Putin to address Russians in phone-in after protests

AFP , Thursday 15 Dec 2011

Russian PM Vladimir Putin will address the nation during his customary phone-in session in the wake of wide-scale protests, as the opposition accuse his United Russia party of fixing parliamentary polls

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin conducts a meeting in Moscow, in this file photo dated Friday, Dec. 9, 2011. (Photo:AP)

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was on Thursday to address Russians during his trademark marathon televised phone-in session, after a rare outburst of protest against his rule.

The Russian strongman is expected to use the traditional question and answer format to lay out his plans for returning to the Kremlin in 2012 polls as he seeks to tackle the most serious political crisis of his 12-year rule.

"As in previous years, the head of the government will have direct contact with Russians and answer questions that are of interest to our country's citizens," his office said.

Analysts say Putin is facing one of his greatest political challenges after opposition parties and poll observers accused his ruling United Russia party of blatantly cheating in December 4 parliamentary polls.

Public anger culminated last weekend in a series of protests across the country including a rally in Moscow that drew tens of thousands of protesters of all political hues.

The protests -- on a scale unseen since the turbulent 1990s -- gave a major boost to the country's sidelined opposition which have promised a new mass protest on December 24 in Moscow.

Analysts predict substantial shake-ups in the leadership of United Russia and the government.

The controversy has already claimed its first high-profile casualty in the form of the dour United Russia chairman Boris Gryzlov who on Wednesday resigned his post as speaker of the lower house of parliament, the State Duma.

Putin's stamina-busting phone-in session has become a feature of the winter season over the past years, with the Russian strongman holding court on everything from economic issues to foreign policy.

Most of the questions are carefully screened by Putin's minders.

Most of those posted on the government website for the show scheduled to start at 0800 GMT were related to bread-and-butter issues like pensions, salaries and corruption.

But several others refer to the recent protests, Russia's political system and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov's intention to challenge Putin in the presidential March polls.

One questioner asked whether it was time to call those who encouraged people to take to the streets over the weekend "a fifth column" and put them on trial for treason.

During a four-and-a-half-session last year, Putin sealed the fate of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, saying "a thief must be in prison" even before a court delivered the verdict in his second trial on charges of embezzlement.

Days after the phone-in session Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev received a second prison term which is likely to keep them behind bars until 2016.

The carefully stage-managed performance flaunting Putin's charisma and a natural ability to command attention is designed to boost his image and show he remains in control of Russia.

Outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev, who in September agreed to step aside for Putin after just one term in office, has never held phone-in sessions with Russians since he entered the Kremlin in 2008, instead choosing a safer format of a television interview.

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