Vladimir Putin question and answer session in Russia

11.28am: A real question! Why did people start criticising you, Vasily Petrov wants to know?

Hilariously the line is immediately cut. There are several embarrassing beep beeps. The FSB, Russia’s security service, is apparently taking no chances. Can we get the caller back please, Putin asks.

Vasily Petrov is back on the line. He says that Putin’s name features on several “hit-lists” – disappointingly, the question is about extremism rather than about public discontent.

11.27am: Whooo! We’ve gone to Sochi, the Black Sea resort and host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Putin is fond of Sochi. He has several palaces there, an official one and a lavish unofficial one, according to reports. A group of workers wearing hard hats are standing in front of the unfinished Olympic stadium where the opening ceremony will take place.

Putin says infrastructure in Sochi will be “excellent”. The city will be a year-round resort, he says. There will be jobs and income. Last time I was in Sochi I had a pleasant beer in Tinkoffs, a micro-brewery on the city’s crowded promenade.

11.12am: Russia’s ombudsman raises the case of American parents who have fostered Russian children, and then gone on to kill them. This is an emotional theme in Russia, which plays into the Kremlin’s nationalist/anti-western narrative. “Maybe we should ban international adoptions,” the ombudsman says, to applause.

Putin says he’s not a fan of adoption by foreigners. (Strange. Putin personally helped Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s former chancellor, to adopt two orphans from St Petersburg. Schröder paid the favour back by going to work for NordStream, the consortium building a undersea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.) Adoption inside Russia should be promoted instead, Putin says.

11.02am: Natalia Alexeyevana asks a question. What would Putin have done, if he’d been in Gorby’s shoes when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991?

Putin talks fondly about Anatoly Sobchak, his former mentor and St Petersburg’s mayor in the early 1990s. Sobchak was a great democrat, he says. “He was an extremely fair person and honest person.” He says Gorby should have started economic and democratic reforms earlier and says things were even worse in the late 1990s, when Russia’s economy collapsed.

I note that several of my Moscow colleagues are now taking a coffee break.

Photograph: Alexander Natruskin/Reuters

10.55am: Putin is asked about Mikhail Prokhorov (pictured left), the 6ft 8in tall oligarch who earlier this week announced he is running for president. Prokhorov is a “strong candidate”, Putin says, adding that he can’t wish him success in March’s election “since I’m running myself”. There are suspicions that Prokhorov’s candidacy is a Kremlin ploy to create the illusion of political competition, and to siphon off disgruntled middle-class votes.

Putin goes on to state that liberal and opposition activists are in fact a treacherous fifth column working at the behest of foreign powers:

They are people who have Russian passports but who act in the interests of different states, and are funded with foreign money.

In other words, those who criticise his rule don’t act out of genuine motives but are in effect foreign agents. Classic KGB stuff.

I miss a couple of sentences but catch Putin declaring: “I’ve been a great fan of Kipling since childhood.”

10.40am: We’ve now going to Stavropol krai, an ethnic Russian region in the North Caucasus, on the edge of the current conflict there. A questioner complains about (Muslim) incomers not obeying local rules. Putin says that all countries have problems with immigrants. He points out that migrants from the North Caucasus are Russian citizens too.

10.34am: I’m beginning to find it rather hard to focus, after two-and-a-half hours of Putin-thon. We haven’t learned a huge amount so far. The only concrete suggestion Putin has come up with is to install surveillance cameras in polling booths to prevent future election fraud. He hasn’t apologised for the massive falsifications that took place during the 4 December Duma elections, overseen by local officials eager to please the tsar.

10.20am: A caller asks whether it’s time to “stop feeding the Caucasus”. Putin says migrants from the North Caucasus often pitch up in Russian cities without any skills or qualifications. The answer is to create new jobs in Chechnya and other southern Muslim republics, he says.

Putin goes on to praise Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s president, accused of numerous murders on his watch and human rights abuses. “He rebuilt Grozny like nobody else did,” Putin says. He describes corruption in Chechnya as “minimal”. Hilarious. Was that a pig I just saw flying past?

Photograph: Alberto Venzago/Colston Hall

10.07am: Valery Gergiev (pictured left), the principal conductor of the London Symphony orchestra and Kremlin loyalist, is asking a question. Gergiev likens Putin to the composer Sergei Prokoviev “who came up with a lot of different productions”. (Is this a way of saying Putin should go on and on?) Russia isn’t just an oil and gas country but a country rich in poets and writers, Gergiev says. A classic piece of quality toadying, if you ask me.

Putin is clearly delighted by the question. He says he loves St Petersberg, where Gergiev is general and artistic director of the celebrated Mariinsky Theatre. Putin says he will do his best to support Russian culture.

Gergiev is now praising Putin, comparing him to Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great. Putin chides Gergiev for stealing artists for his theatre from Moscow’s famous Bolshoi. This is all very pally.

