MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Vasily Kononenko). --President Vladimir Putin has held his fourth live televised phone-in question and answer session with the people of Russia.
In 2001, when this form of communication was first tried, it attracted great interest, both in Russia and abroad. This time portable TV-broadcasting systems were installed in 12 Russian towns, including Yuzhno-Sahalinsk, Borkuta, Klin in the Moscow region, Grozny, Izhevsk, and the remote Black Sea village of Gelengik. A system was also installed in Riga, Latvia. Over a million phone calls and tens of thousands of text messages and e-mails were received by the specially created message-processing center.
On the whole, the messages were about everyday problems relating to basic needs: the growing prices for communal housing services and gasoline, inflation, mortgage, service in the army, and reform of education, healthcare and housing.
I will point out what seemed most important to me. During the three-hour call-in show Putin demonstrated that he was in excellent physical shape. He showed high erudition, and responded without hesitation to the most challenging questions. For example, he answered a question about the situation in the university of the transpolar town of Vorkuta. When asked about the luxurious private residences that are being built with public money in republics in the south of Russia, the president showed that he is on top of this situation as well. He admitted that theft was taking place, but promised that this evil would be dealt with.
A turner from Izhevsk asked, "Why is the state placing so few orders with defense enterprises?" The answer was very exciting. The president said that the state was buying more and more of the latest weapons systems. Soon Russia will add new strategic missile systems to its arsenal that are practically invulnerable to ballistic missile defense systems. Nobody else in the world has such systems, or indeed is likely to have them any time soon. Putin explained that they operate using hyper-sound technology and that they can change their speed and trajectory.
The Russian-speaking citizens of Latvia turned to Putin with the "Russian schools" problem: they want their children to have the opportunity to be educated in their native language. Putin asked them not to demonize the Latvian government, and referred to his recent meeting with Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Putin also promised that he would make insistent efforts in the European Union and other international organizations to put an end to all discriminatory practices in the Baltic countries toward Russian residents.
Unsurprisingly, as it has become a standard question, the issue of whether Putin can stay for a third period was raised during the Q and A session. Mr. Guskov from Ulyanovsk declared that as the president had managed to establish stability in the last few years, Putin did not have to leave office. He suggested that the country hold a referendum on this issue. The president gave his firmest response yet. "I do not see my task as sitting in the Kremlin forever, or as being the face that is always on all the TV channels," he said, "I see my task as creating conditions for the long-term development of the country. I do not think it expedient to make dramatic changes to legislation, first and foremost, to the constitution. But as for me personally, as military people say, I will find my place in the ranks."
Many observers say that such a dialogue "on air" helps the government to gauge the public mood better, which will then enable it to conduct more in-depth sociological research. But this format has a reverse side: "democracy in action". Putin again confirmed his line of conduct chosen after the Kursk tragedy: he is responsible for everything that happens even in the most distant parts of Russia. He made a number of apologies. For example, he said he regretted the manifestations of extremist nationalistic attitude to foreign citizens in Russia and the kidnapping of people in Chechnya.
After the previous televised Q and A sessions the sociologists carried out public opinion polls. They all showed the same results: there had been a noticeable increase in public trust in the president. Putin's current electoral rating is 49%, which is several times higher than that of any other politician. However, this rating is now more important not as a means of predicting the outcome of the next presidential election, but as an indicator of public attitude to what their president and his team are doing and to how the country is developing.