MOSCOW — What worries ordinary Russians the most? Price increases, withheld salaries and potholed roads, according to those preparing President Vladimir Putin for his highly choreographed annual call-in show on Thursday.
The Kremlin has been sifting through more than 1 million questions from across the country to get Putin ready for the television marathon, which often runs four hours or more. With Russia’s economy under stress from low global oil prices and Western sanctions, the Kremlin is particularly attuned to any rumblings of discontent.
“In order not to be surprised, Mr. Putin is watching the popular mood very intently,” said Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The “Direct Line” with Putin, now in its 14th year, provides a way for the president to assess the country’s mood, listen to direct appeals and explain policies, both foreign and domestic.
For ordinary Russians, the call-in show gives them a chance to feel like their concerns are being heard, playing on a tradition dating back to Imperial Russia, where peasants would appeal directly to the czar.
For the past week, Russians have been submitting questions to the Kremlin via an online portal or through social media sites. During Thursday’s show, people can phone in and Putin also will take questions from Russians at selected video links around the country, but the event is very stage-managed.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said price increases and withheld salaries are among the major concerns this year. The Kremlin also has been flooded with questions about the state of Russia’s roads, many accompanied by photographs of pockmarked highways, he told journalists.
The president is also likely to devote a good amount of time to world politics this year, Trenin said.
“Russia has been at war in the Middle East for a time now. It has been so far successful, but people are worried. People are also worried about what happens in Ukraine next,” he said.
Nearly half of Russians said they would ask Putin about bread-and-butter economic issues such as income levels and price increases, according to a survey from the independent Levada Center. Only 12 percent, however, said they would ask about Russia’s systemic corruption.
The survey, conducted March 25-28 among 1,600 people across Russia, highlighted the economic challenges facing the country. A sharp depreciation in the ruble has contributed to high inflation and a rise in the cost of living, while employment opportunities have narrowed.
When queried by The Associated Press about what she would ask if she had the chance, Moscow retiree Yevgenia Kosyankov said: “Tell me please, Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin), when will we live calmly, confidently and prosperously? Everyone wealthy and not just certain individuals? Thanks.”
Vladislav Zheleznov, a 20-year-old car mechanic, said he would ask Putin to do more for Russians at the start of their careers.
“I really want young people to have a job after they finish studying,” Zheleznov said. “I want them not to have the problem of searching for a job and I want for this job to be fairly paid.”
Despite the leaked Panama Papers financial documents, Russians have largely remained nonplussed about accusations that Putin’s friends, particularly cellist Sergei Rodulgin, were engaged in offshore accounts. Putin has publicly defended Rodulgin.
Trenin said Putin’s overall message will be clear: “It’s a difficult world, it’s a complicated situation. The West is against us, oil has gone down to the level where we have not seen it for the past 12 years. So it’s tough, but we need to rally around the Kremlin.”
That message is one many Russians already accept.
“I probably wouldn’t ask him a question,” teacher Alexander Litvin told the AP. “I would shake his hand and say: ‘Mr. President, you are doing everything right.'”
Associated Press writer Alexander Roslyakov contributed to this report.