MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin held court Thursday, throwing open the virtual doors of his residence outside Moscow to take questions from reporters and ordinary citizens on a variety of topics over several hours in what has become an annual tradition.
At the beginning of the press conference, he said he has yet to receive the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine given the order of priority has not reached his age group.
The conference is a pillar of Putin’s domestic image building, and something of a fixture in the holiday season in Russia. He has done this almost every year of his rule as president of Russia. What started as a simple hourlong call-in show on state television has become a marathon production designed to portray Putin as a transparent and a caring leader.
For several hours each year, Putin sits and take questions — ostensibly selected at random — on a variety of topics, from small-scale domestic issues to big-picture foreign policy developments. In the past, citizens from far-flung regions have been patched through to beg for help on extremely local issues. Putin then would sometimes call local officials right away to berate them for mismanagement.
The Covid-19 pandemic has complicated the format of this year’s event, and at one point even threatened to cancel it entirely. But the Kremlin chose to push ahead with an entirely virtual version. Putin dialed in from his residence outside Moscow, rather than join more than 1,000 reporters in a large conference center within the city limits as in previous years.
A big question this year will then be how this changes the tone and flow of the conference. One typical mainstay of the event has been the lengths that Russian journalists would go to in order to catch his attention when he was taking a new question. Catchy posters, elaborate costumes — it was all fair game when Putin got on stage for the annual Q&A session.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters last week to expect a “rather lengthy and informative event,” though he did not specify how long Putin plans to talk or what kinds of issues he hopes to address. But there are a number of pressing issues that Putin is likely to touch on, most prominently — from a domestic perspective — being the pandemic.
Russia’s regions are being hit hard by the virus amid the second wave, and the health care system in many remote areas are being pushed to the limit. There have been reports of shortages not only of critical medicines, but also of hospital beds and medical personnel to tend to critical patients.
Thursday’s conference was also the first time that Putin will be making a prominent public appearance after finally recognizing President-elect Joe Biden as the winner of the U.S. presidential election, and it is likely that Putin will address in detail Moscow’s priorities vis-a-vis Washington, D.C., as it makes its first contacts with the incoming administration.
But the major question hanging over Putin’s conference is recent investigative reports that demonstrate the Russian Federal Security Service — the successor agency to the Soviet KGB — has tried multiple times to assassinate the leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny, currently in Berlin recovering from a poisoning by a Russian nerve agent earlier this year.
It remains to be seen whether or not questions about these allegations will make their way to Putin’s podium. Peskov, his spokesman, canceled his usual daily briefing with reporters the morning after reports of the FSB operations against Navalny broke and said no further daily briefings would take place before Putin’s conference Thursday.
But this annual tradition looks certain to outlast the pandemic. In March, the Russian Parliament approved a sweeping constitutional reform that will allow Putin, 68, to stay in power for another 12 years after his current term ends in 2024.