(RFE/RL) -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has once again
answered questions from members of the Russian public.
The question-and-answer sessions, broadcast live on radio and television, began when Putin was president. In style and tone, the marathon session with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared to differ little from past sessions with President Vladimir Putin.
Dressed in a somber, dark blue suit and impassively reciting a seemingly endless litany of accomplishments, facts, and statistics, Putin appeared very much the national leader he was before vacating his post earlier this year to Dmitry Medvedev.
As in the past, the latest session featured Putin submitting to dozens of questions from a wide-ranging assortment of ordinary Russians sitting in a studio audience or waiting patiently in one of many far-flung locations for a chance to address the prime minister.
The questions, never daring, usually touched on issues of domestic concern, but also allowed Putin to give discreet -- and sometimes indiscreet -- hints about Russia's foreign-policy course.
Putin this year gave considerable time to addressing Russia's mounting economic crisis, offering detailed responses to questions about housing, food prices, and rising unemployment.
Reiterating a popular theme with Russian officialdom, the prime minister laid blame for Russia's economic woes squarely on the United States.
"The crisis began in the United States, which as a result of the financial and economic power of that country, brought on this crisis and infected with the crisis the economies of practically all the leading countries of the world." Putin said. "And, definitely, this has affected us as well."'You Have To Pay'
At the same time, Putin addressed issues like the recent U.S. presidential election, expressing hope there would be "positive" changes in Moscow-Washington relations under Barack Obama's incoming administration.
He also hinted of a possible return to the presidency. "The next elections in the Russian Federation are in 2012...we will have to get through to that time, then we will see," he told a reporter.
Legislation was just rushed through parliament that extends the presidential term from four to six years, a move widely seen as benefiting Putin, should he decide to run again.
Putin also issued a warning to its near neighbors that Russia would cut natural-gas supplies that run through Ukraine to Europe if Kyiv fails to pay its bills or attempts to siphon off gas.
"You don't get things for free. You have to pay," Putin said. "Our partner say, 'Let us pay last year's prices....' How can we keep last year's prices when even now our Ukrainian partners are already getting gas from us at nearly half the price Europe pays?"
In general, such question-and-answer programs have been chided for their orchestrated feel, with Putin rarely confronted on controversial issues.
This year's appearance seemed no different -- if anything, the significance lies in the fact that Putin saw fit to continue the tradition despite the fact that he is no longer president.
Such confidence, to many observers, only underscores the impression he remains the country's de facto leader -- and may ultimately return to the presidency when Medvedev's term ends in 2012, if not earlier.