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As Putin Addresses Nation In Stage-Managed Show, Some Viewers Say It's Time To Go

Journalists watch the annual nationwide televised phone-in show with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press center in Moscow on June 20.

MOSCOW -- As Vladimir Putin addressed the nation in the 17th iteration of his annual TV call-in show, one viewer had just a single question for the Russian president: "When will you leave?"

It was part of a steady stream of text messages that were sent from across the country and flashed up onscreen at irregular intervals, while Putin sought to assuage ordinary Russians and appear in tune with their concerns in the marathon Direct Line program on June 20.

Some of the texts gave thanks to the president: for paving the way for residents of parts of eastern Ukraine held by Moscow-backed separatists to receive Russian passports, or for displaying defiance toward the West. But many offered bleak assessments of his 20 years in power, clashing with the laudatory narrative advanced daily on state TV.

"What will we do when the gas and oil run out?" one viewer asked in an SMS, citing fears that Russia's economy is excessively dependent upon its natural resources.

"What's the point of your direct addresses, if nothing dismal ever changes for the better?" read another message, whose sender signed off as Pavel Kryuchkov.

"You've been in power longer than Brezhnev," said another text, referring to the Soviet leader who ruled for 18 years until his death in November 1982. "And we live in poverty just like we used to."

Putin, who has been president or prime minister since August 1999, riffed for over four hours on the state of Russia's economy, its foreign-policy challenges, and other issues of concern. He took questions asked over live video links from Russia's regions, or read out by presenters in the studio.

Text messages were just one of the methods available to viewers keen to challenge their president. It's unclear how operators chose among the questions sent by text message, or whether some were blacklisted from the carefully stage-managed event. But the tone of many texts suggested that amid falling ratings for the Russian government, including for Putin himself, there are angry calls for change in the country.

Russian-language Twitter was full of posts suggesting that Putin's call-in show had lost its originality, or that Russians were sick of hearing the same answers on the same seemingly intractable issues that have dogged Russia for years.

Live streams of the show on the YouTube accounts of Russian state media channels suggested the presence of a very critical audience. According to screen grabs posted by one Russian Twitter user, an overwhelming ratio of people was clicking the "dislike" button beneath the videos.

"The format is getting more and more tired," said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, in comments to Bloomberg.

The flames of discontent were being fanned by opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, whose YouTube channel ran an alternative live stream of Putin's address with caustic and mocking commentary, highlighting the level of corruption among officials and fact-checking Putin's every statement.

It was the second time Navalny has offered an alternative take on a big Putin performance -- he did so with the president's annual press conference in December.

For some at least, the version aired by Navalny's team in Moscow appeared to provide food for thought, with around 30,000 people tuned in at any one time. Meanwhile, on the screens of state TV channels, the SMS questions kept popping up.

"Is it true what Navalny says? Is this really what's happening?" one viewer asked in a text. "That's nothing but banditism."

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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.