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'What Are We, A Banana Republic?': The Biting Questions Putin Didn’t Answer

For the second straight year, President Vladimir Putin’s annual call-in show featured questions and biting criticism apparently texted in by the public. He ignored the most scathing ones.
For the second straight year, President Vladimir Putin’s annual call-in show featured questions and biting criticism apparently texted in by the public. He ignored the most scathing ones.

During this year's annual call-in show, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not field any questions from the public or the moderators that were sharply critical of his 18-year tenure in power.

But such questions -- along with bitingly sarcastic quips -- were not absent altogether from the four-hour program on June 7. Many flashed on the giant screen in the studio where it was filmed and in graphics shown during the live broadcast.

"Our lives are getting worse and worse. It’s in the Kremlin that everything is wonderful," read one comment, appearing in a text box on the screen as Putin glanced down at some documents, pen in hand.

It was the second straight year that the call-in show featured critical questions said to have been texted in by members of the public. In 2017, these included comments like, "All of Russia thinks you've overstayed your time on the throne" and, "Do you really think that the people believe these staged questions?"

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov even said last year that the studio was arranged in such a way so that Putin "couldn’t help but see" hardball questions.

Putin has long rejected criticism of the Kremlin’s tightening control over the country's media landscape and often points to a handful of media outlets critical of the authorities as evidence of media freedoms in Russia.

Putin did address several text messages but didn't touch the more incendiary ones aimed at him and his government.

WATCH: More Questions Than Answers: The Awkward Queries Putin Ignored

More Questions Than Answers: The Awkward Queries Putin Ignored
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One message shown this year read: "There's no money, but you hang in there." That's a reference to a widely mocked comment by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during a May 2016 visit to Crimea -- which Russia had seized from Ukraine two years earlier.

Medvedev made the remark
while being harangued by locals over their pensions not being indexed to rising living costs, and then retreated from the crowd.

Other text messages this year concerned Russian opposition leader and Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny, who was prevented from running in the March presidential election due to a financial-crimes conviction that he calls politically motivated.

"Why wasn't Aleksei Navalny allowed to register as a presidential candidate?" one question read.

"Why were the May 5 demonstrations in support of Navalny suppressed?" another question read, referring to nationwide protests that ultimately landed Navalny in jail for 30 days after he was found guilty of violating laws on public gatherings.

Other messages criticized the standard of living for average Russians compared to the country’s leaders and the citizens of other major oil producers.

"There's oil in the Middle East, people there live in skyscrapers. Why do half of Russians live in barracks?" read another.

Other comments accused the Kremlin of propaganda.

"I love Russia but I hate Soviet-style propaganda," said one. "Enough already."

"Why are all of these 'Direct Lines' so staged? Is VVP [Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin] scared of the truth?" another said.

Ahead of the World Cup soccer tournament being held in Russia and beginning this month, there were soccer questions as well -- including about Russian billionaires buying soccer clubs in England and elsewhere.

"When will our oligarchs buy our soccer clubs?" one question said.

The animus toward Russia's rich and politically connected was not only linked to soccer.

"People are slaves to your oligarchs. And you're well aware of it. And we see everything and understand. How should we live?" one question read.

The question of public toilets in the Russian capital's subway system popped up as well.

"The Moscow Metro is an entire underground city, and it doesn't have a single public toilet."

Produce prices provided some fodder for a dig about the country’s economy and political system: "Why are bananas here twice as cheap as apples? What are we, a banana republic?"

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.