(MOSCOW) – Russia’s President Vladimir Putin used his annual marathon call-in-show to convince Russians to get the coronavirus vaccination as the country faces a devastating third wave of the epidemic.
A staple of Putin’s two-decade rule, the show sees him answering dozen of questions from ordinary citizens over about three hours while sitting on stage in front of telephone banks where volunteers make calls.
In addition to the big questions of the day – about the economy or relations with Western countries – Putin also accepts appeals from Russians asking him to help with local problems, including repairing the pothole road in their city.
The heavily promoted and carefully choreographed show allows Putin to present himself as a leader who touches even the smallest everyday worries of his people and is able to solve any problem. After Putin is asked a question, local officials usually go out of their way to fix the problem, making an appeal to the show similar to winning the lottery.
Russian state television said it had sent around 2 million questions to Putin, who was on the air for almost four hours on Wednesday.
Here are some of the key moments.
“The only way to overcome the epidemic is with the help of vaccinations”
A devastating third wave of the coronavirus pandemic is flooding Russia, which remains almost uncontrolled with few lockdown restrictions and a very slow pace of vaccination caused by the widespread reluctance of Russians.
Only about 11% of Russians are currently fully vaccinated, and it is estimated that two-thirds do not want to get it. In the past two weeks, this has led Moscow and several other regions to introduce compulsory vaccinations for most public workers – such as teachers and restaurant staff – making Russia the only country in the world to introduce large-scale compulsory vaccination.
Putin spent a significant portion of the call urging Russians to get vaccinated, saying this was the way to avoid lockdowns. But while he said that compulsory vaccination was correct in some regions, he did not consider himself to fully support the controversial decision, but presented it to local authorities.
“As you know, I said that I do not support compulsory vaccination. I continue to take this point of view, ”said Putin. However, he added that in some regions there was a need for “certain categories” of citizens to be vaccinated.
“It is well known,” said Putin, “the only way to stop the spread of the epidemic is through vaccination.”
Throughout the pandemic, Putin has left it to regional authorities to announce unpopular decisions like partial bans, which analysts say is to avoid backlash for them.
“If I said I have the jab, it is”
Putin himself has been criticized for refusing to say which of Russia’s three vaccines he took and, unusually, failed to post a video of his vaccination, even after he said he had both vaccinations earlier this year.
In the call, Putin said for the first time that he had received Russia’s primary vaccine, Sputnik V. He said he hesitated between him and another Russian vaccine, EpiVacCorona from the Siberian Vector Institute, but opted for Sputnik V because it took longer to have permanent immunity.
“I assumed I needed protection for as long as possible, so I made the decision to get Sputnik V,” Putin said.
He said he briefly had a temperature of 37.2 degrees Celsius overnight after getting the vaccination, but in the morning it was over.
When asked why he hadn’t shown up to get the vaccine, Putin said he didn’t think it was important.
“I hope that the majority of the country’s citizens understand that when I say I got the bump, that’s how it is,” Putin said.
To confront a British warship near the Crimea
Putin downplayed an incident last week in which Russian fighter jets and ships faced a British Navy warship as it purposefully sailed through waters near Crimea to demonstrate that western countries do not recognize Russia’s occupation of the peninsula.
Putin called the incident a “provocation” by Britain and the United States, but rejected a question asking if he had brought Russia close to World War III.
“Even if we had sunk this ship, it would be hard to imagine that the world would be on the brink of a third world war. Because those who do that know that they will not emerge victorious from this 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 sought to gain more control over the Russian internet amid broader crackdown on dissenting opinions in the country.
The authorities have called for the platforms to remove “extremist” content – in reality, they often contain calls for peaceful protest against Putin.
There is growing speculation that Russia might block platforms like Twitter, but in the appeal, Putin said it hadn’t planned to.
“We have no intention of blocking anyone, but there are problems that they ask us to sell if they don’t comply with our demands and Russian laws,” Putin said.
He said foreign social media platforms would have to follow Russian laws to store data locally and said it was an insult to Russia to do something else.
“Like the surface of Venus”
Putin warned unusually urgently about the need to prepare for the effects of climate change on Russia. He often takes an ambiguous stance on global warming, which he usually acknowledges, but also often questions the role of humans in what one might expect from a ruler of a country that relies on fossil fuel exports.
When asked by a viewer why “nature is going crazy”, Putin said the increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions is not only the result of humans, but also of “global processes”. He said people need to minimize its impact or “it could have irreversible consequences”.
“Which could lead our planet to the state of Venus, where surface temperatures reach 500 degrees,” Putin said.
He found that 70% of Russian territory was in northern regions, large parts of which are permafrost.
“When all of this melts, it will have very serious social and economic consequences. And of course we have to be prepared for that, ”said Putin.
He said Russia will meet all of its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement and that its government has prepared a strategy for dealing with the effects of climate change on key sectors of the Russian economy.
“Appeal to the Tsar”
The call-in-show alludes heavily to an ancient trope in Russia petitioning the Tsar in which ordinary people beg Putin to solve their local problems, from settling labor disputes to poor gas deliveries.
Putin usually promises to look into the issues and local officials take action, with the implicit threat that those who fail will be punished. It gives the impression that Putin is a benevolent but stern ruler who speaks right and redresses the injustices of subordinate officials if only he can be reached.
Elena Kalinina from the Siberian region of Kemerovo asked Putin for help repairing the crumbling roof of her grandson’s school. She said that after she submitted her appeal, local education officials threatened to withdraw it.
Putin promised the woman that he would include the school in a renovation program and threateningly said, “Those who threaten you should better deal with their own problems.”
The governor of Kemerovo, within hours, ordered local officials to examine the condition of the school roof and find out who had threatened Kalinina.
The show is an attempt to portray Putin as “Tsar of Russia, defender of the nation, masterful boss with all the facts at hand, and strict 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.
About his potential successor
Putin changed Russia’s constitution last year to allow him to potentially stay in office until at least 2036, having served as president for four terms. Although the move was partly aimed at averting possible succession struggles, speculation about how Putin might handle his possible resignation from power has not gone.
A caller asked Putin if there was anyone he trusted to hand over power.
“On the one hand, there are no holy places and no irreplaceable people,” Putin replied. “On the other hand, my responsibility is of course to make recommendations to the people that define the position of the president. Of course, in due course I will be able to say who I think is worthy of leading Russia. “
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