Twenty-Five Questions for Putin

January 14, 2014

In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a very long press conference. However, many organizations were not allowed to attend, and the kind of hard-hitting questions we’d expect if there were freedom of the press in Russia were not asked.

Three days before the event, The New Times published this brave piece of journalism – 25 questions they would love to ask Putin, but which would almost certainly not be asked at the press conference. Their predictions were pretty solid, as most of these issues were not raised. 

The questions range from reversed reforms, to the cozy relationship between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church, to Putin’s divorce or his proclivity to always be late for meetings. — Ed.

On 19 December, Vladimir Putin’s ninth “big” press conference took place in the Moscow Center for International Trade. Since 2001, this event has taken place each year (except for 2005, and the period when Putin held the post of prime minister), and its duration has increased. The seventh press conference on 14 February 2008 holds the record, when 1,364 journalists asked more than 100 questions for 4 hours and 40 minutes. Last year’s press conference was a bit shorter – 4 hours and 33 minutes, and 81 questions were asked, of which 8 (10%) concerned the “Dima Yakovlev Law,” which the president was still only planning to sign back then. The result is known [it was signed]. It is hard to say what will turn out to be the hit of this latest press conference. The New Times, with the help of readers, has compiled its own list of questions – which had little chance of being asked publicly.

On Politics

1. In the year and a half of your third presidential term, many decisions have been tweaked or cancelled which were taken in 2008-2012 at the initiative of your predecessor Dmitry Medvedev. The idea of humanization of criminal legislation has been forgotten; the offense of “slander” has been returned to the Criminal Code; the ban on the arrest orders by judges of those accused of economic offenses is virtually ignored; the right to open up cases on tax crimes has been returned to the Investigative Committee and the very work on the liberalization of the Criminal Code, if we judge by the Experts’ Affairs is now characterized itself as criminal activity. The reform of the police has been curtailed, the reform of the army, the project to transfer the federal government agencies to New Moscow has de facto been cancelled, and open season has been declared on Medvedev’s beloved baby, the Skolkovo innovation center. Everyone has long forgotten about the “reset” of relations with the US; and America itself, once again, as in the Soviet era, is declared Enemy No. 1 in the Russian state media. Essentially, you have only to return winter-time, and four years of Medvedev will disappear into the sand.

But do explain: you yourself were the one to make him your successor; you seemingly supported him, keeping an eye on him from the office of the chairman of government [prime minister]. Why, if Medvedev was doing things wrong, did you not object to him in 2008-2012 – well, with the exception of the situation regarding Libya? And why did you appoint him prime minister if he was such a good-for-nothing president? And why do you continue to keep him in the White House now? In order to once again cancel everything? Don’t you mind spending so much money, Vladimir Vladimirovich; under Medvedev, billions were spent, now you personally are paving them over, eh?


2. Russian electoral legislation changes almost before every federal election in favor of the ruling party. In the mid 2000s, when United Russia had high ratings, majoritarian elections were exchanged for party lists. In 2013, when the popularity of the party of power was rapidly falling, just as conveniently the single-mandate districts were restored where it was easier to win using the [incumbent’s] administrative resources. Plus, there were the municipal filters which created problems above all for independent candidates. Plus the pressure on the media. The result is people simple have ceased to vote – the turnout in the regions in the mid-2000s was on the average 35-40%; now only with difficulty does it get above 20%. According to Art. 80, point 3 of the Russian Federation Constitution, the president “defines the fundamental directions of domestic policy of the government.” Tell us honestly: do you want to finally put an end to this headache for the government called “elections”? Or do as it was done under Brezhnev, when one person was elected from one candidate – “the single candidate of the Party and non-Party”? And why do you need this – it turns out that you are responsible for everything – from bad roads to missiles falling down behind the hill?


3. Each year the Council of the Federation, for example, spends two million rubles on each senator (and there are 166 of them, and they are all people well off) out of funds maintained by the Federal State Budget Administration Autotransport Concern of the RF president’s Department of Administration. There are 218 automobiles – such is the needs of the Federation Council, the overwhelming majority of which are BMWs of the 5th or 7th series. Tell me, why are the members of the Federation Council, for example, deputies of the State Duma, riding around in foreign cars at the taxpayers’ expense? And if the people’s choices find the Lada to be avoided, then why was the Russian auto industry promised state subsidies amounting to 45 billion rubles in 2012-2020?

russian cars near state duma

Why do Federation Council members and State Duma deputies ride around in foreign cars at the expense of the taxpayers? A parking area near the State Duma, Moscow, April 2013.


