Russian president Vladimir Putin assured citizens that he was trying to relieve the hardships inflicted on them by the slowing economy and the financial knock-on effects of Russia’s stand-off with the West.
Mr Putin used a televised phone-in, an annual event when he fields questions from ordinary citizens around the country, to strike a conciliatory tone on foreign policy, saying Russia wanted friendly relations with the rest of the world.
Wrapping up the event after three hours and 40 minutes, Mr Putin said he had heard a lot of impassioned questions from worried citizens. Many of the questions were about issues such as high inflation, poor public services and wage arrears.
“I share your concerns in nearly 100% of cases,” Mr Putin said. “We’ll work together so that your problems are relieved.”
Addressing public concerns over the economy is crucial for the Kremlin because Russians vote in a parliamentary election in September.
The phone-in did not feature criticism directed personally at Mr Putin. Executives at state television, which is deferential to the Kremlin, controlled who had the chance to pose questions. His critics say the phone-in is a ritual designed to mask the lack of true democracy.
However, the event provided an opportunity for Mr Putin to show he has voters’ interests at heart, in part by hauling officials over the coals for failing to protect citizens.
Mr Putin took questions via videolink from two women, Tatiana and Yelena, who said they had not been paid for months of work at a fish processing plant on a Pacific island, and that officials ignored their complaints.
The issue is a widespread one since Russia’s economy slowed, with businesses that are struggling with falling sales often delaying wages.
Live on air, Mr Putin instructed his prosecutor-general to think about firing the local prosecutor for failing to act on the complaints.
A few minutes later, Russian news agencies reported a criminal investigation had been launched into the fish processing plant.
On foreign policy, Mr Putin did not deploy the kind of bellicose rhetoric against the US and its allies that he has in the past few years.
He denied that Russia was surrounded by adversaries, said he favoured a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria, and said Russia wanted good ties with Turkey and Ukraine, with which relations have soured.
In return, he said, he asked that foreign powers should treat Russia as an equal partner.
He said he did not expect that Western countries would in the near future lift the sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, but added that Russia would adapt.
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