(MOSCOW) — Russia’s President Vladimir Putin used his annual marathon call-in show to try to persuade Russians to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, as the country faces a devastating third wave of the epidemic.
The show is a fixture of Putin’s two-decade rule and sees him take dozens of questions from ordinary citizens over around three hours while sitting on stage in front of phone banks where volunteers field calls.
Besides big questions of the day — around the economy or relations with Western countries — Putin also takes appeals from Russians asking him to help with local problems, down to fixing the pot-holed road in their town.
The heavily promoted and carefully choreographed show allows Putin to present himself as a leader in touch with even the smallest, everyday concerns of his people and able to solve any problem. After a question is put to Putin, local officials will usually scramble to fix the issue, making getting an appeal onto the show akin to winning the lottery.
Russian state television said around 2 million questions were sent in for Putin, who was on air for nearly four hours Wednesday.
Here are some of the key moments.
‘The only way to overcome the epidemic is with the help of vaccination’
A devastating third wave of the coronavirus pandemic is swamping Russia, left almost unchecked with few lockdown restrictions and a very slow pace of vaccination caused by widespread reluctance among Russians.
Only around 11% of Russians are currently fully vaccinated, and two-thirds are estimated to not want to get it. In the past two weeks, that has prompted Moscow and several other regions to introduce mandatory vaccinations for most public-facing workers — such as teachers and restaurant staff — making Russia the only country in the world to introduce large-scale obligatory vaccination.
Putin spent a significant part of the call urging Russians to get vaccinated, saying it was the way to avoid lockdowns. But while he said the mandatory vaccination in some regions was correct, he stopped short of giving his full-throated backing to the controversial decision, instead putting it on local authorities.
“I have said, as you know, that I don’t support mandatory vaccination. I continue to hold to that point of view,” Putin said. But he added it was necessary in some regions for it to be obligatory for “certain categories” of citizens to be vaccinated.
“It’s very well-known,” Putin said, “the only way to overcome the further spreading of the epidemic is with the help of vaccination.”
Throughout the pandemic, Putin has left announcing unpopular decisions, such as partial lockdowns, to regional authorities, which analysts say is to avoid taking backlash for them.
‘If I said I got the jab, that’s how it is’
Putin himself has faced criticism for refusing to say which of Russia’s three vaccines he has taken and, unusually, not releasing video of him getting vaccinated, even after he said he had received both shots early this year.
In the call-in, Putin for the first time said he received Russia’s primary vaccine, Sputnik V. He said he had hesitated between it and another Russian vaccine, EpiVacCorona made by the Siberian Vektor Institute, but opted for Sputnik V because it gave longer lasting immunity.
“I started from the basis that I need to be protected as long as possible, and so I took the decision for myself to get Sputnik V,” Putin said.
He said he briefly had a temperature of 37.2 Celsius overnight after getting the jab, but by morning it had passed.
Asked why he hadn’t shown himself getting the vaccine, Putin said he thought it wasn’t important.
“I hope that the majority of the citizens of country understand that if I said I got the jab, that’s how it is,” Putin said.
On confrontation with British warship near Crimea
Putin downplayed an incident last week where Russian fighter jets and ships confronted a British navy warship as it pointedly sailed through waters close to Crimea to demonstrate Western countries don’t recognize Russia’s occupation of the peninsula.
Putin called the incident a “provocation” from Britain and the United States, but dismissed a question asking if it had brought Russia close to World War III.
“Even if we had sunk that ship its difficult to imagine that the world would be on the edge of a third World War. Because those who are doing that know they won’t come out the winners in that war,” Putin said.
On social media platforms
Recently, Russia’s state censor threatened to block Twitter and other foreign social media platforms as the Kremlin has sought to bring Russia’s internet under tighter control amid a broader crackdown on dissent in the country.
Authorities have demanded the platforms remove “extremist” content — in reality often including calls to peacefully protest against Putin.
There has been growing speculation Russia might follow through in blocking platforms like Twitter, but in the call-in Putin said it did not plan to.
“We don’t intend to block anyone, but there are problems which consist in that they tell us to push off, when they don’t fulfil our demands and Russian laws,” Putin said.
He said foreign social media platforms must obey Russian laws to store data locally, saying to do otherwise was insulting to Russia.
‘Like the surface of Venus’
Putin made unusually strong warnings about the need to prepare for the impact of climate change on Russia. He frequently takes an ambiguous position on global warming, normally acknowledging it but also often questioning the role of humans in it, as might be expected from the ruler of a country reliant on exporting fossil fuels.
Asked by a viewer why “nature is going crazy,” Putin said the growing frequency of extreme weather was the result not just of humans but of “global processes.” He said humans must minimize their impact or “there might be irreversibly consequences.”
“Which might lead our planet to the state of Venus, where temperatures on the surface reach 500 degrees,” Putin said.
He noted that 70% of Russia’s territory was located in northern regions, large swathes of which are permafrost.
“If all that will melt, it will lead to very serious social and economic consequences. And we must, of course, be ready for that,” Putin said.
He said Russia will fulfil all its obligations to the Paris Climate Accord and that its government had prepared a strategy for handling the impact of climate change on key sectors of Russia’s economy.
‘Petitioning the tsar’
The call-in show plays heavily on an old trope in Russia of petitioning the tsar, where ordinary people plead with Putin to solve their local problems, from settling employment disputes to poor gas supplies.
Putin usually promises to look into the issues and local officials jump into action, with the implicit threat that those who fail to will face punishment. It creates the impression of Putin as a benevolent but severe ruler, dispensing justice and righting the wrongs of lower-level officials if only he can be reached.
Elena Kalinina from the Siberian region of Kemerovo appealed to Putin for help getting the crumbling roof of her grandson’s school repaired. She said after she sent her appeal, local education officials threatened her to withdraw it.
Putin promised the woman the school would be included in a renovation program and said, menacingly, “those who are threatening you would be better looking at their own problems.”
Kemerovo’s governor within hours ordered local officials to look into the state of the school’s roof and to find out who had threatened Kalinina.
The show is an attempt to portray Putin as “tsar of the Russias, defender of the nation, masterful chief exec with all the facts at his fingertips and stern and loving father of his people,” Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian politics and an associate fellow at the Royal United Service Institute, wrote on Twitter before the show.
On his potential successor
Putin last year changed Russia’s constitution to allow him to potentially remain in office until at least 2036, having already been president for four terms. Although the move was partly aimed at heading off possible succession fights, speculation over how Putin might handle his eventual exit from power hasn’t gone away.
One caller asked Putin if there was anyone he trusted to handover power to.
“On the one hand, there are no sacred places and there are no irreplaceable people,” Putin answered. “On the other hand, of course, my responsibility consists in giving recommendations to those people who will pretend to the position of the president. Of course, when the time comes, I will be able to say who, in my opinion, is worthy to head Russia.”
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