4. Tell me, can everyone bring weapons into the building of the State Duma? [1. On 3 December, a conflict broke out in the State Duma between members of the United Russian faction Adam Delimkhanov and Aleksei Zhuravlyov, leader of the Rodina (Motherland) party. It ended in a fistfight during which, according to his opponent, from Delimkhanov, “a golden pistol fell out from who knows where”.] Or can you bring in a weapon only if it is golden? Or only deputies can bring in weapons? Or only deputies from United Russia? Or only deputy Adam Delimkhan, a close comrade of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov? Is the bearing of weapons in the building of government agencies a violation of the law? Does this not subject the lives of citizens and officials of the State Duma to danger? Do you intend to intervene in this situation?


5. By the end of 2013, the deficit in the federal budget was one trillion rubles. This “hole” was filled with oil money by the State Duma which took it out of the Reserve Fund in November. In the course of the year, the price of Russian oil of the Urals brand was on average $10 more than the forecast ($107 versus $97) — the premise upon which the budget for this year was formulated. The deficit emerged due to the failure to collect all taxes (reportedly one trillion was not collected) and the disruption in the privatization plan. Analysts and economics forecast that in the next year, the situation with the budget will in fact be no better. And although the finance ministers speak of a “hole” in the budget for 2014 of only 0.06%, not even the Accounts Chamber can understand how it was calculated. Meanwhile, young people — those who were born after 1967 — essentially have been stripped of their pension funds – those funds are what has been thrown into the income part of the budget for next year.

And exactly at the same time as those who earned their future pension with their labor were de facto robbed, you raise the monetary compensation for officials (siloviki [power ministry officials] will get raises of 2-2.5 times their current salaries and civil servants 1.5 times) as well as deputies of the State Duma. So does that mean now that the salary of a deputy from, say, the Vladimir Region (254,000 rubles) will be 13.5 times higher than the average salary throughout the region he is representing; a deputy from Pskov Region’s salary will be 14 times as high, and every deputy will receive a salary 9.5 times higher than the average salary throughout the country (27,334 rubles)? Do deputies do a particularly hard job? But does that prevent them from understanding the pain and difficulties of their constituents? After all, if we judge by the anti-corruption declarations of many of them, the main thing they are concerned about is the purchase of homes, apartments and parcels of land, as, for example, Vice Speaker Sergei Neverov. Does it seem to you that such an allocation of budget funds is unjust, and even insane?


6. And one more question on that topic to follow up. Since September 2014, the financial compensation for officials both in and out of uniform will be increased. It is a well-known argument: if you pay the bureaucrats more, they will steal less. But yet that doesn’t happen! The salaries grow, and Russia can’t seem to raise its ratings in the perception of corruption by Transparency International higher than the 120th place (in 2013, it was at the 127th place). That is, the bureaucrats are grabbing even more, and are even more brazen about it. And exactly at the same time as the raise in the bureaucrats’ and the legislators’ compensation was announced almost by 100,000 rubles a year, a resolution was issued stating that persons who survived the Leningrad Blockade – in your native town! – would receive a mere 3,000 rubles per person in honor of the 70th anniversary of the breaking of the Blockade. Do you think 3,000 rubles for old people, many of whom are ill, is a lot or is a degradingly small amount?


7. In one of the May decrees of 2012 (“On Long-Term Government Economic Policy”) in particular the following tasks were set before the government: increasing the productivity of labor by 50% by 2015, increasing the volumes of investments no less than up to 25% of the GDP by 2015 and up to 27% by 2018; raising the position of Russia in the rating of the World Bank’s Doing Business conditions from 120 in 2011 to 50 in 2015. Moreover, the government was assigned to draft a plan for privatization.

