Thursday, December 4, 2008

Putin: Russia will survive difficult period

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this week continued a tradition he started while he was president by holding his annual nationwide televised question and answer session with the public. Given the global economic crisis, it's not surprising that many of the questions in the three-hour broadcast focused on the economy. Putin said that inflation in Russia would likely hit 13% this year, while the economy was expected to grow around 7% this year and only projected to grow by 3% in 2009. Strong economic growth was a hallmark of Putin's two terms as president. Putin went on to say that it was possible that the government would buy "large scale" stakes in major Russian corporations and banks to help stabilize them in the global crisis, but ruled out nationalizing any of them. Putin said there would be no sharp devaluations of the ruble - a fear in the back of the minds of many Russians who recall when the country's currency suddenly collapsed during Russia's last economic crisis in 1998.

On the international front, Putin hoped for better US-Russian relations when President Obama takes office. He did have tough talk for Ukraine though, threatening to cut off supplies of natural gas if Ukraine does not pay up on back debts owed to Russian gas suppliers. Not only is Ukraine a major consumer of natural gas from Russia, but it also hosts major pipelines that carry Russian gas into Europe. Russia has warned Ukraine not to siphon off gas bound for Europe to use in Ukraine if the outstanding bills are not paid. It is another factor contributing to the already tense relations between Ukraine and Russia.

Putin tried to squash rumors that President Dmitry Medvedev will soon step down to allow Putin to return to the presidency saying their "tandem" rule of the country had been working well. He did not rule out running for president again in 2012, when Medvedev's term expires. Russian law does not prevent Putin from running for a third term; a person is only kept from serving more than two consecutive terms.

Finally, a brief note on the coverage of Putin's speech in the Western media: like much of the coverage of Russia, it tends to miss some important points. Putin spoke mostly about the economy, but reports in Reuters and the Associated Press gave a lot of space to talking about the idea that Putin would try to retake the presidency and to a comment he made about wanting to hang Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "by the balls", a crude and silly comment (Saakashvili's reply was something along the lines that Putin didn't have enough rope) that really isn't worth a lot of discussion (plus it was made a few weeks ago anyway). The AP noted that Putin, rather than Medvedev, was dealing with the economy - but under the Russian system dealing with the economy is the prime minister's responsibility, so it just makes sense that Putin would discuss it extensively during his Q-and-A. Reuters noted that Medvedev hasn't done one of these town hall-style meetings, implying that he's distant from the public. But what Reuters failed to note is that Medvedev regularly posts a video blog (Putin himself notes that Medvedev is far more tech-savvy than he), which is a very direct, and modern, way for the president to stay in touch with the people.
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