Analysis

Putin's annual press conference is a 4-hour love-in

The Kremlin billed it as Russian President Vladimir Putin's "Big Press Conference," though with all the adoring words followed by requests for help, Thursday's event often felt more like a scene from The Godfather than an exercise in journalism.

Question from rival presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak provokes a rare flash of irritation

For four hours Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin answered questions in what the Kremlin billed it as his 'Big Press Conference.' Most of the queries were adoring words followed by requests for help. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

"Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich, we all love and respect you. I ask you to help us," began the man from Vladivostok. "We ask you to assist in the preservation of these forest zones."

Russia's president, seated alone at the front of a room packed with more than 1,600 journalists, pronounced the loss of green space unacceptable and promised local authorities will be notified.

And so it went for the better part of four hours Thursday — questions to Putin as varied as why farmers in the Kurgan area of Central Asia were being prosecuted because their cows had GPS devices around their necks, to fish processing quotas in Murmansk, to local road projects in the enclave of Kaliningrad.

The Kremlin billed it as Putin's "Big Press Conference," though with all the adoring words followed by requests for help, the event often felt more like a scene from The Godfather than an exercise in journalism.

Many of Putin's answers were followed by sustained clapping.

While the Russian president has held such annual media gatherings for 14 years, his staff billed this event as the largest ever.

And with Putin up for re-election on March 18, Russia's state-controlled TV networks had been hyping the behind-the-scenes preparations (hauling in 35 tonnes of equipment) and all the work (performed by 400 technicians) that was being put into giving Putin the best possible platform to get his message out.
Only twice were Western media outlets — The Associated Press and ABC of the United States — called on, although many networks had flown in correspondents for the occasion. The room was packed with more 1,600 journalists. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

With a domestic audience top of mind, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov made sure no region of the vast country missed out on getting a question — or getting to remind the president in the politest way possible about what more he could be doing for them.

Only twice were Western media outlets — The Associated Press and ABC of the United States — called on, although many networks had flown in correspondents for the occasion.

Putin touched briefly on the Olympic doping scandal, suggesting it is largely a Western scheme concocted to make him look bad during the elections. When asked, he suggested Donald Trump is doing a good job as U.S. president, since the stock markets and job market are strong.

It was a question from TV presenter turned Putin rival and presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak that elicited one of the few flashes of irritation from the Russian leader.

"I have a question about the competition in this election," said Sobchak, a political rookie who has polled in the single digits since announcing she would run.
TV presenter turned Putin rival and presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak elicited one of the few flashes of irritation from Putin. 'People understand that being an oppositionist in Russia means that either you will be killed or you will be imprisoned. Why does this happen?" she demanded. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Many in Russia believe her candidacy was approved by the Kremlin only because the government believes she has no chance of winning, yet her fame could keep voters from tuning out of the contest.

She wondered why Putin adversary and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny faced "fictitious" criminal charges that made him ineligible to run.

Opponent ditches the usual deference

Ditching the usual deference that Putin tends to receive from opponents, she pointedly asked about the intimidation many who've opposed him have been subjected to.

"People understand that being an oppositionist in Russia means that either you will be killed or you will be imprisoned. Why does this happen?" she pressed.

The Russian leader shot back that such "characters" have no plan or policies and are simply out to "destabilize" Russia,  suggesting in effect, that any outcome other than his re-election would lead to the kind of political turmoil experienced next door in Ukraine.

In 2014, a popular uprising deposed Ukraine's Russian-backed leader.

"We do not want the second edition of today's Ukraine for Russia. No, we do not want and will not allow it," Putin said to more wild applause.

The confrontation was a short-lived flash of controversy in an exercise that was largely about projecting Putin's unquestioned authority into the far corners of Russia.

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a National Reporter in Vancouver, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.