However, the pace of growth of the GDP in 2013 continued to slow – it increased only by 1.2% in the annual calculation in the third quarter. Industrial production, according to Rosstat [government statistics agency], rose by a statistical error in nine months – 0.01% by comparison with an analogous period for 2012. Investment in founding capital for nine months fell by 1.2% and the flight of capital abroad by the end of 2013 was $60 billion. In your message to the Federal Assembly (on 12 December) however, you once again demanded from the government the fulfillment of your obviously unfulfilled edicts today.

In what way, at the expense of what budget and out of what pocket are you intending to do this, if the budget this year is already bursting at the seams, you are not conducting reform and the economy is tottering?


On Children

8. How do you evaluate the results of the so-called “Dima Yakovlev Law” pushed by your administration and signed by you? By official figures alone, 259 children for whom adoptive parents from the US had already been found remain in Russia. For example, in your native St. Petersburg, there are 33 children for whom parents had already been found, but when the law was passed, they were forced to remain in orphanages. Here is what is curious: in fact all that time while the law was being passed, bureaucrats of various stripes stated that if the children could not be adopted by foreigners, then Russians themselves will adopt them, and the law will in fact help in that effort – since there are not enough orphans for everyone, judging from everything. Although according to figures from November of this year, there were 109,000 orphan children in state institutions of the Ministry of Education alone, and of these, 17,500 were disabled. Thus, the law was passed, and out of those 33 St. Petersburg orphans who were supposed to go to the USA, Russians adopted only one. Why didn’t you let those children who had already become acquainted with their future parents depart for the USA? The agreement in effect with the USA allowed this at the time, and this was the correct thing to do for humane reasons. Is it really better for Russian children in Russian orphanages?


On History

9. I would like to understand your attitude toward several key events of our history. On 21 November at the Literary Meeting you gave us to understand that you did not at all like the events of 1917 because they were the result of street clashes with the police, when people, instead of obeying the police, unleashed their fury on people in uniform. The allusion to the Bolotnaya Affair was understood. But aside from 6 May 2012 — explain, please, all the same, what your attitude is to the Great October Revolution – was it good or bad? If good, then why? And if bad, then how can the USSR, which was born in that very revolution, be good, and its collapse, as you say – the main geopolitical tragedy of the last century? What is good here, and what is bad? And another question: why are we keeping this corpse of Lenin in the center of the city? If the 1917 Revolution was evil, and we don’t even have the holiday in honor of the anniversary of the Revolution any more, so what is the point of the body of the revolutionary on Red Square?


On Political Prisoners

10. Whenever the issue of the Bolotnaya Affair is raised, you constantly say the same thing over and over: it is not allowed to beat law-enforcement officers. For example, at the meeting with the Valdai Club on 19 September, you said, “It is not allowed to call for the beating or the bodily harm of officers of the Interior Ministry, when they want to poke their eyes out or call for beating them over the head and ripping off their epaulets.” Should we understand this to mean that citizens cannot beat police, but police can beat citizens? As for the Bolotnaya Affair – the police beat the people, not the people the police. And what are you to do when the policeman beats you, especially when you came to a peaceful action which had permission from the authorities? Should you stand at attention?


11. Both you and your colleague Dmitry Medvedev claim over and over that there are no political prisoners in the country. But for example, Amnesty International, a human rights organization respected and recognized around the world has declared the people who are in the Bolotnaya Affair as political prisoners and is campaigning for their release. Many Russian human rights advocates hold the same opinion. Perhaps you are not right about this, after all? Perhaps it is worth heeding those who do not have a side in this dispute and demonstrate that mercy is not alien to you, too?


What can you do when a policeman beats you? Stand at attention? Moscow, Bolotnaya Square, 6 May 2012.


On Sochi

12. At a meeting of the International Olympics Committee in July 2007, when Sochi was chosen as the capital of the 2014 Winter Olympics, you promised to hold these Games for $12 billion. Since then, the expenditures on preparation for the Games have risen to more than $50 billion. You of all people should know that such a sharp hike in cost of construction is related not only to the fact that the infrastructure of the region is being created and not only that complicated foundations were found there, but above all, with embezzlement. The kickbacks for the Olympic buildings reach up to 70% as sources at the construction sites claim. Thus, in March, the Accounts Chamber on assignment of your oversight division analyzed the preparation of the Games and found 15.5 billion rubles of excess expenditures. And when you yourself reviewed the Mountain Carousel complex you fond that the budget was increased by a factor of 6.5 during the course of construction – from 1.2 billion to 8 billion rubles.

