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A Chance To Plead: Few Muckrakers At Annual Putin Event

Many in attendance did not necessarily have traditional journalistic questions to ask, instead coming to the capital to air their concerns about specific local issues and make their voices heard.
Many in attendance did not necessarily have traditional journalistic questions to ask, instead coming to the capital to air their concerns about specific local issues and make their voices heard.

MOSCOW -- Anna Sunitsa arrived in the Russian capital with a dream and a plan. The dream was to get Vladimir Putin's attention, and the plan was to wave a traditional head scarf she had adorned with a sewn-on image of the president's face.

Putin was holding an annual event the Kremlin bills as his Big Press Conference, a staple of his 20 years in power. Sunitsa was one of hundreds of reporters who flocked to Moscow's International Trade Center for a chance to ask a question at the December 19 gathering.

All were accredited journalists -- 1,895 media workers were on the Kremlin's invite list this year, a record that was duly reported by state news agencies.

But many did not necessarily have traditional journalistic questions to ask, instead coming to the capital to air their concerns about specific local issues and make their voices heard.

It's a dynamic that seems to have come to the fore at the closely choreographed annual press conference in recent years, and observers say it's part of the point: to depict Putin as the ultimate arbiter and last resort for Russians across the country, and as a caring leader who may come through when local authorities have failed.

A journalist from Yekaterinburg asked for a new subway line in her city, Russia's fourth-largest. Another, from the Kamchatka Peninsula -- 6,500 kilometers east of Moscow -- lamented the rising cost of airline tickets. Others said they wanted to invite Putin to visit their region.

Sunitsa, who works for a TV channel called Raduga (Rainbow), said she had just one question she wanted to ask Putin: Could he add her city, Pavlovsky Posad, to a list of destinations on the Golden Ring, a series of centuries-old towns around Moscow that are major tourist destinations?

At every opportunity, Sunitsa stood up in the huge conference room hoping the president -- seated on a stage in front of a backdrop with wording in a series of foreign languages, a gesture to the foreign reporters there -- or his spokesman would pick her.

"I made this head scarf to attract Putin's attention to our historic town," said Sunitsa, who repeatedly waved the garment and shouted "tourism" -- a reference to the general topic of the proposed question. "We have very big plans that I think he'll be interested in."

Others in the auditorium wore the traditional dress of their ethnic minorities, and some had on helmets or hard hats to advocate for construction and other infrastructure projects in their cities or towns.

Tuning Out

The level of interest inside the massive room did not seem to be matched outside, big TV buildup notwithstanding. For two days beforehand, flagship state news channel Rossia-24 showed a large portrait of Putin with a countdown clock in red lettering, which covered half the screen.

Viewing figures are hard to come by, but this year screenshots showing the "like" to "dislike" ratio for various live streams of the event on YouTube appeared to show a largely negative response.

It was the 15th such press conference for Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, and some find the format tired.

"I don't understand why it is so interesting to watch and discuss Putin's annual press conference," Ivan Bulshakov, head of the analytical department at the opposition party Yabloko, wrote on Facebook.

"He does not say anything new at such events; he does not announce managerial decisions. The main narrative of these conferences is, 'I'm not going to change anything.'"

Twitter user Pani Zalewska wrote that in her train car, someone was listening to Putin's press conference on their mobile phone. "Can't you listen to it through your headphones!?!'" he was asked.

Clips from Putin's press conference in 2001, a year into his first presidential term, throw the event's transformation over the years into stark relief. That year, a more solemn and intimate setting had none of the pageantry and glitz of its later incarnations, and Putin was forced several times to address sensitive topics such as the war in Chechnya and the sinking of the Kursk submarine.

At this year's packed event, hard-hitting questions on the ongoing war in Ukraine and Putin's family -- some of which he outright ignored -- were interspersed with numerous pleas for help and monologues praising the longtime Russian leader. There was no question about the big summer protests for democratic elections and the aggressive government crackdown that followed.

After four hours and 18 minutes -- not a record, but pretty close -- Putin wrapped it up by wishing everyone a happy New Year. At a corner shop opposite the venue, the vicinity of which was packed with security-service officers and National Guardsmen blocking the roads and diverting traffic, highlights of Putin's remarks played on a screen as Madina, the shopkeeper, watched.

Asked about her impressions, she had little to say. "I don't really care," she said, propping up her head on her hands with a disinterested expression. "The TV's on, so let him talk. I've got things to do."

Sunitsa, in the end, did not get to ask her question. She resigned herself to returning home to Pavlovsky Posad and plotting a return in 2020 -- nearly four years before Putin's current term is due to end.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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