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Annual Putin Call-In Show Focuses On Economy, International Affairs

  • Robert Coalson

A combination photo showing Russian President Vladimir Putin gesturing as he speaks during a meeting with journalists after a live broadcast nationwide call-in in Moscow on April 14.

A combination photo showing Russian President Vladimir Putin gesturing as he speaks during a meeting with journalists after a live broadcast nationwide call-in in Moscow on April 14.

Russian President Vladimir Putin touched on issues from the global to the personal, but clustered around the economy and international relations, for more than 3 1/2 hours in a televised call-in event that has become an annual ritual since he took over the Kremlin in 2000.

Despite anxious queries from the public about inflation and wage arrears, Putin put a positive spin on the economy, saying Russia's currency reserves have stabilized and the government expects GDP to grow by 1.4 percent next year.

He said the country's reserve fund is sufficient to last for four years.

"However, we expect our economy to begin growing next year, and we will not have to spend as much from the reserve fund," Putin said. "So there should be no concerns whatsoever."

On global affairs, Putin avoided sharp statements, even when speaking about Ukraine and Turkey -- the former of which has been fighting Russian-backed separatists for two years and the latter of which has been targeted by Russian sanctions since it shot down a Russian warplane that Ankara says strayed into its airspace in November.

He saved his sharpest comments for Turkey, saying that country is not safe for Russian travelers and is "effectively" enduring a civil war in its southern region. Putin accused the Turkish government of cooperating with terrorists instead of fighting them.

At one point, Putin was asked -- reportedly by a 12-year-old girl -- whom he would save from drowning first: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

WATCH: Whom Would Putin Save From Drowning -- Poroshenko or Erdogan?

The president avoided a direct answer, saying: "If someone has decided to drown, you can't save them. But, of course, we're ready to lend a helping hand and a hand of friendship to any of our partners, if they want it."

ALSO READ: Putin's Call-In As It Happened

Concerning Ukraine, Putin blamed Kyiv for failing to implement the Minsk agreements aimed at regulating the conflict in eastern Ukraine but declined to comment on the new government in Kyiv, saying he did not know enough about it. He said he hoped the government would act "pragmatically" and not be "guided by phobias."

Putin also endorsed a recent proposal by Poroshenko that conflict monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) be allowed to carry arms.

Backhanded Compliment

Putin issued a backhanded compliment to U.S. President Barack Obama, however, with whom relations have been frosty since Washington and Moscow abandoned their "reset." The Russian president praised Obama for admitting that he had mishandled the situation in Libya. Putin said such an admission "confirms that the incumbent U.S. president is a decent man."

"I am saying this without any sarcasm, because saying such things is not easy," he added.

The Russian president, however, said the recent Panama Papers leak implicating officials around the world in connection with offshore companies was a "provocation" by "employees of official U.S. institutions." He dismissed allegations that his close personal friend, cellist Sergei Roldugin, had personally benefited from offshore companies with cash flows of around $2 billion.

Putin said the anonymous document dump was intended to "sow doubt" among Russians and predicted that "as [Russia's legislative and presidential] elections approach, there will be more of these shams."

The nationally televised Direct Line program was a lavish and carefully managed live appearance in which Putin answered questions from citizens around the country and in the studio. The April 14 event was the 14th since Putin came to power.

Three Million Questions

According to organizers, Russian citizens submitted more than 3 million questions by telephone and through dedicated websites and social media.

In addition to political and economic questions, Putin was asked some personal ones, including about his former wife, Lyudmila.

"Lyudmila and I see each other from time to time," he said. "Not too often, but we do."

The studio audience laughed when he added: "Our relations are very good -- perhaps even better than they used to be."

Putin also said it was "too early" to speculate on whether he would run for a fourth term as president in the election scheduled for 2018. Asked whether he ever swears, Putin admitted that he did, but only at himself.

One of the first questions put to Putin concerned rising prices for groceries and other necessities. Putin said that he understands that people are being hurt by inflation.

"The rise in food prices has been substantial," Putin conceded.

But he added that restrictions on imported foods that Russia put in place in response to Western sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine have boosted Russian agriculture and would lead to price stabilization.

Putin said the structure of the Russian economy is gradually shifting from its traditional reliance on the export of natural resources to "exports of high-tech products."

Putin took the first question by live video chat from the Siberian city of Omsk, where a young woman complained about the bad condition of local roads, saying "it is just one pothole after another."

Putin responded by noting that a flaw in the law allows regional leaders to use money from the state's road fund for other purposes.

Shortly after that question was answered, the mayor of Omsk, Vyacheslav Dvorakovsky, announced that the road next to which the woman filmed her question -- and 21 others -- would be repaired this summer.

Based on a live TV broadcast and with reporting by Interfax
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