Remember, you joked back then, “You’re doing a good job.” Tell us, was it ethical in a country where ordinary citizens pool their money for operations on sick children, for whose treatment the state has no money for their treatment, to conduct such an unprecedentedly costly Olympics?


On Law and Justice

13. You constantly called the battle with corruption one of the priorities of your policy; in particular, on the TV show “Direct Line” on 25 April 2013, you promised that all the major investigations would be pursued to the end. However, the most high-impact cases never came to trial. The case against Anatoly Serdyukov, former defense minister, fell apart. A serious investigation was never done of the report from the Accounts Chamber on violations in preparation of the APEC 2012 summit in Vladivostok. The Accounts Chamber discovered violations totaling more than 15 billion rubles, and criminal cases were opened only regarding violations totaling about 400 million rubles. There was no investigation about the embezzlement in preparation of the Olympic Games in Sochi, the basis of which could be served by a report from Boris Nemtsov, a co-chair of the Republican Party of Russia – People’s Freedom Party. According to his figures, it was up to $30 billion. Tell me, what point is there, given such a situation, to create the latest special body for opposing corruption, now already in the depths of your administration? And can a former intelligence official, Oleg Plokhoi, head up this body, when he has been caught by the Dissernet community with improper borrowing in writing his candidate’s dissertation (according to Dissernet, such borrowing was discovered on 62 out of 152 pages)?


14. On 15 October 2013, Orkhan Zeynalov, accused of the murder of Muscovite Yegor Shcherbakov, was captured by police and taken by helicopter to the office of Vladimir Kolokoltsev, head of the Interior Ministry. All federal television channels broadcast how immediately alter his detention, Zeynalov was beaten by offices of the Interior Ministry rapid-reaction forces (SOBR). Tell us, please, will we be bringing all murder suspects on helicopters to the Interior Ministry and showing how they are beaten upon detention? And another thing – does the presumption of innocence still exist or do you, a past graduate of the law faculty of Leningrad State University, already believe that for Russia, it is alien, and a value imposed on us by Western law?


15. Art. 15, point 4 of the RF Constitution says, “The commonly acknowledged principles and norms of international treaties of the Russian Federation are a component part of its legal system. If other rules are established by an international treaty of the Russian Federation than provided by law, then the rules of the international treaty are applied.” That is, the Basic Law has established the priority of international law over Russian law, which largely explains the high degree of trust of our citizens in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Russia consistently holds first place in the number of complaints submitted to this court; each year Russians win hundreds of cases at the ECHR and each year, the Russian budget pays out compensation in these decisions of more than 120 million rubles. However, given the violation of the civil right to a fair trial, often the ECHR will issue a decision to review the relevant case as well. But recently, Russia has refused to carry out these decisions. Thus, despite the ruling by the ECHR in February 2009, Judge Olga Kudeshkina of Moscow City Court was not restored to her position after her unlawful dismissal following criticism of her bosses.

The Supreme Court ignored a decision of the European Court from 23 October 2012, and refused to review the case of Aleksei Pichugin, former head of the YUKOS security service. But on 6 December 2013, the RF Constitutional Court decided entirely that in the event that the ECHR issues rulings that contradict Russian laws, the Constitutional Court itself will determine the procedure for their compliance. It would be interesting to know your opinion as the guarantor of the Constitution; does that mean that Russian law now is higher than international law and we no longer intend to comply with international treaties? Will an amendment be introduced to the Basic Law in that case? And will Russia remain a member of the Council of Europe, one of whose bodies is the ECHR?


On Freedom of Expression Views and Expression

16. On 8 November 2013, United Russia deputies Anton Romanov and Yevgeny Fyodorov, and Mikhail Yemelyanov, member of Just Russia, submitted a draft law to the State Duma which provided for three to six years of labor colony for “propaganda of separatism,” that is, for conversations. The draft law also provided for punishment of up to 20 years of labor colony for public calls for separatism in the media and on the Internet. On the other hand, you quite recently, on 21 November, at the Literary Meeting, said the following: “No one is grabbed or jailed for his thoughts, for his position, for his political views. And we will never allow that.” Nevertheless, you have already managed to support the initiative to punish people for “propaganda of separatism”; on 3 December at a meeting with students of law universities in Moscow, you said – in the Constitution, it is “directly written that the state ensures the territorial integrity of the country, therefore any statements about breaking away of any of the territories of the Russian Federation is anti-Constitutional.”