9.59am: Putin is talking about his decision in 2004 to abolish gubernatorial elections, and to pick governors himself. He says under the old system “criminal elites” got to choose who was governor. This was bad and also encouraged separatism. He insists:

It’s not that I wanted to have as much power as possible in my hands…It was to keep the country together, and not allow people to rock the boat.

I’m struck by just how much Putin sees himself as an enlightened absolutist, acting in what he sees as the best interests of the country. The problem, though, is that this is the twenty-first century, not the eighteenth, and people want more democracy, not less.

9.51am: An orthodox priest with a beard asks a question. Putin says Russia is a “secular state”. He waxes philosophical and adds that “core moral values” of all great religions are the same. Miriam Elder observes that the priest is “Rasputinesque”. I can’t see the word trending, as #botox currently is, but I like it!

9.46am: We’ve just gone to Vladivostok! Rather dark there. A group of locals standing in coats and scarves next to the harbour. The Pacific port is to host a major forum later this year on an island off the main city. The new bridge there recently caught fire, but the damage is “cosmetic”, we learn. I feel sorry for the locals, who’ve clearly been hanging around for hours in the cold.

A businessman complains about corruption. Bureaucrats are lining their pockets, he says. How long will the governor keep his job, he wants to know?

Putin admits criminality is a problem in the region in Russia’s Far East. And now we’re going back to Moscow.

Photograph: Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images

9.45am: We’ve been going 1 hour 30 minutes and Putin has mentioned Dmitry Medvedev (pictured left with Putin) for the first time! Spare a thought for poor old Dima. For the past four years he’s served as Russia’s president, but it turns out his role was merely that of a seat-warmer. He says that his plan to create a new “Eurasian Union” isn’t the same as bringing back the Soviet Union. Belarus and Kazakhstan are sovereign states, he adds.

Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

9.26am: Putin has just made an extraordinary personal attack on John McCain (pictured left). He says it’s an “exaggeration to call Mr McCain my friend” and says he merely met him at the Munich security conference. McCain, according to Putin, predicted that Putin would meet the same gruesome fate as Muammar Gaddafi.

Putin responds by saying McCain’s comments were “not about me” but about Russia:

It’s Russia some people would like to get rid of. They are still afraid of our nuclear deterrent. We have our own foreign policy whether they like it or not. The West isn’t uniform and we have more friends than we have enemies.

He then says that McCain has gone “crazy” after being captured in the Vietnam war and spending time in a pit. Putin says:

I think he has blood of innocent people on his hands. He took part in Vietnam war.

The US, moreover, is guilty for the death of Gaddafi. The US brought some militants to the area in Sirte and had him killed him there. “It should have been democratic. It wasn’t,” Putin concludes, to applause from the studio.

9.15am: Some of my former colleagues in Moscow are beginning to drift off. Putin’s been going for over an hour already. Shaun Walker (@shaunwalker7), the Moscow correspondent for the Lebedev-owned Independent, is distracted by one of the studio presenters. He tweets:

As with the last phone-in, the best bit is the foxy ginger studio girl. Though @miriamelder thinks she’s gained weight since last year

Incidentally #Путин (Putin) is no longertrending worldwide but #ботокс (botox) is (see 9.02am).

9.08am: Putin is now being asked about the decision to fire two executives from the publishing house Kommersant. They were sacked after the magazine Kommersant Vlast printed a photo of a spoiled ballot paper with the words: “Putin fuck off.”

Putin says he saw the ballot. “It was very funny. I was happy,” he says. He says he’s used to being the butt of jokes, especially in the west.

Astonishingly, he then goes on to suggest that the article was part of a plot hatched in Britain by disgruntled exiles who live there. (He doesn’t mention Boris Berezovsky, Putin’s London-based enemy, by name but seems to be hinting at him.)

“I think this is people living in London. We know the kind of people living in London these days,” he says. He points out, correctly: “They can’t come back to Russia as long as I’m here.”

Is Putin going to attend the 2012 London Olympics, I wonder?

9.02am: The opposition activist Roman Dobrokhotov (@Dobrokhotov) is tweeting about Putin in Russian, using the hashtag #ботокс, which translates as botox.

Meanwhile, #Путин, which is Putin in Russian, is trending worldwide.

Alexey Kovalev, the wonderful London correspondent for Snob.ru, says he doesn’t understand what “Pu” is going on about. “Am I thick?” he asks. (No, Alexey you’re not. You’re not alone in struggling to make sense of his discourse.)

8.54am: The call centre doing Putin’s Q and A has received 1.5 million calls, apparently.

One woman is asking him a question, using the usual standard polite Russian form: “Hello, Vladimir Vladimirovich…”

Putin is now talking about utilities. The Kremlin, of course, vets all questions carefully. Certain topics are taboo including Putin’s alleged personal fortune.

8.53am: Russia Today is livestreaming the QA with an English translation.

Screengrab from Russia Today

You can make your own judgement from this picture as to how much make-up he is wearing/work he has had done.

8.45am: Why does Putin want to do a third presidential stint, someone asks?

No clear answer on this one. Putin seems to be implying that he’s the only person who can deal with “terrorists” from the North Caucasus.

He says “a lot has been achieved” but more work has to be done to strengthen the system and make it “stable” – shorthand for Putin’s non-democratic regime. All rather vague.

8.43am: A lovely tweet from Miriam Elder, my successor as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, who is watching Putin jamboree. She writes:

I’d like to talk to Putin’s makeup artist. Nice blush application today.

He strikes me as rather orange. But it’s the first opportunity to take a close-up look at Putin’s new face, following reports that he’s had a bit of work done.

8.39am: Julia Ioffe (@ioffeinmoscow) is tweeting that Putin is “less than fluent today”. I would agree with that. He’s already moved off into his comfort zone and is waffling about economic statistics.

There is no recognition that the protesters have a legitimate grievance – or that he faces the most tricky moment of his 12 years in power. It’s the same Putin show that we’ve seen on previous occasions (this is his 10th Q and A) and a lot of people are tired of it.

8.33am: We’re back on topic. Another question about elections. What will Putin do if he wins the 2012 presidential election – a foregone conclusion, in fact.

Putin praises himself! He says “some landmark issues” have been solved. He says he has reduced the number of poor people, from a third below the poverty line in 2000, to half that now. Salaries have gone up, he adds.

8.31am: Putin has clearly tired of talking about the protests against him. Instead, he’s switched topic and is discussing pensions. Also, a rambling anecdote about how the emergency situations minister got caught short while on a visit to a local municipality.

8.24am: Although he doesn’t say this directly, it’s clear that Putin has no intention of re-running Russia’s 4 December Duma elections – a key demand of the protesters who rallied in their tens of thousands last Saturday.

Putin now says “we should get away” from the topic of elections. But he has a quick swipe at “colour revolutions” saying they are a “scheme” to destabilise countries. (He mentions the 2004 pro-western uprising in Ukraine.) In other words the pro-democracy protests are a western plot! He says the white ribbons worn by protesters in Russia “look like contraceptives”, adding they “look like they are fighting Aids”.

He also has a go at Russia’s liberal opposition. “I actually know they paid some young people to attend this rally,” he says, of the protests against his rule. This is a bit rich, actually. There’s no evidence for this.

8.16am: Putin says its “up to” the Russian people to decide who their next president is.

Alexander Venediktov, the editor of the liberal radio station Echo Moskvy, is asking a question. He tells Putin people didn’t believe the elections were fair.

Putin doesn’t really answer this one, and doesn’t seem to accept compelling accounts of mass fraud and violations. Instead, Putin suggests that United Russia won the poll:

The outcome definitely reflects the actual situation and preferences of the people of Russia.

8.12am: And we’re off.

Putin says the unprecedented protests against his rule are “perfectly normal”. He says demonstrators are allowed to take to the streets “so long as they stay within the law”.

He also comes up with a suggestion: that surveillance cameras should be installed in all 90,000 polling stations in Russia for the country’s presidential election on 4 March. Interesting idea, but will surveillance cameras really stop fraud, I wonder?

8.04am: It is one of the highlights of Russia’s political year: Vladimir Putin’s annual phone-in with the Russian people. But this year’s broadcast takes place against the backdrop of unprecedented protests against his rule. Last weekend more than 50,000 people took to the streets of Moscow to protest against massive fraud in Russia’s 4 December parliamentary elections, They were won – officially at least – by Putin’s United Russia party. (Support for the party slumped to below 50%, despite numerous violations and alleged ballot-box stuffing.) There were similar expressions of discontent
across Russia.

Putin, Russia’s PM, has already announced that he intends to stand in Russia’s March 4 presidential election, swapping jobs with the current president, Dmitry Medvedev. The key question now is how Putin – faced with the most serious public challenge to his 12-year rule – responds? Will he make concessions to demands for greater political pluralism? Or will he, as seems more likely, crush what’s been dubbed the “Russian Spring”?

I’ll be live-blogging today’s Putin’s phone-in, which is due to start at 8am. The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent Miriam Elder (@MiriamElder) will be tweeting from the
event as well.

You can see footage of Saturday’s dramatic anti-Putin protest here.

And here is an aerial picture of the protest.

Putin is famous for his marathon Q and A sessions, which usually go on for four hours plus. The questions are carefully vetted in advance, with link-ups to towns and cites across the Russian Federation. Expect lots of discussions of pensions, wages, and an attack at some point on US perfidiousness.

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