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Hardball: Nine (Real) Questions For Putin


Russian President Vladimir Putin contemplating a question during one of his annual marathon news conferences in Moscow.

In the past, many of the questions that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been asked at his annual news conferences have been less than hard-hitting.

"How are you and do you need any help?" one reporter asked last year, prompting Putin to engage in a brief, flirtatious exchange.

Rather than produce actual news, the yearly event -- this year set for December 19 -- seems​ designed to display Putin's swagger and his skill at projecting the image of showman and statesman, a "good tsar" as some of his supporters have called him.

As in previous years, Putin will field questions (he answered 66 last year) over the course of several hours (about four hours last year) before an audience of Russian and foreign journalists, some of whom have flown in from abroad or from far-flung corners of the country. A total of 1,895 have been accredited for this year's event, though not all will attend.

Five Fawning Questions From Putin's Q&A
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The news conference is typically orchestrated by Putin's longtime spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who has sometimes appeared to pick journalists from the crowd based on the signs they wave from their seats -- though this year, Russian media reports say posters, flags, and other such items are not allowed. In other cases, questions seem certain to have been coordinated in advance.

To be sure, not all of the questions posed to Putin have been warm and fuzzy.

This Journalist Has Asked Putin The Same Question 4 Years In A Row
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But here's a short list of harder questions that may or may not get asked -- but probably should -- at the event:

Vladimir Vladimirovich, the Russian Constitution bars you from seeking reelection when your term ends in 2024. Facing a similar constraint in 2008, you and your allies turned to your old St. Petersburg protege, Dmitry Medvedev, to take the reins. Will you step down in 2024, and who do you think should take your place?

Putin has been president or prime minister since 1999, and his political future has been under close scrutiny since before his latest election in March 2018. Few expect him to go into a quiet retirement in 2024, and there is constant speculation about what path he might take to retain power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file phto)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file phto)

Vladimir Vladimirovich, a Union State linking Russia and Belarus has been in the works for decades, and you and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus were supposed to put the final touches on closer integration earlier this month. It didn't happen. Why not? Did "Batka" outsmart you? And why exactly are you pushing so hard?

Despite the economic levers Russia holds over far smaller Belarus, Lukashenka has managed to avoid ceding sovereignty to Moscow in years of negotiations. Russia has been pressing harder for tighter ties lately, stoking speculation that Putin might be hoping to use a closer union with Belarus as a vehicle to keep a hold on power past 2024.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, disposable income is falling. Taxes are up. Bankruptcies are up. Poverty levels are up. Pensions have been cut. Is Russia stagnating?

By many accounts, 2020 could be a tough year for the economy -- and by extension, for the Kremlin. State planners have been hoping for 3 percent annual growth in gross domestic product, as a way to decisively pull Russia into the ranks of major developed countries. But that may be a pipe dream; the World Bank says Moscow will be lucky if it gets above 1.2 percent in 2020.

The government is hoping that the benefits from the six-year, $400 billion National Projects effort will begin to materialize this year. Some forecasts say they will, as a pent-up backlog of orders and spending begins showing up in economic figures.

Economic woes are dragging on Putin's popularity and deepening the unpopularity of the ruling party, United Russia.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, Russia now has 102 billionaires, and yet there are schools that don't have indoor plumbing, roads that evoke centuries past, and an increasing number of people in poverty. A good number of those billionaires are friends of yours, or allies, or judo sparring partners, who have gotten sweetheart-deal government contracts. Why has corruption gotten worse under your presidency?

A perennial gripe for Russians of all stripes -- corruption, particularly that involving state contacts and public sector workers -- has grown over Putin's 20 years in power. It's something that he's been hammered on by opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, whose exposes on Putin's spokesman, his defense minister, and his prime minister, have captivated Russians.

The moniker Navalny coined for United Russia -- "The Party of Crooks and Thieves" -- has helped pummel its popularity. Putin has largely been able to avoid being personally tarred -- despite evidence, from the leak of legal documents known as the Panama Papers and elsewhere, that he and his family may have billions stashed offshore.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (file photo)
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (file photo)

Vladimir Vladimirovich, for more than five years, Russia has been at war in Ukraine. Dutch investigators say the Russian military supplied the missile that killed 298 people on board a Malaysian airliner. The International Criminal Court says Russian armed forces are fighting there. Russians are coming home in body bags. You and your military officials have consistently denied involvement, despite substantial, if not overwhelming, evidence that Russia has funded and supplied fighters. Why is Russia fighting in Ukraine, and what are you doing to stop it?

Since the now-famous "little green men" and "polite people" in Crimea, Russian officials have insisted that those fighting against Kyiv's forces in eastern Ukraine are disaffected locals and that regular Russian troops have not been involved. Moscow needs to maintain the fiction for multiple reasons, one being that the notion that one European country has invaded another, and fomented war there, is something not seen on the continent since World War II.