Tell me, does this mean that people will begin to be put in jail in this country for conversations? Furthermore, punishment up to 20 years is provided for public calls, and that means that up to six years will be given simply for “kitchen talk.” The numbers make a particular impression given that recently, on 5 December, the Muscovite Sergei Revyakin, known as the “elevator maniac,” was given six years of imprisonment for the rape of 24 women. How did it happen that 24 rapes are equal to the degree of harm to society of conversations about separatism? Or is it worse, all the same? Or is it better to rape than publicly call for the splitting up of the country?


The World Around US

17. Events in Ukraine today are in all the news. Allow me to remind you how it all began. In 2010, in accordance with the Kharkov agreements, the price of Russian gas for Ukraine was set within the limits of $510 per 1,000 cubic meters (de facto Kiev paid $410, since $100 went to the account for Moscow to pay for the Black Sea Fleet to stay in the Crimea.) Despite the fact that Ukraine is a member of the CIS, the price of our gas for Kiev before your meeting with Viktor Yanukovych in Sochi (6 December) was one of the highest in Europe. France, for example, pays $395 for 1,000 cubic meters (tcm); England, $313, Hungry, $390 and our neighbors in the CIS – even less – Belarus gets by with $163 per tcm and Armenia, $189 per tcm. From the moment these agreements were signed at all the bilateral meetings, Yanukovych asked to lower the price for gas, but inevitably received a rejection.

In 2012, Ukraine initialed an agreement on association with the EU and at first was actively preparing to sign it, but Moscow in response restricted the access of Ukrainian goods to the Russian market, promising to lower the price for gas only under the condition that Ukraine join the Customs Union. In Sochi, it is said that you promised Yanukovych to lower the gas to $200 per tcm and offer a loan to Ukraine from Russia in the amount of up to $15 billion. Although Ukraine’s entrance into the Customs Union is to this day under question. Why is it impossible to come to similar agreements earlier? Why did the situation have to be driven into a dead end – only when hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians came out on the street, protesting against the refusal of the government to follow the line of Euro integration, only then you agreed to a lower price for gas?


18. In an interview with Channel One and the Associated Press on 4 September 2013, you said that Russia must “strictly adhere to the principles of the Olympics which do not permit discrimination against people (…) on the basis of their sexual orientation.” These words, from all evidence, were a reaction to the wave of scandals related to the passage by the State Duma and the signing by you of a law on the banning of propaganda of non-traditional relations among minors – a law creating an image of Russia as a homophobic country. At the same time, you appointed Dmitry Kiselyov, famous throughout the entire world for his statements that the hearts of gay people must be burned, to the post of head of Rossiya Segodnya, the [renamed] news agency, which will propagandize the achievements of Russia abroad. Are you thus sending a signal to the West on the eve of the Olympics that there is nevertheless no place for gays? And does it not seem to you that the appointment to this post of a person openly and publicly negating many Western values only worsens Russia’s relations abroad?


19. Russian bureaucrats have been preoccupied with creating a favorable image both for themselves personally as well as the country as a whole. Thus, Serge Yastrebov, the governor of Yaroslavl Region, spent 64 million rubles on maintaining his image in 2013; Aleksandr Khoroshavin, head of the Sakhalin Region plans in the next three years to spend 680 million rubles for the same purpose. Finally, in the first six months alone of 2013, Russia paid the PR agency Ketchum $1.9 million. At the same time, according to a study conducted by Pew Research in 2013 in 36 countries, Russia’s image in the world left much to be desired. only 36% of those surveyed had a positive attitude toward our country, and 39% disliked it. Even in the USA, where Ketchum’s headquarters are located, 43% of residents regard Russia negatively. What do you think, is Ketchum doing a bad job for your money or are there other reasons for such low popularity by the country you head? [Read how Ketchum’s Angus Roxburgh answers this question. — Ed.]


