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article imagePutin promises brighter future as marathon phone-in takes gloomy turn

By Olga ROTENBERG and Theo MERZ (AFP)     Jun 19, 2019 in Politics

Russians turned to President Vladimir Putin with fears over squeezed incomes and civil liberties during a four-hour annual phone-in Thursday, but the longtime leader insisted a brighter future was ahead.

The marathon event -- to which viewers this year submitted some two million questions online and via telephone -- came with Putin's approval ratings in decline.

The president addressed ongoing tensions with the West, including international investigators' announcement Wednesday that they would charge Russian citizens over the downing of a passenger plane over Ukraine in 2014.

Putin claimed there was "no proof" of Russia's involvement.

The Q&A however focused on domestic problems, with callers concerned about the economy, health care and the issue of waste disposal, which has led to protests in recent months.

Putin began the televised session by acknowledging Russians' worries over household incomes but said the country had put the worst behind it following a recession from 2014.

"We are seeing that production has started to grow and inflation has dropped to below five percent and incomes have started to go up," he told a studio audience of invited guests.

He played down the effect of Western sanctions imposed over Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

"We were forced to think about how to develop the high-tech sector of the economy... even areas in which we did not have any experience," Putin said, suggesting Western economies themselves had taken a hit from the sanctions.

Putin answered screened questions on subjects as varied as conditions for small businesses, drug laws and the water supply to a remote village.

The programme also saw the president praise the release of beluga whales that had been captured and held in cramped pens in the far east of Russia.

A deputy prime minister announced live on air that the law on hunting the animals would be changed.

Putin meanwhile defended a recent law that forbids "disrespect" towards authorities, after the topic was raised by the founder of an online Russian community.

Questions displayed on screen were less deferential than those posed directly to Putin.

"Only one question, when will you leave?" one asked, while another wondered: "What will we do when oil and gas run out?"

Video links between callers and the studio were at times interrupted or unclear. A host said this was because of a "massive" cyber attack "from abroad".

- Wave of protests -

The choreographed ceremony followed a wave of protests across the country against various issues, from the arrest of a journalist on trumped-up drug charges to plans to build a cathedral in a popular park in a Urals city.

It also came amid a steep decline in Putin's personal approval ratings following unpopular moves last year such as increasing the state pension age and hiking the value-added tax.

Two thirds of Russians approve of Putin's policies, according to independent pollster Levada -- a level many Western leaders might envy but well down from highs of up to 90 percent in 2014.

When a separate survey by a state pollster last month showed Russians' trust in Putin had fallen to a 13-year low, the institution changed the way it posed the question and the rating immediately more than doubled.

This was Putin's 17th such phone-in since he came to power in 1999.

Pictures released the day before via state media showed the usually technology-averse leader using a laptop, as well as thick binders of briefing notes, to prepare for the programme.

"The main aim of the phone-in is to show that Vladimir Putin is the chief defender of the interests of the people, that he's the most humane president and the last hope for justice," political analyst Konstantin Kalachev told AFP.

Kalachev added that Putin could turn a downbeat national mood to his advantage.

The president positions himself as "the person you can turn to when you are totally desperate and this style impresses many Russians," he said.

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