1. Words of the year in Russia
Vladimir Putin on Thursday slammed Russia’s political opposition as immature and unable to offer an alternative to his rule at an annual press conference before he stands for re-election in March.
During the meeting, which lasted just under four hours, Mr Putin also continued to position himself as the West’s main geopolitical foe, suggesting Russia’s assertive role in the Syria and Ukraine conflicts will be a major talking point ahead of the vote.
“It’s not my job to raise competitors,” Mr Putin said when asked why he had no serious challengers in the race. His almost certain win—75% of Russians say they’ll vote for him — will keep him in power until 2024, almost as long as Joseph Stalin.
Mr Putin, who has ruled Russia since 1999, will face a handful of token opponents at the ballot box.
One of these is Ksenia Sobchak, a former socialite turned liberal TV presenter who many suspect is running as Kremlin “spoiler” candidate to split the opposition and boost interest in the polls.
Ms Sobchak, whose father was Mr Putin’s political mentor and who is rumoured to be the president’s goddaughter, will be at Thursday’s event as a journalist for opposition channel Dozhd and is expected to be allowed to ask a question.
The president typically answers questions on a broad range of topics – from foreign policy to the state of provincial roads to his private life – and receives televised requests from the far corners of Russia.
With tensions high and no end in sight for Western sanctions, Mr Putin is expected to again strike a defiant stance and stress the more belligerent foreign policy he has forged in recent years.
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The record 1,640 journalists at Putin’s press conference is apparently too many: Journalists are fighting for seats
- Among the victories he can trumpet is that in Syria.On Monday, he made his first visit to the country and declared that he would draw down Russian forces following their intervention in the conflict, which brought Bashar Assad back from the brink of defeat and helped suppress the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
- Meanwhile, parliament is set to approve an agreement to expand Russia’s naval base in Tartus, showing Mr Putin’s intention remain a player in Middle Eastern politics in the long term.
TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak and TV Rain host Anton Zhelnov seen ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference at Moscow’s World Trade Center CREDIT: SERGEI BOBYLEV/TASS
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Mr Putin planned to spend all of the previous day preparing for what would be his 13th such press conference, due to start at 9am GMT.
The year-end press conference is known for pageantry, including the colourful signs and stuffed animals journalists wave to catch the attention of Mr Putin or his press secretary on stage.
Only specially selected publications are given the chance to ask a question.
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“Someone is holding a sign ‘Putin bye-bye'” Putin says.
It actually says “Putin babai,” or “Grandpa Putin.” 1st joke of the press conference
The event is also legendary for its length, the record being four hours and 40 minutes at the 2008 press conference. When in a good mood, Mr Putin sometimes likes to banter with journalists or show off his trademark salty humour.
This year’s press conference set a record for attendance: 1,640 journalists were accredited.
‘It’s not my job to raise competitors’
The first questions of the press conference were about the president’s announcement he would stand for re-election. “Why are you running for president?” radio station Govorit Moskva asked.
Mr Putin responded that he “wouldn’t like to talk about my platform,” but said vaguely he wanted to develop infrastructure, healthcare, education and high tech and raise incomes.
He wasn’t able to get off that easy, however, because the online tabloid Life News asked why he doesn’t have any strong competitors in the race.
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Putin about why he has no real competitors in next year’s election: “That’s the main problem of those who want to be competitive opposition… they need to present real issues, that people will believe in”
State TV of course has nothing to do with it
“It’s not my job to raise competitors,” Mr Putin said, noting that Russia had seen huge growth in GDP and incomes during his 18 years in power. He said the opposition “shouldn’t make noise in the streets,” hinting at the street protests Mr Navalny called in dozens of cities across Russia this spring.
“That’s the main problem of those who want to be a competitive opposition … they need to present real issues that people will believe in,” he said.
Mr Navalny was among those live-tweeting the press conference, lampooning softball questions and Mr Putin’s rose-tinted answers.
After Mr Putin argued that the opposition should offer real alternatives rather than street protests, Mr Navalny tweeted the electoral platform he published on Wednesday.
“This is what the non-parliamentary opposition is offering, Vladimir Vladimirovich,” he wrote. “You’re just trying hard not to notice.”
Mr Putin also said he will run as an independent, a logical move given that his personal popularity is higher than that of the ruling United Russia party.
The party is headed by PM Dmitry Medvedev, who served as president from 2008-12 before giving up the seat to Mr Putin in a maneuver to avoid the constitutional two-term limit.
Mr Putin then batted away a question about whether over-reaching security officials were the real traitors to the country.
“You love to provoke with you traitors and fifth columnists,” he said before taking a more staid question about the central bank.
The first hour of the press conference were focused on the economy, which is expected to return to moderate growth after flagging under low oil prices and Western sanctions.
Putin will ‘defend the honour’ of its athletes in civil courts
After an hour-and-a-half of questions about the economy and the election, Mr Putin’s press secretary shifted the conversation to sport. Last week, the International Olympic Committee banned Russia from the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics for its systematic doping, saying its athletes would have to compete under a neutral flag.
Mr Putin argued that Russia was the victim of double standards and said the government would bring lawsuits in civil courts to “defend the honour” of its athletes who had been banned for doping violations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow CREDIT: AFP
“It’s strange, some people are getting an advantage, some are allowed to take these medications and others are not,” he said of the exceptions made for some athletes with pre-existing conditions.
Asked about whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Moscow anti-doping lab, Mr Putin said he had “psychological problems” and “worked for American special services”. Mr Rodchenkov and his sister had been guilty of doping themselves, he added.
“It’s hardly strange that he barked about the doping suspicions,” Mr Putin said.
He said Russia’s international competitors were “having a hard time, so they’re putting pressure on us”.