IZHEVSK, Russia (Reuters) - In a stage-managed gesture of benevolence a year ahead of a presidential election, Russia’s Vladimir Putin flew 1,200 km (750 miles) to call in on a woman living in squalor and ordered her to be rehoused immediately.
Putin’s carefully-choreographed trip to the woman’s Urals home, with state media on hand to cover, is part of a pre-election Kremlin drive to project the image of a caring leader as poverty rises nationwide and the economy slows.
Putin is expected to seek another term next March and, though he is all but certain to be re-elected by a landslide, he has shown he is eager to address mounting social grievances across his vast nation of 146 million.
Anastasia Votintseva had complained to the Kremlin leader during a televised question-and-answer session this month that she had to live in unsanitary conditions in a ramshackle wooden house.
She said she was afraid the ceiling would one day collapse onto her children. Putin, live on air, promised at the time to personally visit her and help solve her problem.
He made good on his promise on Tuesday, dropping in on Votintseva and her neighbours who live in a rickety, barracks-style two-storey house in the Urals mountain city of Izhevsk.
His visit was timed to coincide with the woman’s 27th birthday.
“I haven’t come empty-handed here,” the main Russian TV channels showed Putin telling Votintseva.
“There is also a present, simple but good. This is a trip to Sochi,” he said, to an applause by her neighbours, handing Votintseva a holiday certificate for her and her children to visit Russia’s Black Sea resort.
“You’re my best present,” she told him, with tears of gratitude.
Votintseva, who shares a tiny apartment with her three children and a sister, said she had been due to be given new housing only in 2029.
“Re-house them by the end of this year,” Putin told the acting regional governor, Alexander Brechalov, in remarks shown by some news programmes.
In another case that won public’s attention, a young woman from the Arctic region of Murmansk complained to Putin during his live phone-in that she had developed an advanced case of cancer after being misdiagnosed in a local hospital.
State-controlled media later gave blanket coverage to a special operation by Russia’s emergencies ministry which sent a flying hospital to evacuate the woman for treatment to one of Moscow’s best oncological centres.
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Richard Balmforth