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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

830,000 Calls and Counting for Putin

It's that time of the year when President Vladimir Putin goes live on television for a call-in show with ordinary people -- which psychologists believe has a soothing effect on the population ahead of the New Year holidays and may even win him more support ahead of the March presidential election.

A total of 100 telephone operators have been working around the clock since Sunday, collecting questions for Putin to answer during the 2 1/2-hour show that will start at noon Thursday on the state television channels Channel One and Rossia.

The two channels are picking which questions Putin will be asked and splitting the cost of the "most expensive television project of the year," Rossia's chief organizer of the show, Radik Batyrshin, said Wednesday, refusing to say how much the third annual show would cost.

As in the past two years, most of the calls are coming from retirees, Batyrshin said in a telephone interview. Many of the other calls are from young mothers, military officers and schoolchildren.

A quarter of the 830,000 calls received by late Wednesday afternoon were from people turning to Putin as a last resort for assistance with personal problems such as salaries, pensions and housing, health and human rights issues, Batyrshin said.

This year the call-in show may take a different spin as Putin is widely expected to use it to announce his bid for re-election. A list of frequently asked questions posted on the show's web site (www.linia2003.ru) indicates that the top question is whether Putin will run.

Telephone calls, including those by cellphone, are toll free, and questions also are being accepted over the Internet and by fax.

Callers are asked to introduce themselves and give their addresses, phone numbers and other personal details, which organizers promise to keep confidential. This practice was introduced in an attempt to weed out emotionally unstable callers, who tend to avoid sharing personal information, organizers said.

Operators are receiving about 1,000 calls per hour, and some 1 percent of the population is expected to call or send in questions via the Internet by the time the television show ends Thursday.

The show is due to start with a moderator asking Putin phoned-in and Internet questions and then go to live phone calls from mobile television stations in 10 cities and villages. At least one satellite link will be set up outside Russia, most likely in a former Soviet republic with a large Russian population. Batyrshin refused to disclose the locations, but insisted none of them would be in Moscow or the Moscow region.

A Kremlin spokesman, however, said that a site would be set up on Novy Arbat, and Itar-Tass released photographs of a site being set up in Krasnoyarsk.

Batyrshin said Putin would not know any of the questions beforehand and was preparing for the show as much as the organizers, memorizing figures and facts that might prove important.

"Putin will only see the questions when you do, but he knows what themes people are interested in," he said. "He has a whole department that works with the letters he gets from citizens. ... His advisers are prepping him on topics that interest voters.

"Of course he's preparing, just like all heads of state do. He is reading volumes of files and figures like crazy. ... He really reads them and learns them by heart."

The broadcast appears to not only work as a policy-making instrument for the Kremlin but also have a great therapeutic effect on the population, said Leonid Kitayev-Smyk, a psychologist at an institute connected to the Culture Ministry. "For most people the show has a positive effect because they believe that the president is reaching them personally and specifically," he said.

"The overwhelming majority of the population has no desire to personally ask a question, but they feel like participants anyway," he said, adding that many people view the show as entertainment and fellow citizens as protagonists.

Kitayev-Smyk said the president could boost his high ratings if he held a call-in show more than once a year.

Last year, the show lasted two hours and 38 minutes, and Putin answered 51 of the 1.5 million questions received.

Although this year's show is expected to last 2 1/2 hours, it will end when it becomes clear that questions are being repeated, organizers said.

Staff Writer Caroline McGregor contributed to this report.