MOSCOW (Reuters) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin faces a barrage of questions about rising inflation and job losses on Thursday in his first annual question-and-answer session with the Russian people since leaving the Kremlin.
With speculation continuing about his possible return to the presidency, analysts will be watching whether Putin can maintain his popularity in today’s harder times with voters who had trusted him during the previous 10 years of economic boom.
Highlighting his role at the center of Russian political life, the premier will host “A Conversation with Vladimir Putin” from a specially designed studio near the Kremlin, starting at 1200 local time (0900 GMT).
Putin instituted the broadcast, which is transmitted live on state television and radio, when he was president and has decided to continue it in his new role as premier and leader of the ruling parliamentary party, United Russia.
Putin’s handpicked successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, has given no indication since taking over in May that he plans any similar question-and-answer broadcast.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the session “will certainly last for more than two hours” and would focus on social issues and the financial crisis, RIA-Novosti news agency reported.
Russians, fearful of a repeat of the country’s devastating 1998 economic crisis, have been withdrawing roubles from their bank accounts and buying dollars, putting pressure on the national currency. Job losses have started to mount.
After initially describing the global financial crisis as a foreign plague to which Russia was largely immune, the Kremlin has recently acknowledged that it has started to hurt the country’s economy and has been trying to reassure citizens.
Viewers and listeners were invited to submit questions in advance to Putin on toll-free phone numbers, by text message, or via a special website http://www.moskva-putinu.ru .
“How serious is the crisis and how will it affect mortgages?” asked one question posted on the website. “Is any kind of help being looked at for people who took out a mortgage and lost their job ?”
Another questioned whether it was worth the state helping banks in the financial crisis “who take money from the government at six percent interest and give it out at 25 percent to small and medium-size businesses.”
Members of the studio audience of 400 invited guests will also ask questions and there will be live television links to questioners in Russia’s regions.
In previous years, the question-and-answer session has given Putin a national platform to show his sympathy for popular causes such as better pensions and curbing inflation, as well as show off a mastery of economic statistics, crack jokes and taunt his adversaries.
Last year’s session, held in October 2007, was his sixth and covered a wide range of domestic and foreign policy topics. Putin used the occasion to criticize U.S. policy in Iraq, Iran and on missile defense.
The Kremlin said at that time that one million questions were submitted in advance and Putin answered more than 70 of them in a live program lasting just over three hours. All the questions were screened and none was overtly hostile to him.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher