MOSCOW, Russia – It was in 2001 when Vladimir Putin spoke at his first annual news conference. Sixteen years later, at his 13th end-of-year meeting with the press, the Russian president appeared stronger than ever.
“I will not enter a monologue or give a long speech; I would like to go into the questions straight away and [handle] subjects which concern you all,” Mr. Putin said trying to break the ice with 1,640 local and international journalists, the biggest number accredited to the event since 2001.
During three hours and 42 minutes, Mr. Putin faced myriad of questions touching upon a wide range of issues including domestic and foreign policy.
“The conference was structured mostly for the next elections, and Putin knew how to play it,” Evgeny Utkin, a Russian political expert, told The Globe Post. “Among the topics debated, those stressed by President Putin are the issues important for every Russian citizen.”
The Russian president told journalists his priorities in the near future will include making improvements in the educational system, healthcare, and infrastructure. He added that most taxes would not be raised before the end of 2018.
In March, Mr. Putin will seek a new term in office. During the press conference, he vowed to run as an independent candidate with hopes to secure support by those popular movements, parties and other groups that share his view.
“I don’t see any difference between [Putin] running as an independent or as a United Russia Party’s candidate…He already won,” Mr. Utkin said.
According to a poll conducted by independent Levada Center, Mr. Putin’s approval rating had not fallen below 80 percent since March 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. The results of the next presidential election now seem obvious to many.
— Владимир Путин (@PutinRF) December 14, 2017
Ksenia Sobchak, a presidential candidate and daughter of the first democratically elected mayor of Saint Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak, also attended Mr. Putin’s news conference. She participated in the event as a reporter for the opposition-leaning TV Rain news channel.
Ms. Sobchak told the president that those who attempt to run in the Russian presidential election face severe obstacles.
“For example, there is [opposition candidate Alexey] Navalny, who has been running a campaign for a year, who was targeted with trumped-up criminal charges, and their fictitiousness was even proven in an international court. And yet he is not being admitted to the elections,” she said. “Is the government afraid of fair competition?”
Mr. Putin responded to the question by comparing Russian opposition activist Mr. Navalny to former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been recently arrested in Ukraine after spearheading anti-government protests in Kiev.
“Do you really want to have dozens of Saakashvilis running around our squares?” Mr. Putin asked.
“It’s not my fault if there isn’t any opposition in Russia able to present a credible political program,” he added.
Responding to @xenia_sobchak Putin says that the authorities aren't afraid, proceeds to give @navalny a new name: 'those you mentioned’ #PutinPresser https://t.co/thedC8S5PO pic.twitter.com/NF4M5AzO43
— The Moscow Times (@MoscowTimes) December 14, 2017
During the marathon press event, Mr. Putin also touched upon foreign policy, commenting on the relations with the United States. The Russian president said accusations that U.S. President Donald J. Trump colluded with Moscow to win the 2016 election were damaging the U.S. political system and Mr. Trump’s work.
“This has all been made up by Trump’s opponents to delegitimize him [Trump]…It shows that these people have no respect for the people who voted for Trump,” Mr. Putin said.
“Look at the markets, how they’ve risen. That shows investors’ confidence in the American economy, it shows they believe in what President Trump is doing,” he added.
The president also found time to talk about the situation in Ukraine. He responded to a Ukrainian journalist who has been asking the same question on eastern Ukraine since 2014. Mr. Putin said the pro-Western government in Kiev was hindering the Minsk process aimed at finding a solution to the conflict and blocking efforts to broker a prisoner swap.
“The Ukrainian government has no desire whatsoever for a peace process…It is up to authorities in Kiev to reach an agreement with Donbass,” he said.
Mr. Putin held this year’s press conference in the aftermath of his trip to Syria on December 11, where he declared Russian military’s intervention a success and ordered a partial withdrawal of the forces from the country. “A short, victorious war” can become yet another point in favor of Mr. Putin in the Kremlin race.