June 15, 2017 / 3:07 PM / 3 months ago

Dissent gets a cameo role at Putin phone-in session

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with journalists following a live nationwide broadcast call-in in Moscow, Russia June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Some Russians believe President Vladimir Putin’s annual question-and-answer session with voters is a stage-managed show where PR managers filter out any questions that could make the Russian president sweat.

As if to disprove the point, this year a number of awkward questions made it onto the air -- albeit briefly.

“Perhaps you’re tired and you should quit?” read one question, which flashed up behind Putin on a screen in the state television studio where the session was being hosted.

Another comment appearing for a few seconds in the corner of television screens declared: “The whole of Russia thinks you’ve outstayed your welcome on your throne.”

The questions would be standard fare in countries with a rough-and-tumble political culture, but in Russia, where Putin is widely treated with a deference reinforced by adulatory state media coverage, they stood out for their boldness.

Russia holds a presidential election next year in which Putin is widely expected to run.

BREAD-AND-BUTTER ISSUES

The Kremlin and its allies in state media are trying to show they are receptive to criticism, especially as they compete for Russians’ attention with social media, where no-holds-barred criticism of the authorities is normal.

During the question-and-answer session, Putin was for the most part not asked to respond to any of the more awkward questions. Those citizens who put questions to him via phone or video link were respectful and steered away from politics, asking instead about bread-and-butter issues.

But towards the end of the four-hour session, the anchors of the broadcast read out a viewer’s comment complaining that the questions put to Putin were stage-managed.

The Russian president, rising to the challenge, picked out another viewer’s comment that had flashed up on a screen, about how it was time Russia got rid of Putin.

“Would you call that a stage-managed question?” Putin asked.

The event included other moments that appeared designed to convey that the Kremlin was willing to accommodate alternative points of view.

The perception that freedom of expression is being restricted in Russia -- denied by officials -- is a source of anger for many among the urban middle-classes, the kind of people who too part in protests earlier this week.

Alexei Uchitel, a director whose film about a love affair between a ballerina and the future Tsar Nikolai II scandalised some pro-Kremlin conservatives, was a guest in the studio. Putin slapped down the film’s critics, saying the director was a patriot.

“We have a big, complicated country, we have lots of people with lots of points of view,” Putin said.

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