On Culture

20. In June of [2013] in Perm, local officials closed an exhibition of humorous drawings devoted to the Olympics in Sochi. In St. Petersburg under the guise of combating pedophilia, a performance based on Nabokov’s Lolita was removed, and also closed was a show titled “Icons,” which examined traditional Christian images, as well as a show of contemporary British artists. In November in Stavropol, the prosecutor order to remove Nabokov’s Lolita from school libraries, along with Yesenin’s poetry, foreign children’s detective novels and the works of Russian fantasists. In early December, Roskomnadzor [the state censor] banned the Krasnodar Territory Puppet Theater from showing a performance of “The Magic Flute” because the heroine of the story intends to commit suicide due to an unhappy love affair. Why do bureaucrats consider it possible to interfere in the creative process, and ban performances, exhibits, and books? Does this mean that censorship is returning in the area of culture and education?


On Traditions

21. Tell us, please, what are “traditional values,” which you so love to recall? Here in the message to parliament on 12 December, you also spoke of them. Could you go down the list of these exact values? Otherwise, it is not clear what this is about. Thus for example, divorce – is this a traditional value? Or conversations that a woman should have three children? [2. Speaking at his previous annual address 12 December 2012, Vladimir Putin said, “I am convinced that the norm in Russia nevertheless should become a family with three children.”] That is, of course, harsh. But you yourself, Vladimir Vladimirovich, why don’t you fulfill these norms? Or just something we don’t know about you?


On the Russian Orthodox Church

22. The Russian Orthodox Church received 1,758,000,000 rubles from the state budget for 2014-2015 for “strengthening the unity of the Russian nation and cultural development of the peoples of Russia.” Tell us, please, why should the money of the tax-payers be spent on this? What is “strengthening the unity of the Russian nation?” How will the Russian Orthodox Church do this strengthening and why will it be involved in the cultural development of the peoples of Russia? Why would the Russian Orthodox Church at all be involved in such issues, and not issues of taking care of its flock and forgiving sins? Why is it that the strengthening of the unity of the Russian nation and the cultural development of the peoples of Russia at the expense of the state budget is not being done, for example, by the Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia or the Federal Jewish Communities of Russia?

Putin and Pope Francis

Why are you always late? You were late 50 minutes even to a meeting with Pope Francis. Vatican, 25 November 2013.


On Style

23. On 9 December, you signed the decree on the liquidation of Novosti which has existed 72 years, on which in the last 10 years, $1 billion has been spent and where about 2,300 people have been employed. Tell us please, when you signed this decree, did you think about how less than a month remained before New Year’s, and before that morning, 2,300 people did not have a clue that they would face employment problems? That the life plans they had before this now had to be thrown into the garbage? In other words, could you share with us the methodology for taking such decisions? Did you think at all about these people? Or was there a practical necessity – “the wood is chopped, the chips fly” – and no one is replaceable?


On Life

24. In an interview with The New Times in November 2013, your secretary Dmitry Peskov explained why Russians did not need to know the details of the private life of the person who has ruled the country for 13 years now. According to Peskov, family, for you, is personal territory upon which no one must encroach. “Do you know when it is important for a politician at his level to talk about his family? When the politicians runs for elections and people do not know what sort of person he is. […] Putin is well known to his constituency, and nothing need to be said about him to those who vote for him.”

Meanwhile, in the countries of the West, voters know a great deal about the people in power, if not everything; their life is like an open book. US President Barrack Obama and his wife Michelle not only don’t hide their daughters from the public; on the contrary, they often photograph themselves as a whole family and appear together in public. The twin daughters of the previous American president, George Bush, Jr also were not hidden from Americans. German Chancellor Angela Merkel does not have children, but every German knows that she lives in her apartment in the center of Berlin, and how she spends her salary, down to the last euro. Finally, it is not the slightest bit difficult for anyone who wishes to find out how former Italian Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi lives, and with whom.

But you, in an interview with Larry King in 2010, said that you hide your daughters from the public due to problems related to terrorism. That is, you do not believe that Russian intelligence agencies are capable of protecting your family at the same level as the Americans are able to protect their president? Or you are simply not concerned whether your voters wonder if they exist at all?


25. Why are you always late? You were even 50 minutes late on 25 November to a meeting with Pope Francis. What urgent matters prevented you from being punctual when popes, kings, prime ministers or ordinary people are waiting for you? What do you want to say by this – to yourself, the world, citizens?