Amid Sagging Ratings, Putin Holds Annual Press Conference

Vladimir Putin is scheduled to hold his annual news conference on December 20, a marathon event that comes at a time with the Russian leader’s popularity down due mainly to an anemic economy.

The Kremlin has said a record number of journalists — 1,702 — has been accredited to cover what will be Putin’s 14th such press conference.

The televised end-of-year news conference has been a tradition of Putin’s tenure, one of a series of high-profile set-piece events he uses to burnish his image, reassure Russians that they are in good hands, and send signals to the United States and the rest of the world.

But the latest one comes amid a drop in Putin’s popularity, according to opinion polls. Russia’s economy is stuck in the midst of long-term stagnation, and a plan to raise the retirement age has proved unpopular with voters. Regional elections in September saw many pro-Kremlin candidates lose.

On the international stage, things are little better. Russia’s relations with the West remain strained over its seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, as well as actions in Syria and election interference in the United States and elsewhere.

Putin’s year-end question-and-answer event is closely managed. Only specially selected publications are given the chance to ask a question, which usually range from a bit of geopolitical issues to a lot of local concerns.

It is also known for its theatrics, including signs and stuffed animals that journalists wave to catch the attention of Putin or his press secretary on stage.

The event is also legendary for its length, the record being four hours and 40 minutes at the 2008 press conference.

Last year, Putin held his televised news conference on December 14 before some 1,600 Russian and foreign journalists, a nearly four-hour marathon during which he announced he would run for reelection in March.

He went on to win his fourth presidential mandate with more than 76 percent of the vote in an election that was widely criticized as unfair.

However, since then Putin’s popularity has dipped amid growing anxiety among average Russians over the state of the economy and plans to raise the retirement age.

The Levada Center, a leading independent Russian pollster, published a survey on November 22 showing the electoral rating of Putin had fallen under 60 percent for the first time in five years.

Another poll by Levada published on December 19 showed more Russians regret the breakup of the Soviet Union than at any time since 2004.

In 2005, Putin called the Soviet breakup the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, citing the large numbers of Russians it left outside Russia.

In March, when asked what event in the country’s history he would like to have been able to change, he named the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Levada said that Russians’ concerns about their economic security today were among the main reasons for the increase in the number voicing regret.

In both a March state-of-the-nation speech and his inaugural address in May, Putin called for a technological “breakthrough” to bolster the economy and raise living standards.

But there are few if any signs of a turnaround. Audit Chamber chief Aleksei Kudrin warned in late November, saying the economy is in one of its longest, deepest slumps since World War II.

Russia is in a “serious stagnation pit” and any additional Western sanctions could make it much worse, said Kudrin, Putin’s finance minister in the era of oil-fueled growth in 2000-08.

He said new sanctions could restrict technology transfers with the West — a development that would dampen hopes for the kind of breakthrough the president has been seeking.

With or without new sanctions, Putin’s stated goal of doubling gross domestic product by 2021 — around the time analysts believe he may start revealing his plans for what comes after 2024, when a constitutional limit of two straight terms bars him from seeking reelection — may be unrealistic.

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