Putin Reassures Russians On Economic Hardship, Calls Panama Papers A ‘Provocation’ As Vote Nears

Russian President Vladimir Putin assured ordinary Russians on Thursday that he is trying to relieve the financial hardships they face in the wake of an economic recession and the Western sanctions against Russia.

The Russian president addressed a variety of topics in his annual question-and-answer marathon, which lasted for three hours and 40 minutes. He fielded questions from citizens around the country, giving answers on foreign policy, Russia’s doping scandal, and even his personal life. Maintaining public support is crucial for the Kremlin at this time, with the parliamentary election coming in September.

The overwhelming majority of the questions had to do with Russia’s declining economy, including high inflation, the rise of food prices, crumbling infrastructure, poor social services and non-payment of wages.

“I share your concerns in nearly 100 percent of cases,” Putin said, according to Reuters. “We’ll work together so that your problems are relieved.”

However, Putin also came with somber predictions for the future of the Russian Federation, according to Reuter‘s highlights from the talk.

“(Last year) gross domestic product declined 3.7 percent. This year the government expects the economy to continue to decline slightly. But only about 0.3 percent. Next year we expect a 1.4 percent growth. For sure, it is difficult to feel the bottom.”

During the televised phone-in, Putin also dismissed the media investigation of the Panama Papers as a “provocation,” blaming U.S. officials for trying to undermine the upcoming Russian elections and accusing the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), which broke the story, of connections to U.S. bank Goldman Sachs.

“Süddeutsche Zeitung is a media holding company owned by an American financial corporation, Goldman Sachs,” he said, as quoted in Reuters. “That is, the ears of the instigators are sticking out everywhere, but they do not even redden.”

Stefan Hilscher, managing director of Süddeutsche Zeitung, said in a statement on the newspaper’s website that they have no official relation with Goldman Sachs.

The Panama Papers have caused much political scandal for Putin. The leaks from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specialized in setting up offshore companies in tax havens to help the wealthy and corrupt government officials dodge taxes, have already caused Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson to step down amid mass protests, and caused a political firestorm for British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Thus far, the Russian government has refused to accept any responsibility for the offshore companies belonging to Sergei Roldulgin, a famous Russian cellist, long-time friend of Putin, and godfather to his eldest daughter. Instead, the official Russian line has been to continue to portray the scandal as being orchestrated by the United States to weaken Russia.

Putin also expressed his confidence that the Russian intervention in Syria, which was recently concluded its operations, had achieved its goals in the embattled country.

“The point is not that we left and dropped everything,” Putin said, according to Reuters. “We withdrew a significant part or our contingent, but after the withdrawal we left the Syrian army in a position where, with the support of the part of the contingent that was left there, it can carry out serious offensive operations. Already after our withdrawal it has taken some important targets.”

The Russian president stressed that the only way to end the war was for all involved parties to agree to sit down for peace talks.

Reuters noted that the question-and-answer session did not involve any direct criticism of Putin.

“Executives at state television, which is deferential to the Kremlin, controlled who had the chance to pose questions. His critics say the phone-in is a ritual designed to mask the lack of true democracy.”

Surprisingly, Putin’s talk did not feature rhetoric against the United States and its allies when asked about foreign policy. Instead, he stressed that Russia is not surrounded by enemies, and stressed that Russia wants good relations with Turkey and Ukraine (with which relations have soured in recent years), as well as the rest of the world.

[Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images]

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