MOSCOW— -- Three millions Russians tried to call Vladimir Putin today for his annual marathon phone-in, where ordinary Russians have the chance to ask their president to help solve their problems.
This year was maybe more remarkable for the odd questions and favors Russians asked of him than for his bullish comments on international politics. While some of the questions dealt with big issues like Russia’s isolation in the world over the Ukraine crisis, most callers were concerned with problems closer to home -- in particular the economy, which has been battered by Western sanctions and falling oil prices.
After a solid 20 minutes of mostly statistics, in which Putin reeled off lists of stats for Russian oil production, agricultural production and then life-expectancy -- all of which were up, he said -- the mic was thrown to the audience and the questioning began.
Why hasn’t the government kept the price of apples down?
Would you like to be the head of the United Nations?
A 4-year old girl asked Putin, “Is it hard being president? How many hours do you sleep a night? Because actually I do love to sleep.”
As is usual, many ordinary callers had favors to ask. Elena wanted to buy her friend a dog for her birthday but her friend’s husband, Boris, was against it. Elena asked that Putin intervene to persuade Boris, a former police colonel, to let her friend have the dog.
Putin laughed and said it put him in a difficult position but suggested perhaps he could help arrange a meeting where Boris could be persuaded.
One of the stranger exchanges came early when the mic was given to John, an English man who had run his own dairy farm in Russia for the past 25 years. Wearing a Russian Orthodox beard and a green ‘70s shirt, John pressed Putin on why there was so little state support for small farmers.
Before getting into it, Putin asked how John had ended up in Russia? “Cherchez la femme,” Putin inquired, using the proverbial French phrase meaning “to chase women.” John replied, “I don’t speak French.”
It turned out John was married to a Russian woman. John appears to have been the first foreigner ever to ask a question in the phone-ins.
The call-in is in large part a way for Putin to show his interest in the life of the ordinary citizen. He takes notes through out, asking people’s names, assuring them their problems will be solved. It’s a uniquely Russian event, recalling when poor Russians would write letters to the Czar asking him to personally intervene to help them.
At one point, the anchor today showed Putin the picture of squalid house where an 85-year-old veteran was living. Putin took the picture with the woman’s details and said he would deal with it.
There was still time for Putin to make some typically pugnacious comments on foreign policy, with some sharp words reserved for the United States.
“The U.S. doesn’t need allies, but vassals,” Putin said. “Russia cannot exist in this system of relations.”
He accused the United States of acting like the old Soviet Union by imposing its social model on Eastern Europe.
But he held back from declaring the United States or other Western countries to be Russia’s enemies, avoiding the question when one of the anchors bluntly asked who Russia’s enemies were.
“We don’t consider anyone to be our enemy,” Putin said. “And we don’t recommend that anyone consider us to be.”
Putin also talked at length about Ukraine, blaming the Ukrainian government for failing to find a peaceful way out of the conflict and accusing them of installing an economic blockade on the regions occupied by pro-Russian rebels. He also flatly denied there were Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine, despite strong evidence to the contrary.
The Russian leader also explained his decision to allow the delivery of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, which has angered the United States and Israel, saying there was no reason for Russia not complete the sale of the S300 missiles following the deal struck two weeks ago between the United States and Iran in Switzerland.
The phone-in lasted four hours in the end, short of the record four and a half Putin has done previously. But the 3 million callers were by far the most the show has ever received, reflecting how many Russians believe their president can solve their problems if only he knew of them.
One caller asked Putin whether he would like to be cloned, because he was the only official people trusted? Putin said no.