The circumstances surrounding the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 also complicates things: Dutch prosecutors have not only identified the Russian unit that allegedly supplied the missile system, they've identified four people they say are directly involved in the control and command of it. In addition to asking Russia to turn the four -- three Russians, one Ukrainian -- over for prosecution, the Dutch have released audio recordings in which top Russian civilian and military officials are heard discussing policy decisions in Ukraine.

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If Putin were to acknowledge the presence of Russian armed forces in Ukraine, it would expose senior government officials to potential legal problems.

The Kremlin may hope that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's eagerness to resolve the conflict will enable Russia to wiggle out of admitting what most informed observers say is an established fact -- while also maintaining influence over Ukraine. But after Putin's first meeting with Zelenskiy, on December 9, peace hardly seems imminent.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, "Sent Candy" and "Worked It" are some of the phrases that Russian air force pilots purportedly uttered as they bombed civilian targets in Syria. We've heard the recordings, we've seen published evidence in The New York Times and elsewhere. Your forces, Russian forces, may have committed war crimes. Your allies, the Syrian military, has used poison gas on civilians. What are you doing about the atrocities committed in the Syrian war?

When Putin launched air strikes and increased Russia's military presence on the ground in Syria in 2015, it helped turn the tide of the war there in favor of President Bashar al-Assad's government -- and also bolstered Russia's clout in the Middle East. But the Russian campaign has also brought growing allegations and evidence of potential atrocities and war crimes.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, Russian intelligence agencies, and at least one Russian company, have been accused by the United States of interfering in the U.S. election campaign in 2016. The business that has been accused is owned by a man who has extensive work with the Kremlin. The United States has presented damning evidence pointing to your government's involvement. Are you prepared to pledge not to meddle either in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, or any other countries' elections?

Moscow has been accused of meddling in several countries' political systems in past years, the United States first and foremost. U.S. intelligence agencies, congressional committees, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and news reporters have compiled substantial evidence pointing to a coordinated effort by Russian military intelligence, as well as the company known informally as the "troll factory" owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin.

A young woman watches Vladimir Putin's annual press conference on a mobile device in a Moscow subway station. (file photo)
A young woman watches Vladimir Putin's annual press conference on a mobile device in a Moscow subway station. (file photo)

Aside from the usual Kremlin denials, Putin has laughed off the allegations, and mocked them. U.S. officials have warned that Russia may try to sway American voters again in the 2020 presidential election—and may already be doing so.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, Russia's constitution guarantees Russians' right to worship as they see fit. Yet, the government has been accused of using laws designed to prevent "extremism" as a pretext to restrict not only opposition groups, but also religious groups. The Jehovah's Witnesses, in particular, have been targeted; there are nearly 300 criminal cases ongoing against individuals. In the past, you've suggested that you didn't support how the Jehovah's Witnesses were being targeted. And yet, just this week, a Jehovah's Witness in Penza was sentenced to six years in prison under the law. Why are law enforcement agencies targeting religious groups like this?

The legislation known as the Yarovaya Law went into effect in 2016, significantly tightening rules for how religious groups can meet, worship, as well as advertise or proselytize for new members.

The law doesn't have any effect on the country's four "traditional faiths"-- Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism -- or other major Christian denominations like the Roman Catholic Church. But those with a smaller presence are worried, and have complained that it adds yet more onerous and expensive bureaucratic rules to comply with. Aside from the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons are sometimes viewed with suspicion, and Pentecostalists, Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists have also faced harassment.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, in 2012, your return to the presidency was greeted with sizable political protests, from people who consider the Russian political system to be rigged. Since that time, opposition groups have become increasingly vocal, thanks in part to Navalny, and opposition figures have been increasingly targeted by law enforcement. Why is the Kremlin afraid of opposition groups?

Veteran Kremlin adviser Vladislav Surkov is purported to have coined the term "managed democracy"— which denotes a system whereby the executive branch, the Kremlin, allows for some nominal competition among political groups, but only within preset parameters. Out of style now, it remains an apt description of how Putin views Russia's political system as well as a reflection of how the Kremlin views Putin: as someone who's supposed to float above the system.

Vladimir Putin (right) confers with his adviser Vladislav Surkov (file photo)
Vladimir Putin (right) confers with his adviser Vladislav Surkov (file photo)

In fact, Putin does little that is associated with elections: campaigning, holding rallies, debating opponents. It's worked in as much that Putin is genuinely popular. But that's also due in no small part to the fact that no viable potential opponents have been allowed to build an alternative political movement to challenge Putin.

In the run-up to 2024 and Putin's scheduled departure, the lack of a genuine alternative could turn out to be problematic.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent in Prague, where he reports on developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and money laundering. Before joining RFE/RL in 2015, he worked for the Associated Press in Moscow. He has also reported and edited for The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera America, Voice of America, and the Vladivostok News.

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