had been surprised at the drop in worldwide crude prices. The president just signed the 2016 federal budget two days ago, a budget based on $50 (USD) per barrel. Already the price has dipped into the mid $30 range and Mr. Putin conceded that budget adjustments would be necessary if oil continues to fall. We calculated the budget for next year based on this very figure, a very optimistic one of $50 a barrel. However, now it is what — $38? Therefore, I believe we will have to make further adjustments.
In spite of admitted miscalculations, Mr. Putin claimed that statistics show that the Russian economy has generally overcome the crisis, or at least the peak of the crisis, if not the crisis itself.
Perhaps in a message to residents in Crimea who continue to struggle with daily power outages, Mr. Putin said that Russia’s electric infrastructure is growing. He promised that by the end of this year an additional 4.6 gigawatt in new generating capacity would be commissioned, including 20 new generating stations. While that number is down from the previous two years, he argued that the 4.6 growth is a positive sign.
A major concern over several years has continued to be the downward spiral in population. In addressing the issue, the president said that maternity payments had been issued to 6.5 million Russian families since the maternity compensation programme was introduced. Although the Federal State Statistics Service estimates continued population growth, the Putin budget for 2016 remains the same as 2015 (453,000 rubles) for maternity payments. Mr. Putin also indicated that average life expectancy was projected to exceed 71 years.
Yelena Kolebakina with Tatarstan’s business newspaper Business Online, and Yelena Teslova with Anadolu the official state news agency of Turkey, directed questions regarding the position of Tatars in Russia, and specifically in regards to ongoing economic relations between Tatarstan and Turkey. Mr. Putin began his response by addressing the issue of the Russian fighter plane shot down by the Turkish air force. We believe that the actions of the Turkish authorities was not an unfriendly, but a hostile act. They shot down a warplane and our people were killed.
What outraged us so much? If it was an accident, as we heard later, apparently, the Turkish authorities did not even know it was a Russian plane… What is usually done in such cases? After all, people were killed. They immediately make a phone call and straighten things out. Instead, they immediately ran to Brussels, shouting: “Help, we have been hurt.” Who is hurting you? Did we touch anybody there? No. They started covering themselves with NATO. Does NATO need this? As it turned out, apparently it does not.
Mr. Putin blamed the government of Turkey for failing to alert Russia to the presence of Syrian Turks along the area of the Turkish border when Russia was conducting bombing raids. He indicated that Russian air defence systems had been upgraded in Syria, and issued a blunt challenge to the government in Ankara: Turkish planes used to fly there all the time, violating Syrian air space. Let them try it now.
As to relations with the government in Turkey, Mr. Putin was not optimistic. We have learned from experience that it is hard or almost impossible to reach common ground with the current Turkish leadership. Even when we tell them “yes, we agree,” they are trying to outflank or stab us in the back for absolutely no good reason. Consequently, I do not see any prospects for improving relations with the Turkish leaders in terms of state-to-state relations….
Although understated, there was a revelation from Mr. Putin on Ukraine: for the first time he admitted that Russian troops are operating inside Eastern Ukraine, although he characterized their role as limited to special forces in support of the separatist rebels. At least for now, he continues to insist that there are no regular Russian army troops operating inside Ukraine. Putin also hinted at the idea of a permanent Russian military base inside Ukraine, telling reporters that he is not yet certain whether such a base is necessary. It is the first time he has publicly spoken of establishing a permanent base in Ukrainian territory. It is a Russian pattern to have military bases inside other former Soviet republics where there are ongoing “frozen conflicts.”
When asked by Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsimbalyuk about his plans for Ukraine, Putin replied that, We’ve never said there are no people there who deal with certain matters, including in the military area, but this does not mean that regular Russian troops are present there. Feel the difference.
When pressed about Russia honouring the latest Minsk agreements, Putin responded that, If we really want to resolve the problem, let’s stop this, let’s work together. And we are willing to influence people in the southeast of the country and persuade them to accept a compromise. We are willing and we want it to happen, but we need our partners in Kiev to be willing as well.
Putin also continued his complaint that Ukraine’s raising of manufacturing standards to meet European norms threatens Russian industries which are years behind in those standards. Putin acknowledged that all the goods in the Ukrainian market must comply with EU technical standards and regulations. But see, our products don’t comply with them yet. By the way, they told me in Paris, “But our standards are better and maybe you had better switch to those standards.” Well, it is true, and we want to, but we need money – we need investments.
In answer to repeated questions about Western sanctions and Russia’s so-called “reverse sanctions,” Mr. Putin admitted that sanctions have crippled the Russian economy to a great extent. Much of the government’s response has been that Russia will develop “import replacements” to take the place of products now prohibited from the West. What can be said in this regard? If we go back to the economy, of course, here we need to implement import replacement programmes. Not just import replacement as such, but we need to modernise our economy, enhance labour productivity, improve the business climate and ensure effective public demand.
One of the most pointed questions was posed by Yekaterina Vinokurova of independent news portal Znak.com when she broached the subject of corruption and government cover ups of corrupt officials. She began by stating, You have been at the helm for 15 years, and so we can say that a certain system of authority has evolved. I have a question about a very dangerous aspect of this system because we can see clearly that a very dangerous second generation of the elite has grown up over this period. One of them is Rotenberg Jr, who has received the country’s long-haul truckers as a present. Another is Turchak Jr, who cannot be summoned for questioning over the assault of Oleg Kashin, even though journalists continue to be beaten up in his region.
There are also the children of Chaika (Russia’s Chief Prosecutor), who have a very murky business, which should be investigated. Sorry, but I do not give a damn whether this is a paid-for reporting or not, because even rumours must be investigated. There are many more such children who are unable to revive or even preserve Russia, because they are not the elite but only a poor semblance of it. At the same time, when journalists investigate something or public accusations are made as in the case of Prosecutor General Chaika and his team, the authorities, instead of launching an investigation, shout that the rumour is being spread by the hateful State Department or Obama, or order an inspection – for instance, how the prosecutor’s office dealt with the Dozhd TV Channel, which helped investigate the problem.
Mr Putin, I have a simple question. Did you expect to see this corruption when you assumed power in 2000? Maybe the situation needs improving before it is too late?
Putin quickly deflected her question with this response: If we want to be objective, we will have to admit that these are not the only results. Our best achievements are higher incomes for the people and a stronger economy, which has grown by nearly 100 percent. Our GDP has almost doubled. These are our results. Stronger defences and improved capabilities of our Armed Forces – these are the results. He then downplayed the accusations she mentioned by insisting they were merely of secondary importance — they can happen anywhere.
The Putin news conference was broadcast live on TV networks Rossiya-1, Rossiya-24 and Channel One, and via the Mayak, Vesti FM and Radio Rossii radio networks.