Reprising a role that appears to have become something of an informal state-of-the-nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on a live, call-in television program today to field questions from citizens around the country. Taking part in a format first aired last year, Putin came across as a decisive, well-informed leader who is tackling the country's myriad problems.
Moscow, 19 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- No surprise questions popped up during today's two-and-a-half-hour program on state television and radio, during which Russian President Vladimir Putin essentially restated Kremlin policy. Most questions concerned social problems, such as state pension and wage levels, housing reform, and law enforcement.
Putin said Russia must still tackle major problems but that the country made improvements in 2002.
"In general, we can say with certainty that the country has become richer, and although maybe just a little bit, the living standards of the majority of the population have still improved, and I think this is the most important result."
Putin cited higher-than-expected economic growth and lower inflation and unemployment. But he also acknowledged a number of ongoing problems, including a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy, the need to address housing and welfare reform, and the necessity of a political solution to the conflict in Chechnya.
Putin said the state should stop meddling in economic affairs, which would curtail corruption on the part of bureaucrats and law enforcers, whom he went on to praise as shouldering the great responsibility of maintaining order in Russia.
Critics say today's program appeared staged -- more so than last year, when several questions seemed to slip by those who were fielding the queries. Last year, one boy in the Siberian region of Irkutsk asked whether he would have to repeat a grade because his school had been closed due to lack of heat.
This year, the same boy wrote in, saying his situation had gotten worse. Clearly prepared, Putin said the situation in which people are "freezing in their apartments" is tragic, but skirted giving an answer as to what could be done about it.
Program organizers reportedly received some 1.4 million questions from viewers via the telephone and the Internet today and in the days leading up to the broadcast.
Putin said the government is proceeding cautiously on social sector reform because any hasty changes could harm the population, much of which he says "lives modestly." Facing political pressure this year, the State Duma has put off addressing unpopular electricity utility and housing reforms, which would slash huge state subsidies.
Meanwhile, criticized abroad for clamping down on the independent press, Putin said the media is part of society and that both have to mature to catch up to Western standards.
"It's very important that the media community itself works out rules for its work. Of course, the state should outline those rules in law and make sure that law is observed by all, but it's even more important that, based on this law, the media community itself works out internal, corporate rules and follows those rules, as is done in other civilized countries."
On Chechnya, Putin said Islamic extremists financed from abroad are trying to establish a "global caliphate" by trying to take advantage of Russia's perceived weakness and its large Muslim population. He compared their actions to Nazism, saying they wanted to recreate "Hitler's idea of world domination."
"The terrorists' goal is to sow discord between the peoples and religions of the Russian Federation. Under no circumstances should we give them a chance to achieve that goal -- under no circumstances. We all have something in common, something that is of superior value for a modern human being -- our common fatherland. All of us are compatriots, and we should treat each other like members of one family -- like brothers and sisters."
Putin rejected the idea of negotiations with separatist Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, saying his presidency from 1997 to 1999 was a "criminal regime." Putin restated the Kremlin's intention of providing a political solution by holding a referendum on a new constitution and conducting local elections next year.
Addressing Russia's most traumatic event this year, one caller asked how a group of armed Chechen rebels could sneak into Moscow and seize hostages in a central theater. Putin said it is impossible to completely control movement in a city that receives 3 million visitors a day, but that providing security is one of the government's most important tasks.
The president also said the government's budget for next year provides increases for pensions, science, education, and health care. He said the government will push ahead with military reforms in the drive to create a professional army.
Putin suggested some recently passed laws should be revised, such as a 500,000-person quota on foreigners allowed into Russia.
He also settled any questions about where he stands on a number of controversial matters, such as consolidating the country's 89 provinces into bigger regions. "We've passed that stage in our history," Putin said, adding that individual cases of tangled jurisdiction could go forward, but only if initiated by local residents or legislatures.
He also spoke out against returning the city of Volgograd to its World War II name of Stalingrad. Those who died fighting in the bloody, watershed campaign deserve the country's untold respect, he said, but renaming the city would be taken abroad as a step back toward communism.
Putin answered several personal questions, as well, saying he wears his watch on his right hand not because he is left-handed but because he finds it more comfortable.
An 11-year-old girl in the timber-rich, Far East region of Birobidzhan asked why her town had erected an artificial holiday tree this year. Putin suggested the governor provide a real one.
Such appeals reinforce the image of Putin as a traditional "good tsar" whom Russians can directly petition to curb the abuses and incompetence of lower bureaucrats. His public opinion ratings reached a record 83 percent last month, well into the third year of his presidency.
Looking ahead to next year, Putin said the government will pursue financial reform, including tax cuts, and that "serious steps" will be taken to restructure the country's massive so-called natural monopolies.