Viewers treated to democracy Russian style

MOSCOW — Russian president Vladimir Putin took to the airwaves Thursday for his annual show of participatory democracy — a three hour televised question and answer session broadcast live on the country’s two major state channels.

In a call-in show with no prizes and only the slimmest chance of getting an answer to your question, President Putin fielded 68 carefully selected questions from more than a million submitted to the Kremlin via telephone and email in recent weeks.

Seated in front of a studio backdrop draped with Russia’s national blue, red and white colors, and sipping occasionally from a china tea cup, Putin congratulated both Russia’s national soccer team for its 2-1 win over England Wednesday evening in a crucial Euro 2008 championship qualifier and the country’s armed forces for a recent test firing of a new long-range missile.

In a muscular defense of the powerful, centralized state he has built since coming to office, Putin urged Russians to vote for stability and strong state institutions in parliamentary elections due in December and a presidential race next March that after two terms in office he is constitutionally barred from participating in.

The president told viewers that after next year’s presidential election there would “be a different person in the Kremlin.”

In such conditions it was “extremely important to preserve a stable path of development for our state and the continuity of decisions taken in the past few years.”

An effective parliament was key to that, Putin added.

And although he did not mention anyone by name, Putin said he would give his support next March to his preference for president. Given Putin’s current popularity ratings in Russia hovering around 70%, most commentators observe that whoever he anoints will be a shoe-in.

The comments, which follow Putin’s recent decision to head the list of candidates for Russia’s most popular party, United Russia, in December’s parliamentary elections and hints that he may put himself up for prime minister, are bound to fuel speculation that Putin may yet secure a long-term leadership role in Russia, after he steps down as president.

The televised exercise — designed to demonstrate Putin’s common touch with the people — aired simultaneously on Russia’s First Channel and Rossiya, and on a national channel in neighboring Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic.

Video links with viewers in cities across Russia that included Vladivostok in the far east and Kaliningrad, capital of Russia’s western Baltic enclave that was part of German East Prussia until 1945 and from Kazakhstan emphasized the breadth of Russia’s territory and influence.

Most of the questions Putin answered related to social and economic concerns in a country where despite strong economic growth in recent years most people still struggle to make ends meet.

Critics of Putin, such as Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper where campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya worked before being shot dead in an as yet solved murder a year ago, suggested that the televised show was more charade than substance.

In a front page headline, this week’s edition of Novaya Gazeta asked: “What questions have no chance of being answered by Putin? About Beslan? (The town where more than 30 schoolchildren died after being taken hostage by Chechen terrorists in 2004) Inflation? Corruption? The war between the ‘siloviki’ (Kremlin power factions)?

Meanwhile, Russia’s less serious citizens, among them the young wags who frequent the country’s burgeoning Internet chat rooms, reckoned the top question should be: “Dear Mr Putin, my question is… oh, why bother? You’re not going to see my message anyway…”

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