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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Touting the Path Out of 1990s Chaos

MTLiberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky watching President Vladimir Putin's call-in show in his office at the State Duma on Wednesday.
President Vladimir Putin said he would retain influence after 2008 -- when he will presumably step down from office -- and tiptoed around thorny issues like extremism and contract killings in a live television call-in show Wednesday.

The president also defended the goverment's economic policies, stressing that the country's prospects had improved dramatically since the chaotic 1990s.

And he hailed the surge in investment, taming of inflation and diversification away from energy. "Diversification is the super task for the next decade," Putin said.

"Success in any country," the president declared, "is determined first of all by what happens in the economy."

Beside the economy, ethnic tension and bread-and-butter issues like wages and affordable housing dominated the three-hour show, Putin's fifth since taking office.

As if to underscore how seriously the Kremlin takes ethnic violence, two live video cameras were set up in the Karelian town of Kondopoga, where riots broke out between ethnic Slavs and natives of the Caucasus this fall. No cameras were set up in Moscow.

Popular state initiatives, including plans to slash the number of gambling establishments and crack down on bootlegged liquor, were also featured.

Russians from across the country tuned into state-run Channel One, Rossia and Vesti 24 to watch Putin.

More than 2.3 million questions for Putin poured in by way of e-mail, telephone and text message. Queries touched on everything from pensions to the cost of living to demographic problems to Russia post-Putin.

"What's going to happen to us, to the country, after 2008?" asked Arkady Kokayev, from the village of Podgorodnyaya Pokrovka in the Orenburg region.

Putin noted the Constitution bars him from seeking a third term but added that he would remain a force. "You and I," he said, "we'll be able to influence the life in our country."

Another questioner, Yelena Iovich, the deputy editor of Severnoye Primorye newspaper in the far eastern village of Kavalerovo, said she felt like the country has returned to the 1990s with several recent high-profile killings.

Last week, mayoral candidate Dmitry Fotyanov of Dalnegorsk, which neighbors Kavalerovo, was killed. On Oct. 7, reporter Anna Politkovskaya, a frequent critic of the Kremlin, was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building. And last month, Andrei Kozlov, the Central Bank's No. 2 official, was gunned down in a Moscow parking lot.

"When such bloody crimes occur, they naturally attract the country's attention," Putin said. "But I must say that the number of contract killings here is nevertheless falling." The president added that he had "dry statistical figures" to back up this claim.

Vladimir Gorovykh / Itar-Tass
A woman asking President Vladimir Putin a question from a square in Bryansk during the call-in show Wednesday.
Killings "in the economic arena," he suggested, could be attributed to "those who are trying to stuff their pockets at the expense of the well being of millions."

The president did not mention Politkovskaya by name, but he vowed to make sure that investigations of murders of "members of the media" are pursued to the end.

Also missing from Putin's remarks was extensive discussion of Chechnya or the North Caucasus.

Kondopoga-born Tatyana Konashkova asked the president whether "ineffective" local government was needed, saying town authorities had failed to prevent the arson and bloodshed in Kondopoga.

Putin replied: "Such government is not needed." The president appeared to shrug off any responsibility for the riots, sparked by the killing of two ethnic Slavs at the hands of two natives of the Caucasus. The president said he had repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to get Karelia's governor on the phone.

Putin vowed to clean up outdoor markets, curb illegal immigration and and tighten labor regulations, adding that the Cabinet was set to present a set of proposals by mid-November. With 10 million to 15 million illegal migrants in the country, he said, Russian citizens must have priority when it comes to filling jobs.

Putin said the outdoor markets, which tend to be hubs for migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, should be returned to domestic farmers, adding that they "were not created to sell products from China."

Touching on one of his key issues -- Russia's shrinking population -- the president said it was the country's duty to welcome home Russians who "woke up in different countries" when the Soviet Union collapsed. This applies, he said, to "Dagestanis, Russians, Tatars and any other peoples native to Russia."

State efforts to boost housing, agriculture, education and healthcare, refered to as the national projects, were addressed. So, too, was Putin's plan to pay women for having babies.

Corruption, the president said, remains the country's most pressing problem. He proposed higher wages for state employees and a change in national attitudes toward bribe taking.

When it came to the question of hate crimes, raised by a Tver resident, Putin sought to sidestep the issue, saying he was pleased with the development of the country's judicial system.

Other issues Putin touched upon included:

Oil Supplies to Belarus. Putin indicated Russia might cut oil supplies to Belarus if Minsk continued to export the crude oil imported from Russia for a profit. "If we fail to reach an agreement, we will be forced to impose some limitations, which we would not want to do," he said, adding that he welcomed the idea of a single state between Russia and Belarus but saying the economic basis for it was still lacking.

The Navy and the North European Gas Pipeline. Putin suggested that the Baltic Fleet could be put to good use to help develop seabed resources and build the North European Gas Pipeline. He said the Navy had the best understanding of World War II-era mines still littered on the floor of the Baltic Sea.

Duped Apartment Investors. Putin blamed inadequate 1990s-era legislation for creating a loophole that allowed thousands to be swindled out of their homes. The government is dealing with this problem, he said, without offering much detail.

Expensive Mortgages. Responding to concerns that average Russians have been priced out of the housing market, Putin defended banks, saying they charge rates upwards of 11 percent to make a profit. Inflation is expected to surpass 8 percent by year's end, he said.

Plane crashes and the aviation industry. The country faces "huge problems" in the aviation industry, Putin said, urging the creation of a state-run firm to oversee plane manufacturing, a plan that has long been in the works.