Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said that he would like to see greater competition in Russian politics but it isn’t his job to build up the opposition in a country that he has ruled for 18 years, and likely longer as new elections loom.
In remarks to more than 1,000 journalists packed into a Moscow convention hall for his annual televised press conference, the Russian president said he would run a campaign largely focused on improving the Russian economy and that he would run as an independent, distancing himself from the United Russia political party that he founded and built into the ruling party.
“The simplest thing for me to say is that it isn’t for me to foster opponents, although I should unexpectedly tell you, that I think that our political sphere, like our economic sphere, should be competitive,” Putin said.
Putin, Russia’s de facto leader since New Year’s Eve 1999, has held a marathon news conference once a year in December for the 13 years he has been president (taking a break for the four years he was just prime minister). They can last more than four hours, often providing for a broad discussion of current issues, if sometimes lacking in depth and with little chance for reporters to ask follow-up questions.
Equal parts news event and giant press carnival, the conference was attended by reporters from across Russia and international correspondents, many of whom wave large signs in the hope of being called upon. “Give the Floor to Children,” read one. Another sign, a larger-than-life Russian passport, was held by an attendee hoping to liberalize border crossing rules between Russian and Estonia.
Another sign read “Putin Babay,” an expression of affection from a journalist from Russia’s Tatarstan republic. Putin confused the sign for “Putin, Bye-Bye,” after quickly pivoting from another journalist who asked him if he wasn’t tired of running the country.
Putin last week said he would run for a new six-year term in a March presidential vote that he is expected to win easily.
“Whenever we speak about the opposition, it is important not just to make noise on squares or privately speak about how the regime is against the people, it is also important to offer something which will make life better,” Putin said. “People are discontent with lots of things, and they are right to be discontent. But whenever people compare and look at what the opposition, especially the extra-systemic opposition, has to offer, they have big doubts.”
Two candidates who have traditionally played the role of runner up garnered single digit support in the poll, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 8 percent and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov with six percent.
Only one percent said that they would vote for Ksenia Sobchak a TV host who has made headlines as a “candidate against everyone.” Sobchak attended the press conference as a journalist for the opposition Internet channel TV Rain.
Anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, who has been excluded from the elections because of a criminal conviction he says is politically motivated, was not named in the poll. As state-run television counted down the minutes to the press conference, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, played down the competition, saying that “there are a lot of worthy people” who have announced their candidacy, but no one is ready to be a worthy opponent” to the Kremlin leader. Peskov also said that Putin would not take part in campaign debates against “candidates who know they have no chance.”