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Russian President Vladimir Putin has held his eleventh live phone-in telecast dialogue with the nation to have answered a variety of questions. It was the first such hot-line question-and-answer session during his current presidential term. This time many of the questions turned out to be very sharp ones, just as the organizers had promised. In particular, the president came out against dismissals of current government ministers and personnel reshuffles, thereby indirectly supporting Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. He expressed his attitude to non-systemic opposition, saying that he by no means refused to have a dialogue with it. Also, the president dwelt upon Russia’s relations with the United States and with the West in general to have voiced the opinion Russia was not to blame for their worsening.
About the recent conference on economic affairs in Sochi, where he voiced concern over the slowdown in the economy, Putin said that there was nothing extraordinary or unexpected about that meeting, let alone any feeling of despair.
“We gathered to evaluate the situation and hear various opinions to understand whether there was our share in the economic recession, and if we made our own contribution to it. Some government members believe that this is really so, while others disagree with that. The latter argue that it is a result of negative trends in the world economy. This argument is inside the community that governs the nation, and not between the presidential staff and the government
“The watershed runs along the gist of things,” he said.
Asked if he liked the way the current government was doing its job and whether time was ripe for addressing personnel issues - a clear hint at the demand made by all parliamentary factions for the dismissal of Education and Science Minister Dmitry Livanov - Putin acknowledged that he had heard many calls for firing this or that government minister, or the whole Cabinet. He agreed that responsibility must be harsh.
At the same time he pointed to the fact that the current government had been in office for less than twelve months. True, “the complaints against the Cabinet are certainly many,” he said, but also expressed the certainty that “the people must be given a chance to display their potential” or a conclusion made that somebody is unable to cope with one’s duties.
“Really, I do not know if we need personnel reshuffles,” he said, adding that “it would do more harm than good.”
Russia’s former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, was the first to have entered into polemics with Putin over economic issues. Putin mentioned Kudrin’s valuable qualities to have recalled that Kudrin had been twice named the world’s best finance minister. Putin repeated flattering comments several times, although he agreed that Kudrin was not the best social policies minister. Asked by the anchor about the reasons why Kudrin had not been returned to some senior position in the government, Putin remarked with a smile that such proposals had been made, but Kudrin declined them all.
Kudrin replied in very harsh terms that he was unprepared to work in a situation where half-measures were being taken and half-baked reforms implemented. Such a system does not work, he said. Russia will not shrug off its dependence on oil, and there is no clear-cut program in sight, Kudrin said. Putin replied that the harsh measures in the economy Kudrin would like to see could not be taken without affecting the social sphere, which would be very painful for Russians. “This is the reason why I say that Kudrin is the best finance minster, but certainly not the best minister in social policies,” Putin said.
“I long worked in the position of deputy prime minister and was responsible for the economy, but the system of half-baked measures and half-baked reforms will not work today,” Kudrin said. “Today we have no program for turning the economy away from oil dependence in which each measure, money and the role of regions would have a worthy place,” he explained.
Kudrin said that in the current situation “manual control has to be used now and then.”
“I am not prepared to do this,” he said.
Putin answered the question about corruption in the Defense Ministry and the high-profile cases involving former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
“We shall be fighting with corruption the way we have been fighting inflation, to the maximum possible degree,” Putin promised. He expressed the certainty that the investigation of the Oboronservis case was proceeding impartially and would be taken to a logical outcome. He repeated, though, that the guilt of any person, including Serdyukov, could be determined only by a court of law. “We should by no means get back into 1937 out of political considerations and to jail those who are only suspected of corruption,” he said.
Putin clearly formulated his attitude to non-systemic opposition by answering a number of questions on this subject. The editor-in-chief of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, Alexei Venediktov, said that Putin’s third presidential term bore some traits of Stalinism and recalled some high-profile cases of recent years - the trial of the punk group Pussy Riot, oppositional rallies in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and Alexei Navalny and crackdowns on NGOs.
Putin replied that in his opinion there were no traces of Stalinism, which in the first place is associated with labor camps. Nor will there be any in the future, he added. But there must be order, discipline, and equality before the law. In Russia people go to jail for violating the law, and not for political reasons, he said.
“No one gets jailed for some political considerations. Courts convict people not for political views or actions, but for violations of the law,” he said.
“Those Pussy Riot girls and the teenagers who defile the graves of our soldiers - all those must be equal before the law and bear responsibility for that,” Putin said. About mass demonstrations Putin said: “They can be held and should be held, but within the framework of the law, so as not to upset the normal life of other people.”
Putin voiced the certainty that the trial of oppositional activist Alexei Navalny will be impartial. He made a very special personal request to this effect to the Prosecutor-General’s Office and other law enforcement agencies.
“The people who fight with corruption must be crystal-pure themselves, otherwise all this will acquire the form of political self-advertising. All should be equal before the law. Nobody should have the illusion the one who yells “Catch the thief” very loudly is free to steal himself,” Putin said.
At the same time he remarked that “this does not mean that if a person has certain views different from those of the existing authorities, any pretext must be looked for to take such a person to court and then send to jail.”
Some other questions about the dialogue between the authorities and the opposition were asked.
“I am not only prepared to talk to the Opposition. I do so all the time. As for the so-called non-systemic Opposition, we have invited them to have a dialogue, too. Some oppositional activists just shirk the dialogue,” Putin said.
“We are not just prepared for a discussion, we wish to have it in a civilized and professional way. Open and clear. Then very many things will take proper places. Moreover, I believe, for instance, that the authorities are interested in this: possibly some things the oppositional activists are talking about will become clearer to society. Maybe, some of these things are necessary, maybe they will push the authorities to taking some harsh measures, not very popular, but very necessary in the economy,” he believes.
“Yelling for yelling’s sake is one thing, and proposing a positive agenda is something very different. That can be done only in a legal way, using the opportunities given by the law. Please, come on, do something, fight for it, go to parliament, prove you are right,” Putin called upon the leaders of the non-systemic Opposition.
Practically all issues concerned social and political issues. The editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta Konstantin Remchyukov shifted the conversation from the domestic political affairs to foreign ones to say that Russia’s relations with the West, in the first place, with the United States worsened greatly of late. Putin replied that the cooling of relations began with the events in Iraq (the US and Britain invaded that country in 2003). Then he also recalled some other “sins” of the West and said that Russia had not done anything that might provoke a worsening of relations with the United States.
In his opinion bilateral relations might be developing further in a positive fashion, had the US partners simply canceled the Jackson-Vanik amendment. “It happened otherwise, they felt obliged to come up with another anti-Russian act - in this particular case, the Magnitsky Act,” Putin said.
In his opinion that was done “just for the sake of putting on airs - we are toughest guys here.”
“That’s an imperial mode of behavior in the foreign policy space. Who will like it?” Putin said. “Why on earth was that done? Nobody can explain and nobody can say what for.”
At the same time Putin acknowledged that Russia’s response to the Magnitsky Act might have certain costs.
“We had warned we would retaliate,” Putin said. “Apparently the Americans expected that there would follow a slack response. But the retaliation that followed (irrespective of whether it was good or bad)… probably it was not without certain costs. Possibly, yes. But our legislators developed certain emotions.”