Putin Offers Cash to Worried Nation

ria-novostiPrime Minister Vladimir Putin answering questions Thursday in the temporary studio erected in the Gostiny Dvor exhibition center for the annual event.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin spent more than three hours Thursday afternoon trying to calm Russians concerned that they may be victimized by yet another economic crisis, promising to pour billions of rubles into social programs.

Continuing the tradition he established with six live televised question-and-answer programs while president, Putin answered a record 72 questions from the 2.2 million submitted -- the most popular of which focused on what the current financial crisis would mean for their lives and well-being.

And, despite the fact that the constitution makes foreign policy the responsibility of the president, Putin didn't stick to domestic issues, growing visibly animated while discussing relations with Georgia and Ukraine.

"We have every chance of making it through this difficult period with minimal losses to the economy and, most importantly, for our people," Putin said.

Putin said the $450 billion of reserves accumulated from energy export revenues generated by high oil prices in recent years would soften the impact of the global economic crisis, which he once again stressed had spread from the United States to "infect all of the economies in the world."

As for spending, he said the government had no plans to go back on any major funding commitments already made, including major investments by the state and state corporations in residential and medical services, education and the pension system.

His statement that the state would stick to its social obligations drew the first round of applause from the selected audience of a few hundred at the Gostiny Dvor exhibition center, near the Kremlin.

Among the pledges offered Thursday was a promise to raise the monthly unemployment allowance to 4,900 rubles ($175) and pensions by 34 percent in 2009.

Regional governments and the Federal Labor and Employment Service will receive billions of rubles for training and retraining programs and to help generate labor mobility, Putin said, predicting that unemployment would grow from the current official figure of 1.7 million to 2 million next year.

The defense industry will receive bigger state orders and more often, and the government will help defense enterprises book orders from civil companies, the prime minister said in response to a question from an employee of the Zvyozdochka plant, which repairs nuclear submarines in the northern town of Severodvinsk.

Putin also promised increased funding to provide housing for military retirees, state guarantees to banks to ease pressure on mortgage holders and lower taxes on oil companies to reduce domestic fuel and gasoline prices.

The list of promises also included aid for regional administrations to build more kindergartens, subsidies for air carriers to allow them to lower seat prices and more funding for the agricultural sector.

In response to a question by telephone from Muscovite Yelizaveta Kuznetsova about what effect rising unemployment would have on government plans to increase quotas for foreign workers to 3 million people next year, Putin said he would consider halving quotas submitted by the regions for the next year.

He made it clear that the quotas would be for laborers working in menial jobs and from states of the former Soviet Union, saying, "Russian citizens don't take the jobs for which the foreigners are being hired."

Reserved and visibly choosing his words carefully as he spoke about the economy, Putin livened up when a man in the Gostiny Dvor audience, Alexei Vishenin from Volgograd, asked him about what he said are standard New Year's questions for every Russian: Where is the best place to buy a tree for the holidays and whether Ukraine will pay what it owes for Russian gas.

Russia briefly cut gas supplies to Ukraine on Jan. 1, 2006, over a price dispute, raising concerns in Europe over Moscow's reliability as a gas provider and that it was using energy as a political weapon.

"Go to Germany, enter any shop and tell them: I want to take a Mercedes for free -- who will give it to you? Or for a half price?" Putin asked rhetorically, adding that Ukraine now owes Russian $ 2.5 billion for the gas and is asking Moscow to sell it gas for half the price paid by other European buyers.

"We need the money," Putin said. "We have to solve social problems."

Another telephone question invoked a recent controversial statement made by Putin and reported by the European media. During negotiations with Nicolas Sarkozy in August immediately following a short war between Georgia and Russia in South Ossetia, Putin promised to hang Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili by the testicles.

An anonymous caller from Penza asked Putin whether he really promised "to hang Saakashvili by one thing" and immediately hung up.

"Why by one?" Putin replied, smiling as the Gostiny Dvor audience cheered.

Speaking on the future of the U.S.-Russia relations after President-elect Barack Obama assumes office in January, Putin said Washington had sent a number of positive signals in the past weeks, such as backing off on pushing for speedy NATO accession for Georgia and Ukraine.

As far as domestic politics is concerned, Putin said he was happy with his partnership with President Dmitry Medvedev "from the standpoint of the effectiveness of our work."

He also said he would not consider running for the presidency earlier than 2012, when Medvedev's first term expires.

Recent constitutional amendments extending presidential terms to six years, proposed by Medvedev and pushed through the State Duma by the Putin-led United Russia, raised speculations that Putin might return to the Kremlin after early elections.

The hall in which Putin answered questions was rigged up with a prefabricated stage and audience section filled with United Russia members from across the country and festooned with the party's logo. It was unclear Thursday whether the temporary studio and the airtime was paid for by the Vesti-24 and Rossia channels, which carried the broadcast, or the party.

Arbi Sagaipov, 68, a United Russia member from Grozny, said the organizers told all delegates in the studio to be on standby to ask their questions.

But Sagaipov, who didn't have the opportunity to ask his question, said he thought that the organizers had planted some of the questions.

"It was all prearranged there," he said as he walked to the exit on the white marble of the spacious hall, his black, well-worn scarf in sharp discord with the imposing interior.

Prearranged or not, the last question Putin read from a sheet of paper was what he loves most of all.

"Most of all, I love Russia," Putin said.

Staff Writer Anatoly Medetsky contributed to the report.